A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C., May 12, 2013
It’s not easy to explain why the word “saved” has been such a problem for me. After all, it’s a very positive word when you think about it.
“A penny saved is a penny earned,” said Benjamin Franklin.
“God save the Queen,” say the British.
“Thank you for saving my life,” I remember struggling to say as a child to the man who once fished me out of the deep end of a pool before I had learned how to swim.
And thank goodness for that woman who discreetly let me know that my pants zipper was down just as I began speaking before a crowd which obviously helped me save
face in a potentially embarrassing situation!
But because of some childhood memories, the word “saved” can give me heartburn,
especially when I hear it in the following “King James” version: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” (Acts 16:30, KJV)
Many of you have heard me describe the kind of preaching I grew up under, the fire and brimstone variety that would strip the bark off a tree and leave you shaking in your boots, especially as a child. I remember hearing scores of times what a wretched sinner I was, and how I would one day die and inevitably go to hell unless I invited Jesus to save me from my sins.
As a seven-year-old I barely knew who Jesus was, and I really had no idea what it meant to be saved from my sins because I hadn’t committed that many…yet! But I knew
hell had to be a miserable place and I’d much rather go to heaven! So as a seven-year-old I professed my faith in Jesus, and was soon baptized by my fire-breathing preacher. I remember my baptism to this day, and despite all it was still a thrill even though my mother was not terribly thrilled with the surface dive I performed as I left the baptistery
(she would say that was my first significant sin)!
As I grew older I learned that to be saved meant to be delivered, released, freed. “Saved” at its best is actually a very powerful and positive word. But what I noticed about myself and other people who were “saved” is that most of us were terribly bound in all kinds of ways. When I got to high school I was bound by what my peers thought of me. The biggest reason I worked so hard to be student council president was not to contribute something of value to the high school—it was to be seen as a big man on
Later, I would realize that I was captive to the need to succeed, and avoid failure at all cost. I wish I could say that I studied hard in college just for the love of learning but that wouldn’t be quite true. I made good grades so I could get into a good graduate school so I could get a good job.
After I entered the ministry I soon realized I was working pretty hard, sometimes so hard I was ignoring my family. I wish I could stand before you today and say I became a workaholic to advance the kingdom of God. But in reality, much of my workaholism was
designed to advance David Hughes.
The long and short of it is, even though I was technically saved by Jesus at the age of seven, I was still bound by all manner of things. And eventually…it took a while…I had to admit my salvation was skin deep, that deeper parts of my soul were still in chains.
That’s why I have no problem identifying with the folks in our scripture today who are bound by all manner of things. This fascinating story from the life and ministry of Paul and Silas confirms what we already know from our own experience—bondage comes in all kinds of packages, and often we are blind to our own bondage.
If you were with us last week, you know that in Acts 16 Paul and Silas, Timothy and Luke launch Paul’s second missionary journey in the Roman colony of Philippi. Paul discovers a group of Philippian women praying by a river, encounters a wealthy cloth merchant named Lydia, and with God’s help leads this open-hearted Gentile to Christ.
Evidently Paul returns to this same place of prayer a few days later, and encounters still another woman who will impact his ministry, but this time in a negative way. The girl is enslaved to men who are profiting off her ability to foretell the future. The woman begins to stalk Paul and his fellowmissionaries, declaring, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
You’d think Paul would be thrilled with this kind of publicity. But Paul discerns that this gal is speaking with the aid of an unhealthy, unholy spirit, and there is a noxious tone to her voice that drives people away. And already we meet in this story someone who is doubly bound by evil men and an evil spirit.
And we are reminded that whether it is the three women bound against their will in a hell house in Cleveland for ten years, or millions of girls and boys bound by sextraffickers, or millions of people chained in addiction to drugs, alcohol, pornography, or yes, even work, bondage today abounds just as it did 2000 years ago.
The men who own this girl are not amused when Paul casts out her evil spirit in Jesus’ name. Now she can no longer foretell the future, and their lucrative business venture is over. So these outraged men drag Paul and Silas before the local authorities and insist they be punished for all kinds of trumped up charges. Paul and Silas suffer terribly at the hands of these men bound by greed. And today we are reminded of all the carnage in our country because of the consuming greed of financiers whose speculations put our
entire economy at risk several years ago.
The girls’ owners shrewdly play upon the fears of the town’s Roman citizens by accusing Paul and Silas of being trouble-making “Jews”. And already we see the ugly specter of anti-Semitism rear its ugly head, as people consumed with fear of the “other”,
the fear of foreign immigrants, respond with rage. The surrounding crowd gets into the act, and as we read of the beatings and torture that are applied to Paul and Silas, we recall how mobs of “saved” Christians beat and tortured Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and saved white Christians harassed and beat blacks in the old American South.
After Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten, they are thrown in prison. And not just in any cell but the innermost cell. And not allowed to move freely but bound in chains and
stocks. We don’t know the exact nature of this prison, but New Testament scholars assure us we wouldn’t want to spend the night there.
Once God rips open the jail with an earthquake the jailer assumes he’s lost his prisoners, and prepares to kill himself. After all, in those days if a jailer lost his prisoners, he lost his life. So out of deep of despair, he prepares to fall upon his own sword. And given the thousands of people that end their own lives every year out of depression and despair, we can understand why the jailer, and maybe even somebody listening to me right now is thinking about ending it all soon.
Do you see the many ways people are bound and chained in this story? Do you find yourself in any of these prisons?
If so, let me give you the good news of the gospel. There are no chains, there is no prison that can hold us because Jesus can save us from all that binds and bounds.
If like the young girl, you are bound by an evil spirit or a destructive habit, Jesus can save you. More than likely your salvation will require the hard, courageous work of therapy, but it can be done.
Meanwhile, notice that in Acts not once but many times God breaks people out of jail. These miraculous jailbreaks are a metaphor for what God can do in your life if you invite him into the depths of your soul. Ironically, nobody learned this lesson better than the jailer who tried in vain to hold Paul and Silas captive.
Do you think the jailer heard Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns as they lie bleeding in their cells that night? Even though the scripture says the earthquake woke the jailer up, I’m betting he heard Paul and Silas pray and sing their hearts out. And I’m betting he was amazed at the inner freedom of these “slaves of theMost High” despite their horrible circumstances.
And I’m confident the jailer was even more amazed when Paul and Silas didn’t run for freedom after the earthquake. Of course, he was desperate to save his own life when he asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved. But I’m betting in ways he didn’t
even know the jailer was desperate to save his soul—that inner part of him that was captive to the many slave masters that have chained human beings down since the beginning of time.
So he asked a loaded question – “What must I do to be saved from this mess?” – and he got more, way more than he bargained for. He got saved in his soul. Better yet, he got the Savior, Jesus, theMost High God who cannot be held down by any grave or in by any prison.
Friends, Jesus is ready to save you, and not just on the surface. He’s ready to unchain you from your fears and your prejudices, from your greed, and your addictions, and your despair. All you’ve got to do is invite him to thoroughly transform your soul as only he can do. Imagine what your life would look like if you believed in Jesus like Paul and Silas. Why…you would be saved!