The Adventure of a Lifetime
Prepared remarks by Jeff Allen, Faith Community Church, Littleton, Colorado
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Dimnent Memorial Chapel
Our text today is found in Acts 16:1–10. As we prepare to hear the word of the Lord, let us pray.
Loving God, we thank you and praise you for the opportunity to gather on this day to celebrate the journey of these graduates and their families.
In the midst of this time of celebration, we pause and we invite you by the power of the Holy Spirit to speak to us through your living Word.
May our hearts be opened to hear what you are saying to us … and may our hands and feet be moved to step forward in faith with what you are inviting us to do.
In the precious name of Jesus we pray, Amen!
Text – Acts 16:1–10
Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek.
The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.
Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.
So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.
When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.
So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
I am blessed to serve on a cross-denominational disciple-making team with 3DM in the Denver. Leila Ojala, and her husband Eric, are planters for the Assembly of God in the mountains near Breckinridge. Leila frequently posts stories of her 4-year old daughter Aspen. Here is one she posted on March 26, 2016.
Leila writes — Although it has already been a rather busy day, Aspen isn’t having it and exclaims “I’m bored,” she yawns and then says, “Forget this. I’m going venturing. Anybody wanna come?”
Cadence (her brother) rather numbly looks from his Discovery video of great white sharks for a second, then looks away dis-interested.
Aspen then longingly looks to “Chase?” who says, “Um, nooooooo – me stay home” as he rather gleefully exclaims, “Me got fwoot snacks!”
Aspen turns away and says “Alright Dora and Boots, it’s just us – Let’s DO this!” To which Lelia asks, “Where are you going adventuring, Aspen?” Aspen shrugs and says, “Won’t know till we get there!” And off she tromps.
We can learn from Aspen’s example, and from the example of Paul in today’s text, as we are all on an adventure … and often we “won’t know where we are going until we get there”.
What is God saying?
In Acts 16, we see a picture of what it looks like to live the adventure of a lifetime – as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Paul, at this point in his journey, is a respected and learned apostle. In this text we see two examples of situational decision-making by a leader who chooses to do things that at the surface seem a bit confusing.
On one hand, in the first few verses of today’s text, we see Paul casting aside the carefully discerned direction that was reached by the leaders of the church in a council at Jerusalem documented in Acts 15. In fact, Paul and Silas are carrying letters documenting a position they advocated giving permission to the churches that no longer requires circumcision. So on the one hand, we see Paul choosing to put aside something that he advocated as the appropriate direction for the church, and in this instance chooses to follow the traditions and historical norms practiced by many and that he had learned his youth. This is the one hand.
In the remaining verses of today’s text we see the other hand. We see Paul providing an example of a leader who again does what is somewhat unexpected. In these verses, however, Paul abandons “the plan” and follows a vision that he experiences in the night – going in a direction which would be considered contrary to tradition and the historical norms.
What is going on here? While these two decisions seem a bit confusing on the surface – when we look through the lens of Paul’s journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I think we can see how these two hands are really working together, hand-in-hand, providing an example for all of us to follow.
Point 1 / Discernment as a Leader
First, let’s look at Paul’s decision to circumcise Timothy.
For a bit of context — Paul and Silas had just come from Jerusalem and were carrying with them a letter that addressed a significant argument in the church that communicated the following:
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.”
I like it, short and to the point – an extremely important letter that would nicely fit into a text message or social media post today.
Here is my question on this one hand: Given the context of Acts 15 and the understanding that Paul advocated for the position documented in the letter — why would he have Timothy circumcised?
While we could go on a bit of a “bunny trail” and look to scholars who question the historical accuracy of this text — finding it “inconceivable to think that Paul would change his stance on circumcision even to win converts, (source: An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown, page 309ff), I would rather use our time to look at the text provided considering what it might being saying to us today.
In this situation, I think we are seeing Paul maturing before our very eyes as a leader. We see a leader who is choosing to do what is most wise and appropriate in the midst of this situational context.
Even though it is no longer required – the better part of wisdom directs Paul to have Timothy circumcised. What would lead Paul do this? The text states, he did this “because of the Jews who lived in that area, who all knew that his father was a Greek.”
It is helpful to remember that Paul has travelled this road before with the Jews. Based on many years of experience, Paul understands that given Timothy’s lineage - it undoubtedly would be best for him to be “fully and appropriately prepared” for his future encounters with the Jews. After all, the first stop of a visiting missionary was at the synagogue.
So, in this situation, even though it is no longer required, I think we are seeing a wise and seasoned leader who is choosing to go above and beyond what was now required and in this instance follows tradition and the expected norms preparing this emerging leader for the adventure ahead.
In the first 3 verses, Paul, on the one hand, demonstrates his wisdom and experience as a leader by somewhat unexpectedly going against his own convictions as he chooses to follow the tradition and historical norms of the faith.
Point 2 / Faith-FULL steps
In the remaining 7 verses, we see the other hand in another situation in which Paul again does what is unexpected. In this case, however, Paul sets aside the tradition and historical norms as he obediently follows a vision that will take him in an entirely uncharted direction.
On this hand, we see that Paul has cultivated his relationship with Jesus and as a result, is willing to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit -taking Faith-FULL steps going anywhere Jesus directs.
On the one hand Paul follows tradition… and on the other hand he sets aside tradition. While this may seem to be in conflict, through the lens of Paul’s journey — I see the two examples working together hand-in hand.
Looking back, many years have passed since we first met Saul (in Acts 7:58). In this earlier season of life, Saul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” when he had a powerful encounter with the Messiah on the road to Damascus (in Acts 9:1-8). An encounter that literally brought him to his knees – making him realize that he was blind to the message and the mission of Jesus.
In today’s text, now many years after his eyes had initially been opened – the man once called Saul is very different. He has travelled hard miles and has lived into the words that Ananias heard (as recorded in Acts 9:16) — “I will show him (Saul) how much he must suffer for my name.”
After Saul’s eyes were opened, his journey went in a direction he didn’t expect. Saul the persecutor was now the persecuted. He had become the target of the Jews who conspired to kill him. After a brief time in Jerusalem with the disciples, this new believer disappears from the Acts of the Apostles for several chapters (for what some consider to be a decade) until Barnabas seeks him out in Tarsus (in Acts 11:25).
By this point in his journey, the once bold and confident Saul is now a broken man – beaten down from years of “pressing” and “pushing” seeking to advance the gospel without much fruit to show for it. Scripture tells us that Saul had experienced numerous beatings at the hands of the Jews. It is also probable that during this season he also experienced the loss of his family. This decade or so in the crucible are the important, formative years in Saul’s journey. This was a difficult and challenging season. A season in which he was doing what he thought was right in the best way he knew how – a season that produced a great deal of pain and suffering. This difficult season provided a significant opportunity for learning.
Many of us, can look with hindsight at our own life and recount times of significant pain and failure – difficult times where we have learned the most – times that have shaped our life and our future journey forever.
For Saul, it was in this season of despair and frustration that he was sought out and found by an equipping leader. And it is only after a year of encouraging support with Barnabas at Antioch that Saul begins to emerge. What did Barnabas do during this time? Of course he provided encouragement, but I also think this was a time when Barnabas was providing an example for Saul that was worthy of imitation. An example that patiently walked alongside him day after day (in his season of broken-ness) offering grace, and casting a vision that helped Saul to once again see the picture of what the message and mission of Jesus looks like on earth.
Over time, with the helpful encouraging and imitate-able example of Barnabas beside him, Saul begins to emerge as a mature leader. The miles of hard road have formed his Character and developed his Competency as he becomes an equipping leader. Saul, the confident… Saul the Hebrew of Hebrews… Saul the Faultless — is becoming Paul the humble… and Paul the apostle — the sent one of Jesus.
Paul has learned that there is more than drive, intellect, and personal power - that “God’s grace is sufficient for me, for God’s POWER is made perfect in my weakness.” Paul believes and is living out, “… (when I boast) I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” II Corinthians 12:9
In today’s text, we see Paul the Apostle - a sent one of Jesus who sometimes follows the traditions (even when he doesn’t have to) … and at other times he sets the tradition and the historical norms aside humbling himself and obediently following the direction of the Holy Spirit.
In the vision, Paul is given a heavenly perspective in which he sees and hears the prayers of an ordinary man. This is not a vision of a magistrate, of a celebrity, or a wealthy benefactor - rather it is vision of a Person of Peace, an ordinary person (who some say is Luke) who is begging, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”.
This heavenly vision pushes even farther OUT the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven on earth, reaching into a region inhabited predominantly by the Romans. Reaching OUT literally to the ends of the earth.
Paul understands this vision to be the will and the direction of Christ. As a result, he abandons his previous plan and direction (without consulting anyone) as “they” follow the vision of this Person of Peace.
What am I going to do about it?
In light of today’s scripture reading – what is God inviting us to do as graduating seniors, as family and friends, and as disciples and as apostles (sent ones) of Jesus Christ?
Earlier I shared a story about Aspen and I want to remind us all of Leila’s question — “Where are you going adventuring?” I do think we can learn from Aspen’s response and specifically from the living example of Paul in today’s text – We are all on the adventure of a lifetime… and often we won’t know where we are going until we get there.
Thirty-one years ago I sat in the chairs where you now sit. Back then I had a plan, and perhaps a bit like the young Saul, I was confident that my plan was pretty well worked out. To me it looked like an adventure.
With my business degree in one hand… and the hand of my future Hope College bride in the other – we were off on an adventure going places that we had only imagined. I celebrate that my Hope College bride of nearly 31 years is with me here today. I also celebrate that other folks I journeyed with in those early years are amazingly still my friends. Some of them are parents here today celebrating the graduation of their children (not to mention that they too are excitedly anticipating future Hope College spouses for their children – congratulations Tyler and Ashley). ☺
In my case, perhaps similar to Saul, after a decade of experiences along the road, my understanding of the mission and the message of Jesus began to be clarified. While I did have a rather significant Damascus road experience (which I will not go into here today), in my case there were numerous potholes and twists in the road that have taught me to listen and more obediently respond to what God has been saying to me.
These promptings eventually led me to give up my safe and secure salary and begin a new adventure in ministry. A decade and half later, I find myself celebrating that I am a pastor of a small church – “A small church on a Big Mission.” And while I still have a lot of learning to do, I sense that I am getting better at listening and following the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the countless leadership situations that arise every day. Today, I am simply trying to live my life as an example that is worthy of imitation, walking along the road with others as a Barnabas-like encourager.
So in conclusion — what do I think God is inviting us to do in this passage from Acts 16?
First — Learn… and continue to learn as you walk along the road… growing in wisdom and in your discernment as a leader.
Second, and most importantly — Cultivate a life of humility listening and faith-FULLY following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Without a doubt, Paul faithfully followed and lived an amazing and often unexpected adventure as a disciple and as a sent one of Jesus.
As family and friends of the graduates of Hope College — May we go forth from this place, living the example provided by Paul, steeped in our experiences at Hope College that have nurtured us in the context of the historic Christian faith… for lives of leadership and service in a global society.
May we go forth listening and faith-FULLY following the promptings of the Holy Spirit as we live “the Adventure of a lifetime.”
We thank you Lord God for your love for us. We thank you Lord God for your grace given to us through your son Jesus Christ. And we thank you for the provision of your presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we go, may our hearts be unable to hide from what you have said to us in this day, and may our hands and feet provide an example of faith to others that is worthy of imitation.
We thank, praise, and give all the glory to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.