[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on May 22, 2022, based on Acts 16:6-15. It can be watched and heard on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page.]
Have you ever seen something before you saw it? In 1971, John Denver recorded a song with the memorable phrase, “almost heaven, West Virginia.” It has since become the official state song of West Virginia. John Denver had never been to West Virginia when he recorded it. Bill Danoff wrote the words. Danoff had never been to West Virginia. But he had a vision of what West Virginia looked like.
Jack Norworth was riding a subway train in New York City in 1908 when he saw an advertisement for a baseball game. He started writing one of the most famous and best known songs in American history: “Take me out to the ball game….” He had never been to a baseball game. He wouldn’t attend a major league baseball game until 32 years later, when his song was sung during the seventh inning, as it is in just about every ball park in America.
Beethoven, one of the greatest composers ever, was deaf when he wrote some of his greatest music, including his great Ninth Symphony, the final chorus of which we sing joyfully (“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee….”). What he could not actually hear with his ears, he could hear clearly in his heart. We thrill to “Ode to Joy” whenever we hear those notes he couldn’t hear.
Such is the power of vision. “During the night Paul had a vision.” A plan was developing to take the good news of Jesus to people that hadn’t heard it yet, but they were stopped. It seemed a good plan, but God squashed it. When I develop a plan, a good plan, I want to see it through to completion. Don’t you? I don’t like it when a well-conceived plan of mine is rejected. But sometimes, the change in plan is just what is needed. God uses vision to keep us moving in the right direction. “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia.” Instead of going north, they were going west. The vision compelled them. I first memorized Proverbs 29:18 in the King James Version: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A more accurate translation would be, “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint.”
God gives us visions to move us forward. How do we know a vision is from God? I have several questions I use:
- Is this vision consistent with the nature of God?
- Does this vision serve to glorify God?
- Does this vision keep working on me?
- When I share this vision with wise friends, do they support pursuing it?
Paul’s vision meets those tests. God’s nature revealed in the Bible is for the Good News to be shared. Bringing the Good News to a new region would glorify God. The vision, once received, could not be forgotten. Paul never traveled alone. His co-workers supported the vision. “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.’”
Macedonia was the northern region of Greece. They set out for Macedonia, not knowing anything more, except a compelling vision. They end up in city called Philippi. It is a prosperous city under Roman authority. On the Sabbath, they look for a place to worship. They find a place for prayer by a river. There are some women there for prayer. They start conversation. One of the women is named Lydia. She is a businesswoman, dealing in purple cloth, for which the region was known. The Lord opens her heart to listen intently. She receives the message and is baptized, bringing her household. What does household mean here? We aren’t sure. There is no mention of a husband. Many assume that Lydia wasn’t married, had a large house because of her prosperous business, and may have had extended family and employees staying in her home. She brings them to be baptized. Then she urges Paul and his team to stay at her home. They do. The first Christian Church in Europe begins in Lydia’s home.
In this Eastertide series, we have had two visions in two Sundays. Last Sunday, Peter had a vision of a sheet dropping from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals. God used that vision to show Peter that Gentiles could receive the Good News of Jesus. Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Roman military officer, and shared the Good News, leading to Cornelius becoming a new follower of Jesus. That was a major cultural breakthrough. Peter’s religious tradition taught him to beware of outsiders; a vision compelled to go to an outsider.
This week, it is Paul receiving a vision that leads him to share the Good News of Jesus with Gentile women. That is an even larger cultural barrier. Jesus had broken barriers in speaking in public with women, all kinds of women, even non-Jewish women, and showing them the grace of God. But some of his followers had trouble believing that they could do that. Did you notice that in the vision, it is a man calling for Paul to come, but when Paul goes, he speaks to women? Maybe if the vision had been a woman calling, Paul wouldn’t have believed it.
It would be accurate to call Paul a Jewish supremacist. He believed his ethnic people were exceptional. Special. Superior. Do you remember when God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, a non-Jewish city, and tell them about God? Jonah booked a ship going the opposite direction. He couldn’t believe that God loved the people of Nineveh the way God loved the people of Israel. But God’s vision was precisely that God loved the people of Nineveh. Jonah would reluctantly learn that. Paul, too, would learn of the expansive love of God that transcends nation.
There is a tendency in religions to become exclusive. To think we are right and all the others are wrong. Jesus doesn’t bring more of that kind of religion into the world, but Good News of God’s inclusive vision. The Book of Acts, which we are walking through this season, is an ever-opening and widening circle. In Acts 2, Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks, the old way is shattered by the gift of the Holy Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)
Peter needs a vision from heaven to go to a Gentile official of Rome named Cornelius and welcome him. Paul needs a vision from God to go to a Greek city and share the Good News with a group of women, including a businesswoman named Lydia. Paul was raised in strict Judaism, a Pharisee. He was taught to despise Gentiles and be suspicious of women. All those barriers fall as he follows God’s vision for the Church. When the Good News of Jesus is understood and embraced, walls start falling. Crusty traditions start crumbling. Barriers start breaking apart. Gentiles are welcomed. Women are welcomed. Once despised minorities are welcomes. The downtrodden are lifted.
Paul sums it up in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Last weekend our world of western New York was stunned, shocked, and saddened by a mass shooting, an act or racist violence. An 18-year-old white supremacist, filled with fear and hate for Black people, targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, and randomly shot 13 people, killing 10 Black people. Every indication we have is that the killer believed in white supremacy and carefully planned to kill as many Black people as he could. Here are their names:
- Roberta A. Drury of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 32
- Margus D. Morrison of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 52
- Andre Mackneil of Auburn, N.Y. – age 53
- Aaron Salter of Lockport, N.Y. – age 55
- Geraldine Talley of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 62
- Celestine Chaney of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 65
- Heyward Patterson of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 67
- Katherine Massey of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 72
- Pearl Young of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 77
- Ruth Whitfield of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 86
In the face of such hatred and fear, we cannot be silent. Our silence would be compliance. We gather here to worship God, but not in a bubble or perceived safety or insulation. Years ago, someone gave me this framed saying, which has stayed in my study ever since:
“A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task are the hope of the world.”― Inscription on a church wall in Sussex England c. 1730.
We have a vision of what God wants the church to be. And we have a task to do in our broken world. To live the Good News. To speak the Good News. To embody the Good News of Jesus for all people.