Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 22, 2022
Acts 16:9-15 Commentary
How did the Holy Spirit prevent Paul and company from entering into the regions of Asia, as Acts 16 narrates this for us? Yes, Luke (our narrator) makes clear that the Spirit “prevented” them from going in the direction they were minded to go, but I wonder just how that all worked out. Should we envision heavenly visions and apparitions? As they turned right on the road that led to Asia, did the clouds split even as a light from heaven beamed down upon them accompanied by a thunderous “Not that way!” voice from the skies? Or did a hand-shaped cloud appear to point them in a different direction? You rather suspect that had that been the case, Luke may have mentioned it.
Could it be that as Luke tells this story in retrospect that the machinations of the Holy Spirit were a bit more mundane than we often think? It is certainly possible that the way the Spirit “kept” them or “did not allow” them to go where they had planned was because the ox cart in which they had hitched a ride broke a wheel. Or maybe a key bridge had been washed out in a storm the week before. Possibly what kept them from going where they had planned to go was that someone ate a bad piece of meat and spent a whole day sick in bed. In other words, maybe what kept them from making the trip they wanted was not so different from what keeps us from fulfilling our plans sometimes: freak snowstorms, flat tires, a bad cold, a death in the family, a cloud of volcanic ash over our hoped-for vacation spot.
Sometimes, in retrospect, we come to understand that mundane though the cause was at the time—and annoyed though we may have been at the time, too—it really did (as we say) “turn out for the best.” Every once in a while, we go a bit further than that. We thank God perhaps for having prevented us from going to such-and-such a place because as it turned out, we were needed desperately at home that weekend. Or, had we gone on that trip, we would not have had a chance to say goodbye to dad one last time before he died. Somewhat more rare—but hardly unheard of—are those stories we hear now and again about the person who got stuck in traffic and so missed her flight on a plane that crashed later that very day.
Granted, we have no idea if the Spirit’s way of preventing the apostles from going to where they wanted to go was anything like this. Being apostles, Paul and company maybe did receive much more direct information from the Spirit than maybe the rest of us are accustomed to receiving. But the fact is that the Spirit is incessant in its operations. The Spirit is never still.
It’s not difficult to discern why this reading from Acts 16 is paired in the Year C Lectionary with Jesus’ words about the coming of the Paraclete in John 14. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come as a Paraclete, as the one who comes alongside of us, so as to remind us of everything Jesus had taught and said and to further lead us into all truth. Acts 16 is a living example of this taking place in the lives of the apostles as the Spirit does indeed lead and guide here.
Whatever the truth is as to how the Spirit nixed their plans for going to Asia, where the Spirit did lead them, Macedonia, turned out so wonderfully that this is surely one of those occasions when the apostles discovered very soon and very quickly just why it was they had been prevented from following their original itinerary. Macedonia was ripe for the gospel, starting with Lydia and then going from there. Yes, they may have been able to do some good in Asia, too, and eventually they would. But first Philippi was on the docket, and what fine ministry ensued as a result.
Jesus’ promise in John 14 was not just for disciples and apostles, of course. It extends to all of us who are now living Temples of the Holy Spirit. The Paraclete (and not the “parakeet” as my spellchecker keeps trying to switch it to!) comes alongside of us on a constant basis to coach us, tutor us, lead us and guide us. Like the act of breathing, we’re not even conscious of the Spirit’s presence in our lives most of the time. But the promise remains: God is in control. No, not everything makes sense and there are any number of bad choices we make as well as outright tragedies that take place that may have little or nothing to do with God’s desires for our lives. Nevertheless, we can take comfort in knowing that the Paraclete is here.
Acts 16 narrates a fairly simple story. But for those with eyes to discern it, there is more than a little comfort and hope in this story for all of us.
One of my favorite scenes in The Lord of the Rings films comes in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring. Circumstances have forced the wizard Gandalf, the Hobbit named Frodo Baggins, and the rest of their fellowship to go deep into the mines of Moria in a series of caves and tunnels that will help them cut through the mountains on an underground route. At one point Gandalf notes with Frodo that they are being stealthily followed by the creature Gollum, who had once possessed the Ring of Power that Frodo now carries but that had been taken from Gollum by Frodo’s uncle Bilbo, who could have killed Gollum at the time but who spared him. But Frodo has no love for Gollum and so blurts out to Gandalf, “It’s a pity Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance!”
Gandalf then replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. There are many who live who deserve death but there are many who die who deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too quick to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some role to play in all this yet, for good or evil I cannot say. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fates of many.”
Anyone familiar with the story knows that Gollum does play a decisive role in finally destroying the One Ring of evil. But Gandalf’s point has curious theological implications, not least of which is that the Holy Spirit of God is constantly at work, arranging more things and juggling more events than we could ever possibly conceive of or grasp. Even the very wisest of people cannot possibly begin to understand the myriad ways by which God is incessantly on the move by the Spirit, coordinating a billion things all at once on a constant basis and so somehow leading events along to help arrive at the outcomes God desires.
As Acts 16 tells us, the leading of the Spirit can be mysterious. Sometimes we see sooner rather than later why certain events transpired in our lives the way they did. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes we never understand. But what we can surely believe is that the Spirit is always at work!
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!