Sermon on Acts 16:16-34
May 13, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
Have you ever had something bad happen in your life? What a silly question! I mean, we’ve all had those times when all we want to do is just curl up in the bed and pull the covers over our head to just block this crazy world out. We’ve all had moments we’d rather not have to face-dark moments, sad moments, angry moments, depressing moments, painful moments. We all have our stories of the “dark nights of the soul” as one writer puts it. I’d rather not have to deal with those sorts of moments where the realities of life in this world are just too much. You know the phrase, “The good Lord never gives you more than you can handle”? I saw a variation on that the other day. It said, “The good Lord never gives you more than you can handle…unless you die.” That to me seems to sum up the situation a little more realistically.
As much as we’d like to keep those moments from happening, there are always going to be times like that in our lives where the damp and cold darkness overshadows the light, where evil overshadows good, where hate overshadows love. How do you cope when those dark times come upon you? Do you turn up a bottle? Do you turn on the television? Do you turn off the lights and turn down the bed? One thing I’ve found to be true: there’s always somebody, somewhere that’s got things a lot worse than you. That is one of those statements that I think is very true and also very realistic.
It’s funny to hear people get in contests about who has it the worst. You’ve heard them before, maybe like me you even participated in the “I got it worse than you” contest. Well, as I’ve said before, I am always comforted to read Paul’s letters about what’s happening in the churches he’s writing to since they have such petty little problems that have grown into something big. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul himself even gets into one of these “I got it worse than you” contests in writing to the church at Corinth:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
Well, I must admit that Paul has a rather impressive resume and I think we could all say that he had it worse than us, no matter what we might be going through. But he mentions in that section I just read you from 2 Corinthians that he was beaten with rods three times. Well, our story from Acts this morning is a story about one of those times when he was beaten with rods.
Paul and Silas have just performed an exorcism, freeing a slave girl from bondage to a power that had complete control over her life. But the crowds and the owners of the slave girl don’t thank Paul and Silas. Rather, they drag them before the magistrates and see to it that they are stripped, beaten, and thrown into jail because their kind act cost the girl’s owners money. Not only were they not given a proper trial before being beaten, they are given to the jailer and he is told to keep them under maximum security, a command he is happy to comply with. I guess it’s sometimes true that no good deed goes unpunished.
It would be safe to say that Paul and Silas are going through a dark time in our story. Their backs are bleeding and bruised, their spirits are tired and weary, and to top it all off, their feet are in shackles and they are in a dark and dank prison without any hope of things getting better for them. So, what do they do? They hold choir practice! You heard me, they hold choir practice and start praying and singing hymns to God! This just doesn’t seem right to me. All the prison movies I’ve seen have the inmates singing sad songs, “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. Nobody knows the sorrow.” And at midnight of all times, these two disciples break out into song! I love this 25th verse, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”
Of course the prisoners were listening to them! It was midnight and they were in jail trying to get some sleep. They were quite literally a captive audience to this concert. I don’t know if Paul or Silas hit a really high note or something, but suddenly an earthquake happens. The foundations of the prison were shaken and the doors were opened and all the prisoners’ chains were unfastened. This is great for the prisoners, but it’s horrible for the jailer. In Roman law, if a jailer’s prisoner escaped, he was subject to punishment for the escaped prisoner’s crime. Not only that, but the jailer’s honor was replaced by shame, so he drew his sword to take his own life.
But just before he can fall on his sword, Paul calls to him to see that all the prisoners are right there. Even though their cell doors were opened and even though their chains were unfastened, they hadn’t escaped. Paul was more concerned with the fate of the jailer’s life than he was his own life. The jailer takes Paul and Silas from the jail to his home where he washed their wounds and gave them food-and his entire family was baptized into the faith that night. What a fascinating ancient story. But it is an ancient story that is still very relevant to us gathered here today, as shackled and imprisoned by this world as we all are.
- (1) Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned for doing something good. We tend to think of prison as a place for those who have done something bad, but in this story they are placed there because of their righteous deeds. Righteousness in the world has a price. There are many churches in our nation that have thousands of members. And they are told that God wants them to be rich and that if they follow God they will be blessed in heaven and here and now on earth. If you are here because you hope God will see you and shower you with money, then leave right now! The God I read about in the Bible has countless stories about how expensive it is to follow him, not about how rich you will be if you do.
- (2) Paul and Silas were singing at midnight in prison. Even in prison in the middle of the night Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God and praying. They were singing because they had something that nobody could shackle. They were singing the story of one who entered the dark corners and prisons of our lives so that we might join him in his true freedom and victory.
- (3) The prisoners were listening to them. This may seem like an insignificant detail. I mean, of course the prisoners were listening to them. Paul and Silas were singing in the middle of the night! But the prisoners saw the strange actions of these two beaten and bruised criminals and they heard their songs despite their physical condition, and they wanted what Paul and Silas had within them. What could make a person joyful even in prison! The prisoners were listening. People imprisoned with each of us are listening to us as well. They are observing the way we act at midnight and the songs we sing.
No matter how much we might want to avoid those midnights in our lives, the dark times will come. Those fellow prisoners that share this life with you are watching and listening to the songs you sing while the shackles are around you. But take heart, for the earthquake of Easter has already shaken the foundations of this prison and the doors have already been opened. May you all know the true freedom Jesus gives to sing at midnight-everybody in the whole cell block! Amen.