Take The Next Right…
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 16:1-15
“Go down there!”
“You’re holding the map upside-down!”
“No, I said turn left, right?”
“Are we nearly there yet?”
A normal family trip in the car for so many of us, trying to find our way to a previously unvisited part of the country. The days of folded maps, where the important junction was always placed neatly in the fold, of following the road signs, or those in the back playing a game of “guess the moment when the driver’s head explodes in frustration at the passenger’s lack of navigation skill” are of course long past, with the advent of every driver’s friend, the Sat Nav.
Now, the calming, unflappable tones of some nameless companion living in a small box on the dashboard will read the map for you, directing your every move in a nicely modulated, soothing voice. Entirely unshockable, the Sat Nav person will adjust for every wrong turning without resorting to scathing comments about your former driving instructor’s eyesight or examiner’s weakness for a bribe. The ebb and flow of traffic is accounted for, with occasional offers of quicker routes giving the illusion of choice in the process; once the destination is set, the Sat Nav person’s sole reason for being is to deposit you safely there, whatever the prevailing conditions and mood of the car’s inhabitants.
Of course, some have eschewed this advance in technology and still lean on the paper-thin solidity of the Road Atlas and the reassuring presence of the road sign, but for those who have embraced it, there is no doubting the convenience and reliability of this little technical marvel. That is, as long as it knows the difference between a farm track and a motorway and is kept updated with the new road layouts that spring forth with the deliberation of mould on bread.
So, what would the Sat Nav person made of Paul’s abortive attempts to visit the area known as Asia? According to our reading today, Paul and co were prevented from entering this province by the Holy Spirit; one can only imagine the ways that this was achieved. A satirist may suggest that the person who designed Milton Keynes’ interminable roundabout system might have also been so inspired, but that would be unkind to the good people of Milton Keynes, who I’m sure after several years of living in the town now know exactly the best route to leave.
Maybe there were angels and a swishing flaming sword blocking the road, just as the way back to Eden was barred for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:24). Or maybe their beasts of burden got the hump and told them in no uncertain terms that they were not going any further, just as Balaam had previously had trouble with his equally angel-threatened donkey (Numbers 22:21-34). Or maybe they just felt uneasy whenever anyone mentioned Asia.
But what makes it strange that Luke chooses to include this detail in his account is that there has been, up to now, no indication that Paul has had a definite route in mind. Instead, he seemed to be going almost where the wind blew him. We’ve speculated that his earlier visit to Cyprus was for Barnabas to visit his family (Acts 13:4) but his other destinations seem to contain little strategy; Paul (previously with Barnabas, now with Silas and Timothy) has up to this point been following a divine Sat Nav who seemingly unveils the next location only once they arrive.
So, why does Luke say that they were being denied access to Asia in all its fertile, unevangelised glory, unless this was a case of God’s plan trumping Paul’s route-planning? What Paul’s party had intended, as they stocked up on their Lonely Planet guides to Asia and its culture and cuisine, was aborted by the Holy Spirit in some way or the other.
What they did get, though, was a dream-filled direct plea from an anonymous man who hailed from Macedonia. Setting their first century Sat Navs to Philippi, the major centre of learning and commerce for that region, Paul and his merry band set out. Their journey is broken up with occasional stops en route, before settling in for a time of preaching and teaching among the populace there.
And here again we get another instance of Paul thinking he was going to do one thing, and God providing him with something entirely different.
‘Twas on the Sabbath, when all good Philippians are busy doing their own secular thing that Paul and co leave the city confines to find a place to pray. Maybe the local synagogue was located beyond the walls in deference to the prevailing culture, of maybe they realised that their spiritual needs couldn’t be met in the public square. Whatever their reasons, they are found down by the river, looking for a good spot for a bit of praise and worship.
However, they are thwarted. No sooner had Paul opened his dusty copy of Mission Praise (Pentecost Edition) and Silas strapped on his guitar, when the lilting voices of women came floating across to them. Never the sort of evangelist to miss out on an opportunity, they pack up their instruments and spend time sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with these ladies.
We are told that one of the women who responded favourably to the gospel message was Lydia, a wealthy business owner. This might seem worthy of nothing more than a passing mention by Luke (who, now he’s taken to writing in the first person, must be assumed to be there also), but we should recognise the shift in dramatis personae that this heralds.
Lydia embraces the good news and welcomes our travellers into her home; in a couple of chapter’s time, we will be introduced to Priscilla, another convert to The Way (Acts 18:2). We start to see the spread of the gospel not just among the Gentiles, but also among the ladies. Equal status in the kingdom of heaven is declared, no matter what centuries of church history has tried to inflict.
But here’s the rub (as Shakespeare would say). Paul, Silas and Timothy had to be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit for Lydia to hear the Good News. They had to put their plans on hold to fit into God’s greater plan, not just for their lives but also to all those who had the chance to respond to the gospel. Even more telling, their plans seemed to be good ones – after all, who could fault them for wanting to reach an unreached Asian part of the world, or for leaving the pagan city in search of a space to pray? But they weren’t God’s plans.
And this brings us right up to date; one of the frustrations that 2020 has brought is the loss of control over our lives. No longer able to meet with who we want, go where we want, or breathe over who we want, we’re having to bow to a greater, if flawed, authority. Our own internal Sat Navs have had routes deleted, with destinations blocked off or detours set up, sending us down mental blind alleys, or into dead ends where we can find little room for manoeuvre. The situation, equally, is not looking like changing anytime soon either, with infection rates going the wrong way (at the time of writing) and Christmas plans being committed to in pencil only.
But then again, have we got too in control of our worlds and our lives? Have we tried to schedule chaos out of our diaries to such an extent that we’ve also scheduled the Holy Spirit out of our churches? Is there a risk that we became so programme-driven that we forgot the excitement (and fear) of God presenting us with the unknown, inviting us to take the next right turn and trusting him to get us to the destination that he has for us (pushing the metaphor to its limits)?
Paul, Silas and Timothy found out that their intentions were worth sacrificing as many got to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, building a lasting community of faith there (and Paul even wrote a letter to the church later). At this time of turmoil and confusion, are we giving God the space to take us where he wants, now that we can’t go where we planned…?
 True, we cannot forget Dorcas/Tabitha (Acts 9:36-42) but we only meet her once she is well on her way into her Christian journey.