Do a quick search with your Bible software for occurrences of the word “vision.” This isn’t a scientific research project, but just a quick scan. In my software, for the NRSV, the word vision appears eighty-two times. Thirteen of those are in the apocryphal writings. That leaves sixty-nine times that the English word “vision” appears. Then look and see where the word is used. In the Hebrew scriptures, the book with the most usage of “vision” is Daniel. No surprise there. We might have guessed that one given the chance. But then look at the New Testament. The book with the most usage of the word “vision” is not Revelation (though it could be argued that it is the whole book!) but Acts. The Acts of the Apostles uses the word “vision” eleven times. So, what does that mean? Well, maybe nothing. That’s not really something you should build a sermon on, right? This isn’t a scientific study, and there are many ways that the word “vision” could be used; and we didn’t even go back and explore whether it is the same word in Greek and/or Hebrew. So, just a filler, perhaps.
Yet, it is interesting that in this story of the beginnings of the church there are frequent references to the idea of “vision”—specifically of hearing and seeing God’s vision as it is relayed to the church through individuals. What does that say about how well we listen to God when we make our plans and plot our strategies for mission and ministry? Do we not only bathe all our work in prayer, but do we also take the time to listen to the voice of God however it might be discerned in our specific context? What might we learn if we listened first and planned afterward?
For the second week in a row, our text deals with a vision that came from God and the impact on the direction of the church. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” We could argue that the first-century church was closer to the idea of vision, especially dreams as visions and communication from God than we are in this more scientific age. But maybe that’s not necessarily progress. Maybe we’ve lost something by not being more in tune with the voice of God.
Maybe this is something to pursue. It might be helpful to talk about how we hear the voice of God. What does it take? How do we open ourselves to that voice? Is it simply an urging in the pit of our stomachs, or is it something more? And how do we tune our hearing to hear that voice? And then once we think we hear a voice from God, how do we test it? How do we discern God’s voice from the myriad other voices in our talkative world?
“But wait,” you’re thinking, “aren’t we supposed to be dealing with the text? Does all of this have anything to do with Acts 16:9-15?” Well, no, but actually yes. I mean, no, it isn’t dealing with the events that take place in this part of the narrative. But yes, it provides some insight into the larger context.
So, what is going on here? After the vision, Paul gathers up his entourage and heads to Macedonia. We don’t see a lot of waffling, a lot of questioning—should I go, was it real, it’s a risk. No, it says, “We immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia.” Immediately. How often have you heard a word from the Lord and immediately changed your plans and your direction and headed off to a new destination? Surely some deliberation took place, Luke just doesn’t record it. It isn’t interesting to the story. Perhaps.
But they went. We went. It’s great how Luke enters the story here, in the famous “we” passage. He wasn’t an ivory tower scribe, recording the events of long dead historical figures. No, he was along for the ride. He rolled up his sleeves and jumped aboard ship. There’s a sense of “y’all come” in this story. There is a passion that is catching, a hope that is inviting. That’s how it is written. Sure, it could have been a later editor, a compilation of stories told and hopes shared. But still, the effect is one of joining up, sharing in. You read these lines, and it feels like you’re on the team. We went to Macedonia.
And then an amazing thing happens. Someone listened. Well, that wasn’t all that amazing, to be honest, people were listening all the time. Someone decided to give their life and the lives of their whole household to the cause of Christ. Again, that’s wonderful news and a sign of the passion and power of the Spirit in the Church. But not what was amazing.
Here’s the amazing part: “a certain woman, named Lydia . . .” Ponder that for a moment. Dwell on that verse and let the amazing proclamation wash over you. What’s the big deal, you ask? How many women in the Bible get named? How many women seem to be in control of their own stories and not the victims or objects of the men who surround them? And get this: hold on to your hats, she appears to be the head of her household. Lydia and her whole household were baptized into the faith that day.
Where does all this begin? We could say it begins with a vision, a word from God that came in a dream. And that would be true. But it isn’t the whole truth. God is always proclaiming. God is always inviting, announcing, encouraging, God is always reaching out with a hope to share in an act of creation. That is the nature of the God we worship, the God we proclaim. That is the before the story, the foundation on which every story is built. On that hope, on that certainty.
The story begins then with an open heart—a heart that was open enough to have a dream and then act on it, a dream, for heaven’s sake. A heart that was open enough to jump aboard a ship heading who knows where and who knows why. To join up and be a part of a mission that takes a risk and heads off into the unknown. An open heart that hears a word of hope and affirmation and decides to lean into that word with their whole life and livelihood.
The story begins with an open heart. We often want to skip a step, to move to commitment, to sign folks up when our efforts ought to be focused on opening hearts—calling on the Spirit to come and open the hearts of those we meet, even as we continually pray that our own hearts might be open enough to catch a glimpse of the Spirit, even when we are sleeping.