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Tonight we're looking at Acts 16.6-15, on page 781 of the blue bibles, so do please look that up.  I wonder if you noticed as we read those verses earlier the momentous event that occurred.  Something happened in those verses that has profoundly affected the course of history ever since.  Something happened that has had affected our whole culture, our language, our education, our law, our architecture, our economics and our international relationships throughout the 1900 and odd years ever since.  In this passage, the gospel, the good news about Jesus, the news that God sent his son to reveal himself to us and to make a way, through his death in our place on the cross, by which we might be made right with God, that gospel… came to the continent of Europe for the very first time.  What would Europe be like today if that had not happened, if the gospel had spread predominantly south or east or north instead of west, into Europe?

Yet when we think about Europe today, we think of a place that seems to have out-grown biblical Christianity.  Europe is a continent that has enjoyed many years of relative peace and stability, since the Second World War.  We've come such a long way, haven't we?  In all the major nations of Europe ordinary people are educated and empowered.  We enjoy freedom and rights and protection.  Under the unifying influence of the European Union a whole range of political and religious beliefs and behaviours can peaceably co-exist –  praise God.  But this progress has seen Europeans become ever more proud and it has seen biblical Christianity increasingly called into question.  How can a Europe of all faiths and none tolerate the gospel when it claims to be the one and only way of escaping God's wrath, and that all who reject it, regardless of whatever else they believe, are headed for judgment?  And besides, doesn't biblical Christianity promote bigotry against homosexuals and women?  Doesn't biblical Christianity sit opposed to what we know through science and rational thought?  The idea that Europeans might become Christians in any number nowadays seems pretty unlikely.

But that's one reason why tonight's passage is so helpful.  It prompts us to remember that Europe has been here before.  At the time Paul and co crossed the Aegean Sea, Europe was immensely proud of its civilisation, progress and pluralistic culture.  It was united under one common authority and was deeply suspicious of Christianity.  It was the time of the Roman Empire.  And yet, Europeans would go on to turn to Jesus in their tens of thousands, churches would spring up across the continent and European culture would be completely transformed.  It all looks so unlikely in this passage, but God's plans for Europe were far beyond what Paul could have dreamed, and those plans were unstoppable.

So these are the two main points I want to focus in on tonight:

God's plans are better than our good intentions, and

God's plans are unstoppable.

1. God's plans are better than our good intentions

Let's read 6-8

6 Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. [NIV]

Well we need a map [slide 5] to see this.  You won't be able to make everything out but hopefully there's enough to get a feel for things.

Last week we caught up with Paul and Silas in Lystra [6], on a mission to strengthen the churches that Paul planted with Barnabas on Paul's First Missionary Journey.  In Lystra they picked up a young apprentice in Timothy, a kingdom-minded guy, a guy who made sacrifices for the gospel, a guy who kept the main thing the main thing.  So Paul, Silas and now Timothy carried on with their journey.  Verse 6 says they travelled throughout the region of Phrygia [7] and Galatia.  From Lystra they probably went to Iconium [8] and Pisidian Antioch, to visit those churches.  Perhaps after that they thought of heading for the key port city of Ephesus [9], on the west coast, but they were prevented from preaching in the province of Asia [10].  So they tried heading north [11], but they were blocked again, this time from Bithynia [12].  So they set off westward, passing by, or more likely passing through Mysia, as in, travelling without stopping to try to plant new churches along the way.  They eventually reached Troas [13], on the west coast.

Let's read on, verse 9.

9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.  11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. 12 From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. [NIV]

We notice in v10 that the narrative shifts from the third person to the first person, from they to we.  In Troas Paul, Silas and Timothy seem to have met up with our author, Luke.  They find somewhere to rest, and Paul has this vision during the night of a man from Macedonia [14].  The man urges, even begs Paul and co to bring the gospel to Macedonia.  "Come over to Macedonia and help us."  In verse 10 they conclude that God is calling them there.  So they catch the next ferry to the island of Samothrace [15], where they spend the night, and they arrive the next day in Neapolis [16], a small port serving the city of Philippi, some ten miles inland.  Now for Paul and co, this short trip from one part of the Roman Empire to another was nothing much, but for us, this is the gospel landing in Europe for the very first time.

[17] So what's going on here?  On the one hand this all seems pretty straightforward.  A trip to visit some young church plants turns into a chance to take the gospel further afield than ever before.  But on the other hand, what's going on behind the scenes looks pretty strange.  The Holy Spirit kept them from speaking in Asia.  The Spirit of Jesus (the Holy Spirit) would not allow them to enter Bithynia.  What's that all about?  Well, we're not told.  As an aside, it's a relief to notice that the introduction to 1 Peter reads like a list of places Paul didn't or couldn't go.  To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. But why were these guys kept out of these regions?  How were they kept out?  We can only guess.  Maybe the Spirit gave the missionaries a strong, united inward impression.  Perhaps there were outward circumstances like illness – it seems from elsewhere that Paul had a long-term health issue, and they've just added Dr Luke to their number.  Perhaps there was specific Jewish opposition, like the threat in chapter 14 that caused Paul and Barnabas to flee from Iconium.  Perhaps there was a legal ban, or maybe they were instructed by a Christian prophet like Silas.  If it was something that seemed circumstantial, how did they conclude that it was the Holy Spirit's work?  We don't know.  And since we're not told, we can safely assume that that's not the key point.

What is particularly helpful for us is to notice how the missionaries handled this journey and its ups and downs.  God didn't give Paul and Silas an itinerary before they set off from Antioch in Syria.  He didn't tell them to skirt round Asia and Bithynia and make for Troas, and from there set sail to Europe.  Events unfolded as they went along and they had to go with it.  How much things really surprised or frustrated them, or how early they attributed the negatives to the intention of the Holy Spirit, we can't say.  But they were not swayed from the mission of strengthening churches and telling people about Jesus.  Those things are always the will of the Spirit.  And they didn't make rash assumptions from circumstances; they considered them rationally.  And when they had reached a conclusion, they were immediately obedient to the call to Macedonia.  They set off straight away.  They were willing, in any deliberation of circumstances and visions, to obey.  They weren't saying, "Lord, show us what you would have us do, so that we can decide whether to do it or not."  They had good intentions to reach Asia and Bithynia, but despite apparent setbacks they were ready and willing to serve God in different ways and different places.

And there are plenty of more recent examples of good intentions being overtaken by God's better plans.  [18] A show of hands – who knows the names of these three gentlemen?  The first is David Livingstone.  He tried to go to China, but God sent him to Africa instead. Before him was the chap in the middle, William Carey.  He planned to go to Polynesia in the South Seas, but God guided him to India. On the right is an American gentleman rejoicing in the name of Adoniram Judson Jr.  He was a famous missionary in Burma, but he only went there because the East India Company wouldn't let him work in India.  All three are men who went on to be used in huge and very obvious ways by God for the gospel.  They experienced setbacks and frustrations and changes to their hopes and plans for the gospel, but they were obedient servants where God put them, and they would have been obedient servants if God had put them somewhere else.  That's what I think we need to take to heart from this. [19]

God's plans are better than our good intentions, so be obedient and don't be discouraged by setbacks.

Be obedient: Paul and co didn't need guidance to preach the gospel – that's just Christian duty.  What is our Christian duty?  What should we just be getting on with regardless of location or other circumstances?  What should I be doing all the time without waiting for certain pieces of the jigsaw of my life to fall into place?  I should be working on the personal discipline of reading the bible and praying.  I should be praying for and taking opportunities to share the good news about Jesus.  After all, like the man in Paul's vision said, the gospel is help, and it's the help that lost people are crying out for, regardless of what society says.  I should be exercising the gifts God has given me to serve the local church.  I should be seeking to support others in the church as we grow together to become more like Jesus.  God tells us in the bible to confess our sins.  He tells us to be holy.  He tells us to be wise.  How much of the bible is wisdom literature?  Do what is good and right and it will generally go well with you.  God tells us to love our wives, submit to our husbands, disciple our children, protect the vulnerable, pay our taxes, give cheerfully, pray diligently, sing thankfully, walk humbly, and wait hopefully for Jesus' return.  You can probably think of plenty more.  Those things are always the will of the Spirit.

God's plans are better than our good intentions, so be obedient and don't be discouraged by setbacks.

Don't be discouraged: Paul and co arrived at positive conclusions from negative circumstances, and we can do the same.  When opportunities to talk about Jesus at work are few and far between, when our ideas for new ministry at church or our hopes for our home group don't seem to materialise, or when our jobs or families take us places we don't want to be or keep us places we don't want to stay, we can take heart.  God's plans are better than our good intentions.  God has a proven track record of using apparently negative circumstances to get us to where he wants us to be.  Maybe that's geographically speaking, maybe spiritually speaking, or maybe some other category.  God's plans may be very different to ours, but without any doubt they are best.  That's not to say we'll know for sure some day why everything that's ever happened to us has happened.  It's not at all to say that lack of fruitfulness for the gospel is down to us not finding and following that one path of God's will that many Christians are so anxious about.  We're not promised explanations and we're not promised amazing, successful ministry.  It's then that we need to look to the cross.  What better example could there be of God's plans being for the best despite all indications to the contrary?  The Messiah, betrayed by his own people, executed on a Roman cross, dying under God's curse, but raised to life as the victorious king of all creation who will one day return in glory to claim his people.

God's plans are better than our good intentions, so be obedient and don't be discouraged by setbacks.

2. God's plans are unstoppable

Read 13-15

13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us. [NIV]

So the missionaries stick to their usual strategy of trying to reach the Jews first.  On the Sabbath they searched for a place of prayer.  It seems that Philippi didn't have the ten Jewish men required to form a synagogue, but there was a women's prayer meeting happening, which seems to have been for Jewish and God-fearing Gentile women.  Paul and co sat down and would have been invited to speak.  They told the women about Jesus.  One of the women listening is Lydia, a businesswoman.  Thyatira, which interestingly is back in the province of Asia, was famous for purple dyes.  Purple was the imperial colour of Rome, so purple dye was popular stuff.  Perhaps Lydia was well off.  But we don't know a great deal for sure about her, so I'll spare you the theories.  Luke records that she was a worshipper of God, so it seems she was Jewish in belief and behaviour, if not officially. As she listened to Paul's message, the Lord opened her heart to respond (v14).  God opened her inner eyes to see and to believe in the Jesus Paul proclaimed.

The key for us is that although the message was Paul's and the words were his, the saving work was God's. Paul's preaching was not effective in itself; God worked through it.  And God's work was not direct; he chose to work through Paul's preaching. And that's the way it always is.  Thinking of that invitation service in a couple of weeks, we should be driven to pray for God to work in people's hearts as Dan preaches, as he did in Lydia's heart through Paul.

Lydia believed and trusted in Jesus.  Then she responded in obedience.  She did that by being baptised.  If you're following Jesus and you haven't been baptised, you need to sort that out.  It's a matter of obedience.  Repent and be baptised – that's the gospel call.

So God opened her heart, and he opened her home as well.  And that's the way it always is.  She persuaded the missionaries to stay at her house, which became the base for their stay in Philippi.  Potentially an inconvenience and more than that, potentially pretty dangerous.  The missionaries will be in prison by the end of next week's passage.  Word gets around that Lydia is harbouring trouble-makers, that's not going to do much for her friendships or her business prospects.  But she wasn't to be deterred, v15, she persuaded us.  In the ESV, she prevailed upon us.  She won the debate: they were staying at her house and that was that.  Amazing hospitality, from this brand new baby Christian.  Amazing obedience, right from the moment of accepting Jesus.

So that's Lydia's conversion, and glancing ahead we can see that Luke's account of the gospel's progress in Europe starts with three conversions, three very different people who come to accept the good news about Jesus: tonight, a God-fearing businesswoman, Lydia; next week, a demon-possessed slave girl and in two weeks, at our invitation service, a Roman jailer.

There were many more people who would turn to Christ in Philippi and on into Greece, but for now, we see only tiny, even feeble beginnings.  Who would have given the gospel any hope of making inroads into Europe, with its progressive, pluralistic society and its love of education?  And yet, these tiny beginnings in one tiny corner of Europe led to the evangelisation of the whole continent and then to the commissioning of countless missionaries to the rest of the world.

God's plans are unstoppable, so be obedient and don't be discouraged by humble results.

Be obedient: God doesn't call many people to change whole continents with the gospel.  It's not wrong to dream big dreams and make big plans for gospel work, but let's put first things first.  We need to copy Lydia's response of obedience.  Her obedience led to her being baptised, opening her home in hospitality and making sacrifices to support the cause of the gospel.  First things first: be obedient.

God's plans are unstoppable, so don't be discouraged: These tiny beginnings in one tiny corner of Europe led to the evangelisation of the whole continent and the commissioning of countless missionaries from Europe to the rest of the world.  Globally, the church is growing probably faster than ever.  In Europe, it's pretty hard going.  God may or may not repeat his work to open the hearts of Europeans to the gospel en masse.  We might spend a lifetime in Gateshead and see very little growth in the church.  But that shouldn't discourage us, because we have a God whose plans are better than our good intentions and whose plans are unstoppable.

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