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Don't Sing No Jail-House Blues
a sermon based on Acts 16:16-34
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Last week we found Paul and Silas in need of some direction. We can appreciate the need to get clear directions; that’s why, on occasion, we pull into the nearest gas station or peruse the huge mall-map before going too far in unfamiliar areas. Experience has taught us that getting the directions straight can save us hours, money, stress, and heated discussions between driver and passenger.

In Paul and Silas’ case, their bags were packed and they were ready to go. They had already had a big send-off by their church and they just weren’t ones to sit around in the motel room waiting for a call. So they launched out-several times. Yet it seemed with every new road they headed down, God would say "Wrong direction, take the next exit." In the end, the needed directions came not from a map but in a dream.

"Come over here to Macedonia and help us!" the man in the dream had said. So off they went. They boarded the first ship headed for Macedonia. The dream wasn’t quite accurate-instead of a man in need, they found a woman in need. Despite her wealth from an import business and her independence, Lydia still registered a deep spiritual need for the gospel. God had been working on Lydia, prying open her life, so when she heard the gospel she was ready to receive a new life. It’s as if Luke says, "So that’s how the first Christian in Europe came to be."

Now we enter the same story, part two. But to fully enter this part of the story, recall the directions that God gave to Paul. "Come to Macedonia." Paul had been around the block. Only problem is that in previous outings, the blocks had had synagogues sitting on the corner and had large groups of God’s chosen living nearby. Paul had the strategy down pat-he’d go to the synagogues and proclaim the Good News through the law, the prophets, and the writings. That’s a fine strategy. Especially if you know Hebrew and value the Torah.

But would happen when the "directions" that God dishes out, removed you from the Jewish neighborhoods? What would you do if people could care less about the law, prophets, or writings? How could anyone be effective in a place where everything familiar to you was gone? Paul suddenly encountered a new and formidable challenge: pagan culture. Europe, as Paul was soon to discover, would be a hard customer.

With his first steps into the city limits he heard something that made his ears tingle: "These here men are servants of the Most High God. They have come to town to tell us all how to get saved!" Holy John the Baptist! Someone is announcing our arrival, Paul thinks. How wonderful! But no. This is no John the Baptist type. Paul had just run into a clairvoyant who drew on strange spiritual force that wasn’t the Holy Spirit. And she’d apparently pulled in a bigger crowd than Paul-not to mention the bucks she was raking in for her employees.

To be honest, the real evil was standing behind the clairvoyant-her "owners." Such pimps-mercenary slave owners-had no interest for the girl, only in the money she raked in. So through the clairvoyant they had thrown down the gauntlet as if to say, "You’re in our turf now. Your spiritual power is no match for ours."

The clairvoyant’s power came, from what the locals called, the "spirit of the python," the serpent that guarded the Delphi oracle at Mt. Parnassus and which was killed by Apollo. Yet the python, it was believed, had continued to live on through clairvoyants, telling things about people and events that no one could possibly have known. And did you notice the title for God that the clairvoyant used? "Most High God." Sounds innocent enough. We might even conclude that the people in Philippi must have had some prior knowledge of Paul’s God. Yet, truth be known, Most High God was the precise title used in the worship of Zeus, the king of the gods and goddesses!

So, at God’s bidding, Paul and Silas had taken their first steps inside the city limits of Philippi only to be challenged with mocking spiritual forces and hostility to the gospel. This would be a showdown-a battle of the gods. Paul and Silas would have to fight for a hearing of the gospel. Any defeat or backing down would shut the door that God seemed so intent on opening to offer the good news.

It all came to a head one day as Paul and Silas were on their way out the city to attend a prayer meeting by river’s edge. Same old, same old from the clairvoyant: "These men are servants of the Most High God and are going to show us how to be saved!" Maybe these had turned to mocking words or said in cynical sneer. However she said the words, it pushed Paul to the brink. He whirled around and commanded the python spirit to leave the girl, invoking the name of Jesus as his authority.

Well, the python spirit may have slithered away, but the owners of the python didn’t-they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities. Within moments, the whole affair had turned ugly as a mob quickly gathered to defend the city against these religious foreigners. Within moments the mob turned into madness and at the magistrate’s nod, they brutally and violently beat Paul and Silas and threw them into the local jailhouse. Worse, the jailor under orders from the city fathers, threw them into "the inner dungeon" and clamped their feet in stocks. So much for following God’s directions. So much for dreams.

We’ve got to wonder at this point in the story if the gospel will survive at all, not to mention the ones who bring the good news. Our stories are less cinematic, perhaps, less fraught with such seething emotion. I wonder if Luke wants to clue us to the various ways that people, systems, and spiritual forces seek to subvert the gospel from being shared or heard.

As we do mission, often a python fear of failure will stare us down as our formidable foe: what if we fail? What will people think of us? Or perhaps smothering negativity will attempt to subvert our mission: what a silly idea! We can’t afford that! we don’t have liability insurance. Sometimes authorities and local municipalities-despite our best efforts to support and partner with them-will leave us discouraged: no, you can’t set up your stand, serve soft drinks, wash cars, help our customers, or do your outreach here. Doing mission and outreach will sometimes bring us into contact with formidable opposition to the sharing of the gospel-whether enemies come from outside or within.

Our outreach team recently came to us with "directions" for a new summer outreach-a "community blitz." What’s that? I asked. "Groups of twos or threes go to highly populated areas around our church-like parks, new or existing housing areas, at township days, or at blue berry patches-wherever children and adults gather." And? someone asked "And we simply offer fun activities like face-painting, thumb art, boat-making 101, and even a reptile show! We’ll have a sign about our church and the rest is just a lot of fun, quick set up and tear down, and its low-cost.

Intial subversion attempt: "Well, I think we should just stay with what works-VBS!" I second that attempt: "Yeah, everyone else is doing VBS; let’s not not do something stupid!" The legal angle / strike three you’re out: "what if a kid gets hurt in one of those activities; we could get sued!"

Many things can subvert new ideas and approaches to mission-the past, tradition, change, fears, entrenched attitudes, and limited vocabularies: N-O. And that’s just the resistance from within-new missions can face even greater obstacles on the outside. That’s where Paul and Silas got caught-on the outside. And then they got thrown on the inside.

So Paul and Silas are sitting in stocks in the most secure part of the prison when they began to have a hymn sing. Not sure who was singing soprano and who was doing the bass line, but sing they did-bellowing out and down the halls and into every prisoner’s cage-the praises of God, the faithfulness of God, and the glories of the Christ.

Could you see yourself doing that? Not me. I would have been sniffling, whimpering, whining, and resigning from the ministry. I would have been singing alright, the jailhouse blues in B-minor. I would have thought I had been a complete failure. A flop. Might have been wondering how I was going to spin this so that my support wouldn’t be cut off.

Yet remarkably, Paul and Silas, with nothing to sing about just bellow God’s faithfulness. Incongruity. Strangeness. Incorrigible missionaries. But you know what I think is happening? I think that Paul and Silas know deep inside that they have the directions straight. God works in mysterious (and painful) ways, they sing, his wonders to perform.

Luke tells us that an earthquake interrupts the dynamic duet and forces the prison doors open-that’s our first clue that the Spirit has been there all the time. The jailor is about to attempt hari-kari when Paul says, "don’t-all present and accounted for!" Trembling, the prison goon comes in, and says, "What do I do to be saved?" And finally, finally the drum roll can begin . . . "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved-along with your entire household!" The gospel finally gets said, and it finds a target and the church is born-again!

If Luke wanted to show us a shining example of courage in the face of persecution-then he would have ended the story with the songfest. But he doesn’t. Because that’s not what this story is about. It’s not about Paul and Silas. It’s not about us. The story is about God for the Spirit throughout the entire story has been present-directing two missionaries, orchestrating circumstances, controlling mobs, freeing clairvoyants, short-changing mercenaries, erupting holy joy and heavenly praise from the world’s least-likely candidates and tearing the prison doors off their hinges. The Spirit has been hammering on rock-hardened hearts, plowing the soil upon which he will plant Europe’s first church. This is the story about the Spirit.

But more than that-this is about how Gospel will not be subverted by anyone. The secular authorities unleash brutality, yet in the end they cower in fear before the same guys they’ve beat up. The mob bullies, yet the next day they vanish like thunderclouds. The merchants, who at first get big bucks in exposing Paul and Silas, in the end lose not only their source of revenue, but the Kingdom gains a co-pastor and sister. And the jailor with his calloused treatment of prisoners, turns into a kitten who falls before Paul and Silas and asks how to get saved. And then takes them into his own house and feeds them and washes their wound. The Philippi church nearly has a quorum!

At the end of the story we finally discover who the man who had appeared in the dream to Paul had been. It was Lydia, whom God had opened her heart to receive the gospel. But it was also a clairvoyant whom the Spirit had set free in the name of Jesus. But it was also a jailor who asked, "What must I do to be saved?" The person in the dream was all of these folks who called from inside Europe for the chance to hear the good news of the gospel.

May we be people of courage who get our directions from God and go forth in Jesus’ name to share the good news despite resistance and rejection, knowing that the Spirit is already at work besieging the lives of people who truly need the good news that makes all the difference in life. Amen.