Open Air - Acts 16:11-15
Jack was very concerned about his non - Christian friend Joe. He so wanted him to become a believer too. That is why every night before he turned in, he knelt by his bed to pray. His prayers for Joe always took the same form. Dear Lord, it would be wonderful if Joe became a Christian. I pray that somehow his IQ might be increased so that he will have the intelligence to see how reasonable and compelling the Christian faith is. Lord, if only Joe could be persuaded by a good communicator. It would be terrific if you could see your way to getting Billy Graham to give him a call, if not I guess Melvin Tinker will have to do. Then again Lord, maybe you could give him a sign, an unmistakable experience which will convince him that you really are there. Lord, if only Joe could be helped to make more of an effort to believe. I know that at the end of the day Lord it is all down to him, it is his free decision, so do not do anything which will make him into a Christian.
Is that how Christians pray? Of course not, although to hear some Christians speak and act you would think they should. No, isn't it more like this: Heavenly Father, please open the eyes and heart of Joe so that he may come to know you in your Son. As the Christian message is explained to him, give him the grace to repent and believe. You see, anyone who is at all familiar with the Bible and aware of our own human nature knows only too well that the ultimate evangelist is God himself. He alone has the power to grant faith, to make Christian believers. And if we are not going to become frustrated as we share the Christian faith with others, or tempted to employ some form of cheap psychological manipulation, then we have to learn this lesson afresh. And if you are here tonight and are not yet a committed Christian, you too need to know that you are wholly dependent upon God to work a miracle in your life to enable you to believe.
So come with me to meet a person who discovered this to be true in her own experience. She is in the textile industry, her name is Lydia and we read all about her in the Book of Acts, chapter 16: 11ff. And there are three things in particular about this remarkable event which I want us to think about tonight: a divine action, a determined strategy and a dedicated response.
First a divine action, look at v 14 One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshipper God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Pauls message.
Evangelistic speakers often talk as if the door handle to our hearts, that is the centre of our being which includes mind, will and emotion, were on the inside. So they talk about us opening our hearts to Jesus. Now in one sense that is right of course, that certainly is what it feels like, a voluntary self - surrender to the living Christ. But that is not what Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes here. He does not say, Lydia opened her heart. But the Lord opened her heart. Who is the Lord? well, given that later in v 15 she speaks of herself as having become a believer in the Lord, and since Paul has been speaking about Jesus, then it follows that the one who has opened her heart, enabled her to respond to Pauls message, is none other than Jesus himself, whom we are told elsewhere in Acts now operates on earth through his Holy Spirit. So what is going on is something like this: as Paul explains who Jesus is and what he came to do - the God - man who came to put wrong people in the right with God by dying in their place of judgement on the cross, God by His Spirit at the same time is working to make the penny drop. God is not working independently of his Gospel message, his Word, but working through it, bringing understanding and faith together, enabling Lydia to believe.
Now it is at this point, someone will say, But what about free will? 'Isn't Lydia or anyone else for that matter free to believe or not believe, to choose or not choose to become a Christian. ? Well, it all depends upon what you mean by free will. Surely, we are free to be what we are by nature and not free to be other than what we are. So by nature dogs growl. The dog cant complain, if he were able to, that he is not free to meow like a cat, because he isn't a cat. So the question we need to ask is this: according to the Bible what are we like - spiritually and morally - according to our nature? And we find verses like these: Romans 8: 7 The sinful mind is hostility to God. It does not submit to Gods law, nor can it do so. 1 Cor 2: 14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them. Ephesians 2: 1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. 2 Corinthians 4: 3 Even if our gospel is veiled it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers. And just in case you think this is the morbid teachings of the apostle Paul, here is Jesus on the matter: No one can come to me unless the Father draws him. John 6: 44. We are free to be and act in line with our nature which is to say No to God. I don't want you in my life thank you very much. We may not always put it as crudely as that but that is what it amounts to. Our hearts lock God out - that is the real God. Sure we may make our own god, but that is nothing more than an idol we can control and manipulate, but just as dogs bark and cats meow, naturally, we thumb our noses at our Creator and not only are we naturally disposed against God in this way we actually like to do it, we approve of it, because it makes us feel important and in control. We willingly affirm this rebellious heart of ours. The problem, you see is not a matter of intellect, or communication or effort, or the need for an experience, as Jack thinks and so prays, the real problem is a hard heart..
Now we may not particularly like that teaching but I would suggest to you that no other explanation will do to account for why the masses are outside the church. Just think about it: I know that some churches are dull and give you the heebie-jeebies, but that aside, if men and women were say, just neutral regarding the Christian faith, let alone mildly disposed towards it - given that we have say 20, 000 people in this parish, would you not expect on a purely statistical basis to see more than 3% attending church on a Sunday? People are not that reluctant about shopping, or going to the pub or the cinema. If men and women had even a slight warmth towards the true God, should we not see our churches packed with at least what say 20% - 30% of these wanting to find out more about him? I would have thought that wouldn't be an unreasonable figure to expect if folk are mildly inclined towards God. But we dont see that and here is the explanation. Hearts lock him out, the door has been slammed tight, the key thrown away. We simply do not want God in our lives on his own terms. Thats our nature and we act in line with it, and we do so willingly and so are responsible!
So there is a problem. If we cannot and do not want to open our hearts to God then who can do it? Well, there is only one I know and that is God himself. But let me say, there is nothing brutal or cruel about the way god opens humans hearts. This is the way the great 19th century evangelist C. H Spurgeon put it: When you see a casket wrenched open, the hinges torn off, the clasp destroyed, then you discern at once the hand of the thief. But when you observe the casket deftly and smoothly opened, with a master key, you discern the hand of the owner. Well, in the same way, he says, conversion isnt a violent wrenching open of the human heart, in which the will and the reason are all ignored or crushed. God does not plunder human lives, that is what the devil does. God opens hearts not like a beast with his prey, but as the owner of his treasure. He is not some cosmic rapist who forces himself upon us, he is the lover who gently woos us. He does not enslave the will, he frees it. He does not darken our understanding he enlightens it. I tell you, when I became convinced that I should become a Christian, and knelt and confessed my need and belief that Jesus alone met that need, that was the freest decision I had ever made in my life. In fact it was the sanest decision I had ever made - and it was God who kindly enabled me to do it. This is what is sometimes called irresistible grace, that is the Holy Spirit making effective in our hearts Christ work on the cross for us, we realise he died for me, it becomes real personally.
Now I will be honest with you. Given what the Bible teaches about the hostility of human nature to God and his ways, that men and women are as dead spiritually as the corpses in the graveyard are dead physically, if I did not believe that God can and will open human hearts, I would leave the ministry tomorrow. I simply could not carry on. But I do believe it and that is why I can pray with confidence, as you should be praying too, for your non - Christian friends and family, that God would perform this miracle. Not that they might have some sort of vague belief in God, or an experience of the religious kind, Lydia already had that before she met Paul - v14, but rather that they might come to know the Saviour. We have to get it into our minds that religion never saved anybody - only Jesus can do that and nothing short of a miracle in peoples hearts can bring that about. Now do you see what a big deal it is when anyone becomes a Christian, why this is a cause for tremendous celebration? This is what we are to get excited about - God raising the dead, opening blind eyes, bringing about new birth. Now do you believe it?
Now there are two extremes we must avoid. Both are flip sides of the same coin - there is what is called the hyper - Calvinist and the hyper - charismatic. The hyper - Calvinist says: If God is going to convert anybody, he will do it without our aid, thank you - after all he opens hearts not us. You are either chosen or your are not. So forget evangelism. The hypercharismatic says, it is the Holy Spirit who converts people, so as long as we pray for the Holy Spirit, who needs to explain the Gospel? So the late John Wimber relates how a non - Christian had what he called a power encounter, that is, fell down on the floor after someone had laid hands on him and got up, says Wimber, a believer without anyone having explained to him what the Gospel was. Well, that cant be. As we shall see, God uses people like us to bring the Gospel to folk - so the hypercalvinist is wrong, and secondly people have to believe something definite in order to be saved - the Christian message - so the hypercharismatic is wrong.
Which brings us to a determined strategy. Now did you notice how well thought out Pauls approach was? In v 13 we read that Luke, Paul and a few others went outside the city to a river bank where they expected to find a place of prayer and they found a group of women. Now Pauls normal strategy was to head for the Jewish synagogue and start with them. Presumably there wasnt one, maybe because there were not enough Jewish men, you needed a quorum of ten men to start one. So some adherents to the Jewish faith did the next best thing and had a prayer meeting, which Paul and his friends happily gate crashed. And there was method in this madness. It makes sense to talk with folk who have some prior understanding of the faith, remembering here that the Christian faith arose out of and fulfilled the Jewish faith. In other words begin with warm contacts, maybe what we would call nominal Christians, folk who show some sort interest. That is plain common sense. So if you find you have a friend who is a churchgoer but not a born again believer, gently and patiently work with them. Start with fringe members and as, by Gods grace they are converted then you build up the number of Gospel workers to reach out into the wider circle of the unchurched.
But also notice that Paul worked with what he got. He didn't take one look at them and say to his colleagues, Well, fellers, not much going here, only a few women, lets move on and try and hit the big time. No, God deals with individuals, he loves them and wants them to hear his saving message. Speaking as a minister, I have to say it is all too easy to be dazzled by the crowd - so you can find time to speak at the big meeting, but not to old Mrs Jones sitting by the fireside. That should not be. And what about children, dont they need to hear the Gospel too? Why is it then that Sunday school teachers are so hard to come by - we should have people queuing up asking to do it - because it means being a partner with God in doing that which even angels arent allowed to do, telling people about Jesus. We have Alison Woodhall as an apprentice worker at St Johns - why - she wants other students to hear the Gospel - what about having several graduates volunteering as Gospel apprentices, supported by those who are out earning the money? If God provides a Gospel opportunity - take it - these are dear people made in Gods image.
And notice too that Paul did actually relate a message - v13 We sat down and began to speakv14 Lydia responded to Pauls message. That is what evangelism is - teaching the Gospel. If that happens people are evangelised, if it doesnt, they arent, no matter how moved and impressed they may be. That is why it is so important to get some sort of Gospel outline, like Two Ways to Live under your belt so that you can explain the Christian message simply and clearly to someone when the opportunity arises. Wouldn't it be tragic if, say, after three years of being a student here you left without being able to master the basic skill of sharing the Christian faith? The opportunity is there, take it.
But finally and very briefly, we have a dedicated response: v15 When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord, "she said, "come and stay at my house. "And she persuaded us. An open heart invariably leads to an open home. How do you know that the Lord has opened your heart, that you really do believe? Is it because you can recite certain truths? Maybe sing certain songs? Perhaps you can look back to some special event? Well, it may be some or all of these things. But one mark the Bible lays down very clearly of genuine, authentic conversion, is what the apostle John calls Love of the brethren. That practical, down to earth love of fellow Christians. That is what we see here in the case of Lydia. Particularly in this kind of culture, table fellowship - hospitality is a sign of true oneness. There is a sense, you know, in which Christians should be in and out of each others homes. Not as busy bodies, but showing hospitality as a sign of true Christian love. Now this is so important. At the very least if you are a true believer you will want to be with your fellow believers in church on a Sunday - and yet look at how infrequent this is becoming - once on a Sunday if you are lucky, more like once a month now. If that is how you feel then you seriously need to look into your hearts and get it sorted. There is a deep affinity there which nothing can surpass, and it should show itself in the way we treat each other. May I ask: when was the last time you invited another Christian for a meal or even a cup of tea? Lydia, who I would imagine was a formidable lady, wouldnt take no for an answer - and neither should we.
Now, maybe you are here this evening and, to be frank, you are still wondering what it means to be a Christian. You look around and you are impressed that there are a good number of others who do take it seriously and you want to know more. If that description fits you, let me suggest tow things. First, dont give up, try and find out more, talk to one of us, have a look on the bookstall, and do come along to the special events we shall be holding as part of Jesus 2000. We do believe this is the most important message in the world - our eternal destiny depends on it and it is wonderful. Secondly, talk to God. Its called prayer and ask him to open your heart, so you might have the same life transforming experience as Lydia and countless millions ever since. God is there, he hears, he acts. Why not do that now as we pray?
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