We plan, God laughs, Acts 16.9-15

Sermon:        We Plan, God Laughs
Scripture:     Acts 16.9-15
Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Date:             May 26, 2019

There is an old Yiddish proverb that says, “We plan, God laughs.”  Can you relate to the wisdom of that aphorism?  Our text is laden with this reality.  Let’s listen to our scripture from Acts 16 and see how the notion that we plan and God laughs plays out loud.

The action for today’s narrative actually begins in Chapter 15.36.  Paul and Barnabas have been in Jerusalem telling Peter, James, John and the others what God has been doing among the Gentiles they have shared the Story of Jesus with up to this point. The church leadership in Jerusalem was somewhat wary of all these Gentile converts because they were concerned about the new converts following Jewish customs and ways, particularly around the issue of circumcision for the males. Well, the Jerusalem church leaders heard how the Spirit of God was working and told Paul and Barnabas that they support what they were doing and the only prescriptions they place upon the new Gentile believers is that they refrain from eating food dedicated to idols and to live a holy life.  Paul and Barnabas are thrilled to hear about this as they did not want to have to go back to all the churches they founded and break the news that all the guys now had to get circumcised as adults. I can imagine there would be a little push-back on that prospect.

Acts 15:36 outlines Paul’s plans.  He tells Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit all the believers in every city where we proclaimed the Word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”  Barnabas wanted to take his cousin, John Mark, with them. Paul didn’t because he felt John Mark was unreliable. Harsh words were shared with each other and the missionary couple split apart.

Paul planned and God laughed.

Look with me at Acts 16.6:

         “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (i.e., modern day western Turkey).”

They planned and God laughed.

         Verse 7 says, “When they had come opposite Mysia, the attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”

They planned and God laughed.

Picking up in verse 8 we read,

 So passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.     11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

Here we see how Paul and the others, though called by a man in the vision is met by a bunch of women.  Paul planned and God laughed. Now

 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.

Paul planned to go to Asia but God laughed; God instead sent him to Europe where he met a woman who was fromthe Asian city Thyatira instead.

 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.[1]

Beloved, this is the Word of the Lord! Paul had all sorts of ideas about where he was going to go, what he was going to do and who he was going to talk with when he set out with Silas. He was going to go back and rehash old ground and restore old friendships and networks with church communities he previously planted. God, however, had different ideas! Paul planned and God laughed.

Back in college, I was a Resident Assistant in one of the men’s dorms and this one guy had this really cute girl over visiting.  The guy was kind of jerk and left her in the hallway with me while he ducked into the bathroom for a minute. I stood there looking at this girl, thinking to myself, “She’s really cute!”  What was I to do? I threw all caution to the wind and said, “Ya’ know, you seem nice and you’re hanging out with him?  How about you and I go out sometime!” I had a plan and I was going to work the plan.

She smiled at me and with the sweetest Southern accent said, “Aw, you’re too sweet but bathroom-boy is my boyfriend. I’ve got a twin sister coming down in a few weeks; would you like to meet her?” It was the safest blind date on record and it’s how I met my wife, Kelly!  I planned and God laughed.

Beloved, there is not a person here who has not had this experience where he or she has great plans and then from out of nowhere a detour is forced upon them! Following plans is easy; adjusting to life’s detours is not necessarily so; in fact, it’s how we handle life’s detours that determine the outcomes of our emotional and spiritual growth or regression.

Let’s clarify a few items. First, not all detours in our lives are caused by God; however, God can bend to our benefit all our detours. In other words, I may willingly put myself in compromising situations believing I am bullet-proof to the consequences of my decisions. You and I choose to pursue certain risky behaviors, business dealings, or social situations thinking we will be immune to adverse consequences and the next thing you know, you’ve had one too many drinks and hit a pedestrian, you have been indicted for tax fraud because you got involved in a sketchy business matter, or you’ve gotten aggressive skin cancer because you thought you were immune to this intense Florida sun and heat all these years.  Friends, God did not force that last drink on you and steer you into a pedestrian; you did that.  God did not force you to behave unethically in a business situation, you did.  God did not force you to engage in risky behaviors that made you sick, you did.

Yet, God works in the midst of our poor and stupid decisions in spite of us and can teach us through Spirit how to live a more Christ-centered life that shares the love of God to more and more people around us.

How do you respond to detours in life? How do you respond to the twists in your life’s storyline that you did not expect or intend? Do you grow bitter because you did not get the job you expected or deserve?  Do you feel like a victim caught in the wheel of unfair circumstances and remain stuck in self-pity instead of venturing out in a new direction? Do you remain stuck in unhealthy relationships because it us what is expected of you?

The second item I want to clarify is that no matter where our detours take us, God is already at work before we get there. Paul had grand plans and ideas of what he thought he was supposed to do but the doors kept closing.  No matter how much he wanted to go to Asia, he couldn’t go.  So God takes him to Greece, to the doorstep of modern Europe and introduces him to a business woman of means and influence who just happens to have direct business dealing with a city in Asia. Paul planned and God laughed and was already working in Philippi with a group of God-fearing women who were ripe for Paul’s visit. Paul could’ve arrived all grumpy because his plans were not fulfilled but he knew that ultimately, God is in control and seeks and bends life for our wholeness and well-being. He meets this influential business woman who ends up supporting his ministry, provides him a network of other relationships in which to share the news of Jesus, and even has the backchannel connections to Asia that Paul dreamed about.

Friends, when our lives start going on an unplanned detour, that’sthe time we are to sit up in the seat and start expecting God-sightings. Detours have the ability to make us more aware and attuned to life and our surroundings; detours and changes in plans give us the chance to pay attention to how God is already working in our midst, inviting us to enter into that work.

Reflect with me for a moment. Has your life gone according to your plans? How did you, how are you responding to the detours? Are you bathing in victimization and pity and doubt because of the changed plans, or, are you sitting up excitedly looking for where God is already at work on your detour? Think about your answers, beloved, because how we answer them will determine if we are living with new life or wallowing in doubt. Yup, we plan and God laughs not because God is playing with us but because God wants to redeem the broken-dreamed path we are on and show us inherent beauty in the unexpected. And all God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15thAvenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

© 2019 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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