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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/26/2019

Every year, during the Easter season, rather than having a first reading from the Old Testament every Sunday, the first reading is from Acts. Every year, during the Easter season, the gospel readings every Sunday are from John rather than from the appointed gospel of the year, Matthew, Mark or Luke. When I was in seminary I took a class on Acts and I remember the professor telling us, “You’ll be glad you took this class because you’ll get tired of preaching on John every week, every year during the Easter season.”

He was right; while over the years I’ve gained greater and greater appreciation for the poetic beauty and theological depth of John, preaching on it over a period of weeks can still be a challenge so it is nice to have other options and Acts is one of them.

You perhaps know that Acts is pretty much universally accepted as volume II of Luke’s gospel, picking things up with the Ascension of the Risen Christ. From there, Acts is broadly understood as the history of the early church and with that understanding there’s always the question about how accurate the history is relative to how we think about historical accuracy. I would say that, as is the case with the gospels, in the book of Acts, providing theological truth in order to bring people to faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God is of a higher priority than providing an accurate historical account. However, even by modern historical standards, there is much that would seem to be accurate.

Most importantly, there is historical truth in the fact that the early church was established against what would seem to have been overwhelming odds. Keep in mind that the same political and religious forces that were lined up against Jesus were still lined up against those claiming that he had been raised from the dead and yet the word spread. People accepted the proclamation of an unlikely group of apostles and the church grew and thrived. 2000 years later, you could say that gathered here as we are on this and every Sunday, we are among those who represent the historic truth of Acts.

In the later chapters of Acts where the journeys of Paul are described, it becomes easier to confirm historical accuracy, the evidence being that much of what is written in Acts is consistent with what Paul’s own letters tell us and that is true of today’s reading; the accounts of Paul’s travels are supported by his letters.

Typical of much of what happens in Acts, today’s reading involves the Holy Spirit and a vision as Paul determines the next phase of his mission. Up until this point, all of his missionary work had been in parts of what is present day Turkey. The plan was to continue in that region and other parts of Asia but Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia pleading with Paul to come there. Convinced that this was God’s call, Paul set sail on the Aegean Sea, and headed into new and unknown territory, his first trip into Europe.

Worth noting here is that this wasn’t the plan. Paul’s intention had been to visit churches he had founded to check on their progress. In a verse that precedes today’s reading it says that those churches were strengthened in faith and increased in numbers daily; success in other words. Reading between the lines a little bit though, it then appears that Paul and his co-worker Silas moved in directions that were less successful. In travels that only take up a couple of verses but which represent hundreds of miles, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak in Asia; they attempted to go to Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them so they wound up in Troas, where Paul had the aforementioned vision of the man from Macedonia.

With that vision, the plan changed. Paul and Silas moved into unfamiliar territory and encountered new groups of people. If you thought things would continue with more stories of increased numbers and strengthened faith, that’s not exactly what happens. There were positives; the conversion of Lydia for example, is highlighted in today’s reading. A few verses after that though, Paul and Silas were arrested for disturbing the peace; they were then beaten and thrown into prison.

Throughout the narrative though, not just this part of it but pretty much the whole book of Acts, the Holy Spirit, prayer and visions are the driving forces behind everything that goes on. The challenge for the characters in the stories, especially Peter and Paul, is to discern the spirits in order to figure out what they are being called to do. Sometimes their discernment leads to what seems like success, sometimes it leads to beatings and prison, but the discernment goes on.

If you or I were writing this story we might not be so comfortable talking about the influence of the Holy Spirit and prayer and visions and angels or maybe we would if we were writing about old Bible times characters like Peter and Paul. If you were telling your own story though, I’ll bet you’d be very hesitant to tell it in those terms. Any yet…for any of us if we think about where we are now and how we got here, it’s easy to imagine all the “what ifs” and how different things could be.

What if a certain event hadn’t happened or what if we had made a different decision at some point or if we had never met a certain person or if we hadn’t been in that place at that time, the list could go on but you get the idea. But…do you think you’d work the Holy Spirit and prayer and visions and angels into your story? Would you see the hand of God in all of it or just chalk it up to coincidence?

What if I hadn’t starting going to church again after not going for quite a few years? What if the pastor of my church hadn’t had to retire for medical reasons when I was congregation president thus leaving me with a lot more responsibility? What if the pastor of my parent’s church hadn’t suggested I call someone he knew who might be willing to do a lot of the supply preaching? What if that person hadn’t said “yes,” a yes that resulted in us becoming pretty good friends? What if a couple of years later, completely out of the blue, he hadn’t said, “Have you ever thought about going to seminary?”

What if being set in my ways, settled in my teaching career and resistant to change I had said no, I can’t do it? What if Kathy hadn’t been willing to up stakes and come along for the journey providing support in all that was to come? What if in finishing seminary and filling out my papers I hadn’t checked off the little box that said “Open to all” which caused me to be assigned to the Northern Great Lake Synod? There’s a whole lot of other what ifs I have skipped but the bottom line is that my life would have gone very differently and I most certainly wouldn’t be here. Believe me, thirty years ago, being a pastor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan wasn’t part of any plan.

That’s a slice of my story but I think you could come up with a similar list of “what ifs” that have brought you to where you are today. Is it all random, is it all coincidence? Some would say so, but I don’t think so. I don’t think God is a puppet master, pulling strings, but I do think God has a hand in the possibilities that come our way. We might not have visions like Paul but things happen, people come into our lives, ideas come to us and like Paul, we have to discern what it means.

Looking at it from a faith perspective, we try and discern what God’s will for us is in a given situation. In most cases, I don’t think there’s only one right answer, one right choice; there can be many ways to be doing what God would have you do. Maybe though, there are wrong answers so that your way is blocked like Paul in his desire to go to Bithynia.

What a wrong answer can be though is what our speaker at Synod Assembly called a “good mistake,” something through which other possibilities emerge. When I left L’Anse and took the call in Massachusetts I think that was a good mistake as I learned some things from it and it ultimately brought me here where things seem to have worked out pretty well.

Whatever stage of life we’re in though, it’s important to pay attention to the spirits in whatever form they take shape. They’re not all of God; that’s the first part of discernment, and they’re not always calling us to change directions as happened with Paul, as happened with me. In baptism though, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and that Spirit continues to be active in our lives, especially in and through all the characters and events and choices that constitute the “what ifs” of life. I have to believe that in my case the Holy Spirit was active in all those “what ifs” I highlighted.

So…think about your own life; think about the “what ifs.” If you do, I’ll bet you’ll find the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit all over them.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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