Sermon for June 2nd

First Reading Revelation 22:12-21

Gospel Reading John 17:20-26

Epistle Reading Acts 16:16-34

Sermon “Jailbirds Singing in the Night”

How we handle adversity says a lot about us. Who are friends and “not so much” friends do too. In this morning’s reading from Acts, Luke tells us of a time in Paul’s second missionary journey, with he and Silas, that certainly tells us much about Paul and his remarkable faith and perseverance. The story takes place in the Roman colony city of Phillipi. Although it was located in the Grecian territory of Macedonia, it had long been a heavily Roman town. History records that in 42 BC, Octavian (who became emperor Caesar Augustus) and Mark Antony vanquished two ringleaders in Julius Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus. When Octavian later settled many of his soldiers in Philippi, the city’s importance increased. After Octavian consolidated his power by defeating the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he sent additional colonists to Philippi and added his own name to the city’s official name: Colonia Julia Augusta Philippensis. When Paul arrived in the colony—nearly a century after that history—the place was still very Roman indeed.

That Roman heritage is important for us to know because it very much influences the events that Paul and Silas encounter. Take for instance that slave girl, that most of our translations say had a “spirit of divination”. The original Greek actually says “Python Spirit”. The python was a mythical snake worshiped at Delphi and associated with the Delphic oracle. In the Mythology of the Roman god Apollo, he slays the legendary Python and so and thereby gained the power of divination. Apollo was also the deity that emperor Augustus sometimes proudly associated with himself. The term “python” came to be used of the persons through whom the python spirit supposedly spoke.

All of that is background and prologue to today’s story. That slave girl with the Python Spirit, followed Paul and Silas around town shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept it up for days until Paul commanded the spirit to leave he in the name of Jesus Christ, and immediately, it left her.

Now why does Luke’s account tell us that Paul was “annoyed” with her? She was telling the truth after all. Was it merely irritation at the noise? If so, it certainly caused a lot of trouble for a trivial reason. But – No – I don’t think so. In order to answer why, we need look at other similar stories. You may recall that in Luke’s gospel, He tells of a time when Jesus also ordered a demon possessed person to be silent: Luke 4:33-35

[33] In the synagogue (at Capernaum) there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, [34] “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” [35] “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.”

That demon too spoke the truth, but Jesus neither sought nor accepted the testimony of demons. A modern way of thinking of this might be to suppose you see a very rude driver, cursing, driving erratically and having a bumper sticker on the back that says “Jesus is my copilot”. Don’t you really wish they’d take it off!? You see, there is a faith such as James tells us: “You believe that there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” but they neither honor God as Lord nor obey his will. In Paul’s case, he did not want to be associated with the cult of Apollo or with the serpent of the Delphic oracle. He was there to teach of the gospel of Jesus Christ who being the very Son of the creator all of things, nevertheless came to earth, lived, taught, died and rose again so that we could come to God. No, he did not need the testimony of Demons and so it had to go. This is the first lesson – our actions and associations define us in the eyes of others – for good or ill. Make sure your life matches your faith.

Her owners had been making lots of money off the girl’s fortune telling and so they dragged Paul and Silas into the town square, in front of the towns magistrates and made ugly accusations, playing the race card – calling them Jews (no doubt with a sneer) and accusing them of violating Roman customs. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten and thrown into the dark dungeon of the prison and placed in chains and stocks. Luke goes on to tell us that in spite of all of that, Paul and Silas were in that prison, praying and singing hymns in the middle of the night! Not only that, but also that the other prisoners were listening to them. Here are a couple more points to remember. If you are faithful and obedient to God, don’t be too surprised if it gets you into trouble occasionally. Even here in this country, it is beginning to happen occasionally. Elsewhere in the world, it is a daily fact of life. Would your faith be strong enough to endure? Paul and Silas not only endured, but used to occasion to set a powerful, winsome example. How powerful?

Well as the story goes on, we see the power of God at work in am earthquake that violently shook the prison. All the doors were opened and the chains and stocks were undone. Not just Paul’s – everyone’s! This was a special, gracious earthquake – just enough to open everything up, but not to bring down the roof on their heads. Remember – this was a Roman city, with Roman law and customs. The jailor was responsible for the prisoner with his life. Seeing the open doors and assuming that everyone was gone, he prepared to do the honorable Roman thing and kill himself. What a shock to him and a testimony to Paul and Silas’ example that EVERYONE was still there. The jailor became both host and convert as he tended to their wounds and after he and his household had been baptized he fed them in his own house.

Here is a second lesson – The strength given us by the Holy Spirit to endure adversity and rely fully on God is a powerful witness, both for ourselves and others. Paul would later count all his troubles as blessings to be able to demonstrate the wonderful Grace of God. He wrote in his second letter to the Corinthian church: 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 “…”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. [10] That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Although that is where our reading this morning ended, it is not the end of the story. The cold light of the morning after was yet to break in on this joyful scene. Let me read the rest of the story to you and then we’ll talk about one more lesson yet.

Acts 16:35-40 NIV

[35] When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” [36] The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” [37] But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” [38] The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. [39] They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. [40] After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.

We are not sure why the magistrates told the jailor to let Paul and Silas go. Perhaps they were frightened by the earthquake, or perhaps they thought they had been punished sufficiently and learned their lesson. What a shock it must have been then to find that Paul was NOT ready to leave. Far from leaving town quietly, under the presumption of guilt, he demanded a public apology! Now please don’t misunderstand Paul, this was not his personal pride rearing its head. No, Paul is as selfless here as he usually is. Philippi was an infant church, barely a few weeks old. Had he quietly left town, Christianity would have been in disgrace, as well as the Jews and those few believers hounded out of town or jailed themselves. Paul was very worried for the church and so he did not want to leave until his faith was cleared and the church could grow in safety for at least a while. There was risk in doing what he did, but he wanted what was right for the benefit of others.

Lesson: we don’t live only for ourselves but also for others! How we deal with adversity can make it better for others or worse! Issues of fairness, justice and peacemaking matter. Sometimes it is necessary to stand up to governing authorities to insist on what is right. Never out of a prideful spirit, but always for the greater good and the glory of God. Let me close with these words from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church some years later: Philippians 2:1-11 NIV

[1] Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, [2] then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. [3] Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, [4] not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. [5] In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: [6] Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; [7] rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. [8] And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! [9] Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, [10] that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

May the example of Christ our Savior sent to us by the our Heavenly Father and the power of the Holy Spirit given to us by faith give you strength for daily living and the grace and peace for songs in the night, whether you be a nightingale or a jailbird. Take Paul’s example to heart and sing praise to God no matter what. Amen.