Lydia: Wisdom & Courage
A Summer Family Reunion: Lessons From Our Faith Ancestors
Sunday, July 8, 2018
As you have already heard, we had a wonderful time all the way around this past week in Alaska. The work, fellowship and opportunity to be in America’s “Last Frontier” was a truly exceptional experience for all of us. Last Saturday, we took a break from our labors and made the two and half hour drive from North Pole, where we were to working, to Denali National Park. If you have ever been to Denali then you know it is massive. It is the third largest National Park in size at over four million acres. Denali has one road that is 90 miles long and 77 miles of that is gravel. And, that 90 mile journey only gets you to roughly the middle of the park!?!
Of course, the crown jewel of Denali is Mt. McKinley which is the largest peak in North America at over 20,000 feet. Just to get that in perspective, Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina, is 3,563 feet tall. So, McKinley is a almost six times the height of Sassafras.
Unfortunately, our trek to see Mt. McKinley ended in disappointment. While we were all amazed by the beauty of Denali, last Saturday was a rather cloudy day in that section of Alaska and a large bank of clouds had settled squarely over McKinley leaving it impossible to see. But, if there was any consolation for our group, what we learned is that we were not alone. At Denali, they have what they call the 30% Club for on average only 30% of the folks who go there actually come on a day where the sky is clear enough for the mountain to be seen. The vast majority of folks, or 70% of those who go to Denali, leave just like we did. They see a lot of clouds and very little, if any, of the mountain. Mt. Mckinley is there, but, you just can’t see it.
This morning, I want to suggest to us that our faith often feels a lot like a trip to Mt. McKinley. Often times, God’s wants and wishes for our lives are right in front of us. But, like McKinley , we struggle to recognize God and God’s movements in our midst. More times than not, God and God’s ways in our lives feel as if they are hidden behind the clouds. They may be there, but, they are hard to see. Yet, unlike a trip to Denali, perceiving God’s ways in our lives is not simply a matter of waiting for the clouds to part. Instead, what we need is the ability to develop two necessary tools. They are the ability recognize God’s presence and the willingness to act upon what we feel we have heard and experienced. The story of Lydia and the lessons that we learn from Paul’s encounter with her can be very helpful to us in this regard.
The context here is Paul and his missionary companions having felt compelled and led by God to enter into the very edges of the European continent. As they arrived in Philippi, they became the very first people to bring the message of Jesus to this part of the world. Philippi was very much a Roman Colony. A significant military victory for the Roman Empire had happened in Philippi and there was now a nice sized population of Roman citizens there with the city also being a valuable spot for commerce and trade. Having said that, what we also learn right away is that while Philippi was a significant Roman Colony, it was not home to a particularly large Jewish population. Jewish law at the time required that at least 10 Jewish men must live in a community for there to be a synagogue. Evidently, Philippi could not muster enough men to meet this requirement and we learn that Paul found there instead a small group of faithful women who met by the riverbank for prayer. Based on what we learn about them, these ladies were apparently Gentile converts to Judaism. And, their gathering fit what was acceptable according to Jewish law if enough men were not available to constitute of Synagogue. In such a case, a smaller number of Jewish believers could gather regularly in a public place for a more informal worship experience. This is exactly what these ladies were doing when Paul and his companions arrived.
This meeting, between Paul, his colleagues and Lydia and the other ladies had to have been challenging for all of them. First, it had to have been uncomfortable for Paul and his companions for this is not what they had expected to find. If you know the book of Acts very well, then you know that just before this passage, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man begging them to come and share the gospel. It is this vision of the Macedonian man that compels Paul and his friends to set foot on European soil in the the first place. But, when they arrive in the town of Philippi, they don’t encounter a man or a group of men – they encounter ladies. And, they don’t meet a large crowd of folks eager to hear the gospel. They meet a few ladies. Such a small group in fact, that there were not even enough Jewish believers around to form a synagogue. Needless to say, this unexpected situation required a degree of faith as it was so outside the bounds of what Paul’s group had anticipated. Yet, they fight whatever disappointment they felt and share the faith with these ladies.
Second, it was an uncomfortable situation for Lydia and her friends too. These Gentile converts to Judaism had never heard of Jesus nor had anyone ever identified him to them as the long promised Messiah. Yet, out of the blue, strangers arrive, tell them about Jesus and invite these ladies to believe both them and in Him as the promised Messiah. Again, it had to have been a challenging moment. Again, it required faith.
As I said earlier, this beautiful passage offers us some helpful tools in our own quest to live in obedience to God particularly in those moments when God can feel hard to grasp, hidden or easily lost in the clouds. The first tool in the quest for obedience is the tool of living by faith and it is on full display here from both Paul and Lydia’s perspectives.
Paul exhibits faith when he faithfully obeys God despite being in a situation that was far different than he and his friends had expected. They were looking for men, not ladies. They expecting a big crowd of eager listeners not a few folks by a riverbank. Yet, they sense God’s movement and by faith they shares with Lydia and her friends anyway. Lydia and the other ladies exhibit faith too when they faithfully obey by accepting Paul, a stranger, by listening to him and believing despite the questions that must have existed and lingered in the moment. There must have been something about what Paul said and how he said it that allowed they to sense God’s presence and believe.
I don’t think it was particularly easy for any of them to clearly see God or to concretely and obviously understand what God wanted them to do. But, they all followed their hearts, took a leap and reached out and grasped God’s leadership in the midst of the clouds, fog and difficulty of the moment.
We follow best and we live obediently, when we follow in the midst of the clouds too. We must be willing to live a life that trusts God is in the moment, in the decision or there even when we can’t know for certain. Living by faith is critical and paramount to our ability to live a life of obedience. More days than not, it may feel like God is behind a cloud rather than obviously and without question in the open. Obedience really is so often a matter of faith not certainty or fact.
There is another tool for the life of obedience on display in this story too. This second tool has Lydia front and center for she illustrates it beautifully. Lydia, not only demonstrates a life lived by faith, she also demonstrates a life lived by courage.
This summer we are reading the book The Tech-Wise Family and discussing it on Wednesday mornings. As you have heard us say, its focus is on helping us to think through how our faith should guide us as we seek to interact with technology in appropriate ways. In the book, Andy Crouch, who is the author, talks about being people of courage. Crouch defines courage in this way. Courage is not just the ability to believe the right things, courage is the ability to do the right things or to act on what we have come to believe. Thus, courage becomes the real linchpin in what we do with our beliefs. (Crouch, pg. 56)
I have really appreciated this valuable definition from Crouch and have been reminded of it numerous times already throughout the summer as I have thought about technology. For instance, I may know that it is not good for me to waste two hours at night with my iPad surfing the internet rather than interacting with family or being more productive. I can believe with all of my heart that there are better ways to spend my time. But, until I have the courage to truly change my behavior and use my time more productively I have not acted in obedience on what I have come to believe. This is where we so often live – with beliefs but without courage to act.
Lydia has faith and believes Paul when he invites her and the other women at the riverbank to believe that Jesus was the messiah. But, she also demonstrates the second tool of courageously acting on her new belief. As a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, which was a valuable commodity at the time, Lydia uses her resources to support Paul and his ministry. She also opens up her home so that the first church on European soil can meet there. Lydia takes a leap of faith and believes despite the clouds and then she courageously acts on that belief. She is a person with wisdom to believe and with courage to act – the end result is a life of obedience.
Once we have the faith to believe, do we have the courage to act on those beliefs? It is only when these two tools – wise belief and courageous action – are used in tandem with each other that we too, like Lydia, will become people of obedience. Today where is our struggle? Can we believe, by faith, in the midst of the clouds of doubt? And, do we have the courage to act on what we have come to believe? Which tool needs developing in our lives for us to truly be people of obedience? Amen.