Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 24, 2009
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PLANS CHANGE
Texts: Jeremiah 29:10-11; Acts 16:6-10; Matthew 11:25-26
What happens when plans change? We had life all planned; then something happened, something that turned our world upside-down, or at least altered it unalterably. A business failure, a bankruptcy, a lost job, a divorce, a health crisis, a death, a retirement account cut into a fraction of itself.
In this life we act, and we are acted upon. This is the deepest meaning of what we call the “passion” of Christ: he was acted upon as we all are acted upon. We assume, or at least hope, that God can use our action. Can God also use our “passion,” our being acted upon?
This sermon is about what happens when plans change, or what can happen.
The main text for today comes from Acts 16. It is at first glance baffling. Paul had his plans: to preach the gospel throughout Asia Minor, what we call Turkey today. Especially he had in mind the region of Bythynia – a rich, fertile, bustling area with a number of prospering Greek-speaking cities. Fertile ground for the gospel too, or so he thought.
But the text tells that when Paul and his companions came to Asia Minor, the Holy Spirit “forbade” them to go there, and that when they attempted to cross over into Bythynia, the Spirit of Jesus “did not allow” them to go there.
This seems strange. What can it mean? How, why, would the Holy Spirit forbid them, would Jesus not allow them to go where they planned to go with their well-formulated, well-intended plans?
Was it a set of circumstances which thwarted their plans and which were interpreted as interventions of the Spirit, of Jesus? Passports denied, weather which made travel impossible, local leaders who refused hospitality? Was there a vision, a stop sign in the sky, an inner prompting too strong to deny?
We do not, cannot, know. But when the door slammed shut, another door opened. They detoured to Troas, and at Troas a vision was given them – of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us here.” Paul was “convinced” this was the leading of God; he crossed over into Greece, and the rest, as they say, is history. This change of plans led to the spread of the gospel into Macedonia and Greece and western Europe. The book of Acts ends with the thrilling words, “And so we came to Rome!” (Acts 28:14).
Harry Emerson Fosdick, the first and great minister at Riverside Church, New York City, preached a famous sermon called “Handling Life’s Second-Bests.” In it he gave biographical examples.
Whistler, the famous American painter, wanted to be a career soldier, but he failed at West Point because he flunked chemistry. “If silicon had been a gas,” he said, “I should have become a major-general.” Organic chemistry has been a change of plans for more than a few of us. But now we have Whistler’s paintings.
Phillips Brooks, the famous American preacher, wanted to be a teacher but failed miserably in the classroom. Now we have his sermons and his Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Sir Walter Scott wanted most to be a poet, but failed as a poet, then turned to adventure novels – which have become classics.
We could go on and on. Flannery O’Connor’s lupus required a forced return to the South to live with her mother. She was sure it would be the END of her work as a writer, but in fact her greatest work was ahead. Jimmy Carter’s presidency ended in a bitter and decisive defeat after one term, but look at the magnificence of his life as ex-President of the United States. The famous novelist Walker Percy trained to be a doctor. While an intern in a New York hospital, he contracted tuberculosis while working on a tuberculosis ward. He spent two years in a sanatorium, where he read and read and read, his enforced convalescence becoming his path to a career as writer, philosopher, novelist.
You in the congregation could give ample testimony of how detours have turned into destinations. You had your heart set on a particular college, but the admissions office said no, and you went to your second choice, which turned out to be a great place for you. You dreamed of being a major league pitcher, but never figured out how to throw a curve ball. You wanted to be a dancer, but a weak knee became an injured knee and your plans were changed. But look how God has used your altered life!
I do not want to be glib. The alteration of plans may have been a devastating and humiliating defeat – the losses real and irrecoverable. But God can use our defeats, our losses. God is the ultimate Improvisor, who takes our altered lives and alters them toward our highest good.
Joseph believed in such a God. When young, he had been an insufferable, pompous favored son. His brothers hated him. One day they jumped him and were intending to kill him when a caravan en route to Egypt happened to pass by. They sold him into slavery instead.
Joseph rose from slave to prince of Egypt, the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. One day his brothers came to the palace in Egypt seeking food, for their country was in a terrible famine. They found themselves face-to-face with their brother whom they had sold into slavery. When Joseph told him who he was, they were terrified he would take revenge on them. But instead, Joseph said,
Do not be afraid
For am I in the place of God?
No, you meant it for evil,
but God meant it for good.
Or, as Everett Fox translates it:
Now you, you planned ill against me,
(but) God planned-it-over for good. (Gen. 50:19-20)
If you want to make God laugh, the saying goes, tell Her your plans.
“But this is what I had all planned,” we say to Her.
“I know, Hon,” She says. Who would have thought God a sassy southern waitress? “I understand why you’d want such plans,” She adds, “I’d want those things for you too.”
“So what happened?” we ask.
“Life changes our plans,” She says.
“What are we going to do now?” we ask.
She answers, “Let me work with you on that, but first let me get your coffee. White or black?”
“Lots of cream and lots of sugar,” we say. To hell with the diet. “And how about that pastry over there?” we ask, pointing to the counter.
“Sure, Hon,” She says, and heads for the streussel.
Jeremiah the prophet wrote to the Hebrew people carried off into captivity in Babylon. Here is the word of God he heard and passed on to them:
‘I’ll bring you back home someday. It will take a while, but don’t lose hope. In the meantime, this is how to live out your hope: Plant gardens, take wives and husbands, make babies, raise families, seek the welfare of the city in which you live – yes, even Babylon, for in its welfare you will find your own welfare.’ Then came the clincher:
And one day, they indeed came home.
Jesus ran into a huge reversal of his plans. He preached the nearness of the kingdom of God and called people to turn and enter it. He hoped everyone would hear what he had heard, see what he saw and join with him in the coming of God’s great kingdom. But that is not what happened. Far from it. Fierce opposition arose, especially among the important people, the big shots, the scholars, the religious leaders in league with Rome. They were saying no. And who were saying yes? A rag-tag group of nobodies, fishermen, women, children, outcasts, “little people.”
And how did Jesus respond to this huge, unanticipated turn of events? With thanksgiving no less, even amid his ruined plans.
I thank you, Abba,
Lord of heaven and earth,
That you have hidden these things
from the wise and learned,
and revealed them to babes, the nepioi,
the little ones.
Yes, Abba, for such was your gracious will,
your eudokia, your good pleasure.
In the face of mounting evil, God was planning-it-over for good. And Jesus trusted in this planning-it-over because he trusted in the final goodness of God, in the faithfulness at the heart of things.
Can we, dare we, trust in this? Hope in this? Believe that God is at work in every circumstance, every, for our highest good. Believe that there is an Unseen Hand guiding our lives and the life of the world. Not pre-determining, not forcing, but guiding? Even in the midst of defeat and painfully changed plans? This is faith at its deepest level.
Such faith can help us break through the stranglehold of shame which often accompanies times of failure and loss. And shame is a killer of Spirit and spirituality, a killer of life.
Marilyn Williams, who works for the police department, e-mailed me a statistic. Compared to last year this time, suicide attempts in Charlotte are up 55%. You may have heard the news story a few months back. A high executive with one of the corporations experiencing huge reversals walked in front of a train, killing himself. Shame can do that. (I do not mean to be morbid, only to throw a rope to someone who may be drowning.)
John Bradshaw speaks of the difference between healthy guilt and toxic shame.
Healthy guilt says, I made a mistake.
Toxic shame says, I am a mistake.
Healthy guilt says, I was wrong.
Toxic shame says, there’s something wrong with me.
Healthy guilt focuses on behavior and the amending of mistakes.
Healthy guilt says, I disappointed someone important to me.
Toxic shame says, I am a disappointment.
Southern culture is an incubator of shame. And we become virtuosos of passing on the shame handed us, both consciously and unconsciously. Church can be a shame machine!
The answer is in new-found candor and an inner clarity, and a conviction of our belovedness in God and in the community of God.
Wendell Berry wrote a poem which has helped me at important moments when shame seemed overpowering. It is titled, “Do Not Be Ashamed.” It describes the voices, inner and outer, always ready to accuse and shame, and how we survive this onslaught.
I will read it aloud. You may read it on the page 11. A poem is something heard and something arranged on a page to see.
You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.
Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening fight from the hilltop.1
May I see your faces? “Look to God and be radiant.” the psalmist says, no doubt having faced her own share of troubles, “so that your faces shall never be ashamed!”
1Wendell Berry, “Do Not Be Ashamed,” The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), pp. 32-33.