Acts 16: 9-15
I wonder if there have been times in your life, where as a Christian, you have had reason to pray to God and ask him: ‘Is this where you want me to be God?’ or maybe you may have asked: ‘is this what you want me to do?’ In this life here on earth there are many decisions that we make and many circumstances that happen to us that sometimes lead us to ask these questions. Of course it is not just individuals who ask these questions. Over the last 15 or so years I have noticed that more and more the leaders of the LCA have been asking the churches to question where God wants them and what God wants them to do to as a community of believers, particularly as numbers have been declining and many seem to be walking away from the faith.
In the epistle reading from Acts chapter 16 I get the sense the apostle Paul may well have been asking the same question: ‘is this where God wants me to be’ because he ended up at a place that he originally wasn’t planning to be. Paul and his companions, Silas and Timothy, were traveling through what we now know as Turkey. The reason they were doing this was to visit the churches which Paul had planted in a previous journey, check on them, strengthen them, and share with them the decision of the Jerusalem council (15:36, 16:1), which was the Jewish Christians had accepted the Gentiles. Paul had made a start by revisiting the churches in Derbe and Lystra. But then, all of the sudden, God redirects his plans.
Acts 16:6–7 says: “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” We don’t know how the Spirit stopped them, whether it was through a vision or prophetic voice, or simply by circumstantial events. The point is, however this happened, that where God sent them is not where they expected, or necessarily wanted to go.
Where God was leading them was not where they had planned. They had expected to go to Asia and Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit said no. What they wanted was overridden by what God wanted. And so the Spirit sent them to a place which they had never expected to go—to Macedonia.
How often is it that we have our plans of what we think should happen to us. Whether it is as individuals on our journey with our Lord, or whether it is as a wider Church. We have our designs and plans on what we think should happen in our lives. Now don’t get me wrong, it is okay for people to ask God for things, to have a vision for the future, to have desires about what could happen in life. The problem is, however, when people expect to have all their these things to be met! In other words, God has to conform to our will and do what we want him to.
It is a reality that we all have to live with the fact that although we have plans about our lives, life so often does not go as we plan it. God’s plan and his designs upon our lives are often not what we want or hope for. I have heard a saying that goes: ‘Man proposes, but God disposes.’ What you and I propose to be our path in life may not be what God disposes to happen to us
When God intervenes in our plans for life, as he often does, it causes us a problem. It forces us to wrestle with this question: what do we do when God takes us along another road upon which we had not planned to travel, or perhaps don’t want to go down? To be honest many have the tendency to become resentful and bitter. We may think to ourselves: “How could this have happened? How could my hopes be so shattered? We even become angry with and resentful of God, though not many would admit to this. We may resent that he hasn’t given us our heart’s desire, particularly if we have been faithful Christians and tried to do the right thing. Too often Christians get themselves stirred up because God is not complying with their design for their lives.
The truth is that God is not our social secretary, arranging the circumstances of our lives as we direct him to. As much as we would like to you and I can’t just dictate to him our future and expect him to do what we want. To do this is nothing less than idolatry! It is putting ourselves above him. And if we are going to be really honest, this presumption by us deserves on the judgment from God, because it is breaking the first commandment.
The reality is that God does his will upon us even when it conflicts with our will. But it is here that the good news, needs to be heard by us. God’s will, unlike ours, is good and gracious. God pours upon us his goodness. God lavishes upon us his grace! This grace comes, first of all, as forgiveness to those who repent of their sinful idolatry. This grace comes to us because of the one who in the garden prayed, ‘not my will, but your will be done.” This grace comes to you and me because of the Servant of the Lord who submitted to the will of the Lord to crush him. Indeed, he was crushed by the weight of the judgment upon our rebellious idolatry. He went to the place where we should go, to hell itself. But it is from here that Jesus Christ also declared his victory over sin and death, a victory which he now shares with us, as we celebrate this Easter season, and will celebrate forever!
But this is not the only way that God gives us his grace. He does so by blessing us wherever he sends us, even if it is to where we don’t wish to go. This is precisely what happened to Paul in today’s reading. God closed doors in Asia and opened up another. Paul instead of going to Asia went to Philippi in Macedonia. There the Holy Spirit used Paul as a messenger to bring the Gospel to people who had never heard it before. First Lydia was converted, then her household, then a jailer in Philippi. And from this action, over centuries, much of the continent of Europe was came to believe in Jesus Christ! And from Europe the Gospel mission spread throughout the world, including to us here today in Australia. It all happened because Paul went not to where he wanted to go, but to where God sent him.
God gives us his grace to bless us wherever he leads us in life and also to use us to bring his blessing to others. Time and time again throughout the history, God has been redirecting the paths of his people, sending them where they had not planned to go, and using them greatly in these unintended places, and through unintended circumstances in their lives. For example, William Carey sought to go to Polynesia to bring the Gospel message, but God redirected his path to India. David Livingstone intended to do mission work in China, but God redirected him to Africa.
These are two examples of many. In each of these cases, God used these them to carry out his will in powerful ways, bringing the life-giving Gospel to myriads of people. But this happened in places and among people these they initially did not expect to visit or intend to live among. But his is not just about missionaries. The fact is that God gives his grace to each of us and works through each of us wherever we are, wherever he has placed us. And he works his grace in and through us through whatever circumstances we are in.
As you think about where you are in your life with God, I encourage you to remember that it is God’s will to be good and gracious to you. Wherever you are and whatever is happening in your life, his grace will sustain you and his grace will strengthen you and also be delivered through you. He is at work in your life, so you can trust his grace.