Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Church attendance has declined. Many of you know this all too well because you can remember back to years past. There has been a long and slow decline in church attendance in North America for many decades. This decline is not unique to us. It’s straight across the board, and it affects all denominations. The pandemic has precipitated the most drastic decline in church attendance in our lifetime. Most churches have not recovered fully from its impact. Some will never recover. According to research by Barna Group, one in three practising Christians dropped out of Church entirely at the beginning of COVID-19. The first step toward recovery must be recognizing what is going on in our Church services and why attendance is essential to our spiritual health. This morning, our first reading has some critical things to teach us that highlight how God sends preachers and uses preaching.
God Sends Preachers
Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy were at a loss just before our text. Anytime they tried to preach the Gospel in Asia Minor, they ran into one barrier after another set up by God. The Holy Spirit would not let them preach the Gospel there. Finally, during their travels, Paul has a night vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to come and help them. God was calling Paul to proclaim the good news to the people of Macedonia. They are forbidden to go in one direction but invited in another; one way, the Spirit says, “do not go there”; the other, he calls “, Come here.” Immediately, Paul’s little group of missionaries got ready for their trip to Europe. Their first stop was in Philippi. Luke describes this city as a leading city and a Roman colony. While in Philippi, on a sabbath day, they go to find a place of worship. They head outside the city gate and go about a mile to a spot along the river. Paul and company encounter Lydia by the riverside, and a group of women gathered for prayer.
The Bible teaches us that we are not to serve in the public ministry without receiving a valid call. God has to send pastors. Paul wrote, “How can they preach unless they are sent?” (Ro 10:15). It is God who calls men into the public ministry. In times past, the Lord called some men directly. We see an example of this in this morning’s text. There were lots of people Paul could have and wanted to preach the Gospel to. Yet, God sent Paul to preach to a specific group of people in a particular place. Some Christians think it still works like that. Some believe that God works directly, apart from means. These people point to an inner call, something they feel, and they think this feeling qualifies them to serve a group of Christians. That is not the ordinary way God works.
God doesn’t send preachers today through feelings, visions or dreams. Today, God calls men into the ministry through the pastors and congregations of the Church. Though the call comes through the Church, the call is still from God himself.
Pastors are just as sent by God as if they had heard the voice of God himself. The only difference is that the Church is the instrument through which God calls pastors. Yet, like Paul, Pastors are called by God to preach to a specific group of people. God has sent pastors to us poor sinners. Pastors are sent by Jesus to rebuke us for our sins by the Law and to comfort us with Jesus’ death and resurrection by the Gospel.
This means that God has sent someone to you whom he wants to preach to you. God wants you to listen to his word through the mouth of a man whom he has sent through his Church. That’s the way it has been since the beginning of the Church. Pastors teach, train, and ordain men for the ministry, and congregations pick their pastors. Now, this helps us to see why church attendance is essential. It is important because God has sent a pastor to preach to you specifically to this particular group of people. This is the place where we hear God’s word read and preached and taught. God the Spirit works here through men whom God has sent.
God Uses Preaching
This brings us to Lydia herself. Lydia is the head of her household, it appears. She is an independent businesswoman, perhaps a widow. Lydia is a gentile worshiper of God who leads her household to worship on the Sabbath. The women who had assembled there listened to Paul and his companions. The text describes the scene like this, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Lydia’s faith becomes immediately active: she is baptized along with her whole household, and she opens her home.
So, I want you to see that Lydia gathered with God’s people for worship. Remember, this was the first time Christianity had ever been to this town. So Lydia went to the only place where she knew she could hear God’s Word. She went to the only place that she knew she could pray. And Lydia went to pray with her fellow people who shared her faith. If Lydia had not gone to that place of worship on the Sabbath, she would’ve missed out on hearing the message about Jesus the Messiah. So her attendance was necessary. This also means that our attendance is essential. This Church is the place where God works. It is where we gather together with people of like faith to pray, praise, and give thanks. Here we find God’s Word preached. We will miss what God wants to provide if we are missing from Church. Lydia brought her entire household to the place of worship. Do you bring your own household? Or do other things have priority? Is brunch, sleeping in, children’s sports, or a weekend away a higher priority? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
Lydia listened to the preaching, but the Lord had to open her heart to believe (verse 14). At this point, Paul practically disappears from the story. It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. God opened her inner eyes to see and believe in the Jesus Paul proclaimed. Although the message was Paul’s, God opened her heart. Paul’s preaching was not adequate by itself; the Lord worked through it. And the Lord’s work was not direct; he chose to work through Paul’s preaching. From beginning to end, this text stresses that God is in charge and God determines the results. Lydia was not able to believe in Jesus Christ or come to him by her own reason or strength. But, the Holy Spirit called her through the Gospel.
God gives faith. You cannot come to God on your own. There is no such thing as a lone-wolf Christian. You cannot worship God in your own way. The Spirit still works the same way when He changes hearts. No one comes to Christ by his own power. The story of Lydia is not a fluke, a one-off historical event. It is the way God works in converting lives. Preachers are sent. God’s people gather to hear His Word. The Gospel is preached, the Spirit works in a dead heart giving new life, and the hearers respond with faith and become disciples. The work of God precedes and prompts and opens and convicts and gives the gift of repentance and faith. If you claim to be a Christian, you will attend Church. Why? Because God sends a particular man to preach to a specific group of people who gather at a specific place.
While Church attendance may be dropping today, it is of vital importance. From our text this morning we learned that the Spirit works in two ways: by sending a particular man to preach to a specific group of people who gather at a specific place. This people are gathered on a particular day and place to listen to God’s Word, and God himself changes people’s hearts through that preaching. This means, that our Lord today works in your hearts. Today, like nearly every Sunday in this Church since 1912, a called and ordained servant of Christ has preached God’s Word. God desires to give you the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Those blessings were purchased for you by the suffering and death of your Lord Jesus Christ. But, those blessings need to be delivered to you. God has seen fit to deliver those things to St. Peter’s for the last 110 years. Even today God continues to come to us sinners, to open our hearts and strengthen us in faith toward God and love for one another.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.