Expect the Unexpected

Romans 15:22-29

March 27, 2011 | Brian Bill

When the unexpected happens, we’re prone to either become exasperated or to make excuses.  Here are some actual unedited excuses received by a public school.

“My son is under the doctor’s care and should not take P.E.  Please execute him.”

“Mary could not come to school today because she was bothered by very close veins.” 

“Please excuse Ray Friday.  He has loose vowels.”

“Please excuse Roland from P.E. for a few days.  Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.”

“Please excuse Jimmy for being.  It was his father’s fault.”

While quite different from these parent’s excuses, our text in Romans 15:22-29 is also an absence excuse as Paul answers the question, “Why haven’t you visited Rome yet?”  He may have felt like the Roman Church wanted to give him an unexcused absence.  Instead of making up some excuses, Paul believes it’s normal to expect the unexpected.

In one sense, this section of Scripture may not seem relevant to us because it appears to be just a record of Paul’s travel itinerary from 2,000 years ago.  But I want to suggest that we can learn a lot about how God guides His people from how he led Paul.  My guess is that some of us need help in making important decisions related to a relationship, a job change, a move, where to go to college, whether to purchase a home or a car or some cheese…the list is really endless.

This passage, while not exhaustive, will give us some insight into these matters.  But more than that, these verses have given me great comfort in learning some principles to help me deal with the unexpected.  After all, life is filled with the unplanned, whether it’s a health situation, a relational rupture, a parenting quandary, or a technological temper tantrum.

Last week we learned that when we get the gospel we will go with the gospel.  Today we’ll see that God’s purposes prevail even when our plans don’t.  Let’s look at six certainties that will help us prepare for the unexpected.

Six Certainties

1. Our plans are often hindered. 

We see this in verse 22: “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.”  This verse is really tied to what we learned last week.  The reason Paul has been delayed is because as a pioneering church planter, verse 20 says that he was focused on preaching the gospel “where Christ was not known.”  Earlier in Romans 1:11-13 Paul had made his plans pretty clear: “I long to see you…I planned many times to come to you…”

The word “hindered” means to cut in, to cut off, or to interrupt.  Every way he turned his path to Rome was cut off.  While it’s sometimes difficult to know in a specific situation why our plans are hindered, I can think of some possibilities.

  • The Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6-8)
  • Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18)
  • Other people (Galatians 5:7)
  • My own lack of faith
  • Shrapnel from living in a fallen world
  • Godly priorities
Friends, let’s make plans but then let’s expect them to get messed up

In this instance, it was godly priorities that kept Paul from coming to Rome.  Friends, let’s make plans but then let’s expect them to get messed up.  If we expect the unexpected we’ll handle life much better.  Beth and I were talking about this on Thursday morning.  When I left for the office she said, “Hope things go well today…”  And then she caught herself and added, “…but they won’t.”  Let’s follow the wisdom found in James 4:15: “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  

2. Our place of ministry will sometimes change. 

After devoting a lot of attention to connecting the disconnected to Christ, Paul sensed that he had completed the task that he was given to do.  That doesn’t mean that everyone in that region had heard the gospel but he had established reproducing churches and had equipped them to finish the task. 

Look at the first part of verse 23: “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions…”   Our family has experienced that sense of completion at different points in our ministry as I moved from being on staff at Moody Bible Institute in the mid-80s to an internship in a church to becoming a pastor in that church, to moving to another pastorate in Rockford in the early 90s and from there to Mexico City, Mexico and from there to life in Livingston County.  We sense that there is still a place for us to “work in these regions” but when God makes it clear that we’re finished here, we’ll move to our next ministry assignment.

In the meantime, we want to bloom where we’re planted.  Here’s the principle. Stay where you are and complete the job God has called you to do.  1 Corinthians 7:17: “…Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.”

You have the freedom to change the place of your ministry because the sphere in which you serve will change over time.  You might move from serving in Student Ministry to the Nursery or you might move from the Hostess Committee to AWANA.  But the key is to keep serving.  It’s really not a question of whether we will serve; the question is where we will serve.

3. Our personal preferences should be held lightly. 

While it’s important to express our personal desires, what we want might not be what God wants.  Or our timing might not be God’s timing.  We see this in the last part of verse 23 and verse 24: “…and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain.  I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for awhile.”  We hear the emotion expressed in “longing” and “I plan” and “I hope” and “after I have enjoyed.”  Why was Paul set on Spain?  Because it was the intellectual center of the world and it represented the furthermost extent of the Roman Empire.

Let’s express our emotions and even declare our desires but then let’s loosen our grip on them.  Our emotions can’t drive the train.  That reminds me of the Campus Crusade illustration that shows the importance of getting the order right.  FACTS are the engine.  The next car is FAITH.  And our FEELINGS are the caboose.  

Note that Paul doesn’t set dates or make promises that he can’t keep.  That’s a good practice because none of us know the future.  Paul lives this out in 1 Corinthians 16:7: “…I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.”  Steinbeck was right: “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”

4. Our priorities must include the poor. 

Our plans are often hindered, our place of ministry sometimes changes and our personal preferences need to be held lightly.  That leads to a fourth certainty.  In the midst of ministry, we can’t ignore the plight of the poor.  Notice verses 25-27: “Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there.  For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.  They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them.  For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” 

Paul has expressed his preference for the future but his priority in the present is to serve the saints and provide for the poor.  Incidentally, this would have taken him 1,000 miles in the opposite direction, making this his fifth journey to Jerusalem.  The word for “service” is fascinating.  It’s the picture of a servant doing menial and mundane tasks, something the Greeks regarded as degrading and dishonorable.  Not so for Paul as he was simply following in the footsteps of our Savior who came to serve and not be served.

The Jewish-background believers were facing persecution for their faith and many had lost their jobs and even their homes.  On top of this, many were experiencing abject poverty due to a famine in the land.  The Gentile-background believers from Macedonia and Achaia responded generously to help meet this need.  Let me make four observations.

  • They gave joyfully.  It says that they were “pleased” to do so in verse 26 and again in verse 27.  This literally means that they freely decided and took great pleasure in giving.  This is echoed in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 
  • They gave in order to discharge a debt.  While their giving was filled with great joy they also gave as way to show that they were indebted to the Jews in Jerusalem for passing along God’s truth to them.  We see this in verse 27: “They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.”  The principle here is to provide a material blessing where you are receiving spiritual blessings.
  • They contributed because of what they had in common.  It’s very interesting that the word contribution here is the word koinonia, which some of you will recognize as the Greek word for fellowship.  This literally means, “To share in common.”  They were doing more than just giving money; they were exhibiting what fellowship really is – the sharing of lives.  Paul is all about propagating the gospel but he also wants to equip the churches by helping them grow in unity.  It’s time for the GBBs to care for the JBBs, for Gentile-background believers to care for the Jewish-background believers.  This reveals his heart both for unity among believers from different ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, as well as his passion to help those in poverty.
  • They gave to those in great need.  There are a couple different words translated “poor” but the one used here is for someone in dire distress, one who is totally helpless.  The picture is of an individual crouching and cowering in the corner.  One commentator added, “As he held out one hand, he often hid his face with the other.”

Caring for the poor is to be a hallmark of the church.  In my Bible reading this week I came across Deuteronomy 15:11: “…Therefore I command you to be openhearted toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”   Galatians 2:10 gives a summary statement of what Gentile believers are to do: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”  1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”  Hebrews 13:16: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” 

5. Our personal integrity must be guarded at all times. 

One of the quickest ways to capsize the cause of Christ is by not paying attention to our personal integrity.  Paul could be trusted to faithfully deliver these funds as seen in the first part of verse 28: “So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit…”  It’s interesting that Paul refers to this contribution as fruit, not loot.  This is refreshing, isn’t it?  This is sure better than the approach a pastor from Houston took earlier this month when he demanded that his congregation give their tax refund checks to the church.  When some members refused, he denied them communion. This pastor even went so far as to call those who wouldn’t contribute “devils and demons.”  Unfortunately, this made it on to the news wire services so now more people are poking fun at pastors and churches and how they handle money matters.  

Here are some observations I wrote down from verse 28:

  • Be a finisher, not a slacker.  Paul “completed this task.”  
  • Follow-through with your tasks.  Paul “made sure” the shekels arrived.  This whole process took about a year but Paul kept plodding away.  
  • Be above reproach.  The word “received” was used of a security seal, as in sealing sacks of grain, so the recipient knew that what was delivered was the full amount.  

6. God’s purposes always prevail. 

God’s purposes always prevail

No matter how messed up our plans get, or where our place of ministry ends up, or whether our personal preferences are fulfilled, we must make sure to prioritize the poor and maintain our personal integrity.  To help us keep going, we must anchor our lives to this final certainty: God’s purposes always prevail. Paul doesn’t know for certain that he’ll make it to Rome and he certainly doesn’t know when it will happen if it does happen, but he does know in verse 29 that he “…will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” Even when our plans get blown up, we can experience the full measure of blessing because while our immediate intentions might not be fulfilled, God’s ultimate plans will always come to pass.

Paul did make it to Rome but not in the way he had imagined.  Instead of jumping on Travelocity.com after dropping off the offering, forty individuals took an oath not to eat or sleep until they killed Paul.  He was dragged out of the Temple, beaten severely, arrested and put in prison for two years before he was put on a boat to Rome.

We’re not certain if he ever made it to Spain but we do know that the gospel message rang out from Paul even while he was in prison.  He had the opportunity of preaching to governmental officials and people visited him in jail and were ministered to.  On top of that, Paul’s long delay in traveling to Rome led him to write the life-changing letter that we now call “The Book of Romans.”  

Here are some passages to hold on to when the unexpected events happen in your life, and they for sure will:

Proverbs 16:9: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”

Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

Jeremiah 10:23: “I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.”

I like what Gary Friessen says: “The sinner may shake his fist at the heavens, but God will determine how many times he shakes it.”  Friends, human planning and divine providence are allies, not enemies.  God is sovereign and will accomplish His purposes.  How then can we know how best to make decisions?  How do we know God’s will?  That’s a topic for another sermon or even an entire sermon series but let me pass along this concise summary from Ray Pritchard:

“Here is my advice to everyone who wants to know and do God’s will:

  • Seek first God’s kingdom in your life and in the world.
  • Make the best plans that you can.
  • Humbly submit them to your Heavenly Father, saying, ‘your will be done.’
  • Take the next step that is in front of you.
  • Trust God to take care of everything else.

“The will of God is not a destination, it’s a journey…I remember what Job said: ‘He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold’ (Job 23:10). He knows the way that I take even when I don’t.  He knows the way that I take even when I can’t see clearly.  He knows the way that I take even when I get lost.  Our God is infinitely creative in the ways he deals with his children.  Let this be our motto as we seek to do God’s will: Expect the unexpected, and enjoy the journey.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?