The Revelation of God in Human Life: Dealing with Detours
This morning our Scripture, which comes from the book of Acts Chapter 16, is the familiar passage of Paul’s rerouting to Macedonia.
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Some of you will remember that several years ago a rock slide occurred in the Smoky Mountains along Interstate 40. The interstate was closed for several months as crews removed the rocks and tried to shore up the mountain. It was during that time that June and Betsy, whom we called the Twin Divas of Music City, were still living in Nashville. Because I-40 was closed, the trip Clare and I had planned required a detour. We had two choices: take Interstate 85 to Atlanta and then go north to Nashville or travel on back roads. Clare and I took the second option. We would much rather travel a blue-line highway than an interstate.
We made our way to Asheville and then north through Buncombe County, Weaverville, and Madison County. We drove over to Hot Springs, North Carolina. All along the way we followed the course of the French Broad River, one of the most interesting rivers in our neck of the woods. I did not know that it is the third oldest river in the world until we made this side-trip. The Nile, of course, is the oldest. Oddly enough, the New River, also in North Carolina, is the second oldest river in the world. That particular river travels through Virginia and into West Virginia.
One of the ways geologists determine the ages of rivers is by the direction they flow. All three of these mentioned flow from south to north. A second way of determining the age is by looking at the presence or absence of fossils under the water. These rivers existed long before any fossilized material.
I have been fortunate enough to canoe on both the New River and the French Broad. I must confess that I have tasted the water from both rivers because of my canoeing skills.
Hot Springs is an interesting little town full of life and activity. Many people raft and canoe along the French Broad River in that area. Both the highway and the Appalachian Trail cross the river there. Clare and I stopped for lunch and then went on to Newport, Tennessee. Our route took us much longer than if we had been able to travel I-40, but we both agree that the long detour made for a very interesting trip.
Life often presents us with detours. Writers and artists use the French word dérive, which comes from French existentialism, to talk about a way of enhancing creativity. Dérive refers to an unplanned journey through unfamiliar territory, usually within an urban setting. An example is driving through a part of a large city you have never been in before or taking a side trip to an unfamiliar location. Dérive, sometimes interpreted as wandering, ambling, or drifting, has the wonderful goal of giving you experiences that are entirely new and completely authentic.
We spend much of our lives trudging through familiar territory. We travel the same route back and forth to work daily, the same route on interstates back and forth to nearby cities because they are faster. Getting off the beaten track, going places we have never been before, has great value. That is one of the reasons that Clare and I enjoy the blue-line highways.
If you travel only on Interstate 95 down the coast of South Carolina, you will never see the oldest living tree east of the Mississippi River, the Angel Oak. You must get off the beaten track, even off of paved US-17, and drive on a dirt road in order to see this tree. If you take Interstate 20 between Florence and Columbia, you will never see the topiary gardens of Pearl Fryar in Bishopville. If you take Interstate 85 from Spartanburg into Georgia, you will never see the Jocasee Gorges or Lake Jocasee, one of the best-kept secrets in South Carolina. If you travel Interstate 26 from Columbia to Asheville and never get off the interstate, you will completely miss the Beacon Drive-In. That would be a shame.
Some of our best experiences in life occur when we get off the well-worn track. Planned detours have a place in our lives. They offer us enriching encounters and experiences.
Sometimes people will ask, “Kirk, how do you think up ideas for your Christmas story?”
Clare and I made a short trip out of town just yesterday to talk about the Christmas story. Riding through the little town of Hendersonville, North Carolina, and hearing the bells of St. James Episcopal Church might prompt a Christmas story for you. Driving through the back roads of Beaufort, South Carolina, might offer a prompt for a story. Stopping for lunch, taking a walk out by the marina, and seeing a docked boat named Mary Kay may serve as a prompt. Perhaps stop ping in the little town of Robinsville, North Carolina, and discovering a small part of the Cherokee Reservation known as the Snowbird might prompted you to write a Christmas story. Getting away from the worn path and planning a detour might offer much creativity, but you must make time for it.
We see at least one of these detours in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus traveled down from Galilee to Judea through Samaria, not the common route for a Jewish rabbi because Samaria was considered enemy territory. Jesus took a way that was out of the ordinary. In the heat of the day he stopped by a well where he encountered a Samaritan woman. That chance meeting dramatically changed her life and probably the life of an entire village. We know that it certainly changed the lives of the disciples.
Most detours are unintentional, unplanned. They usually come to us as a surprise. When we experience a detour, it is so easy to be negative. We may have a lot of trouble making course corrections, adjustments, when events or situations do not go as planned. It is important for us to look for the positive outcome when life presents detours.
In our Scripture passage for today, we see that Paul also experienced detours in his life. On his first missionary journey with Barnabas, he went to a number of cities in present-day Turkey. Then on his second missionary journey with Silas, he went back and visited some of those same cities. He had every intention of going deeper into the continent of Asia. Paul said that he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, and he set out to do everything he could to tell the citizens of Asia Minor about Jesus Christ before a detour changed his plans.
We are not exactly sure what happened, but Scripture tells us that the Spirit prevented him from going into Asia. The land that Paul intended to go to was particularly dangerous in terms of malaria; it was known for infestations of mosquitoes. Some believe that maybe the disease of malaria was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” We will perhaps never know the reason the Spirit prevented Paul from entering that area. We do know that Paul had a vision in which he saw a man, pleading with him to come to Macedonia.
Let’s look at the passage of Acts 16 closely for a moment. I want to especially call your attention to the use of pronouns. We see the use of third-person plural in Verses 6-8. Verse 6: “They traveled…” Verse 7: “When they came … they tried… and the Spirit would not allow them. Verse 8: “They passed by Mysia… they came to the town of Troas.” Every pronoun describing Paul’s missionary journeys is in the third-person plural through Acts 16:8. With Verse 10, however, the pronoun switches to first-person plural: “After he had seen the vision, immediately we got ready…”
Why does this usage change here? It is impossible to know for sure, but many scholars believe that something very significant in the ministry of Paul happened at Troas. Many people believe that there Paul met the physician named Luke. Maybe Paul needed a physician. Perhaps he did have malaria.
Luke is the only Gentile writer in the entire New Testament. It is because of Luke that we have the Gospel of Luke, his first volume, and the Gospel of Acts, his second volume. Think about what life would have been like for the Christian church if Paul had not gone to Troas, if he had not taken this detour, if he had never met Luke, if Luke had never been converted.
Luke’s Gospel of Acts is certainly unique. It tells us the most about the role of women in the days of Jesus. It mentions the Holy Spirit more times than any of the other Gospels. It is there that we find two of our most favorite parables not included anywhere else: the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. If Luke had never been converted, if he had never written his Gospel, we would not have any of that information. It was not until Acts was written that the church could understand the importance of the Apostle Paul to so many churches in so many places.
Because Paul accepted a detour, the gospel of Jesus Christ went much further than if he had followed his own plan. You understand that from Troas Paul crossed a very small body of water and entered Macedonia. It seems like a small detail, but going into Macedonia meant going to Philippi, to Corinth, and eventually to Athens. Paul took the gospel of Christ Jesus from the Asian continent on to the European continent. I am not saying that the gospel would not have gone to the European continent without Paul, but certainly he had an important part all because of a detour.
The detours of life are really important. It is one of the ways God makes His plan known to us and one of the ways we understand His revelation in human life. Take, for example, Adoniram Judson, the son of a pastor of the Third Congregational Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While at Brown University, Judson began talking with a close friend, Jacob Eames, who was a devout atheist. Judson decided to give up the faith of his father and follow his friends into atheism. He began associating with people who were basically unbelievers. Any preacher will tell you that preachers’ kids are high-risk. Adoniram Judson was no exception.
After graduation, Judson returned to Plymouth and lived in the parsonage with his parents. He opened the Plymouth Independent Academy, all the while living a double life in a sense, a two-faced life. On the outside, he seemed to be pious as he took part in family worship and attended church on Sundays. Inside, though, he was fighting a spiritual war with his own doubts and disbelief.
Finally bored with life in Plymouth, Judson told his parents that he was going to New York City to write plays for the stage. He attempted that occupation but found no fame and fortune. Finally after living a vagabond’s life for a while, he obtained a horse and decided to ride west to his uncle’s home. On the way he stopped to spend a night at an inn. He was tired and needed rest, but during the night he heard sounds in the room next door: low voices, shuffling feet, and creaking floors. He also heard the agonizing cries of despair and desperation, obviously coming from someone in great distress.
Unable to stop thinking about the despair he heard in that room and the possibility of the occupant’s death he asked the innkeeper the next morning, “How is the man who is sick?”
The innkeeper replied, “He died during the night.”
“Too bad. Did you know him?”
“No,” the innkeeper answered. “I didn’t know him, but he had just graduated from college in Providence. He registered under the name of Jacob Eames.”
That detour to an inn for a night resulted in a changed life for Adoniram Judson. The death of his friend caused him to think deeply about his own life, about his own death and his destiny in eternity. He realized that what he had been professing as atheism was insufficient. He fell to his knees and turned back to the Lord Jesus Christ, to the faith his father had taught him.
Back home Judson knew that God had prepared for him something special. He was called to be the pastor of the largest church in Boston, Massachusetts, but he turned down the offer. He married Ann Hasseltine and twelve days later sailed with his bride for India. He was convinced that God wanted him to take the gospel to the subcontinent of India. When he reached his destination, he was not allowed to enter the country. He turned and went to Burma instead where he and his wife labored for seven years before having their first convert.
The country of Burma has been ruled by military dictatorship for the last number of years. Estimates are that several hundred thousand Christians, maybe as many as a half million Christians, are in the country. Some of them have been underground. The very first convert came because Adoniram Judson faced a detour in his life. He then did what God called him to do.
Have you experienced any detours in your life?
I have encountered detours through the years. I majored in biology and minored in chemistry at Furman University because I planned to go to medical school. God had other plans in mind for Kirk though. I went to seminary, kicking and screaming all the way. I did not want to be there. It was not until after I was there that God called me to the ministry. That was a backwards and upside-down plan if I had ever heard one.
A second detour happened in my life in 1978 when I fell and broke my neck. I spent five months in traction. Do you know what I did during that time of recuperation? I learned to pray while lying in a bed flat on my back. I learned what “sweet hour of prayer” means. I knew how to pray for about five minutes at a time, but I learned to pray for hours because I was immobilized.
Clare and I experienced a major detour about eleven years ago when our son Erik died. God used even his death, as He so often does. Paul says in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” God molds, shapes, and uses the detours of our lives, not in the way we envision, but in a way to accomplish His will.
We have all heard the story about the twenty-four year old graduate student at West Georgia State College. While riding a zip line on May 1 near the Tallapoosa River, she fell and gashed open her leg. The doctors used twenty-two staples in her leg. They did not realize at the time that she had gotten a flesh-eating bacteria. As a result, one of the girl’s legs, one foot and both hands were amputated. This young woman, Aimee Copeland, is the granddaughter of our own Pam and Sam Copeland. She has endured a major life detour in these past few months. In turn her life has become a shining light. Her grandparents tell me that Aimee has been drawn closer to the Lord because of this experience. Her courage and positive outlook and that of her family have brought inspiration and encouragement to many others.
Our response to the detours of life makes all the difference.
Does stopping behind slow traffic make you mad? Does it make you bitter when things do not go the way you plan? Do you become jealous, wondering why other people have it easy? Do you ask why some situation happened to you? We think that somehow negative events should not happen to us, that we are the rare exception. Everyone has detours. Our natural response is to be angry, bitter, afraid, or resentful, but we can respond in another way, in a positive way.
Some years ago, a Bible school teacher decided that the children in her class would make pillowcases as a project. Given indelible markers, the children could draw any picture they wanted. On every pillowcase, however, was written the same Scripture, the words of God to Joshua before he went into the Promised Land: “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid. I will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). I used this same passage during our Call to Worship today.
That passage printed on a pillowcase is a good one for a child who goes to summer camp, a good one for a child to sleep on at night. “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid. I will be with you wherever you go.” Those words are not just for children; those words are also for adults.
The truth is that life is hard for everyone. We all face difficult circumstances, but our attitude makes all the difference. Do you know that the hand of God is guiding us even in difficult circumstances? Can you see the possibility that God is going to use a detour in your life to work for His purpose? Do you know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that He has made the promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you”? You can count on that promise, no matter the detour.
George Matheson faced a detour in his life when doctors told him two weeks before his wedding that he was going blind. Matheson went to his fiancée and said, “My doctor says I will soon be blind for the rest of my life. Do you want to marry a man who will be blind? You need to think about that.”
Three days later Matheson’s fiancée came back to him and said, “George, I have thought about it and decided that I do not want to be married to a blind man. I want to break the engagement.”
Following the break-up, George penned the words, “O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee.”
How do you respond to the detours that come into your life? How do you approach them? If you have the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, he will give you the courage and the strength, the grace sufficient, to face your detours. If you are here today and you are not a Christian, I invite you to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. Acknowledge him today.
Kirk H. Neely © September 2012