Where do you live? Do you live in the past? Do you live in the present? Or do you live in the future? Our reading today begins with a fortune teller, with that powerful human curiosity for what is next. But before we consider the story, where do you live? Don’t worry, this is not a trick question. Perhaps you are older and live a fair bit in the past. I’ve just had two fantastic weeks of holiday with my family, and I hope to relive some of that holiday over the next few years. To remember jumping off the wharf at Resolution Bay in the Queen Charlotte Sound. Do you live in the present (today is what matters most to you) fitting as much in as you can, optimising today’s opportunities, being very present with the people around you? Have you ever felt that you are with someone, but they aren’t really with you – they aren’t present? Or are you living in the future (when I go to university, when I qualify, when the kids are a bit older). Are you holding out for retirement? Where are you living the majority of the time? I think we all live a little bit in those three spaces. And I think Jesus wants to meet us in all three spaces. He’s the God of yesterday - sometimes in reflection we can see his hand at work, we can remember his faithfulness, or we can see him forgive and restore our past. He’s the God of tomorrow – he will lead us no matter what happens, financial disaster or personal success he is waiting for us in the future. He has good plans for our future. Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for good and not for ill, to give you a future and a hope.” And he’s the God of today. God Immanuel who is present with us. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:19. I guess I would want to encourage all of us to concentrate on being present in living today, a bit of yesterday, and a bit of awareness of tomorrow, but mostly today.
There’s a slave girl in Philippi and she starts to follow Paul and Silas around, calling out. At first perhaps her message is helpful, “These are the servants of the most high God” (vs 17) but after a while Paul becomes troubled. When I first read this I thought Paul got tired of her. But maybe not, maybe Paul started to feel for this possessed girl. The scripture tells us that she was used for this skill, she made her boss lots of money, but Paul maybe recognizes a desire in this woman to be free. She says “they are telling you how to be saved.” (vs 17). Maybe Paul clicked, that she wants to be saved. And to be saved she needs to be delivered of this unclean spirit. Sometimes it might take us a while to figure out what those around us are wanting. Perhaps you have someone near you who is calling out to be rescued, but you just don’t recognise it. Sometimes they might seem attractive for all the wrong reasons – but actually what they need is for you to perceive their need of God. Deuteronomy 18:10 tells us not to consult seers, not because they are always wrong – they are often partly right – but because the future belongs to God and fortune tellers will always direct you away from God’s plan for your life.
Well, the girl is delivered. She can no longer tell the future, the ability is gone and her owners are furious. Sometimes doing the right thing with God will get us into terrible trouble. These owners couldn’t make money off her anymore and so they whipped up a crowd to make trouble. It’s part of our lot as Christians to act when we see exploitation. I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement in the US, and non violent protest. I guess we’ve all been horrified by the shooting in Paris and the stories of violence in Syria. But these things are so big and so far away, I want to draw us back. Yes, let’s pray as global Christians, but let’s also see what is in front of us. Let us see the people who are around us. Is there someone near you who needs you to “see” them?
Notice the crowd and its dangerous behaviour - let’s be mindful of the crowds that we can get hooked into, and I don’t just mean a large physical crowd in a city square. What ‘herd’, what ‘marketing group’, what ‘demographic’ do you get sucked into, in such a way as you stop using your individual discernment? The easiest way to get involved in abuse of some sort is to do it as part of a large group. We have been endowed by our Creator with the ability to think for ourselves. Thinking is discipleship.
I love the way that Paul and Silas respond to their miserable ‘luck’; unjustly arrested, thrown into a dark cell, they start singing. I suspect they were feeling depressed and said to each other, ‘right, let’s pray and sing’ and, like the psalmist, they lift their mood. Sometimes, in small ways, we can help each other face dark days. I think sung worship is incredibly important for us as Christians. I don’t think singing is an optional extra. I think singing has been given to us as a way of worshipping. God doesn’t care if you are in tune. I think the unintended consequence of many churches current emphasis on performance is robbing from many of us the chance to learn to worship. Paul encourages us to sing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs to God. Ephesians 5:19 “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” It humbles us and connects us
to God. I watch our youth and children, and I wonder whether they see other men singing and praising God, or whether they see other people observing and watching worship. One of the men who taught me to sing praise to God (Rod Davy) passed away last week. Rod was our organist when I was a kid, and I recognise he was a spiritual mentor to me, because he led me in song. I’m not terribly tuneful, but I sing with my heart to God. Men, we need to sing. If it’s too high, just drop it down an octave or two.
And then comes the miracle. Who knows the future? Only God does, and those to whom he reveals it. In Genesis 41:15 Pharaoh asks Joseph if he can interpret dreams. Vs 16 “I cannot do it,” replied Joseph, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”
Sitting in jail an earthquake sets the boys free. ‘My chains are gone I’ve been set free.’ You can never tell what God might do. A mighty earthquake and all the prisoners are set free. Yet none of them run, clearly they make a connection between the singing and the freedom – they listen to Paul. Read what Paul does in vs 28. He cries out to the jailer; he knows that the jailer is responsible for the men, and if they are gone he has failed in his duty. Notice Paul’s compassion for the man who was jailing him. Love your enemies. It makes an impact. Corrie Ten Boom, Nelson Mandela, Paul and Silas forgave and acted with compassion towards their jailers. And in the presence of that earth shattering act, a door to a new life opens for others. I started by asking ‘who are we not seeing’. Now I want to ask ‘who are we not forgiving’.
There is a power in the gospel that changes lives. It can change your life and it can change the lives of those around you. Forgiveness is a power greater than violence, and a power available to you through Jesus.
Would you like your life to be earth shattering? It can be. When you forgive you can rock someone’s world.
The jailer comes in and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Acts 16:30. It’s unclear what he meant. But Paul leaps at the opportunity to share the good news about Jesus. Would you be ready to share the good news with someone? Here’s a way to share the gospel with five fingers. (1) God is real. (2) God made you. (3) God loves you. (4) Jesus died so that you could be forgiven for anything you have ever done wrong – that comes between you and God. (5) God has a good plan for your life. Sometimes people ask questions that we don’t realise are religious questions. We are in the early years of World War 4, fought between radical Islam and the rest of the world. The reason young men and young women are signing up for radical Islam is that they are asking a religious question. What is life about? How can my life have meaning? Who is most powerful in the world? They have had enough of science over-reaching itself and trying to answer questions of purpose. They ask what is important in life, what is worth living for, what is worth dying for, what is worth killing for? They are being sold a lie. But the question is a very real question. How may I be saved, how can I find meaning in this life and the next? And radical Islam offers two things - a very twisted reward in the next life, and salvation for family members through martyrdom. The only truth, however, is “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” Acts 16:31. For Jesus is the only son of the father. No one comes to the father except through him. John 14:6.
You will be saved, you and your household. The bible does not see us as fully autonomous agents, we are connected, our personhood is porous, our children and our parents and our partners are influenced by our faith or lack of it. Teaching a Christian education curriculum does not make a disciple; seeing a person truly live out a Christian life, warts and all, that reproduces disciples. So this jailer’s whole family, who would all have died if he had died, come to faith. Each will have had a different level of understanding - wife, children, and probably servants. I think we in the west have been sold a bill of goods over the last 50 years. We have been told that we should treat each other as fully autonomous, and see disconnecting with family as part of growing up, rather than seeing those family links as a primary value in life. Family creates links that we can pray and speak into, links that can produce faith and grow discipleship. Fathers, I appeal to you, make time to speak intentionally into your children’s lives. Pray for them daily. Whether they are 3 years old or 33, or 63. Mum’s do the same, one of the greatest ways you can influence your family is by genuinely seeking purity and kindness. Our families are the first people God gives us to disciple. In a sense it’s when we are in conflict with them that our work really begins, when they disappoint or diverge or disagree with us, because they watch us, and see whether we are consistent and see how we love them
The end of this passage has a real barb in the tail. The city officials, who had arrested Paul and Silas without good cause, decide that they will tell them just to go away quietly. But they are in for a shock. Paul and Silas are Roman citizens ‘Civis Romanus’. Roman citizens used to be able to walk around the empire unarmed apart from this title because anyone who laid a finger on a Roman citizen the empire would crush with the weight of the largest standing army the world had ever seen. So you can imagine the officials from Philippi being horrified at what they had done. So these officials came cowering to Paul and Silas begging them to leave quietly.
Who knows the future? Roman soldiers and Roman officials alike would have assumed they were in a privileged place, how quickly that could tumble. But we have a power that is earth shattering. A power to speak and sing God’s praise. A power to observe people around us just needing a little care. A power to forgive through the strength of Jesus and his Holy Spirit which can change history. Being a Christian is exciting. Who knows the future? Who has the real power? Who is worth living and dying for? Jesus.
Is there power in your future? The power of the name of Jesus Christ?