Big Church Week Four: "Lydia's Story"

This week we are continuing the sermon series, "Big Church," a study in the book of Acts that is based on the following premise:  Jesus didn't create a mission for the Church, he created a Church for His Mission."  In other words, the Church is a movement and not an institution.

The passage of Scripture that we are plunging into this Sunday is from Acts chapter 16:9-15---the story of the conversion of Lydia.

Here's the text:

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 we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 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 from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, 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.
Some explanation is in order to sort of set up what is happening here, and why Paul begins the passage by having a strange vision of a man of Macedonia begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."

[Which is just creepy to me...  Like one of those movies where a ghost shows up to try to help some freaked out person solve a murder, and then the person almost gets killed by the murderer until the ghost shows up and does something awful to the murderer, thereby exacting his/her revenge... but I digress]

Paul is actually on his way with a team of people to fulfill a very well-planned and well-thought out mission to the churches in Asia that Paul planted some years before.  But every single path that Paul and his team try to take to get there is thwarted.  They come to understand that it is the Spirit of Jesus (Holy Spirit) keeping them from getting to where they want to go, but they don't seem to know what to do with that information.

Then Paul has the aforementioned creepy vision, and the next thing you know he and his fellow missionaries are on their way to Macedonia.   Their new path reads like a travelogue.

"First we went to Troas..." Alexandria Troas was an important city and seaport for anyone travelling in the northwest part of the Asian Roman Provinces near/in Turkey.  It was also 10 miles south of the ancient city of Troy.

"Then we went to Samothrace..."  this was a mountainous navigational marker on an island that contained the nearly 6000 foot high Mt. Fergani where they would have docked for provisions and rest.

After arriving at Neapolis they would have then traveled on the Via Egnatia a Roman road that would have taken them nine miles inland  to the city of Philippi.

They arrive in Philippi, a city that was basically built and settled by retired arm veterans.  Once a soldier reached the twenty year mark in military service, they were able to retire with something of a pension.  It was sort of like the "Oh My Gosh, We Can't Believe You Survived!" award.  Smart politicians made sure to give these former soliders lands where they could settle---lands they were almost assured would remain in loyal hands for generations.

Because Philippi was populated by former Roman soldiers it was about as Roman a city as you could get outside of Rome itself.

So why in the world would this have mattered---all of this information about the places where they were traveling to, and quite easily, I might add?  I think it's because the earlier part of their trip was thwarted and interrupted and nothing worked as it was supposed to---but then all of a sudden it's like they made every flight, caught every bus, and were on time for each ferry...  if you know what I mean.

I read this awesome quote the other day when I was studying for this sermon:
"Specific guidance comes to those already on the road..."

Remember what we said about Paul and his plan.  He had one.  And it was good.  He was going to visit growing churches, do some teaching, encouraging, discipling, you name it.  He was returning to churches he had founded to do ministry and help them expand their mission.  It was an ambitious plan, and a good one.

Instead Paul finds himself in a city full of serious Romans.  With no synagogue, (which meant that there weren't even ten Jewish men in the entire city) and no one to minister to except a bunch of women who had gathered for prayer on the riverside outside of town.

This was a mission that was going nowhere---or worse yet, heading down for the count.

Then Lydia comes to Christ and the whole story changes.

Who was Lydia anyway?

Her name is an ethnicon, which is derived from her place of origin.  In other words, it means "of Lydia," which was a region near the coast where there was a city named Thyatira.  In fact, Lydia is often known in Early Church history as "Lydia of Thyatira."

This region was known for it's dye industry, particularly purple dye, which was literally worth it's weight in silver.  The process for making purple dye required thousands of shellfish to produce it, so the amount of labor and skill that it took to make it drove the price up.  Purple was in huge demand from Roman elites who wanted to show off how rich they were.  It was a kingly color, and only Caesar was allowed to have a toga made entirely of purple.

Lydia was probably a free woman and most likely a widow.  It's almost certain that she was single, because no husband is mentioned at all in the passage, and would almost certainly have been if there was one.  She is thought to have been an agent of purple dye for a larger guild---sort of a franchise owner, so to speak.

Lydia was almost assuredly a Gentile, even though she was highly interested and sympathetic to Jewish religious practices.  She's found by Paul and his team down the riverside at prayer, presumably with Jewish women, and perhaps a very few men.  It's clear that God was working on her heart, though.

She was a wealthy woman, which we can assume by the reference to "her household," which indicates that she had her own house, servants, extended family, employees, etc.  This flies in the face of what many people assume about the early Christians---that they were poor, uneducated, lower classes, etc.

In fact, a pagan author named Celus ridicules the early Christian movement by saying that it appealed to "the foolish... slaves, women and little children..." who gathered at "the wooldresser's shop or to the cobblers or the washerwoman's shop that they may learn perfection."   While Lydia was most certainly a woman, she was no shrinking violet who frequented wooldresser's shops.

What happens to Lydia is the story of so many people who "discover" God in a moment that is unexpected---to them, but not to God.  Lydia experienced what is known as her "effectual calling," which is a summons from the Creator of the Universe that comes with such power that it brings about a dramatic response from the person to whom it is intended...

To say that another way... In those moments, God gets what God wants, and what God wants is recognition and redemption.  Or like this... "there on the riverside, Lydia found the God who was finding her..."

You see, Lydia is a living example of a theological conviction---one that has been at the very heart of the Movement called the Church:  God's saving grace dismantles the various social barriers that cultivate strife.  And in the doing creates abundant space for grace that results in people being drawn to Jesus.

Lydia's conversion sparks a movement in Philippi.  In a multi-individual house like hers, household conversions would snowball into "people movements."  Her obvious gift of hospitality was one that would have been used well to spread the Good News that the One she had been seeking her whole life had found her praying on the riverside, and sent some strange little rabbi all the way from Jerusalem to tell her just that.

Here's what we can learn from this passage of Scripture:

The Movement of the Church Moves When People Listen To The Spirit...  

The ancient church father John Chrysotom wrote about this story, "To open is the part of God, and to pay attention that of the woman."

But this didn't start with Lydia, did it?  It happend when Paul's plans got trashed, which is where I really want to go with this whole thing.

You see, This was the intersection between human obedience and divine initiative... all made possible because Paul listened to the Spirit.  

Paul had no idea what was going on.  His plans were turned to rubbish and everything he tried to make them work ended up getting thwarted.  What he did finally realize, however, was that God was in the midst of his failures, the obstacles, the stops and starts.  And he kept walking, kept feeling his way through the thing...

And he kept faithful.  Think about it.  Because he was seeking the place of prayer---which was by a riverside so that the Jews who were praying could perform their ritual cleansing---Paul found Lydia.  And because Paul found Lydia, a whole bunch of stuff happened that changed the world.

Have you ever experienced failure?  Have you felt the loss of your plans?  Took the wrong road and regretted it?  Maybe you sat around in the dust of your plans and ideas and wondered why you were brought to a low place like that.

Let me tell you about some people you might know...

Walt Disney was once fired from an animating job because he lacked imagination and had no good ideas...

Colonel Sanders, the guy who invented Kentucky Fried Chicken had his chicken recipe rejected 1,000 times.

Woolworth, the guy who founded "Woolworth's" department store was not allowed to wait on customers because he lacked the sense to do so.

Albert Einstein was thought to be mentally handicapped.

Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade and was defeated in every election he entered into until he became the Prime Minister at age 62.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her television job because she was considered unfit for TV

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

Elvis was fired from the Grand Old Oprey and was told "you ain't going no where son, you might as well go back to driving a truck."

Every single one of these people then went to on to rewrite their story---because all of those moments of failure moved them to a place where they needed to be in order to do something spectacular.

Listen, this isn't a cheap sort of motivational speech that I am giving you here.  I just know that these simple illustrations help us to understand that whatever we see as failure, God can turn into something incredible.

Maybe sometimes God wants us to move where grace is the most needed.  Maybe the reason you find yourself in the situation that you are in has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with someone else...

Lydia was read to listen to God, and God found her.

And Paul got to be there when God did.

When Paul was awaiting trial and eventually his execution in Rome, he wrote to the church at Philippi, a church that no doubt was made possible because of Lydia and her faithful witness.

And he said this:

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (1:3-8)

15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (4:15-20)

No other letter written by the Apostle Paul contains the kind of emotional, personal tone that is found here in the letter to the Philippians.  This church was special to him.  They blessed him.  They supported him when no other church that he planted did so.  And when he was in chains in Rome, ready to die for his faith at last, they sent him gifts and their love.

And though she isn't mentioned, we might imagine that Lydia's was among the loving hands who packed those gifts, ministering to Paul and causing him to say, "I have you in my heart."

The movement moves when people listen to the Spirit.

Maybe in the middle of your brokenness and your failed plans there is a Lydia waiting for you to share the Good News that Jesus redeems brokenness and that his plans are perfect.

They are waiting for you.  Get moving.  God will show you the way.

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