[Note: The below is the prepared text of a sermonette given to the Portland UCG congregation on October 24, 2020.]
We have just returned from a Feast of Tabernacles that is different from any one in recent memory. Most of us, myself definitely included, are used to the freedom of going where we want to go and seeing what and who we want to see, and that was not the case this year. Quite a few of us who attended the feast may have gone to our second or third choice of places, or may have gone to a place where we expected to keep the feast one way and found ourselves keeping the feast another way, around fewer people, with less in the way of outings and excursions than we had expected and planned. Those of us who traveled found ourselves dealing with restrictions that were far more serious than any we had seen, and found ourselves viewed with far more ambivalence than normal as both sources of tourist income as well as potential harbingers of plague and disease. I suspect that a great many of us have reflected upon our travels to the Feast and how we found the Feast to be different this year than we may have ever remembered keeping it before. And as we have returned from the feast, I think it is worthwhile that we reflect upon our experiences about where God has placed His name and where we have been permitted to go by reflecting upon the Bible and, in particular, the experiences of Paul in Acts 16.
In many ways, the experiences of Paul as a traveling missionary preaching God’s ways and the experiences of those of us who are adventurous travelers are not so different despite the fact that we can travel a lot faster by plane than Paul traveled by foot and by boat in his time. That said, Paul in Acts 16 found that his usual freedom to travel from one area to another had been stopped, just as we have found our own ability to freedom limited as of late. Let us note what is said in Acts 16:6-8: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.”
It is easy to overlook a passage like this. Unless we are familiar with the divisions of the Roman Empire or the geography of modern Turkey, the reference of place names is something we pass over while reading without paying a great deal of attention to them. Let us note, though, that while Paul had gone from Galatia in what is labeled as his second missionary journey, Paul expected a certain degree of freedom in his travels. And yet, while Paul himself had planned to travel to the province of Asia, a large and prosperous province of the Roman Empire with familiar cities like Ephesus and Pergamum where political and economic power in the region were centered, and where there were many hundreds of thousands of people who could have heard his message–a message that he later did deliver over the course of a few years–God had other plans. We do not know how Paul was prevented from traveling to Asia, perhaps he was turned away by a lengthy quarantine or perhaps he was simply denied entry when trying to go there, or some other way that God makes it clear that one is not going to go somewhere, but it was clear to Paul that it was not God’s will at that time that he was to preach in the province of Asia. And the same was the case when he tried to go to Bithynia, a province that contained many cities that are still familiar to us today, like Byzantium (later Constantinople and modern Istanbul) and Nicaea and Chalcedon, famous for their church councils during late antiquity, where Paul similarly could have found appreciative audiences, but where the Spirit somehow prevented Paul from visiting, leaving him only the option of going to the small province of Mysia to the port of Troas, ancient Troy.
It is at this point that we should reflect upon the will of God. Throughout most of our lives, God has a permissive will that allows us considerable freedom about how we will live our lives. Where we live, what jobs we have, if and whom we will marry, where we will travel, what books we will read and what music we will listen to and who we will spend our time with are all matters that God usually allows us to decide as we choose, within the guidelines and boundaries established by God’s laws as well as various principles of wisdom and prudence. However, when God has a specific will in mind for someone or for a group of people, that will is demonstrated by the removal of options for us to choose among until it is plainly communicated to us what God specifically wills of us. In Acts 16, the paring down of where Paul was permitted to preach the Gospel allowed him to see, and for Luke to convey to us, what God’s specific will was for Paul in the preaching of God’s word. Paul knew that he was commanded to preach the Gospel, but it had been made obvious to him that he was not going to be allowed to preach it in the populous provinces of Asia and Bithynia. So where was he to preach?
Continuing in Acts 16:9-10, we read: “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 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.” This is precisely what we would expect of Paul. Having desired to preach the Gospel and having been thwarted twice in preaching it in other areas of Anatolia, as soon as he knew where God wanted him to go, he was willing to instantly go and preach and he and his party got ready to make the preparations to cross over from Asia into Europe and preach in the area of Macedonia. Luke mentions the alacrity in which Paul and his party traveled once they knew the will of God so that they would be able to effectively preach the Gospel in the area pointed out in the vision given to Paul, in Acts 16:11-12: “From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.” If we know something about the geography of the region, we can note from a map that from the ancient port of Troas, Paul and his party crossed over the Aegean Sea, taking one day to get to the island of Samothrace in the Aegean, another day to get to Neapolis, a port on the Aegean, and then a day’s travel to the inland city of Philipi, a Roman colony that was the capital of one of the four districts of Macedonia, and thus an important city that would later receive the book of Philippians from Paul. Having recognized the will of God, Paul wasted no time in acting according to that will once it was known, preaching the Gospel and establishing congregations that remain famous to us to this day, such as the Bereans and the Corinthians.
In looking at these few verses in Acts 16, we have examined a situation not unlike our own today. Over the past few months we have found our travel options and certain means and locations of assembling together as congregations to be hindered by rules and regulations. We are limited in how many of us can assemble and under what conditions we can assemble, like wearing face masks or face shields. We are limited in where we can travel, and under what terms we can be permitted to enter a different state or a different country. Rather than act resentful about this limitation of our freedom of movement, let us ponder in light of the scriptures we have read what it means when God limits our options. To the extent that we are not free to do what we wish and go where we wish, it remains for us to reflect and meditate and ponder on what it is that God wishes for us to do and where it is that He wishes for us to be given that our options are not as limitless as they usually have been in recent decades for God’s people in this society. As was the case with Paul, where God removes permission for us to choose among a wide variety of options, God is making it clear that He has a more specific wish for us to go and do something in particular. Let us therefore pray and seek God’s wisdom in knowing what exactly God wishes for us to do in these times and where exactly God wishes for us to be, and let us hope and pray that we are eager to follow the will of God once it becomes known to us as Paul and his associates were once God made His will plain to them.