Proverbs 3:1-14, Acts 16:16-34
August 1, 2010
Today we’re looking at this great story of Paul and Silas in Prison in the city of Philippi. I’ve always liked this story. I was glad when I found that it was one of the passages we studied at Kirkwood this summer! And I think it has a lot to say about the way we are called to live our lives every day.
The story begins when Paul and Silas enter the city of Philippi, and there encounter this slave girl who had a “spirit of divination.” That meant she could tell people’s fortunes. And she made her masters a fortune!! But when she saw Paul and Silas she began to say out loud, “These men are servants of the most high God!” And she even said, “and they will proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
Isn’t that interesting about the spiritual realm? The spirit which gave this girl the power to tell fortunes, also recognized the power of the Spirit of God within Paul and Silas! If you remember, that same thing often happened with Jesus, too. He would encounter someone with an evil spirit inside them, and the spirit would cry out, “I know who you are, Jesus!” Scripture is pretty clear that there is a spiritual realm beyond this one. And it’s interesting to see how it comes into play with the natural world.
So this spirit recognizes God’s spirit in Paul and Silas and cries out. And we’re not really told why, but that seems to annoy Paul. Maybe it was a timing thing. Maybe he had his reasons for sharing the story of Jesus at a certain time or a certain place. But whatever the reason, he turns and casts the spirit out of the girl.
Now, that essentially ended the business of the girl’s owners. And they were very upset about it. They grabbed Paul and Silas, dragged them to the town square, and began to accuse them before the magistrates of the city. They said they disrupted Roman peace and violated Roman law. But this was more than just a trial. It quickly became a mob scene! The crowd joined in and the magistrates had Paul and Silas “beaten with rods” and dragged off to jail. We would find out later that in doing so, they were violating Roman Law. Because Paul was a Roman Citizen, and he was entitled to due process. That opened up a whole new can of worms!
There’s actually a lot of Roman Law going on in this story. And as we think about that, I want to caution us about our image of Rome. Sometimes we see Rome, and Egypt in the Old Testament, as being evil empires. Egypt persecuted the people of Israel, and Rome persecuted the Christians. But I’d like us to consider that it was certain evil or corrupt people who were responsible for those things. I would like to give the nations more of the benefit of the doubt. I would have us remember that both Egypt and Rome were highly advanced civilizations that gave the world a lot of good things. And I think in this story we can get a sense of the order and justice that Rome gave us.
At this point in the story, the magistrates told the jailor – a man who was just doing his job – to “keep them safely.” And that meant, “Don’t let them escape.” With that charge, the jailor knew – under Roman law – that, if he failed to keep them from escaping, his life was forfeit. That was a pretty effective law! Prisoners didn’t escape very often! So the jailer put “the boys” in the most secure part of the prison and fastened their feet in stocks. (And I don’t want even to think about how they went to the bathroom! But I don’t think that was of great concern to the jailor.)
That brings us to verse 25. And this is the part I love! In the inner cell, with their feet in the stocks, Paul and Silas were doing what? They were singing! They were praising God! And everybody was listening, the other prisoners, the guards, and of course, the star of our show – the jailor.
Now, let me ask you. Do you think they felt like singing? Or do you think they chose to sing and praise God in that circumstance? What were they thinking? And remember that this same Paul would tell us in his letters that we too are to “rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks to God in all circumstances.” “For this is God’s will for you.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18) Do we do that? That’s not easy! I know it can be hard for me, and I’m sure it is for you. Because we really don’t feel like it, do we? Nobody really feels like it. So it is then a choice to do it, isn’t it?
That’s the “choosing attitudes” part of this story. We must choose our attitudes, or the circumstances will choose them for us! But what about the other part? What about the “Changing lives” part? As we move through this story we find that Paul and Silas’ attitude of praise made a difference for people. First of all, it made a difference for them in their situation. We can’t forget that! When we praise God in time of difficulty it changes our demeanor, doesn’t it? Try it sometime! It made a world of difference for Paul and Silas. But it also made a difference to the other prisoners. And as we will see, it made a huge difference to the jailor.
The next thing that happens in this story is that there is an earthquake. And this “well-timed” earthquake opens all the cell doors! Well, the Jailor sees this, he assumes the prisoners have all escaped, and he’s ready to throw himself on his sword. Because he knows he will be executed under the law! But Paul sees this and he cries out, “Stop!” “Wait!” “We’re all still in here.” He knew the law, too! And his mercy toward the jailor in staying there in his cell changes the Jailor’s life! He sees the strength and courage of these men! He’s already heard them singing in their cell! And now he knows they are genuine! He knows their faith is good even in times of trial. Now, in his own time of trial he asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” And he and his whole household comes to God that very evening!
What a great story! But great as it is, I know what people often think about it. It’s the same thing they think about a lot of stories in the Bible. They think, “Yeah, but that was Paul!” “That was the greatest of the Apostles!” I could never be like that! “I’m too weak!” “I could never be that strong!”
Actually, I don’t think that’s all that bad. Because fortunately, the fact is that few of us, if any, will ever have to face the kinds of hardships Paul faced. Most of the time the things we face are nothing in comparison. But we do go through some pretty tough stuff, don’t we? And I think you’ll agree that we have similar opportunities where we can choose our attitudes during those “lesser hardships!” But that’s not easy! That takes “practice” doesn’t it? That’s something we will get better at, the more we do it. And it’s something that if we haven’t tried it before, we must make a decision to do! Otherwise, the decision will be made for us. Again, that’s the nature of attitudes! If we don’t choose them, they will be chosen for us!
While you’re thinking about that, consider this. Several months ago at the first Service, the leader asked people to tell about times they felt particularly close to God. And I was surprised. I expected to hear people talk about their “mountaintop experiences.” “I was on a retreat at Kirkwood.” “I was in some majestic setting.” “I was in a particularly fervent time in my life of faith.” But no! Most of what people shared were times of great difficulty! That was when they felt God’s presence most keenly!
I have to tell you, I do not believe that God brings evil upon us, or that he puts us in situations where bad things happen. Sometimes people think that. They say, “God did such and such a thing to teach me something.” I don’t believe that happens! Or at least it doesn’t happen as a general rule. When bad things happen, we cannot make the mistake of assuming God caused them. That’s unfair, and it’s not true! But God does allow bad things. And that I don’t fully understand! But let me tell you. If one of the reasons for that is that it’s in the tough times that we feel his presence the most, then that would be a good reason!
The other thing about God allowing hardships is that when other people witness how we handle our hardships, that can be one of the most powerful witness we can give! When someone sees us relying on our faith in God when we are in the “valley of the shadow,” those can be the times when our faith is the most genuine looking! When we choose the attitude of praise and thanksgiving even during our hardships – like Paul often calls us to do, we will affect the lives of those around us!
That’s what this story tells us! When people see the joy and peace we experience in our faith, that is compelling to them. But it is always more powerful when they see us handling tough stuff and having peace. And I don’t need to tell you that there are many people around us facing tough stuff. And when we do “walk through the valley of the shadow” and feel God’s presence with us, people notice that!
So, when we choose an attitude of praise, let us know for certain today that it will change lives. Not only will it affect our own life, it will make a difference in the lives of people around us! I believe God calls us to make that choice! Paul calls us to be imitators of him. Let’s choose to do that?
Eternal God, we want to be your people and to live the example you call us to live, but we need your strength to do so. Help us to choose to praise you in all circumstances. Help us to live lives of joy despite the circumstances, and help us to know you are with us, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.