A few weeks ago we hosted a small gathering here to welcome a young woman, who has spent the past year as a missionary in India. She told us a bit about what it is like living in a culture so very different from our own. It is a primarily Hindu culture where belief in multiple gods is normative. The people embrace cultural and religious practices that are strongly inter-connected and deeply personal. It is a challenge to bring the message of Jesus into this setting. One of the points our young missionary makes is that it is important to help the people discover Jesus and learn to worship Him as God without completely rejecting their native culture. This does not change the message, but it enables a new believer to share the gospel with friends and relatives within their culture. If they were to reject their culture, they would be rejected and lose their own evangelistic opportunities. As I listened to this presentation, I thought of some of the missionary history that haunts Christianity. Early missionaries to native peoples all over the world attempted to usurp native cultures and often failed to deliver the message of Jesus. This morning we hear a story about Paul on a missionary journey. He meets people where they are and develops relationships with them. From within these relationships, Jesus begins to do the work of changing hearts and minds.
Let us pray…
Lord, we come to your word this morning and pray that you will lead our conversation and help us to discern the message you have for us today. Amen.
Our story this morning begins with a vision, a vision from God. “Vision” is a complicated word. It describes our ability to see the world through our eyes; in itself this is fraught with nuance as we recognize the many conditions that affect this ability. “Vision,” as in today’s story, also describes often vivid experiences that people recount from their dreams or a trance-like state. Then there is the corporate understanding of “vision” that describes the goals of an organization in the short and long term. When we talk about “God’s vision” for the church today, we typically mean “strategic plan.” This is a process the United Methodist Church in Oklahoma went through a few years ago – We developed strategic plans to accomplish God’s vision for the church. Maybe we’re comfortable with this understanding of God’s vision because it seems manageable. We can discern this vision in logical steps:
- Thank God for working in our congregation;
- Discern God’s vision by calling in a consultant, or holding a leadership retreat, or brainstorming ideas.
There’s a formula for seeing God’s vision; it is predictable and controllable. However well-intentioned our scripting of God’s vision may seem, it is a very different thing from receiving from God a vision.
Throughout the Bible, visions from God are not exceptional – they are NORMAL. From Adam and Eve through the Revelation to John, God is engaged with humanity. God comes in visions, dreams, and a variety of messengers to grab our attention and transform our lives. Transformation is often painful, particularly when we already know the direction we want to go. Our logical visioning process can cloud the visions God sends our way. When God does visit us, we are undeniably changed; clearly, Paul’s life is an example of how that works. Remember the story in Acts 9 where Paul, on the road to Damascus, is blinded and then he sees a vision of Jesus. His vision is first taken from him and then it is replaced by a vision from God. This vision changes the direction of his life from sinner to saint; from persecutor to evangelist. While Paul is prompted to action because of his vision, it is clear that the course of action was not part of his original strategic plan. The vision Paul receives in today’s story again prompts him to take action, but it is not the course that Paul had in mind. The result, however, is that Paul brings the gospel to Europe for the first time and he develops relationships with people he will remember in future letters that are now part of our canon.
Paul’s work and the work of the whole church in sharing the gospel is about the adventure of allowing God’s vision to lead us into relationships with people God wants us to encounter. Once Paul arrives in Philippi, he visits with devout Jews and begins to share the gospel with them; this is how Paul works in every new place he visits. It is similar to the story our missionary told us a few weeks ago. She begins by developing relationships with the people God puts in her path and, over time, she is able to share the gospel by “offering Christ” to the people. In our story, Paul builds a relationship with Lydia and God works through that relationship to give Lydia a vision; it is a vision that Lydia then shares with her entire household and they too come to know Christ. It is this pattern of “offering Christ” through relationship that enables the Good News of Christ to spread around the world. To offer Christ is to bear faithful witness to God’s love for the whole of humanity in Jesus Christ. We share our faith with others so they may know the way that leads to life. Yet we offer Christ not only by proclaiming or sharing God’s word but also through “works of mercy” or the good works we do in the world. John Wesley believed that we could offer Christ by visiting prisoners, helping the poor, educating children, and providing medical care to those who cannot afford it. When we offer Christ through our words and our actions, we become a means of grace through which someone may receive the gift of faith. When we offer Christ through our words and our actions, we serve as instruments of God’s grace and offer the possibility of salvation; the fullness of life. (Wesleyan Study Bible, Page 1347)
Visions from God are surprising things. They truly transform us and alter our course, whether we want them to or not. Transformative visions surprise and maybe even frighten us. In 1990, the Gallup organization asked a group of Presbyterians whether they had ever had a vision from God. Surprisingly, half of the people and more than half of the clergy said the same thing – “Yes” they had experienced a vision from God. The statistic is surprising because, in practice, we don’t like to talk about such things. If we were to talk about openly about God’s involvement in our lives, we would realize that we can’t control the plan. God’s visions are different from our strategic plans; they are not predictable or controllable. On the other hand, if we did share our visions from God, we might find ourselves with open hearts that readily receive the gospel that forever changes us. We might be inclined to set out on a God-inspired adventure. We could be tempted to develop important relationships with people who desperately need to hear a word of hope from the Lord. We might reach new levels of hospitality aimed at foreigners or those just freed from prison. It is possible that these relationships might cause the gospel to spread beyond us and into the hearts of people we might never meet. Our relationships might grow and cause other relationships to begin and whole families of people might come to know who Jesus is.
Visions from God may have been commonplace in the Bible, but I wonder if we are as certain of them today as we should be. God uses visions, dreams, and a variety of messengers even now to grab our attention and transform our lives. Visions may take many forms and some may be more obvious than others. It is important that we are ready and willing to recognize a vision from God when it comes to us; we must not skeptically throw it away. Openness to God’s engagement with our lives is why listening is so much more important than talking when we spend time in prayer. It is these quiet moments when God has a chance to speak to us; it is these moments that prime us for opportunities to perceive God’s vision. Our relationship with God is an exciting adventure that is often unpredictable and beyond our control. Embrace the adventure and share the relationship with the people God leads you to. Look for the vision and let it be your guide. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.