Recently I went on a journey to Mount Liebig an aboriginal community in central Australia to help at a Finke River Mission course for central Australian pastors and evangelists. I remembered holding services there under a tree in that community a bit over 30 years ago as a missionary pastor. It was often bitterly cold or uncomfortably hot. At that time Mount Liebig was young community, unlike the much older Hermannsburg where the Good News of Jesus has been preached for 145 years.
Today we meditate on a much earlier journey taken by 4 men, Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke who just joined them. They too were on a journey to tell a message about Jesus the promised Messiah and his resurrection from the dead.
Paul knew very much which way he wanted to go on this missionary journey. He was travelling west from Antioch where there was a Christian community (church) and wanted to preach in the ancient province of Asia (to their south), then he wanted to preach in the province of Bithynia (to their north). These men all knew that God continually guides his people. They knew Psalm 23 that says that Yahweh guides me in right paths for his name’s sake. As they walked and talked and prayed they realized that the Spirit of Jesus was stopping them from going where they wanted to preach. It was only when they got to the coast of the Aegean Sea at Troas that they became convinced that a dream Paul had about a man calling them to come to Macedonia to help them was actually God’s call, so they got into a boat and went. Suddenly their travels were not frustrated, and they had a quick sail across the Aegean Sea. From the port they walked the 16 kms to Philippi a Roman colony.
When Saturday came they went to the river because people went there to pray. There was no synagogue in the town 10 men were needed to form a synagogue. Instead they found a congregation of worshipping women. Lydia was a non-Jewish worshipper of God. She was a well off businesswoman, self-determined and running her own household, which she could legally do in that Roman run town. When she heard about Jesus; Jesus the one promised by the prophets of Old Testament. Jesus the last and final sacrifice for sins of all time; her life changed. God opened her heart to receive this message, she and her household were baptised and she insisted that these four strange men come and stay at her house.
What may have sounded to some listeners like a message about religion and Jewish belief was about her and her personal freedom. Her freedom from the demands of the law of God, that she knew were right, but completely unattainable. As self-determined as she was, she knew she was lacking. Her burden, the burden of God’s expectation had been lifted and carried by Jesus, the one who alone truly kept God’s law. The law of Moses that St Peter said is a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear (Acts 15:10) no longer held Lydia captive. Lydia was free to live in the Spirit of Jesus. Empowered by his love to love God and to act in love toward human beings.
How would it be to have been to be there as Paul, Silas, young Timothy, Luke the doctor and these women talked and listened to each other. To feel the lightness they felt when the men said that Jesus was the final great sacrifice through whom God has forgiven all humanity. All the war, the hate, the destruction that only people are capable of, forgiven and dealt with. But more importantly Lydia’s own personal failures and Paul’s own guilt at approving of the killing and jailing of Christians, all laid aside and forgiven. Because Jesus the Son of God had carried to his cross and left there.
Jesus at the cross laid open the heart of God and showed God’s final purpose of love to you and me. Gone are the things we deeply regret which don’t always disappear from our memory. Our failings have met their last word, Jesus’ blood.
Lydia’s church became the church of Philippi that Paul later wrote the beautiful letter to the Philippians to. Paul’s dream of a man calling him to come to Macedonia was fulfilled in Lydia. Paul and his friends had to learn that God walked in front of them, not just beside them. God had prepared a way for his message of freedom and hope, a way for them to walk.
We can easily be tempted to lose heart when we pray of our children and grandchildren who are not part of a worshipping group of Christians. We are reminded by these four men walking that God is a God who walks ahead, and he walks with our children and grandchildren. As much as their minds plan their way through life it is the Lord who directs the steps of our young people (Prov 16:9). It is God who prepares the way for his Good News, and we would be foolish to underestimate what God is capable of in the lives of our young people.
I suspect Paul and his mates did not hold a lot of hope for a tough Roman town full of retired soldiers like Philippi. A roman town where only certain religions were tolerated. It wasn’t long before they did find themselves on the wrong side of the law, abused and imprisoned. Philippi was a town where there was not even a synagogue to fly the flag for Yahweh. Down by the river they found God was alive and well and had prepared the way for a community of Christians (church). A group of people waiting for the Messiah; waiting to hear of Jesus. A woman with her heart already opened by God.
We live in a time in history where even the idea of hope seems wrong. People are distressed by the degradation of the environment, the loss of habitat for many animals and impact on us as humans. People are feeling pressure from household debt and rising prices and interest rates are on the rise.
But for me, and I hope for you, that remembering those 4 men walking 2000 years ago without an income and not particularly safe but carrying in their hearts a sense of purpose and strong sense of hope. God had sent his promised one, Jesus. Jesus had died and was risen from death and was with them as they walked, as they talked and prayed and as they taught. Jesus whom they trusted had become so front and centre in their lives that other concerns about life, death and health had to take a backseat. So it will be for each of us here today. Jesus is front and centre.
At Mount Liebig a couple of weeks ago we went to sleep in our swags every night with people singing Gospel songs. People went to sleep with the good word of Jesus and his hope in their ears. There was a whole new generation of Christians from when I was there last, resting in the love of God. God whose heart is fully open to you, to me and to his whole creation. He does direct our steps in his right paths. He walks with us but also in front of us.
In Jesus’ name. Amen