I trust in him.

  • 23 May 2022
  • Jeff Ware

Acts 16:6-15

May 22rd, 2022

There was a moment in Desmond Tutu’s life that changed the direction in which he would travel the rest of his days. It was a moment that happened in his teenage years, when he was out walking with his mother in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. His mother was a cleaner and a cook at a school for the blind. His father a teacher. 

Anyway, he was out walking with his mother, when a white man, in priest’s clothing, an Anglican minister, stopped and took off his hat as a sign of respect. That was the seminal moment, That gesture. That acknowledgement of dignity. That sign of peace, friendship and regard from a white man to a black woman made a lasting impact on the teenager, and it was a factor in Tutu later feeling called to leave his career as a teacher and to train for the Anglican ministry himself, confident that the Christian faith could play a key role in promoting peace and justice in a racially divided South Africa. It was a Go moment’ for him. He would continue to talk about that moment till the end of his life, 26 December 2021. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes – a white man who greeted a black working class woman.’ And so, inspired by that white man (Trevor Huddleston), and sensing himself called by God, Desmond Tutu spent the last sixty years of his life aligning himself with, doing things, saying things like this: ‘God places us in the world to work with him, so injustice is transfigured into justice, so there will be more compassion and caring, that there will be more laughter and joy, that there will be more togetherness in God’s world.’

That word ‘togetherness’ is a word I associate with Desmond Tutu, an expansive sense of ‘togetherness’. ‘We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness…We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.’

Now let me leave this larger than-life, courageous, controversial Christian there, and land back in 50AD with the apostle Paul who will also come to a broad and expansive understanding of God’s church, so much so that he is able to declare: ‘There is neither Jew, not Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. All are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28).

The story we are looking at today is part of Paul developing this inclusive, universal vision.

What happens goes like this: Paul and some of his companions (Silas and Timothy amongst them) are visiting towns like Lystra in what we call modern day Turkey, towns they had previously visited, towns in which they had preached the good news of Jesus, towns in which they had planted churches, mainly by visiting synagogues and making Jewish converts, and now they are keen to see how these little communities are getting on, and keen to pass on messages from the larger and central church in Jerusalem. So, there they are – making their way from town to town, when we are told: they wanted to go this way – but the Holy Spirit did not let them. And then again: when they tried to go another way – ‘ the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.’ 

And then Paul has a vision – a man from Greece, from Macedonia, saying: ‘Come and help us. Come west. Come across the sea. Come to Macedonia.’ Paul and his companions consult. They agree, jump on a ship, head westward, land, walk their way to a town called Philippi, where they meet a woman called Lydia ( a ‘god-fearer’, ‘spiritual not religious’) who listens attentively as Paul explains the Christian message. She accepts what he says, ‘Yes’, is baptized, along with others in her household and immediately assumes a posture of hospitality. Lydia and her household, the first Gentile converts in what we would call ‘Europe’.

That is a compressed account of an already compressed account, of a pivotal moment: as the Christian movement expands, geographically and ethnically. As the Gospel advances westward. 

We can only guess how the Holy Spirit prevented them from going here and there. Did they hear reports of possible opposition that might await them and develop a common sense that it would be safer to head in another direction? We don’t know. In any case they are clearly being compelled to take the Christian message into new territory. The Holy Spirit is leading them to do what Jesus called upon his followers to do, which was to be his witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1). And here they are being prompted, led, directed, guided to ‘God west young men’, to keep spreading the good news further and further afield, deeper and deeper into Gentile territory, closer and closer to Rome, and then beyond. And they do seem to have a vivid sense that they are being led.

Now, this week I’ve been asking myself, as I seek to apply this passage to my life and ours, as I’ve read of Paul and his companions being guided, being prevented from doing this, being directed to go that way….I’ve been asking myself: Am I a person who sees himself being led by God? Does God really lead us and guide us, now, today?

There are certainly times past where I’ve called out to God: ‘I’m so confused – guide me, direct me, grant me wisdom, I don’t want to mess up.’ And then looked back and sensed, ‘Yes’ – I was being led, guided. And there have been times when I have prayed for others as they made decisions about jobs (to apply, not apply? to accept/not accept? to resign/not resign?), or medical procedures, or relationships, or upping and moving house across the world, and so on and so forth: ‘Lord, guide them and guard them, direct and protect them, open doors, close doors, make things clear, raise up people who will speak the words of wisdom they need to hear into their lives.’ And there again, looking back, God did seem to confirm in their hearts and minds what they should do, the dots seemed to have joined up.

Does God lead us and guide us, the way God’s Spirit is seen as leading and guiding Paul and his companions?

Can we say with the Psalmist: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, he leads me. He leads me besides quiet waters. He guides me in right paths. He is with me, even though I walk through the darkest valley, his rod and staff they comfort me.’

It’s poetic language to be sure. And I know that many accounts of ‘God’s leading’ can be explained otherwise. And the language of being ‘led’ can be problematic. I’ve had people claim that they sense God’s anointing on a certain course of action, and the effect of that, has been either to, prematurely it has seemed to me, to prematurely shut down further dialogue or discussion, or to alienate those who don’t buy into that sort of language. 

But, having said that, I want to continue to use this language. It seems helpful and right and strengthening to speak of trusting a God who leads us and guides us, of being open to God’s Spirit directing our paths, of resting in the confidence that God’s hand is upon our lives.

That’s how Paul’s travels are being described in the Book of Acts, which we are working our way through in the lead up to Pentecost. He was being led by God’s Spirit.

That’s how Desmond Tutu described the encounter between his mother and the white priest who tipped his hat and showed respect. Not just any encounter or a chance encounter, but as a ‘God moment’, a moment that God eventually used to lead him into a life of service.

We began our time together today, singing a hymn:

‘Safe in the shadow of the Lord, beneath his hand and power, I trust in him, I trust in him…’

And I wonder if we can add our hearty ‘Amen.’

‘I trust in him, I trust in him, to lead me by day and by night.’ Amen

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