Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Dead End” Acts 16:6-15
We can imagine the Apostle Paul’s disappointment. The Jerusalem Council blessed his mission to the Gentiles. He left Antioch with big plans: to revisit the churches he had planted on his last missionary journey and then push on into new territory. But 750 miles into Paul’s second journey, it appeared that he was at a dead end. First, the Holy Spirit had turned him around in Asia, and then, the Spirit of Jesus had blocked his way in Bithynia. 750 miles on foot, that’s a long way to go on a dead-end road.
As Paul retreated to the busy seaport of Troas on the Aegean, he must have felt frustrated and grieved. He had gotten all the proper permissions. He had the best intentions. And still, it was a no-go. Even worse, he had dragged friends along on his folly: Silas, Timothy, and Luke. As the team bedded down for the night, Paul was certainly puzzled—maybe even a little angered—by God, who had called him to this great missionary purpose, yet thwarted his efforts at every new turn. It seemed that he had come to the end of the road.
We know how it feels to hit a dead end. We have been there in our personal lives. We’ve spent years in relationships with significant others who would never commit. We have had broken friendships that will never be mended. We have had family problems that just never get resolved.
We have hit dead ends in the workplace. Armed with a degree in our field of study, we step into a first job and find it is not at all what we had hoped or wanted. We’ve worked long years for businesses that fail. We’ve done our very best for our boss and still the promotion never comes.
Sometimes we hit a dead end with our bodies, our physical health. There’s the natural progression of age—we no longer have the legs for mountain climbing or the eyesight for fine needlework. Or a difficult diagnosis can have life-changing consequences, like medications with debilitating side-effects or doctor’s appointments rob us of our days off. Sometimes, our dead end leaves us hoping for a medical miracle.
We don’t like dead ends. At the dead end, we feel like failures and are filled with “if onlys.” If only I had apologized. If only I had accepted that other job. If only I had taken better care of myself when I was younger. At the dead end, we may wonder if we have wasted our best efforts. At the dead end, we may question God’s purpose and even God’s presence.
Paul must have felt a lot like that when he and his friends turned in for the night in Troas, lacking direction and wondering where to go. That night, Paul found new vision. A Greek man, a Macedonian from the heart of the old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, spoke to Paul. He pleaded for Paul’s help, calling the apostle to come over, to cross the Aegean Sea. The apostle awoke with the conviction that the message was from God almighty, who was calling him in an entirely new direction.
After sharing his vision with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, they all agreed, “Macedonia, here we come!” At first light, the men went down to the waterfront. They booked passage for Neapolis, the port city of Macedonia. As they set sail, a promising tailwind pushed them on to their destination in record time. As Paul and his friends stood on the deck with the wind at their backs and the ocean spray in their faces, it must have felt like a holy affirmation of their new direction.
On some days, it can feel hard to imagine that a fresh start awaits on the far side of our dead ends. It’s difficult to see past grief and heartache, pain and loss, doubts and fears. Dead ends really do feel lousy. Yet, dead ends can be turning points or unexpected twists in a journey that continues. Sometimes, when we take stock at the dead end, we find that we have grown through our experience. There is wisdom that comes with failure, insight gleaned from our dashed dreams, fresh understanding that grants patience when circumstances are beyond our control. We may not have a spectacular midnight vision from the Lord, but newness and possibility can emerge from the ash heap of our dead ends.
There is life for us beyond the dead ends in our personal lives. On the far-side of the dead end, we may find a new relationship or discover joy in the freedom of being unattached. We make new friends, tend those kinships better, and keep healthier boundaries. We find the possibility for peace, even when our family stays stuck. We may choose to make a family of our own with those who accept us as we are and support us in our growth.
There is possibility for us beyond the dead ends we find in the workplace. Beyond the dead end, we take the time to discern our gifts and learn how God would have us use those abilities in meaningful and productive ways. Or, we find a new job with different, more meaningful responsibilities, colleagues, and learning experiences. Or, we realize that life isn’t about a paycheck. We find fulfillment beyond the unfulfilling workplace in our families, pass times, and service to the community.
There are fresh starts for us beyond the dead ends of growing age and failing health. Indeed, the dead end of diminishing ability can lead to new interests. We trade the tennis racquet for the pickleball paddle. We trade mountain climbing for trail walking. On the far side of the dead end, we learn to live with that diagnosis. We replace the burgers and fries with grilled salmon and a fresh, leafy salad – and we may even learn to like it. We find the support we need to accept our limits in small groups and the prayers of faithful friends. Even when we must acknowledge the finitude of our days—the dead end that we will all one day meet, we savor the time we have, drink each day to the last drop, and trust that with God, there is always an eternal more that awaits us in that far brighter light on that far better shore
The Apostle Paul had one more twist on his missionary journey. He spent some days in Philippi without any success to speak of. On the Sabbath morning when he left the city and headed down to the river in search of an informal synagogue, he was probably wondering about the wisdom of this “new direction.” There had been no Macedonian man waiting to greet him. On the contrary, it was the Gentile woman Lydia, an affluent merchant of imperial cloth, whom he found, gathered with her household at the riverside to pray and meditate upon the Word.
Paul let go of his expectations and followed the Spirit’s lead. He shared the good news of Jesus and God’s love that is stronger than death. And Lydia followed the Spirit’s lead, too, with open ears, open heart, and an open home. Imagine the rejoicing on that riverbank, the shouts of “Alleluia!” “Amen!” and “Thanks be to God!” as Lydia was baptized, and Paul’s first church beyond the dead end was planted. Now, that’s what I call a new beginning.
Paul’s story speaks to us, we who have languished in the cul-de-sac of dead ends and second-guessed our new beginnings. Paul reminds us that our path and our purpose ultimately belong to God and we are never alone on the journey. We can trust that the Spirit is at work in us, just as it is at work in others. God’s Spirit opens ears, opens hearts, and opens the way to the future that God holds ready. Beyond our dead ends, the Spirit beckons to us, “Come over.”
Brian Peterson. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jennifer Kaalund. “Commentary on Acts 16:9-15” in Preaching This Week, May 26, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Megan McDonough. “Dead Ends Are New Beginnings.” Accessed online at wholebeinginstitute.com.
Dixie Somers. “7 Dead Ends in Life and How to Avoid Them.” Accessed online at lifehack.org.
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When 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.
11 We therefore set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and 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. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed[b] there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A 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. 15 When 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.