Our Risen Savior Still Acts:
He Still Opens Our Hearts
A sermon based on Acts 16:11-15
Sunday, May 6, 2012 – Easter 5B
When Heather was tweleve years old, she went to the dentist for her regular checkup. But she got a small cut while she was there and that's when the bacteria made its way in to her bloodstream. The bacteria infected her heart and did permanent damage to her valves. But after four open heart surgeries, Heather's now just fine. Today she's twenty-six years old and teaches the first grade. Her life changed—her life was saved!—because her heart was opened up and fixed.
When Lydia was living in Europe she too had her heart opened up and fixed. And her life was saved because of it. Through the preaching of the apostle Paul and his companion, Silas, the Holy Spirit opened her heart to believe the Gospel. And her life was changed. She couldn't help but respond in overwhelming gratitude.
And our Risen Savior still acts. Using his surgical tools of the Word and Sacraments, he still opens up hearts and fixes them. He still saves lives by opening hearts to receive his grace! He still changes lives by opening hearts to respond to his grace. Listen to how he did it for Lydia and be reminded how he does it for us still as we read Acts 16:11-15…
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, 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.
I. He Opens Our Hearts to Receive His Grace
We don't know too much about Lydia outside of this account. But I believe that God chose to honor her by having her name recorded in the pages of Scripture because of the wonderful example that she left us. Originally from the Greek city of Thyatira, well known in the ancient world for the rare purple dye extracted from a mussel that grew there, Lydia brought he trade with her when she left for Philippi. But since the dye was so rare, supply and demand made purple cloth very expensive, the color worn only by royalty and the very wealthy. And it made Lydia wealthy herself.
But what did Lydia do with that money? She generously used it to host four traveling missionaries: Paul and Silas, Timothy and Luke. And though I'm sure they were polite about it, their original response was, "No. We will not take you up on your offer." But Lydia persuaded them. Literally, she prevailed upon them. She wouldn't take no for an answer. But she was eager to spend the wealth that she'd earned to support the work of the Church.
But why? What made her so willing, so insistent even, to give up what she'd worked so hard to get? Well, in short, it was because God changed her heart.
Even though she was from a Greek city, somewhere she heard about the true God. "A worshipper of God" was a title given to a Greek who had converted to Judaism. Apparently there weren't too many Jewish men in Philippi or none bold enough to lead since there was no synagogue and there were no men present at the river. But Lydia gathered faithfully with the other women to worship Jehovah. But apparently she didn't yet know about her Savior.
And honestly, she couldn't know about her Savior—not on her own. She had no way of knowing that God had already sent the Messiah in the person of Jesus. But Paul and company told her by God's grace. And she had no way of believing that the message they shared was true—not on her own. You'll notice that our text doesn't say, "Lydia decided to accept Jesus into her heart." It doesn't say, "Lydia chose to believe." It doesn't even say, "Lydia then had faith." Lydia's not the subject of the sentence! But notice who does get the credit: "The Lord opened her heart to respond to [the] message."
Though she wasn't a part of God's family by nature, God chose her to become his own. God sent the missionaries to Philippi. God gave Lydia the ability to hear and understand what they said. God opened up her heart that she could positively respond to the message Paul proclaimed. And by opening her heart God brought her into his family.
Now I'm pretty sure that most of us here aren't Jewish either—not a part of God's natural family. And the fact that we were outsiders was evidenced by the way we behaved toward God.
You see, I'm also pretty sure that most of us here have far more vibrant colors in our wardrobes that Lydia even dreamed of having. I'm sure that we have far greater wealth—even the poorest among us. After all, Lydia never had motorized vehicles, running water, or computers and TV's. Nor did she ever dream of such luxuries. But we have incredible wealth.
Yet how do we use that wealth? Do we eagerly spend it on whatever supports the mission of the Church? Do we eagerly open our very homes to complete strangers in order that the Gospel might be spread? Do we refuse to take "no" for an answer and do whatever it takes to give generously of the blessings God's given? Not that often, do we?
And why not? Because our hearts were diseased. They were selfish. They were full of self-serving sin. And we were like dead branches, cut off from the tree that gives life. Like fruitless branches doing nothing good, fit only for the fire.
But God in his grace wouldn't take "no" as an answer from us. But with his relentless grace he pursued us. He sent someone to share the message of Jesus with us. He performed open heart surgery—opening our hearts to respond to the Good News that our every sin is paid for by Jesus' blood shed for us on the cross!
And now we're like dead branches grafted in to the living tree. When I went to Israel my tour guide showed us some trees that looked like they'd all been cut off at the trunk about three feet off the ground. But into the tall stump of a trunk, branches from other trees had been grafted in. Branches that had been cut off and destined to die, now had life. And that's what God did for us! We who were once dead, lifeless branches, have been grafted into God's family tree, just like Lydia was.
And it wasn't because we chose God or decided to believe in him, but just like it was for Lydia, it was because God opened our hearts through the Word like he did for Lydia, through the waters of Baptism like he did for Anna and Nevaeh. And we still have life because he keeps our hearts open by keeping us connected to those means of grace, so we're always connected to the Vine that is Jesus. And now we have life! And that life isn't stagnant. What lives produces fruit…
II. He Opens Our Hearts to Respond to His Grace
Just look at Lydia again. She must have been industrious to become a dealer in purple cloth. She must have been quite wealthy as a result. And she must have had a pretty nice home—one that could easily accommodate another four fully grown men and their appetites without any advanced notice or preparation. She must have been successful to have a household—either of kids or servants—and manage them along with her business. But what did she do with her hard-earned wealth? She gave it away!
She recognized that one fruit of faith that she could produce was to spend her money, not on herself, but on the mission. And she was eager to do it. She was insistent. "No, no." I'm sure Paul said, "That's really quite a generous offer—to house all four of us—but we really couldn't put you out like that. In fact, we have this policy, you see, that we never burden those we minister to. We never want anyone to get the impression that we only do what we do for financial gain. But again, thank you. And we'll see you in the morning."
"No!" I can imagine Lydia firing back. "I'm not asking you. I'm telling you. I'm not giving you an invite here. You will stay at my place—all four of you. You will eat the best food I have to offer. You will drink my very best drink. You will sleep in the best beds that I can find. I absolutely insist and I will be offended and hurt if you refuse me." "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded [them]. She prevailed upon them, so insistent was she that she could demonstrate her faith and respond to God's grace. Why? Because God had opened her heart to respond to his grace.
And friends, it's no different for you. Just look at all the colors in your clothes this morning! And think of all the things you own that Lydia, with all of her wealth, never dreamed of! You most likely have more items in your home that are used for your hobbies and leisure time activities than you have tools for the work you do to support yourself. You have more food in your cupboards and refrigerators than Lydia could have imagined.
And you are blessed with other, non-material, blessings: health, gifts and abilities, friends and family, free time. Those are wonderful gifts of God that we take for granted way too often! And then we have the even greater spiritual blessings that God has given us—Spirit-given understanding, the forgiveness of our sins and the peace that it brings us, heaven itself with the mansions that God has prepared for us there!
And all these gifts—and especially these latter, greater gifts—move us to such overwhelming gratitude that we cannot help but produce fruits of faith. We simply must show our God how thankful we are for all he's done and for all he's given, for opening our hearts and grafting us in to his family tree! For by his great grace to us he continues to open our hearts to fill them with appreciation and gratitude again that must respond to his grace in works of service.
Do you know why they grafted branches into those stumps in Israel? It was so that all the water and nutrients that had been going to heal and grow the entire tree, now went right into the fruit, making it grow bigger and faster and more delicious than ever. In fact, one man had successfully created a tree in his back yard that grew lemons, limes, oranges, and mangos—all in the same tree! (And he was thinking about trying to add an avocado branch!) But they grafted the branches to the stump to give those branches life so that those branches would produce fruit.
In the same way, God has grafted us into his family tree not just so we can sit around providing shade, but so what we can produce fruit—big, flourishing fruit that looks delicious to God! And you have produced that kind of fruit!
You have given generously of your hard-earned dollars. Though in this month's Grace Notes our treasurer notes that we still have $7,000 in outstanding obligations, in the previous month's newsletter that figure was $21,000! And our $7,000 shortfall is after paying off $14,000 in unexpected debt earlier this fiscal year! So in a certain sense, we're $7,000 ahead in offerings we expected to receive! You are giving very generously!
Count up the hours of time that members spend at church, volunteering their time to play the keyboard, to attend important meetings, to clean the building, to teach Sunday School, to count the offerings, to run the webcast, and to do all the other things that need to be done around here and I'll bet the number is in the thousands per year! You do give generously of your time!
And its not just here! Consider the hours you spend in humble serve others: cleaning your home, showing love to your spouse and kids, encouraging your co-workers, carrying more than your fair share of the work or changing a diaper without complaint. You've shared your faith. You've invited your friends to worship! And these are all wonderful fruits of faith! When I look out at the people sitting in the chairs this morning, I see a whole lot of Lydias—a whole lot of saints who won't take "no" for an answer, but must serve others to serve their Savior out thanks to him!
Now don't stop! Keep it up! Not because you have to, but because you long to. Because you'll go crazy if you can't find some release for your overwhelming desire to thank Jesus for all he's done for you! For by his grace, you are connected to the true vine. In him you have life! And as your remain in him and he in you, you will bear much fruit. You'll draw water from the Living Water and get the nutrients your faith needs from the Word. And rejoicing in his grace, your faith will grow and you'll produce more and bigger fruit! You won't be able to help it. You won't take "no" for an answer, but will find a way to thank God for opening your heart to receive his grace and for opening your heart to respond to his grace. In the name of Jesus, the true vine, dear friends, amen.