(No sermon note)
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a zookeeper who lost his Bible while at work. A week later when he was feeding the penguins, one of them waddled up to him holding his Bible in its beak. “Praise God, it’s a miracle!” said the delighted zookeeper. “Not really,” said the penguin, “Your name is written on the inside cover.”
Short and sweet this week…had to make up for last week’s skunker! More of my wife’s sense of humor though: dry and practical. But funny nevertheless, the idea of a penguin returning a zookeeper’s lost Bible simply because it knows how to read. Pretty absurd notion, animals other than humans having the ability to read…oh, and speaking, too! It truly was a miracle that that zookeeper witnessed!
Not unlike the miracle in today’s reading. Yes, earthquakes occur all the time all over the world. But an earthquake that both unlocks jail cells and unchains prisoners without killing the prisoners themselves?! Truly the stuff of movies! Only in movies can an earthquake be so precise in setting prisoners free. In reality, earthquakes are far less precise and beneficial…chaos and destruction are the order of the day. So what gives? Are we to believe that somehow God harnessed the mighty power of nature to miraculously set Paul and his fellow inmates free? Perhaps we ought to consider the story in the larger context of the biblical narrative.
Paul and Silas had been imprisoned for simply spreading the gospel around the world, something that Paul was accustomed to in his various missionary journeys. The slave-girl’s parents reminded the authorities that because their message wasn’t sanctioned by the government, it wasn’t legal to share throughout the region. Therefore Paul and Silas deserved imprisonment. But the thing about the gospel message is that it is specifically designed for prisoners! The slave-girl’s parents couldn’t have helped Paul and Silas MORE than by getting them imprisoned! Their message is meant for prisoners! Hence, why they couldn’t help themselves in sharing it with their fellow prisoners through song and prayer in the wee hours of the morning. Hence, why it was a particular relevant message for that poor slave-girl who was captured by a spirit that gave her the ability to tell fortunes. The gospel message set her free just as it set Paul and his fellow captives free.
Yes, the miraculous earthquake and midnight songs and prayers added dramatic flair to the release of Paul and his fellow captives but that’s all they are: dramatic flair. The truth behind the dramatics is the power of the gospel message to set us free. That power can be just as powerful as a mighty earthquake. Just as earth-shaking, foundation-crumbling, reality-shattering as a mighty earthquake! The gospel message radically and powerfully sets people free! Jesus himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18) Jesus is at the heart of the gospel message and with him comes release from captivity. Paul and his fellow prisoners were in physical captivity. When Paul and Silas sang and prayed, they were freed from their physical captivity. A power equal to the power of an earthquake sets them free. We are all in one way or another physically captive in this world, either by our surroundings or our bodies. This doesn’t mean we have to be spiritually and mentally captive as well. In Jesus, we can be spiritually and mentally set free. You might complain, “but I want to be bodily set free!” Freed from pain or addiction, freed from situational imprisonment, freed from fear and doubt. But that’s the thing, you get yourself freed mentally and spiritually and your body simply catches up! You eventually are freed from your bodily imprisonment once you’re mentally and spiritually free.
That jailer was just as imprisoned as Paul and Silas and the other prisoners. He was imprisoned by a job and a boss that expected him to kill himself if he didn’t fulfill the responsibilities of the job. Talk about a bad job! Many of us have had bad jobs before but I doubt you were expected to kill yourself if you had a bad day. Paul knew the jailer was just as imprisoned as he was. He knew he couldn’t just set himself and his fellow prisoners free through the power of the gospel. No, he needed to free the jailer, too, so he shared the gospel with him and baptized him along with his whole household. A different type of captivity but captivity nonetheless.
Jesus sets us free, both spiritually and mentally. Eventually our bodies catch up if we’re truly set free. Paul’s witness reveals the powerful freedom found in Christ. We, like Paul, ought to give God our thanks and praise even after a day of severe flogging and imprisonment. Talk about a bad day! Whose was worse-the jailer’s or Paul’s? Scripture helps remind us to give our thanks and praise even on the worst of days. David tells us in Psalm 150, “let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (vs. 6) The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” (25:1) And Moses sang to the Israelites, “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (15:2) All three men understood the importance of giving God thanks and praise. Paul was simply carrying on a long tradition of giving thanks and praise to our God just as we ought to carry it on. We ought to share the powerful message of freedom found in Christ and give thanks and praise for it. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.