July 30, 2017 “Saving Invasion” – Acts 16:6-15
July 30, 2017 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
They plodded through the breakers, wading ashore as machine gun fire cracked around them. Seventy-three years ago on June 6, 1944, three million Allied troops crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy in France. It was D-Day, a turning point for the Allies in the war against the German Reich. A western beachhead was established in Europe. That European front was the key to forcing back the German army and liberating France. It is also felt to be the decisive factor in stemming the flow of Soviet Communism into western Europe. A massive invasion from the west changed history for Europe and for us.
An even more significant invasion of Europe, from the east, often goes unnoticed. The truly decisive event for European history was not D-Day 1944, but D-Day 51 AD, when three or four Christians crossed the Aegean Sea and landed for the first time on a beach in northeastern Greece. They left what we now think of as Asia Minor or Turkey, and established an eastern beachhead for Christianity on European soil. That invasion changed the face of western civilization even more radically than our modern D-Day.
As we heard last week, Paul and Silas returned to the Roman province of Lycaonia and the cities of Derbe and Lystra in southern Asia Minor. In Lystra they picked up a young assistant named Timothy. From there, we learn in verse 6, they had intended to head west, into the province the Romans called “Asia,” southwestern Turkey to us. But the Holy Spirit kept them from going there. We’re not told how the Spirit spoke. It may have been simple circumstances making travel in that direction difficult. It could have been a strong spiritual impression of being directed one way and not another. It may have been a dream or a vision. But it’s clear that while Paul had a strategy for his mission, God intervened, and plans changed.
So the companions went north and west, traveling through the provinces of Phyrgia and Galatia. Verse 7 tells how they would have continued on north, into Bithynia. But that area was not in God’s plan for almost another three hundred years when Constantine would found a great Christian city on its western edge. So instead they turned westward to the north of Asia and came to the seaport of Troas.
That first night in Troas, Paul had a vision. During our family’s travels in Greece, we saw a wonderful mosaic in Berea depicting that vision. A “man of Macedonia” stands before Paul as he rests against rocks below the city. Behind them is the harbor with a boat out upon the water. The man beckons Paul with one hand and points away to the west with the other. The words of the call are written over his head in Greek: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”
Verse 10 tells us Paul came to the logical conclusion. The only help they could offer the people of Macedonia was to preach the Gospel to them. So they got ready to leave. And with this we arrive at one of the most intriguing facets of the book of Acts. All along the account has read like history, in the third person. Stephen said this, Paul did that, he came here, they went there. But now for the first time, the perspective changes and verse 10 reads, “After Paul had seen the vision we got ready at once to leave…”
There are a few theories, such as the author simply quoting material from another source, but the only one that makes any real sense is that at this point, there in Troas, Luke himself, the author of Acts, joined the group. Four Christian men got on the boat, set sail and eventually waded up the beach there in Greece. Luke is now writing what he saw with his own eyes.
Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke sailed first to the little island of Samothrace and spent the night. Then they went on northwest to land at Neapolis, which means simply “New City.” Unlike what you may have learned in geography class, Europe is not really a separate continent from Asia. It’s one landmass, only divided physically by a couple of inland seas, mountains and rivers. But that separation we older students learned goes back to Roman times, when they divided the world into Europe, Africa and Asia. That’s how Paul and Silas would have understood their little sailing journey across the Adriatic Sea. They were traveling from the part of the world where they had spent their whole lives into a new and different territory and culture.
At this point, Beth and I can tell you what we’ve seen with our own eyes. One afternoon fifteen years ago we drove along the Greek coast east of Thessalonica until we came to the modern city of Kavala which used to be Neapolis. We looked out at the water over which Paul sailed and gazed down at the beach where he must have landed.
Then we turned our car north in the direction Paul and his companions went, as they traveled about ten miles to Philippi. You can still walk sections of the old stone Egnatian road which they must have followed.
Philippi first boomed when gold was found nearby. Later, Philip the father of Alexander the Great took it over and renamed it after himself. Ninety years before Paul’s arrival, one of the most significant battles in Roman history took place there as Marc Antony and Octavian defeated Cassius and Brutus, the republican assassins of Julius Caesar. After that Philippi became a Roman colony, as Luke says here.
All our family saw of Philippi was ruins. There is no modern city there. The amphitheatre is still there, ancient baths, and the ruins of a Byzantine church which we were told was never constructed properly and kept falling down. We also peered into a crypt which was said to be the jail of Paul and Silas. We will hear about that next week.
At first, the missionaries did not find what they were looking for in Philippi. As I’ve said, Paul’s standard practice on coming to any new city was to go first to the synagogue and give the Jews of that community an opportunity to hear the Gospel. But there was no synagogue in Philippi. The Jewish population was too small. From verse 13 we gather that they asked around and learned there was a small Jewish gathering for Sabbath prayer by the river south of town.
So they went and found women there. In that day and time it could have been the end of the story. To the ancient Jewish mind, women were second class spiritual citizens. Religious life was the business of men. There was no synagogue because you needed ten Jewish men to form a congregation. Women did not count.
Yet verse 13 tells that Paul and his companions sat down and began to speak to the women. One of them, named Lydia, was not herself from Macedonia, but from Thyatira back in Asia Minor. The area around Thyatira was once the kingdom of Lydia, so the woman had the ancient name of her country. She must have been a Jewish convert. Unlike most women then, she had a business and traded in purple cloth.
Verse 14 says, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Just that bit makes her a shining example of faith, a person eager to listen to God’s Word. Verse 15 then relates that she and the members of her household were baptized. Lydia became a Christian and so did all her servants and dependents.
That was it—the first Christian conversion in Europe. Paul and his fellow travelers were fulfilling Jesus’ commission to take the Good News to the whole world. From there the faith would spread throughout Greece and then on to Rome and Italy and then to England and France, Germany and Spain, as well as northward to the low countries and Scandinavia. The first D-Day Europe was a quiet moment when Christ entered the heart of one woman who bowed her head in prayer.
Paul’s little invasion is a reminder to us as Americans gathered here at Valley Covenant Church. We have this tradition in our country of accomplishing things on a huge scale, with massive resources. Our World War II European invasion was a gigantic investment of money and lives in order to keep the world free. Yet God’s Word reminds us over and over that our Lord often works differently, that He establishes battlefronts in small places, through little people, in gentle ways. For us, freeing Europe cost thousands of lives on both sides. To save Europe for Christ, God risked only these four men who began by talking to a few women.
Today, you and I may wonder if we can do anything very significant for God. The world’s problems, even our city’s problems seem huge. We’re a small church on a little corner in a small town. What can we do to bring Christ to so many hurting people around us? How can one little trailer in our parking lot or our little warming center make a dent in the thousands of homeless on our streets? How can we help all those hurting children and broken families Kristin spoke about last week? Thinking about those questions, I find this text encouraging. God’s ways are small and mysterious. His beachheads are found in a few receptive hearts. His battles are not won with massive resources and brute force, but with small personal sacrifices and tiny expressions of love.
Lydia shows us just how much she understood the nature of her new faith. She immediately put her resources at the disposal of the missionaries, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Paul and his friends accepted her hospitality. Her home became God’s beachhead in Macedonia, in Europe. When the time come for them to leave Philippi in verse 40 they came to Lydia’s house to say goodbye to a whole gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ. One woman’s open heart had become a church.
Europe is not the end of this D-Day story. Eight hundred years later two brothers grew up in the Christian faith there in Macedonia to which Paul was called. The two boys learned the Slavonic language from Slavic people living nearby. So in 863 AD when another call came for help from people who did not know Christ, two young men were ready. When King Rostislav of Moravia, now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, called for Christian teachers for his people, Cyril and Methodius went and taught the Slavs about Jesus in their own language. They created an alphabet and a written language so the Bible could be read and God could be worshipped in Slavonic. The Slavic world still uses the Cyrillic alphabet today. The brothers’ mission did not last long in Moravia, but that Slavic beachhead for the Gospel eventually led to the conversion of Russia and other Slavic countries.
No work for Christ is insignificant. All God’s greatest plans begin in tiny, unexpected, quiet places and in humble, simple people. What you and I do for Jesus, no matter how small, could be one of our Lord’s beachheads to invade the lives of thousands, or even millions. Open your home like Lydia and host a Bible study and someday someone may bless you for bringing them to come to Christ. Give to keep a ministry or mission going and people not yet born may praise God for your open heart. Help one family find a home and it may change the lives of generations to come. Teach a Sunday School class and one of those wiggly wild children may be a Paul or a Lydia in the making.
The story is told how a man no one has ever heard of—he was named Edward Kimball—taught a Sunday School class in Northfield, Massachusetts. One day he went downtown to a shoe store where one of his students worked. While the young man stacked shoes, Kimball talked to him about his soul and about Jesus. The student gave his heart and life to Christ. He was Dwight L. Moody, probably the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century. God used a humble Sunday School teacher to establish another great beachhead for His kingdom.
You may not feel at all like you are on the frontlines of the spiritual battle. You might even feel like Paul, that you’ve been unable to go where you wanted and that what you thought was God’s plan has passed you by. But every day our Lord is using people like you to storm enemy territory, to plant the flag of His love in new places. Show some kindness, give someone a Bible, invite a friend to worship, teach your child to pray or sing a Christian song, and you may one day be overwhelmed with the victory that God won through you.
In our Gospel lesson from Matthew 13, Jesus told parables about how the Kingdom of God starts out small and almost invisible, but then grows large beyond all expectations. A tiny pinch of yeast causes a whole batch of dough to rise. A little mustard seed grows as big as a tree, providing shelter for the birds and shade for human beings. God does not need to gather a big crowd to get His work started. He starts small.
In our Old Testament reading from I Kings 3, Solomon wonders how he can possibly govern all the people of Israel, because he is “only a little child.” Then he humbly asks not for riches or military power, but for wisdom. And God took that man who saw himself as a mere boy and made him the greatest king of Israel. God does not work through people who are always talking about how great they are. He works through those who know they are like little children.
I remember reading a sermon by Francis Schaeffer in which he talks about the rod of Moses. Before meeting God that stick in Moses’ hand was just a stick. But when the Lord put it to use that stick did miracles. It turned to a snake in front of Pharaoh. It struck the water of the Nile and turned it to blood. It broke open a rock in the wilderness to pour out fresh water for the people. Just a stick, but God used it. So Schaeffer wrote, “There will be many persons who were sticks of wood that stayed close to God and were quiet before him, and were used in power by him in a place which looks small.”
The title of Schaeffer’s sermon was, “No Little People, No Little Places.” That’s what we learn again today from Paul and Lydia. When God calls us, we are no longer insignificant. The place we are in is not small. The King of Heaven, Jesus Christ, is invading our world. He strides ashore and takes His beaches through seemingly insignificant words of love and little acts of kindness which we offer up for His sake. He is storming into people’s hearts through humble work like changing diapers, cleaning toilets or picking up trash left by needy people know who no better. God is taking back planet earth through quiet prayers and small acts of generosity. Our place is to walk with Him up that little beach to wherever He is going, be it into a dark valley or out to wider world.
It is pretty clear that small people and what they do does not matter much to the leaders and rulers of our world. But they matter to God. You matter to God. If you haven’t yet done what Lydia did there in Philippi, haven’t yet said yes to Jesus as your Savior, be assured that He cares. You matter to Jesus and He wants to save you. I pray that you will let Him. And if you have joined Lydia in that commitment of faithfulness to the Lord, then be assured that He cares. Your service and faithfulness, no matter how small it may seem, is making a difference, is assisting in our Lord’s saving invasion. Go forward today in that assurance. Your life is big enough to matter to Him.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj