Open Heart Joy
29 October 2017
Preacher | Penny Bird
Open Heart Joy
Sermon for 29 October – Transformation – Lydia
Penny Bird – Licensed Lay Minister
8.30 Communion and 10am Morning Worship
Psalm 119: 10-16; Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 5&6, 8-12
Acts 16:11-15 ; Matthew 24:30-35
Jesus said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away.’ Today we are thankful for the disciples who wrote down Jesus’ words so that we have them. We are thankful for the churches, who preserved the letters St Paul wrote to them, and to the scribes who faithfully copied and disseminated them. (I am grateful this morning to Jeremy for his notes on Lydia). But above all we are thankful that God’s word has reached us and we have time to let it transform us.
Today is Bible Sunday and we are continuing our series on Transformation. If you like short summaries, this might be entitled ‘Open heart joy.’
Jesus reminds us that transformation is possible, pointing to the way the fig tree is transformed in the spring as leaves and buds appear. But he uses it to tell us that there is never going to be a better time than now to respond to his message.
In today’s reading from Acts, we learn of someone who did just that, who responded and was transformed.
Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth, who came from the city of Thyatira. She was a gentile, not a Jew. She lived in Philippi, and seems to have been an independent business-woman, which in that culture probably means she was a widow. She was probably not a young person. It is good to be reminded that God does not give up on older people – think of Abraham and Sarah! Lydia evidently ran a household, so she had servants and possibly a network of salesmen and other workers.
At that time purple cloth was something seriously up-market. Only the emperor could wear an entirely purple toga. Purple dye was a rare and precious substance. So it was an important business. I wonder whether Lydia herself wore some purple as an advertisement for her wares. I like to wear purple myself and have sometimes been reminded in jest by friends of the poem, which begins:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I have no evidence that Lydia was like that, but she certainly seems to me to have been a feisty woman, a woman of means and probably a woman of some influence, with a warm heart, open to joy.
We are told that she was a worshipper of God, so it would appear that she was already seeking and had found, in the God of the Jews, someone she could relate to, respect and worship. It is interesting that the group of worshipers met ‘outside the city gate to the river.’ We might wonder why they were meeting in such a place. It seems that the Romans in charge of the colony at Philippi frowned on cults such as Judaism, which discouraged Emperor worship and made exclusive claims for their God. Lydia it seems was an independent minded woman, willing to go against convention in pursuit of what she felt was worthwhile.
That’s how Lydia came to be down by the river that Saturday. Now, what about Paul – how did he come to be there? The story is told earlier in chapter 16, before our reading begins and it is an intriguing one. On his first missionary journey Paul had taken Barnabas with him. He was nicknamed ‘the encourager’, and he was a prophet. When he heard from God, the messages tended to be positive and he was a real help to Paul in knowing where to go. However, Paul and Barnabas had a falling out and on his second missionary journey Paul was accompanied by Silas. He was also a prophet but seems to have had a knack of knowing where NOT to go. We learn that they were ‘forbidden by the Spirit’ to preach in Asia and then they attempted to go into Bithynia but ‘The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.’ Finally they came to Troas and there Paul had a vision during the night. He saw a man of Macedonia pleading for him to come over and help the people there.
Now intriguingly the narrative changes from ‘they went’ to ‘we put out to sea.’ It seems that the writer of Acts, Luke, had joined them there. It is as though he wants us to know that he was an eyewitness to what God was doing. Lydia and Paul found themselves in the same place at the same time. This is a true ‘God-incidence’. As you look back on your life, I expect you can see how some things that ‘just happened’ – extraordinary coincidences – were meant to be. They were God-incidences.
One that springs to mind for me was when my husband broke his leg in Spain just a few hours before we were due to fly home. In A&E as I waited for him to have an x-Ray and wondered what to do, I ‘just happened’ to fall into conversation with an English speaking woman who ‘just happened’ to have in her diary the telephone numbers I needed to alert the airline that we wouldn’t be able to fly and my hotel that I would need a bed that night. You could dismiss it as coincidence but I really felt God was looking after us.
It really seemed that God had been at work to bring Paul to speak to that little gathering of believers by the river in Philippi. Wouldn’t you like to know what he said to them? Luke does not record Paul’s sermon on that occasion but we know what he said in other places and can surmise that he began with God’s faithfulness to his people the Israelites all down the centuries, familiar themes. Speaking in Antioch he then said: “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus from the dead.” (Acts 13:32,33) He went on: “By this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” So we can surmise that, building on what they already knew, Paul told them about the life and death of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. He explained that the power manifested in the many signs Jesus did, and which God exerted to raise Christ from the dead, is the same power now available to us, when the Holy Spirit is given at baptism and is at work in our hearts and lives, to transform us and free us from all that previously came between us and God.
Lydia recognised that Paul’s message of joyful hope in Christ was what she had been longing to hear. We are told ‘The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.’ She experienced ‘open heart joy’.
She and the members of her household were baptised and she persuaded Paul and his companions to come and stay at her home. They stayed some time in Philippi and it was there that Paul freed a slave girl from an evil spirit, which enabled her to tell fortunes. Her master was furious because his source of income was gone. So he had them thrown in to prison. When they were released they returned we are told to Lydia’s house and encouraged the congregation there before they moved on to Thessalonica.
So what can we learn from Lydia?
Well, it seems to me that she epitomises Jesus’ promise, ‘‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ (Matthew 7:7)
Meeting Jesus that day by the river through Paul’s preaching enabled Lydia to be transformed and to welcome the Holy Spirit into her heart. Her whole household were baptised with her and her home became the base for the new church community in Philippi. But importantly, it was God’s work, not hers. God brought her and Paul to the right place at the right time. Only the Holy Spirit can open hearts - only the Holy Spirit can bring about that spiritual transformation that causes our world-view to completely change, that brings about newness, renewal, new birth.
It was God’s work and it was for God’s purposes. It seems that the group of believers in Philippi went from strength to strength because, much later, when he was in prison, Paul wrote to them very warmly, saying; ‘3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.’ (Philippians 1:3-5) At the end of his letter he thanks them very warmly for their gift to him, which was clearly not the first he had received. It seems they had been very faithful in supporting his work.
Transformation was permanent and it was profound. Everything was different for Lydia from that day when she experienced ‘open heart joy’. She had been independent and successful, her motivation mainly financial. But she knew something was missing and she was searching. Now, filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy she was able to use all her talents to share her faith with her household and with others in the city and to run a thriving, outward-looking church. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is sometimes known as the joyful epistle. He writes; ‘Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.’ (Philippians4:4) What a wonderful opportunity Lydia had that day.
What a wonderful opportunity we have today, to turn to the Lord afresh, as the Israelites did when Ezra preached to them, and to discover that God is inviting us to joyful celebration of his presence with us, today and every day; until Christ returns and all our earthly joy is eclipsed by the ineffable joy of being with God for ever.
Now here is a final God-incidence for you.
When I finished writing the first draft of this sermon I clicked on my emails and the first thing to come up was an email from 24/7 prayer, which said this;
"This is how we know that we live in him and he in us;
he has given us his Spirit..."
- 1 John 4:13
Wherever we are and whatever we face, we can invite the Holy Spirit to work within every situation. So right now, take a moment to stop and pray:
Pray for a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit with you
Acknowledge and invite the Holy Spirit where you are.
Let’s pause for a moment right now, as I did then, and do just that.
"This is how we know that we live in him and he in us;
he has given us his Spirit..."
Lord, give to each of us we pray a renewed sense of the presence of your Holy Spirit, received at our baptism. May we welcome the gifts the Spirit longs to give to us. May we rejoice in the fellowship and grace of the Spirit, so freely poured out on us. May we rejoice to be transformed for your service. Open our hearts to your joy and show to each one of us now, we pray, how we can share that joy with others.