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The Man Who Wasn't There

Sermons on the First Readings
Series III, Cycle C
I've never had a vision -- at least not of the sort that Paul had. I don't know personally, therefore, what you feel the next morning. But it's clear from the story that whatever Paul felt, he felt it so strongly that he and his companions changed their itinerary immediately in response to that vision.

Perhaps this sort of turn-on-a-dime operation is acceptable for a missionary. It's a little hard to imagine in other lines of work, however. Does the salesman staying in Phoenix tell his boss that he decided to change plans and hop on a plane to San Diego instead because he had a vision of a San Diegan in the middle of the night? Of course not. Yet Paul and company instantly pulled up their stakes in Asia Minor, hopped on a boat, and sailed across the Aegean to Macedonia.

It was a major move. Asia Minor was Paul's home turf. He was originally from Tarsus, and virtually all of his missionary work to-date had been in that larger region, which we know today as Turkey. To make the move to Macedonia, therefore, was to travel into a more foreign territory.

Furthermore, it was a major move culturally and historically. Now Paul -- and with him the gospel -- would enter Europe. In the process, they would both move a step closer to Rome.

The voyage across the Aegean takes only a moment to read in the text, but it required at least two days to make. Imagine the excitement and anticipation of the missionaries during those days and nights on board ship. And imagine, too, the apprehension and uncertainty as they approached unfamiliar territory and unknown challenges.

With each hour of their voyage, the coastline of Asia Minor grew smaller and smaller behind them, until it was no longer visible on the horizon. With each hour of their voyage, they were further and further away from what was familiar, and they moved nearer and nearer to the unknown. Indeed, all that they knew for certain going into Macedonia was the man Paul had seen in his vision.

Just how clear was Paul's vision? How vividly had he seen that Macedonian man? Had Paul seen his face? Did he remember his look, his features, and perhaps even the sound of his voice?

I wonder, as Paul disembarked the boat there in Neapolis, if he found himself looking for that face and listening for that voice. It would have been a natural thing to do. Even if Paul was under no delusion whatsoever about his vision being of an actual person, how could one help but look for that one familiar face in the sea of unfamiliar faces? We couldn't blame Paul for craning his neck and scanning the crowd to find that one particular man: the Macedonian he had seen a few nights before.

Paul and his companions traveled inland from that port city of Neapolis, and they arrived shortly at the important city of Philippi. Upon arrival there, they sought out the local synagogue.

While Paul clearly had come to understand his mission as being especially to the Gentiles, as a matter of policy and procedure he always began with the Jews. He was one of them. He shared with them a common heritage, faith in the same God, and confidence in the same scriptures. When he would arrive in a new town, he would find the local synagogue, and begin by sharing the gospel with the folks gathered there.

When they got to Philippi, however, Paul and his companions discovered that there was no synagogue in that town.

In the tradition of a quorum, a minimal number of Jewish men was required in a place in order to form a synagogue. Evidently, however, the city of Philippi did not feature even that negligible Jewish population.

That must have been a discouraging discovery for Paul. If Macedonia already seemed foreign, now it seemed more so. The natural point of contact -- the customary starting place -- wasn't available. If Paul was looking for the familiar face from his vision, it surely seemed more distant and elusive now. The apostle had been beckoned over to Macedonia to help, but where were the people who wanted his help?

In the absence of a formal synagogue, there was a Plan B. Where there was insufficient population to establish and maintain a synagogue, local Jews and God-fearers would designate a "place of prayer." It had no street address or structure. It was just the site where a handful of devout folks habitually gathered. In many instances, such a place was by the local body of water. In Philippi's case, that was the river Gangites. And that is just where Paul found a group of women gathered for worship when the sabbath day came.

A group of women. Not only was there an insufficient number of Jewish men in Philippi to form a synagogue, it seems there were no Jewish men there at all. If Paul's instinct was to look for the familiar face of the Macedonian man in his vision, he would not see it here in this makeshift congregation.

Perhaps you have been in gatherings where someone has asked, "Where is everybody?" In most instances, it's a poorly phrased question, for clearly not everybody is missing. Some body or two is there. Indeed, I have been in a few settings where a fairly substantial number of people have been gathered, yet still heard someone ask, "Where is everybody?" Thus the question reveals that the questioner's real concern is not with everybody but with some select bodies who happen to be missing.

I saw this most plainly in my years of working with youth groups. You could have a group of twenty teens, but if certain older teens who were popular and important leaders in the group happened to be absent, others would ask, "Where is everybody?" Conversely, if those key youth were there, the group could be smaller, yet no one would ask where "everybody" was.

I wonder if Paul and his companions looked at one another that sabbath morning and asked, "Where is everybody?" Not because no one was there at that riverside place of prayer, but because the people they naturally looked for were not there.

Still, like a good golfer, the apostle Paul always shows his willingness and ability to play it where it lies. He did not find a synagogue. He did not find the Macedonian man from his vision. Indeed, he found no men that sabbath day at all. But he found a small gathering of earnest women, and he sat down and spoke with them there.

We have all known churches and movements along the way that survived only because of the dogged determination of a few women. It must have been so there in ancient Philippi. And while biblical passages have sometimes been misused to oppress women, the fact is that the New Testament shines an admiring spotlight on the role of women in God's work. It begins most notably with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and continues with the group of women who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their means. Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women were clearly instrumental in the ministry of Paul and the early church. Women were the cornerstone of God's work in Philippi. And one particular woman has the distinction of being known as the first European convert to Christianity.

Her name was Lydia, and she was among the women that Paul found gathered down by the riverside. She responded to the message she heard from Paul and his companions that day. She and all her household were baptized. She followed through on the decision of her heart with the work of her hands, extending an insistent hospitality to the missionaries during their stay in her town.

At least one of their nights in Philippi, however, was not spent in the comfort of Lydia's home. At least one of Paul's nights in Philippi was spent in prison.

The beating and confinement were entirely undeserved. And in Paul's case, as a Roman citizen, they were also unjust. But it came to pass that Paul had attracted the attention of a poor slave girl, who was demon-possessed. She had followed and hounded Paul for several days, when finally he turned and ordered the demon out of her.

While this was liberty for her, it amounted to constraint of trade for her owner. Evidently, the poor girl's condition had been exploited and turned into a profitable venture by the man who owned her, and so her deliverance interfered with his bottom line.

Paul and Silas were publicly stripped and beaten, and then thrown in jail. As they sat there, chained and bleeding in a foreign prison, I wonder what they felt and thought. Might Paul have revisited that night in Troas when he saw the vision of the man from Macedonia? He still had not found that man. He had shared the gospel with a group of women and received considerable welcome from one. He had set another woman free from her spiritual bondage. But the Macedonian men with whom he had had contact were the slave-owner who had him and Silas arrested, the public officials who had them beaten and sentenced, and the jailer who had fastened their feet to heavy blocks of wood.

In pain and in prison, you couldn't blame Paul for wondering if he had misunderstood God's direction, if he had come to the wrong place.

We imagined earlier a salesman trying to explain that he abruptly left his work in Arizona in order to fly to California because he had had a vision of a San Diegan calling to him in the middle of the night. Of course a responsible businessman wouldn't do such a thing.

On the other hand, the salesman would have done exactly that if what he had received in the middle of the night was a message from his boss giving him new instructions.

That is what Paul did. His impetus happened to be a midnight vision, but he understood it as instructions from his boss. He went to Macedonia because he believed he was following orders. And indeed he was.

Before that night was over, a providential earthquake had broken open their chains and cells. By morning, the jailer and his entire household had been converted and baptized. And within a few years, the church in Philippi had grown into one of Paul's most cherished and happy partners in ministry and fellowship with him.

But what of the vision? Was there, in fact, some person who wanted Paul to go to Macedonia or not? Indeed, there was, but it was not a man from Macedonia. It was the God who loved Macedonia so much that he gave his only Son. Amen.
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