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May 17th, 2015

Why Are We Here?

Confirmation Sunday

Acts 16:6-15

The Holy Spirit closed doors in Asia to bring Paul to a divine encounter in Europe.

The place

Many years ago (1976) Linda and I watched a made-for-TV disaster movie titled “Smashup on Interstate 5.” It was about a 39-car pileup on a busy California highway. The movie begins great special effects (for 1976) showing the crash, and then most of the movie tells individual stories of people who “met” on that interstate, with many of them dying. Al and Jane are headed to the beach to forget about her terminal cancer. Penny and Pete are crooks on the run. Erica is being hassled by bikers. In the movie you get all these individual stories before that spot on Interstate 5 joins their destinies forever.

I want to tell the story of Lydia like that. Let’s start with the place. Several years ago, Amy Stickler was privileged to visit Greece and Turkey, following the steps of the Apostle Paul. She took a picture of the site near Philippi where tradition says today’s story took place. At the time there was no retaining wall, lamp post, bleachers, or shrine, of course. The trees in the picture are not 2000 years old either.

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What struck me about the picture was the size of the “river.” I would call it a stream. It looks about the size of Falling Creek, near where I live. Nevertheless, the picture gives me a good visual. It looks like there’s enough water for ritual washing. It’s not the site of an interstate calamity, but a life-changing gathering happened there.

Acts 16 says a group of women were praying at that spot (or close by) on a Saturday. A group of four men, strangers to the women, appeared unexpectedly. All of them had to be asking, “Why are we here?” They would soon find out.

People

Some of what I will share with you about these individuals is not stated directly in the Bible. It’s either implied or it’s a best guess. Here are the five people we know who met on the bank of the Crenides River. There were others, but we know these names.

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Lydia. Lydia came from a city named Thyatira in the province of Lydia. That’s like being from North Carolina and being named Caroline. She was single (either never married or widowed), and most single women in her time either lived with family or were poor.

Lydia determined not to doom herself to poverty. Her town was famous for its purple dye, made from a certain predatory sea snail (the words “predatory” and “snail” seem like an oxymoron to me!), which secretes a bright purple hormone when under attack, even from humans. Apparently it’s possible to irritate this snail enough to make it shoot out a tiny bit of purple color. By tiny I mean that you need about 8000 snails to harvest one gram of dye. The dye was bright and did not easily fade. Because it was so expensive, people who wore purple were almost always royal, or at least rich. Everyday people didn’t wear purple.

In the ancient world those who knew how to farm the snails, collect the dye, and color fabric with predatory snail hormones could become quite wealthy themselves. Lydia decided to get into the business – not only as a manufacturer, but as a traveling saleswoman. Her eyes and ears were attuned to new markets. She had a persuasive personality. She often wore bright purple to advertise her cloth.

There’s something else important about Lydia. The town of Thyatira had a thriving Jewish population. Lydia wasn’t Jewish, but she was attracted to their worship of the one true God who made heaven and earth and gave laws to his people. So whenever she traveled, she found Jews or other people who worshiped the God of the Jews. Also whenever she traveled, she brought along members of her family and an entire entourage of people to carry the merchandise, sell it, manage the money, and so on. Maybe even she had a personal physician. She had become a wealthy, strong, household head.

One such trip took Lydia across the Aegean Sea from her native Lydia in Asia Minor over to Macedonia in Europe. There were not many Jews in the town of Philippi, not enough to have a synagogue, which requires ten married men. Lydia’s not the kind of woman who depends on a man to run her business or direct her prayers. Why is she here? Lydia is here in Philippi so she can make some money selling purple cloth. She’s here at the riverside because her tender heart craves a deeper connection to God.

Luke.[1] Luke may originally have been from Syria, and was likely a God-fearer like Lydia. He may even have been in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost where he was baptized as a follower of Jesus with 3000 others.

Luke didn’t stay in Jerusalem long. He migrated west to Macedonia, where he was trained as a physician. Doctors in that day hardly had the social stature of today’s doctors, who serve the general public with stated office hours while behind the scenes they haggle with insurance companies over enough payment to maintain a building, compensate their staff, pay malpractice insurance, and still make a comfortable living. First century doctors were instead more like private physicians, employed by one person. Sometimes they were even slaves. Royalty and other wealthy people might hire a full-time housekeeper, a full-time cook, a full-time nanny, a full-time driver, and yes, a full-time personal doctor.

Dr. Luke was hired by a Roman official named Theophilus who lived in Neapolis on the coast of Macedonia. When Theophilus, whose name means “lover of God,” traveled on official business, his personal physician traveled with him. On one of those trips, Luke and Theophilus wound up in Troas, across the Aegean Sea on the coast of Mysia. They heard that a preacher of Jesus named Paul was in town, so they went to hear him speak. Unfortunately, Paul couldn’t talk that night. He got sick. Someone called out, “Is there a doctor in the house?” There was. We’ll come back to that part of the story.

Silas. We know the least about Silas among the named people at the river. He may have been one of the 70 apostles Jesus sent out. We do know he became a leader in the church at Jerusalem. When the Jerusalem Council sent a letter to the church at Antioch and other churches about how to include Gentiles in their meals, Silas was one of two men trusted with delivering the letter.

Timothy. Timothy was born in a town called Lystra in the Asia Minor province of Lycaonia. It was a Roman colony like Philippi and, like Philippi, there weren’t enough Jewish men in the town to establish a synagogue. Timothy’s mother, a Jewish woman named Eunice, didn’t have many choices among eligible bachelors. She socialized a good bit with Gentile boys, and to the consternation of her mother Lois, fell in love with one. When Timothy was born, his father objected to circumcision. Nevertheless, Eunice and Lois lived their devotion to Torah and did their best to teach the faith to Timothy.

When Paul and Barnabas came through Lystra on his first missionary journey, a crowd of Lycaonians thought they were Zeus and Hermes, father and son Greek gods. Paul shouted at them and they eventually stoned him almost to death. Some Lystrans believed in Jesus, including Lois, Eunice, and Timothy.

Paul. Paul’s Jewish name was Saul. His father was a Roman citizen, which meant his family was prominent in Tarsus of Cilicia. His parents wanted him to have a Jewish education. They sent him to Jerusalem where his sharp mind and silver tongue made him a rising star. He was assigned to the school of Gamaliel, a leading rabbi among Pharisees.

Saul heard a group of Jews claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Saul knew no Jewish Messiah dies on a cross and besides, Jesus hadn’t changed his world except for a few alleged miracles. The Romans were still in charge of the land promised by God to the Jews. Further, Jesus was reported to have broken the Sabbath laws and predicted the destruction of the temple. He must have been a phony. Saul decided the best way for him to love God was to kill and harass Christians.

On his way to Syria to hunt down some Christians, Jesus appeared to Saul in a vision. Some Christians didn’t trust him, but Barnabas welcomed and encouraged Saul. Before long he was Paul the evangelist, telling people to believe in the very Jesus he used to persecute. God had called him to take this message to non-Jews. He traveled with Barnabas to Phrygia, Lycaonia, Pisidia, and Galatia on his first trip. Many people, Jews and Gentiles, believed in Jesus.

In today’s story Paul is on his second major missionary trip to Asia. He had parted ways with Barnabas after a heated argument, so he brought Silas with him. He hit some of the same towns he visited before to check in on the churches. In Lystra, Paul was impressed with young Timothy and invited him to join the team. Paul had come to believe that circumcision didn’t matter either way, and he never circumcised Gentiles. He thought Timothy, however, might be a hindrance to Paul’s evangelism among Jews if as a Jewish boy he wasn’t circumcised, so he whipped out his knife and did the work. Timothy didn’t feel so good for a few days, so Paul waited before moving on.

He decided to turn north toward the Black Sea to evangelize some provinces he had not visited, but he got sick all of a sudden and had to stop preaching. He attributed this to the Holy Spirit changing his course. He headed west into Mysia, but there are no significant cities in Mysia where Paul liked to work. Once again, he tried to turn north, this time into Bithynia, but he got sick again! The Spirit of Jesus was once again changing his path. Maybe some time on the coast would help him feel better. He headed west all the way to a seaside town on the Aegean Sea called Troas. There he tried to preach again, but as a curious crowd gathered to hear him, Paul doubled over in pain. Silas and Timothy were no help, but a doctor in the crowd came up and offered to treat Paul. His name was Luke, and Paul immediately forged a bond with him.

While in Troas, Paul had a strange dream. A man who was obviously Greek said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Doggone if the guy in the dream didn’t look just like Dr. Luke. When Luke checked on him the next day, Paul said, “I guess I’m supposed to head over to Europe.” Luke answered, “I’d better go with you. You get sick a lot.” So Paul, Luke, Silas, and Timothy immediately boarded a vessel going west. They spent the night on an island called Samothrace, which includes a 5,577-foot peak called Mount Fengari.

The following day they arrived at Neapolis on the coast, then followed the Via Egnatia (a Roman road paved with large rectangular rocks used for moving military men and supplies) north to Philippi, a Roman colony. It wasn’t a large city, but large enough for a theater that held 50,000 people. Some time back there had been gold mines providing gold for Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. Now Philippi was a small city but its historic importance and self-government made it like a little Rome.

When Paul arrived in Philippi, he wanted to follow his usual strategy of going to the Jewish synagogue first. Since there wasn’t one in Philippi he began to inquire where he could find some people who worship the God of the Jews. He was told, “Down by the Crenides River, every Sabbath.” Off went Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Dr. Luke that Saturday morning. Soon they heard the familiar sounds of Psalms and prayers. The crowd of mostly women was so sincere. One of them seemed especially intense about her prayers and worship. She was wearing purple.

The purpose

I get really excited when I think about these five stories converging beside a creek on the outskirts of Philippi. They meet in Europe, but they come from Jerusalem, Thyatira, and several places in between. Two were born Jew, two Gentile, and one half and half. Four are men, one is a woman. What they have in common is mobility – that and a lifelong desire to seek and worship the one true God.

When they meet at the River Crenides, Paul gives his message to a group of people he’s never met. But it’s a group of people who don’t care if they are a minority religion – they’re pursuing God. One of them has a tender heart, yearning for deeper worship, a closer connection to God. She’s always ready to learn some new way to talk to God and listen to God.

Don’t forget that Paul didn’t even want to be there. He wanted to be in Pontus or Bithynia. And he didn’t feel good. He felt the pressure of the churches he had already founded, always thinking of them and praying for them. He had letters to write so he could continue teaching and encouraging them. There were new places to visit and he couldn’t get to all of them. It had been a while since he his message had had a positive reception among Jews or Gentiles, in part because physically he couldn’t muster enough energy to speak with boldness and passion. His body constantly failed him. It was as if he continually had a thorn in his flesh.

Here he was with his traveling buddy, his young protégé, and his personal physician. He felt reenergized by that babbling brook. He sat down to teach. When he poured out his familiar talk about how God had showed up in Jesus – preaching good news, being put to death by Jews, and rising again, nobody stoned him, nobody argued with him, nobody chased him out of town. One woman in particular – Lydia, the seller of purple – found her heart strangely warmed. The Lord opened her heart. That day she believed in Jesus. She and her entire entourage were baptized right there in that stream, and then she invited Paul, Timothy, Silas, and Luke to come enjoy hospitality in her home.

For Paul, all those frustrations in Asia instantly made sense. No wonder the Holy Spirit closed doors to the north and forced him west. God was bringing him here, to Philippi in Macedonia, where a divine encounter with a fabric manufacturer and seller gave him his first convert on European soil – a woman. She would be the first of many on a continent that for two thousand years would be fertile soil for growing the church of Jesus. That’s why they were here.

I look at my Confirmands today, and I love their stories. You can tell by their names that they represent some beautiful diversity – Chinese, Vietnamese, Hispanic, African American. Their talents and experiences, ranging from riding a unicycle to Irish dancing to open heart surgery to sports, have molded their lives in unique ways. But all of them have encountered Jesus in Confirmation. They’ve learned about him, but they’ve also decided to publicly and personally confess him as Savior and Lord.

There will be many other experiences in life that will shape them, some good and some bad. They will move around. They will get sick. They will get frustrated by roadblocks keeping them from where they thought they were supposed to go. The fact that they’re here in this place on this day is no accident. They have individual stories that converge in this moment of allowing God an entry point into their lives. God will use Confirmation to continue doing his work in and through them.

On their Confirmation Day, the Lord sent us Juliana Taimoorazy. She was born into circumstances that most of us would find terrifying – born into a Christian family living as minorities in a Muslim country. Her story has a connection to mine. I never lived in her native Iran, but my parents did as missionaries in the 1970s. In 1979, my Dad was one of the last Americans to leave Iran before the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

When the Americans left, Jesus didn’t. The church didn’t die. Juliana was born into a Christian family there, and herself was smuggled out of Iran into Switzerland, then to Germany and finally to America. Opportunities for education and prosperity grew here, but she could never forget her people, the Assyrian Christians across the Middle East. She has become a tireless voice for them – an advocate for their freedom to worship, for their material needs, for prayer.

Her life hasn’t always turned out like she planned, but God has been it all through that journey. He has brought her here, to this place on this day, because he has claimed her, he loves her people, and he knows how her story connects to each person here. He’s brought us together so that he can renew our confidence that in a world where it seems like random stuff is just happening to us, and bad stuff is happening to so many, God is still actively working to embrace those whose hearts are soft toward him. The Spirit directs and redirects his people to where he can continue his work in them, and through them can reach still others. That’s why we are here. Amen.

[1] For an autobiographical sermon on Luke’s life, click here.

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