Have you ever found yourself in a place you didn’t intend to be, but later discovered it was exactly where you needed to be? Whenever I think of how that’s been true in my life, I think of Acts 16:6-10. A few years ago I stumbled across those verses. The words in these verses are, of course, not new and have been around for millennia. But they were new to me on that particular day. They are easy to gloss over and hurry past. They read like a travelogue connecting the Apostle Paul’s more important meeting up with Timothy and the very important conversion of Lydia, the dealer of purple cloth. In other words, they are easy to get lost in the shuffle. Besides, they include a variety of proper names which… when we read scripture… tend to intimidate us and cause us to rush by them for fear of pronouncing them incorrectly. But here they are:
“When they (Paul and Timothy) come opposite to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow it, so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man from Macedonia pleading with him, saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately crossed over to Macedonia…” (the underlining is mine)
Paul and his traveling companions attempted to go to Bithynia. That was their agenda; their plan. That is what they wanted to do. But the Holy Spirit did not allow it. Why? Because God had other plans in store for Paul. God needed him to be the city of Troas, for it was in Troas that Paul received a vision that they were to travel to Macedonia and preach the Good News there.
What struck me about those words was the juxtaposition between what we want to do and what God needs us to do. How many times in our lives have we ended up in a place we didn’t intend (or even want) to go, but it turned out to be the very place we needed to be? What we desire to do – our plans, our agendas – may not be God’s plans for us and the role we are to play in the world. And yet, the good we can offer the world is not only done on our terms. We can shine wherever we are. In fact, that is our calling. To bloom where we are planted.
Often we tend to think that our job would be easier, our lives would be better, our future outlook more positive were something in our lives different. If we were in a different place. Or if we had different resources. Or if we had a different body. Or if some condition of our lives were different than what it actually is. And yet the message from Acts 16 is that it is not about our plans, agendas and wishes. They don’t have to be accommodated for us to be able to do some good for the world on behalf of our faith. It is God directing us, and our faith in that guidance, that makes it possible.
This Sunday we will be taking a look at one of my favorite figures in scripture – a man possessed by demons who is healed by Jesus. After his exorcism he begs to travel with Jesus. But Jesus says “no,” just as the Holy Spirit would later tell Paul “no.” Why would Jesus do this? Because he needed the man to go home and tell his friends how much the Lord had done for him and what great mercy the Lord showed him (Mark 5:19). Jesus needed him in a place elsewhere than where he wanted to be. And what was the result? This man would end up being the first Gentile evangelist of Jesus’ Good News and “everyone” would be amazed at what he shared with them.
Believing that we can serve God where we are; shine a light for love and grace where we are; be a living witness for Christ where we are – no matter what the condition of our earthly life – is perhaps the greatest realization we can make as people of faith.