A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., May 12, 2013
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Can you believe it’s still Easter?
That’s not what it says on most calendars. Most calendars say that today is Mother’s Day, but on the Christian calendar today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter because on the Christian calendar is not just a day, but a season—a full 50 days in which we celebrate what God has done by raising Jesus from the dead, and by holding out to us the gift of life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.
In this Easter Season I’ve been preaching a series of sermons from the Book of Acts and talking about “The Acts of an Easter People.” I began with “Fearless Witness,” and talked about how Peter went from being afraid to answer a servant girl to being able to stand up boldly before the entire Jewish council. And then there was “Humble Repentance,” when I talked about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his realization that he had been wrong, wrong, wrong about Jesus. In “Faithful Healing” I talked about how Peter was able to raise Dorcas from the dead mostly because he did exactly what Jesus did, and said exactly what Jesus said. In “Open Acceptance” I talked about how the Holy Spirit convinced Peter that God was opening the door of the church even to the Gentiles. And last week I talked about Paul’s “Willing Response” to a cry for help from that man of Macedonia and how we, as Easter People, should always be willing to respond to such cries. Today’s sermon is called “Ceaseless Praise,” and it comes from that time when Paul got in trouble for casting a fortune-telling spirit out of a slave girl in Philippi.
Do you remember that?
He and his mission team had sailed from Troas because of that vision, that man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” They came, and on the Sabbath day they went outside the city gate to the river where they had heard there was a place of prayer and they found some women there, praying. One of them was Lydia, and as she listened to what Paul had to say about Jesus she became convinced that he was the Messiah, the Savior. She got baptized then and there, and invited Paul and the others to stay at her house. I was thinking about what it may have been like the next morning, with Lydia getting up early to greet the first day of her new life in Christ. I picture her humming happy little songs in the kitchen as she put on the coffee, squeezed some fresh orange juice, popped the biscuits in the oven, and scrambled some eggs. Eventually the missionary team would come in for breakfast, yawning and stretching and telling her what a good night’s sleep they’d had. They would have second helpings of everything, compliment her on her cooking, and then start making plans for the day.
They had such good success at that place by the river that they may have decided to go there again, and again, and again. Soon it became their regular pattern. But then one day a slave girl, who made money for her owners as a fortune teller, started following them, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God! They can tell you the way of salvation!” It sounds like free advertising, doesn’t it? You would think Paul would be grateful. But once she got started she wouldn’t stop, and she kept on doing it day after day. “These men are servants of the Most High God! These men are servants of the Most High God! These men are servants of the Most High God!” Until something in Paul just snapped, and he turned around and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” And just like that, the fortune-telling spirit came out.
Which means that she couldn’t tell fortunes anymore, and when her owners found out about it they were…ticked. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities (I’m not sure where Luke and Timothy were at the time; maybe back at Lydia’s having a second cup of coffee and drafting the constitution and bylaws for First Baptist, Philippi). At any rate, these irate owners brought Paul and Silas before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and they are throwing the whole city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” I’m not sure where they got that, but it sounded a whole lot more legitimate than saying, “These men have robbed us of our livelihood by casting the fortunetelling spirit out of our slave girl.” And it worked! The whole crowd turned on Paul and Silas and began to attack them and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been flogged nearly to death they were thrown into prison and the jailer was told to keep a close eye on them, so he put them in the innermost cell, and locked them in the stocks. Let me read what happened next right out of the Bible because, if I don’t, you won’t believe it:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household (Acts 16:25-34, NIV).
Notice that the text says Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God “about midnight.” I can imagine that for several hours before midnight they weren’t praying and singing hymns. In fact, I’m imagining that first moment of silence after they had been thrown into prison and their feet had been locked up in the stocks; after the jailer had slammed the door shut, locked it with a heavy key, and gone jangling off down the corridor. What then? I can almost hear them groaning in the darkness, and wincing with pain every time they moved. And I can almost hear Silas asking Paul, “So…how do you think it’s going so far?” “What?” Paul would say, sucking his breath in through his teeth. “The mission,” Silas would say, grunting. “The Macedonian mission.” “Oh, that,” Paul would say. And then he might say something like this: “Do you remember that time Peter and the others were flogged by the Jewish council for preaching about Jesus? Do you remember what they did? They rejoiced, ‘because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name’ (Acts 5:41). That’s us, Silas. We’re suffering for Jesus. We’ve got to rejoice!”
The first few attempts might have been pretty feeble. (Singing, in a weak voice) “Kum-ba-yah, my Lord…Kum-ba-yah…” But after a while they got a little harmony thing going and then they started to sing some of the old favorites: “What a friend we have in Jesus,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Power in the Blood,” and after each one they would say a little prayer, “Lord Jesus. Help us, now. We’re hurting. We’ve been beat up pretty bad. But we’re not broken. No sir. Give us strength. Help us to carry on. We ask it in your holy name (yes, Lord!). In the name of Jesus! Amen.” And then Silas would suggest another one: “How about, ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’?” And off they would go again. By the time midnight rolled around they were in full voice, singing “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Sweet By and By,” and “When the Roll is Called up Yonder I’ll Be There.” And that’s when it happened. That’s when the ground began to rumble and the walls began to shake and the doors fly open and the chains fell away. And when the earthquake was over they just sat there, stunned, waiting for the dust to settle.
But then they heard the jailer talking to himself as he woke up from a deep sleep, saying, “Oh, no! The doors are open! The prisoners have escaped! My boss is going to kill me, unless…unless I do it first.” And then they heard him draw his sword and Paul shouted out, “Don’t do it! We’re all still here!” And so the jailer called for lights and rushed into the cell where Paul and Silas were sitting, he fell down trembling before them and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved!” Now, you have to understand that he was a little emotional. He had been that close to killing himself. He may have been thinking, “Look, you fellows had been stripped and beaten nearly to death, thrown into prison and locked in the stocks, and yet you were singing hymns in here. How did you do that? What kind of faith lets you sing hymns under circumstances like those?” And that’s when Paul told him about Jesus, who conquered death and rose from the grave. “Believe in him and you will be saved,” Paul said.
The jailer wanted to know more, of course, and he wanted his whole family to get in on it. So, after he locked the other prisoners up again (with apologies), he took Paul and Silas up to his house to wash and dress their wounds. And as he did they talked. They told him all about Jesus. And his whole family sat there in the kitchen listening. When he was done they said, “Well, look. You’ve washed us; what if we wash you? Are you ready to be baptized?” He said that he was. In fact, everybody in his family said they were. And so off they went in the middle of the night, to the river, presumably, where everybody in the family was baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And then they went back to the jailer’s house and his wife began to bring out food and they ate and drank and the jailer just bubbled over with joy, because he could have died that night, but instead he was alive, more alive than he had ever been. He found that he couldn’t stop smiling, or shaking his head in disbelief, or humming those old hymns.
That’s the story, but what’s the moral?
I don’t think it’s the whole lesson, but one of the lessons that could be learned from this story is this: quit your whining! When I was a boy and started whining about something my mother would clear her throat and say, “Ahem! Remember Philippians 2:14!” It says, “Do everything without grumbling or complaining.” It’s one of the first Bible verses I ever learned. And then, when my own children were younger, their mother hung a plaque on the kitchen wall that read, “Thou shalt not whine,” and every so often she would have to point to it, and remind them. It’s a lesson some of our mothers are still trying to teach us.
On Wednesday night I gave a presentation on the state of the American church and cited statistics claiming that only about 17 percent of the population is in church on any given Sunday. That’s less than one in five people. Some of my colleagues in ministry hear those statistics and begin to wring their hands, begin to wonder aloud what will become of the American church. Some of them wonder if there will still be a church in 20 years, and if they will still have jobs. But I ask you this, American church: have we been stripped and beaten and thrown into prison? No. We have not. We need to take a lesson from Paul and Silas. The state of the church in Macedonia was critical. Less than one percent of the population attended worship. Its leaders had been beaten and thrown in jail and yet, in the middle of the night, they were praying and singing hymns.
What’s wrong with us?
On Wednesday night I said what we face in the American church these days is very similar to what they faced in the days of the early church. We need to stop looking back at the glory days and start looking ahead to the future. We need to worry and wring our hands less. We need to pray and sing hymns more. If we give in to the anxiety of our age people will go somewhere else. They can get that anywhere. But if we remain steadfast, immovable; if our faith remains unshakeable—even in anxious times—then they will stay, because they will want to know how they can have a faith like that, a faith that is bigger than the circumstances that surround them. Paul and Silas were singing hymns in the middle of the night. I think it’s why those other prisoners stayed put, and didn’t rush out the door at the first opportunity. They wanted to know how they could have a faith like that, a faith that keeps you singing even when you’ve been stripped and beaten and thrown in jail.
But here’s another lesson: Paul and Silas could sing in those circumstances because they believed that God was God and God was able. Yes, they were in prison, but they were there because of their faith in a God who could cast out Peter’s fear, change Paul’s life, raise Dorcas from the dead—a God who could do all things. There was no telling what he might do next. So they prayed, asking him to do something for them. And they sang hymns, thanking him for all he had done. And somewhere around midnight the ground began to rumble, and the walls began to shake, and the prison doors flew open, and the chains fell off their legs. If you have a God like that you can sing hymns in the middle of the night, you can keep your faith even in the most hopeless circumstances, because God is God, and God is able.
At the end of this story the jailer is in his home, feasting with his family and his new friends, Paul and Silas, tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. It’s a story that could have had a much different ending. He could have fallen on his sword and taken his own life, and his family—instead of rejoicing—would have been grieving. But that’s not what happened. Paul and Silas stayed put, even when they might have run. They stopped the jailer from killing himself and took time to share the good news, so that at the end of the story he wasn’t dead, he was alive—more alive than he had ever been before—and the church in Macedonia had added another family, and the gospel of Jesus Christ had gone forward instead of backward. Let’s remember that, and the next time we feel a complaint rising in the back of our throats, let’s swallow hard and remember that God is God and God is able, and then…
…let’s sing a hymn.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.