When What You Signed Up for… / Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15

And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them.

I want to ask a question this morning: how do you respond when God, or life itself, changes your plans? This question is relevant for everyone in the congregation because at some point in your life, God or life, if you will, will suddenly and unexpectedly change your plans for your day, maybe even for your life.

There is an old “Peanuts” cartoon strip that I think we all can relate to. In the first panel Charlie Brown says, I learned something in school today, I signed up for folk guitar, computer program­ming, stained glass art, shoemaking and a natural foods work­shop. In the second panel he says, Instead I got spelling, his­tory, arithmetic, and two study periods. In the third panel Charlie’s friend asks, so, what did you learn? Charlie says, I learned that what you sign up for and what you get are two different things.

Welcome to life, Charlie Brown! What you sign up for and what you get are often two different things. So how do we respond to unexpected disappointments? To a sudden change in our plans? How we respond will, in large part, depend on our trust in God and our commitment to place our lives in God’s hands, to let God use us for His work.

What about when God changes your plans for the rest of your life? If you’ve ever questioned God’s will for your life, if you’ve ever thought that your life just took an unexpected detour, then you can appreciate this story from Acts 16. Paul and Silas and Timothy discovered that sometimes God’s will looks like an unexpected detour or a closed door. The Holy Spirit often guides as much by the closing of doors as He does by the opening of doors. And how we respond to these unexpected moments, those closed or opened doors, says a lot about our belief in God, and it says a lot about how God can use us to accomplish His will.

When we face a difficult situation or a closed door, don’t ask God, why? It doesn’t do any good to ask why. Instead, ask, what are You trying to teach me through this, Lord? Certain things we must trust to faith. We must leave them in God’s hands and trust God’s goodness.

God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. If you’re waiting around for God to answer that question, why? you can end up bitter and find yourself withdrawing from God. But if you change the question to what are you trying to teach me through this, Lord? You’re open to God’s will and to God working in and through you. So, this is the question we need to learn to ask, what are you trying to teach me through this, Lord? Because knowing that God is still working in every circumstance, no matter how strange or painful it may seem at the moment.

A man had a  lifelong dream to be a police officer. When he graduated from college, he joined the Kalamazoo, Michigan Police Department. He loved everything about being a police officer. The job was a perfect fit for his personality, passions and skill set. He was promoted quickly through the ranks.

Fourteen years passed in which he thrived on the police force. Then one day while he was studying his Bible, he heard God tell him, I want you to leave police work and go into the ministry. If God spoke to you today and told you to give up the life you love and start over in a new career, how would you respond?

He struggled to understand and obey God’s leading. But a few weeks later, he finally prayed and turned every part of his life over to God. He even asked God to take away his love of police work.

Over the next few months, he met with friends, a counselor, a college registrar, as well as his extended family. They all provided guidance and support for Roger’s new calling. None of this was easy or quick. He, his wife, and their children moved to a distant city so he could attend seminary.

Since graduating, he has served in four different churches in different states. And he testifies that God replaced his love of police work with a deep love for the ministry. He found great joy in his new work. He later retired after 22 years of service as a pastor, assured of the fact that God had called him and equipped him for this new life. This man trusted God’s plans, and God gave him a new purpose and a new way to impact lives that will live on after him.

And that brings me to the central question of this scripture lesson today: Do you expect God to do something important with your life? Do you believe God has a purpose for you? Most Christians suffer from a “poverty of expectation.” Think about that phrase for a moment: “a poverty of expectation.”

We don’t expect God to do anything important in and through our lives. We think that God uses other people, smarter people, holier people, more talented people, to do His work. But not us. God isn’t going to work in and through us to change lives and bring people to salvation in Jesus Christ. Our chronic weakness is not that we expect too much from God, but that we trust Him for too little.

Paul and his companions didn’t suffer from a poverty of expectation. They trusted that God would act through them wherever they were. So, when Paul dreamed of a man from Macedonia begging for help, he and his companions headed straight in that direction. They ended up in the city of Philippi. And they set out to find a group of Jewish men to share Jesus’ message with. And once again, God changed their plans. Paul and his men, instead, came across a small group of women gathered by a river, praying. Was this really God’s big mission opportunity for them? After all women ranked low in power and standing in the society of that day. However, that’s no problem for God as we have often seen. God works through all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances.

There’s a small church in Costa Mesa, California, located very near a local beach. A number of young people began attending the church, some of whom hadn’t attended church before. One thing stood out. They most certainly didn’t know anything about dressing in your “Sunday best.” In fact, many of them came directly from the beach to the church on Sunday morning; some even walked in without shirts or shoes. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the beach had oil deposits in the sand, and oil clung to their bare feet. A few long-time members of the church got upset when these young people tracked oil on the church’s brand-new carpet.

One Sunday, the pastor got to church and found a sign on the door that said, “Shirts and shoes please.” And he realized that some young people would feel excluded from the church because of that sign, and they might never come back.

Think about that for a moment. What barriers do we place between God and the people around us? What limits do we place on God’s work? Paul and his companions were committed to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ—to Jewish men. Did God really divert them from their grand missionary journey so that they could preach to a group of women? At least one of the women, a woman named Lydia, was even a Gentile. Was this unexpected, and maybe uncomfortable, situation really an opportunity from God? Evidently, Paul and Silas and Timothy thought so. They sat down and began to speak to the women. And the Lord opened the heart of Lydia; she and her entire household were baptized that day. But that’s not the end of the story.

But let’s get back to the pastor and his church’s oily carpets for a moment. He called a meeting of the church leaders that day. And those leaders caught a vision of what God could do in and through them if they threw away their barriers and limitations and welcomed these young people without reservation to their church. They decided that if they had to tear out the pews and rip up the carpets to make those young people feel welcome, they would do it.

And God brought revival on that little church. They attracted more and more young people, and their congregation grew in vitality and spiritual maturity. All because they committed to removing any barriers that might keep people from hearing and receiving the word of God.

And that brings me to the final question for this morning, will you follow God’s calling whether you understand it or not? Remember that you’re God’s partner in the healing and salvation of the world. You’re God’s partner in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is 2 Corinthians 5:19-20, God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. Now listen carefully: We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

You see, God can’t do much with a life that isn’t committed to Him. God can’t do much with believers who don’t see every moment of their lives as an opportunity to do the work of Jesus in all circumstances. There’s a thought-provoking quote you may have seen circulating on social media. It says, those who put everything in God’s hands eventually see God’s hand in everything.

That’s what Paul and his companions did, they put everything in God’s hands and they saw God’s hand in everything. So, let’s finish our scripture lesson for today. Lydia and her entire household were baptized that day, and they invited the men to stay at her house. Lydia started a small Christian church in her home, the first Christian church in the Western world. And it was from this small outpost in Philippi that the message of Jesus spread throughout Europe, and eventually to the U.S., and, eventually, to us today. It’s amazing what God can do with just a few committed men and women.

God does His greatest work through ordinary people like you and me. If we really believe that we will live in constant hope and expectation and joy. God places His greatest opportunities right in front of us, in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives. Do you expect God to act through you?