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A Dream that changed history Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29

Dolly Parton's high school was so small that during graduation each student was given the opportunity to stand up and announce their plans for the future. When Dolly's turn came, she said, "I'm going to Nashville to become a star." The entire place erupted in laughter; she was stunned. Later she said, "Somehow that laughter instilled in me an even greater determination to realize my dream. I might have crumbled under the weight of hardships that were to come had it not been for the response of the crowd that day. Sometimes it's funny the way we find inspiration."

It was funny the way St Paul found inspiration, too! The Book of Acts tells the story of how the first Christians began to form the Church. The reached out with their news of Jesus and one of the most energetic of them was Paul, an early convert to the faith. Paul was keen to travel as widely as possible with the gospel. Perhaps, as a sail-maker he was more used to venturing further afield than the fishermen from Galilee. He had come from outside the fishermen’s province, anyway, so had more experience of the wider world. However, until now, the Christian message had not spread outside of the Roman provinces of Asia. A dream was to change the course of history, and today’s reading from Acts tells the story. It’s a story to inspire, encourage and challenge us today.

Responding to a vision
Dolly Parton had a dream of what she wanted to be. What is your dream or vision? Do you have one? It may not be grand or ambitious, but without a sense of direction in life we drift along. Paul wanted to take the good news of Jesus as far and wide as he could. He had travelled around Asia and successfully started off a number of different local congregations. On this particular occasion he and his companions were in the port of Troas. Troas was an important place in the Roman Empire’s transport links. Being in what we now call north western Turkey, it was the main point of departure over the sea to Greece, on the east-west route.
Paul had been touring the towns where he had been before, visiting Christian communities and encouraging them in the faith. But he and his companions had several experiences of being prevented by the Spirit from going where they thought they were supposed. It is not clear from Acts what exactly it was that seemed to prevent them, but looking back, Paul was able to say that, in fact, the wise Spirit of God had other plans. So it was that one night in Troas, where there were several directions they could have gone, Paul had a dream or a vision. He saw a man who clearly came from over the water in the province of Macedonia (south eastern Greece) asking for them to come and help.

This was the prompting they needed and as Paul shared his vision with his companions, they decided to try and respond to this special dream. They must have been encouraged that they were doing the right thing, because they made the crossing in good time. Sometimes the same journey could take 5 days, but this time, all they needed was an overnight stop at the island of Samothrace, half way, and then continuing to at Neapolis, the port for the main Macedonian town, Philippi.

How do we know when God is guiding us to do something, make a certain decision or go somewhere? We may not have a vivid dream like Paul, or expect to hear voices. But if we stop and reflect about what has been going on in our lives, if we attend to our true feelings and talk these things through with trusted friends, we may begin to detect what the promptings of the Spirit might be. Paul just felt that there must be a reason why it was not working out, doing what they thought they were supposed to be doing. Then, staying at a place where his options were open, the way forward became clear. Perhaps that is the best place for us when we don’t seem to be making headway on our original course. We need to stop in a place where our options are truly open, where we say to God, “OK, Lord! I am ready to do anything you want! I am in a place where I can go anywhere. Please show me!”
Adapting normal methods
Paul had a method of working. His normal way was to find the local synagogue wherever he went. He would go along to join the people there and then share the good news of Jesus with them. He would encourage those who responded and believed in Jesus, and he would do his best to explain himself, mainly using the Scriptures. It was normal for an educated Jewish man to be able to debate and explain the Scriptures – every male at 12 became a Son of the Law – a bar mitzvah. But in Philippi Paul had to adapt his normal methods.

Paul was in different territory. The writer of Acts (St Luke) doesn’t really pick it out, but in fact, Paul had just made a significant leap. Like Armstrong taking a small step off the bottom rung of the lunar landing module’s ladder, and making a giant leap for mankind, Paul made the short journey from one side of the Aegean sea to the other. But what he had just done was cross from Asia to Europe, and what he had done would change the course of history, for he had brought Christianity to a different continent.

So here, in the Roman colony of Philippi, Paul and his companions were wanting to respond to the call for help. How were they to do this? There were not enough Jewish men to make a synagogue (you had to have ten). Instead, having waited a few days until the Sabbath, and presumably exploring the town and its environs, they made their way out to the river Gangites where they hoped they might find some Jewish people praying. In fact, their hopes were not in vain, and there they got talking to those who had gathered, both regular Jews and those who attached themselves to Jewish congregations, known as godfearers. Perhaps there were more women than men, because Lydia was the main one who responded to Paul’s message about Jesus. Perhaps with her talent for business and having come from elsewhere, she was more open to new things. Paul’s adapted methods were proving successful.
Finding God already there
Looking back over their decision to go with the flow of Paul’s vision; then how easily they crossed over the sea, and now finding an open response to their message, they must have begun to see that God’s hand was indeed in their endeavours. In fact, the way that Luke puts it is that “the Lord opened her heart”. It was not Paul’s enthusiasm and passion that converted Lydia, it was the Lord opening her heart. In fact, the messengers of Jesus were discovering that God was already there, waiting for them to catch up! Indeed, that is what many modern day ministers and missionaries describe their work to be: looking for where God is at work and then joining in!

Of course, finding God is sometimes the difficulty. In Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, as John records it, he had plenty to say about the presence of God with them. Jesus was about to go to the cross and to be taken from them. Naturally they were distressed and so Jesus speaks about the ways in which they would experience his continuing presence with them. Whenever they remembered his teaching he would be with them. Whenever they tried to stay faithful to his teaching, he would be with them. The way he put it was, “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” As the disciples would one day be occupied bringing Jesus’ teaching to others, they would do so in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, promised them by Jesus before he left them. It is in remembering Jesus’ words, conveying them to others and allowing their power to change lives and to change the world, that we may know the presence of God.

It is normal for us to practise our faith in a quiet, regular and safe way. Sometimes, though, we are called to follow dreams and visions, to take risks and change our normal methods. It is especially at those times that we may discover God is with us.



Jesus answered him "Whoever loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and my Father and I will come to him and live with him. Whoever does not love me does not obey my teaching. And the teaching you have heard is not mine, but comes from the Father, who sent me."

John 14.23-24