This sermon was given by Geoff Pound at ABC on 1 May 2016. It is part of the ‘Resurrection People’ series which is also accompanied by Study Notes for group discussion and personal study. Here is the link to Study 6 which is based on this Scripture passage.
Reading: Acts 16:6-15
Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at the Customs House at Salem, Massachusetts but he loathed the place. He hated his work. He detested everything associated with it. To escape from the horrible memories of the daytime, he wrote stories at night.
Some years later, he lost his job. When he came home and told his wife that he’d been retrenched he was absolutely devastated. But his wife, Sophia, was elated. "Your opportunity has come at last," she cried, "Now you can be an author by profession!"
He seized a manuscript that he’d written in his spare time, took it to a publisher and in a few months his first novel was published. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was an instant best seller. So began his fulltime writing career.
It often happens like this. When one door closes another fruitful door may open. Closed and open doors were certainly the experience of the early church.
Acts 16: 6 says:
6 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.
There’s no detail here as to how they were muzzled but they were up against a closed door. But driving them on was this centrifugal force knowing that the Gospel was good news to be shared with others. Luke says:
7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.
How perplexing to be stymied again but instead of complaining they displayed a momentum. They believed that a door of opportunity would open.
8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
I wonder how long they spent in this confusing zone. Becalmed. Treading water. Bamboozled.
If you’ve ever made a wrong decision, take some consolation from these early believers who went down one route after another that turned out to be No Through Road. You’ve started a course of study or a job and then found you didn’t like it or were not good at it. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t think all that time was wasted. It’s not the end. You’re in good company.
The Bible is full of closed-door cameos. From Joseph in the pit of slavery to Daniel and his mates locked up with the lions, to the Prodigal Son eating husks from the pig trough, the sound of closed doors clank through the chapters of the Bible.
Perhaps we applied for a position. We stood for election but the response was in the negative. It’s such a hard thing to swallow just when the doors slam in your face. Yet this is the very time when trust in the nailed up Christ is needed. For in the inky darkness there comes the light. Luke says:
16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."
First they were guided by the circumstances of closed doors.
Now they were being guided by a vision given to Paul. Or were they? Some people get crazy ideas at night. How did they know this was fair dinkum and not the result of Paul snacking on blue vein cheese before he went to sleep?
The safety clause is in verse 10:
When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
While Paul might have seen this vision, it was the group that discerned. It was the group that had the sense of rightness. It was the group that was convinced before they set sail.
Maybe if they’d had a committee meeting and knocked together a Mission Statement they might never have made the jump across the water. They might have said: “We need to focus our efforts in this region. It’s too soon to venture forth into new countries especially with new cultures and new languages. We need to consolidate.” Sound familiar?
Just as well the Spirit of God was guiding this group. The Spirit gave them flexibility. The Spirit makes us pliable. The Spirit opens us up to surprising new directions.
I wonder if God is calling us to take a new direction as a church? We’ve been moving predictably, incrementally, following the familiar furrow but maybe there’s a surprising new vision God wants us to follow.
Like a careful journalist Luke has been writing his Gospel and the Acts. His writing is accurate, objective and in the third person:
When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia. (v7)
Now Luke has a slip of the pen when he writes:
When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia. (v10)
We! So Luke is in the group! Luke is part of this discernment! This is an eye-witness account. Luke was part of this history-making group that was now taking the Gospel to Europe for the very first time!
16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,
Instead of striking head winds or being blown off course they ‘took a straight course’. This is where a decision gets further divine approval. This is the rightness of the Spirit. The Spirit is blowing their sails with the spinnaker billowing beyond the bow.
When they landed they went to Philippi, a strategic city, they started meeting with Jewish believers and with the women at a place of prayer (12-13).
From big, regional matters Luke now zooms down to focus on a key person:
16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
The marketing expert Seth Godin has written a best selling book called The Purple Cow. His thesis is simple. He says if you’re driving through farmland when you see brown Jersey cows or black and white Friesians you think nothing of it. But if you see a purple cow you stop the car. You all get out and take photos! Because purple cows are remarkable.
The key to any thriving organisation is to find a way to stand out positively, to be the purple cow in a paddock of monochrome Herefords. You’ve got to have distinction to avoid extinction.
So what are the purple features about Lydia that makes her truly remarkable?
Firstly she was culturally adept. She was international. She’d come from the city of Thyatira in Asia (modern day Turkey) where Paul and his crew had just sailed from. She would have to be proficient with the local language to do business.
Secondly, in a man’s world she was a successful business woman: ‘A dealer in purple cloth’.
If the distinctive things about Melbourne include the trams, the laneways, the sport, the arts and the coffee, the remarkable things about Thyatira were the cloth making and dyeing. Thyatira was the centre for the indigo trade. Lydia sold purple cloth from her own city. Her business card probably read: “I am dyeing to cloth you!”
Thirdly, she was an eager listener. This is mentioned twice in one verse:
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us… The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
An eager listener makes a good leader and a good business person but she also was listening eagerly to what the Spirit of God was saying.
Fourthly, even though she was successful in business and a regular worshiper of God at the synagogue, she sensed there was something missing. There was a Christ-shaped blank in Lydia’s life.
When Paul and his team told them about God coming in flesh and blood in the person of Jesus, about his countercultural teaching of love, his rejection and his death on the cross but that God had raised him to life and over 500 had seen him, Lydia was so responsive. This message had her name written all over it. She sensed the Lord opening her heart. She said: “I want to accept and follow this Jesus.”
“To show that you’re absolutely fair dinkum,” they said, “You’ve got to be baptized in water. Do you understand what that is?”
Lydia probably said, “Of course I do. That’s what I do with my cloth. That’s exactly the word that I say to my dyers— ‘baptizo’—they are to baptize, to totally immerse the white cloth into the purple waters.”
So Lydia was courageously baptized before others and as she emerged she displayed her beautiful colours. Her total immersion symbolized her total allegiance to Jesus. She would forever wear the colours of Christ.
Fifthly, not only Lydia but her family.
Luke says: “16:15 When she and her household were baptized.”
Just a few days ago, news hurtled around the world saying that ‘Prince’ had died. Hasn’t it been amazing to see the outpouring of grief at his death, not the least in iconic buildings around the world, including our own Arts Centre Spire being lit up in his favourite colour purple and recalling his popular song, ‘Purple Rain’?
The tributes noted his many awards and celebrated his prolific song writing, his virtuoso playing of the guitar, the keyboards and percussion.
He said when he was inducted into the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’:
“When I started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom. Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything that I wanted to.”
So his music defied genre. He shaped his career his way. He battled with the usual practices. He created his own mold.
In just about every other account it says: “He and his household were baptized.” The family followed the father. Here we see that Lydia was not only a leader in business but a leader in her family. She defied the usual practices. Lydia exploded conventions like the remarkable Christ she was now following.
The sixth and final remarkable feature about Lydia was the way her faith became active and visible:
16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.
She urged us. Sense her passion? She prevailed upon us. Catch her spirit? Her faith saw the need and she threw open her front door, her fridge and her family table and her friendship.
So today we’re being called to be sensitive to closed and open doors, to see surprising visions. To listen out for the urgent cries.
We’re being called to be purple people. Adaptable, responsive, good at our work, courageous followers of Jesus who aren’t afraid to show his true colours, people who crack conventions and demonstrate their faith with urgency and passion and practical hospitality.
 F W Boreham on Nathaniel Hawthorne, This Day with F W Boreham, 19 May.