Our story this week takes us to the city of Philippi, a Roman colony within Macedonia. Luke, who is the author of the Book of Acts tells us that Paul and some of his followers were evangelizing in the surrounding area when they become embroiled in a conflict that pits religious, economic and class forces against them. The Gospel frequently challenges systems of oppression, injustice and prejudice.
The dramatic series of events in this story begins with an exorcism. We are told of a teenage girl who was a slave. This girl was possessed by an evil spirit who used her as a means to convey clairvoyant messages, interpret various events of the day and predict the future for people. Today, we would call her a fortune teller, a medium, or a witch. This young slave girl was exploited for revenue by a group of unscrupulous owners whose only concern was the amount of money she make for them each day.
The girl begins to pursue Paul and company, crying out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." Luke tells us that this girl pursued Paul and his group proclaiming this message for many days. Paul eventually becomes annoyed and commands the evil spirit to come out of the girl. " I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her."
We wonder why Paul didn't welcome this message. After all, what the girl said about them was true. Paul and his followers were servants of the Most High God, and they did proclaim the way to salvation through Jesus Christ. Yet remember what happened every time Jesus came into contact with a person who was possessed with an evil spirit. Jesus never allowed the person to give testimony to him. The Gospels all tell us that wherever Jesus went, the evil spirits would cry out, "Thou art the Son of the Most High God !" And Jesus would always cast out the evil spirits.
You see Satan always has two basic approaches to deceive us. He tries to display an apparent alliance with the Divine, or an outright attack. By trying to form an alliance with Paul through this girl who was possessed, Satan could eventually deceive people. It would not be long before the truth, (which was originally proclaimed by the girl to lead the people on) would begin to be mixed with the lies of Satan.
That is how people get sucked into astrology, fortune telling, the oji board and the occult which are all Satan's devices of deceit. It's the oldest sales tacit in the world. It's called bait and switch. You know it's like seeing one of those unbelievable ads in the newspaper for a new car. You look at the ad and say, "Wow ! That's cheap." You run down to the car dealership, you look at the car and ask, "Where's the rest of the car ?" And the salesman says, "Oh, you wanted tires, a windshield, doors, a hood, a roof and an engine ? Those are all extra." Usually if something seems too good to be true, it isn't true.
What happens next in this story becomes an issue of economics. Paul's exorcism has profound economic ramifications for the girl's owners . They can no longer make money with this girl. She has lost her fortune telling capabilities and this means a loss of income for her owners. They become angry and bring Paul and Silas before the local authorities where they are swiftly whipped and placed in prison.
That night in prison, Paul and Silas were locked away in the deepest and darkest of the prison cells with their feet in shackles and their backs bleeding from being whipped. They had suffered a great injustice. Yet in spite of this, they feel no self-pity. Instead, at midnight they begin to sing hymns and praise God. All the prisoners hear them singing. I imagine the jailer hears them too. Then suddenly there is an earthquake and the doors of the cells are opened and the chains come off the walls.
As I read this portion of Scripture, I had a mental image of just how that earthquake came about. I could envision God sitting up in heaven listening to Paul and Silas singing and clanging their chains to the beat of the music. The other prisoners start singing too. I can see God getting into the music, swaying with the beat, clapping his hands. God gets just a little carried away taps the Divine Foot just a little too hard to the beat of the music and wholah, you have an earthquake. What a worship service that must have been! An image of childhood flashes back to my mind of someone telling me during a violent thunderstorm that the noise from above was God getting a strike while bowling in heaåITTER~1HTM hhe two frogs kept on paddling and paddling throughout the night. By morning they were perched on a mass of butter which they had churned from all their paddling. There they both sat smiling as they ate all of the flies that came to feast on the sweet butter. Sometimes the only difference between freedom and slavery is in our minds.
We come here today with our own individual struggles, trappings and bondages to slavery. We struggle with finding the way out of our own buckets of cream. I have a saying hanging on my office wall that I try to read very often. It says, "Be kind to others for everyone is fighting a battle of their own." How true that is. We just don't know what others are struggling with. The person in front of you in the checkout line at the grocery store, the person sitting next to you on the bus, the stranger you pass by on the street, the person sitting next to you in the pew this morning, they are all fighting a battle of their own.
Some of us come here today with the struggle with physical ailments. Some of us struggle to let go of things in our past that continually haunt us and do us no good to constantly mull over in our minds. Some of us come with the struggle of feeling hurt and neglected by our friends, our spouses and our family members. Some of us come with the struggles of addiction that continuously evades our lives. We come with the struggles of grief and loss. We come with the struggles of fear, hopelessness and uncertainty. We come with the struggles of feeling that God does not care about us. We feel sometimes that God is off in some far and distant place where we can not reach. We come not being able to accept what the risen Christ has to offer each of us, freedom from our own individual struggles.
This passage from Acts offers us a fascinating opportunity to explore the nature of freedom and what it means to be free from our struggles. Luke's story demonstrates that we need not focus upon the shackles that keep us from being where we want to be. We need not allow our circumstances to dictate our fate.
This story makes us realize what allowed Paul and Silas to sing hymns and praise God in the midst of their suffering. It was their faith in Jesus that enabled them to overcome their situation. It was their faith that allowed them to believe that God would rescue them and set the captives free.
Faith is the belief that God is getting ready to do something in our lives. It is the foundation that allows us to keep on paddling in the bucket of cream. It is the foundation upon which we make choices in our lives to move from uncertainty to certainty. Faith is believing that as we baptized Laura this morning, she is one of God's children. It is knowing that when we die we will go to heaven. Faith is believing in the promises of God. Faith changes everything, how we live and how we die.
I ask you this morning, what are your struggles ? What are the things that hold you captive ? What are the demons that hold the keys to your prison cell ? What struggles are you still trying to fix on your own, all by
yourself ? Do you have the faith that Paul and Silas had to put those things that enslave you into the hand's of God ? Do you have the faith to believe that God is acting in your life and that God will set you free ?
I pray that today we can all put our faith in Jesus Christ and have our faith be the foundation upon which we make the choices in life, as we move closer and closer to Christ and that reward of eternal life. May it be so in all of our lives. AMEN !