Scripture: Acts 16:16-34
As part of my mentoring program as part of the renewal movement which has brought us our Hearing God workshops and our Set Free retreats, I hear a lot of stories from various churches who are also involved.
One of those stories involves a church where people have gotten really good at hearing God’s voice when they pray. They were so good that they heard about a psychic fair coming to their town and decided (after praying about it) to set up a table in the middle of it all. At this table they would offer free “spiritual readings.”
So as people came to their table they would sit and listen for what God might have to say to the person. And what they would hear they would then share with the visitor. Turns out they were pretty accurate, and word began to spread that if people wanted the most accurate readings, they should go to this free table. One of the few, if not the only, free tables at the fair.
Other tables were not pleased as the church table quickly became the most popular table in the whole centre and lines began to form.
Now, those of you who took in the Set Free retreat a few weeks ago, you know that psychic abilities and the like are to be avoided because these are occult practices and they can be areas in our lives where evil spirits can enter us and pull us apart from God’s plan in our life. Yet, here was a church sitting in the midst of all of this, and God was abundantly present as those at the table were hearing God speak messages through them to those who were visiting their table.
What a powerful witness this church provided to a community which depends on the occult.
It reminds of of Psalm 139 where it says,
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)
God can reach us wherever we are. Scripture is pretty clear about this, and we can certainly see it in our reading from Acts today.
A few weeks ago we heard of Paul’s conversion. Today we catch up with Paul as he goes about preaching in various cities and nations in the region. He’s been in Greek cities, he’s been in Roman cities, he’s been all over. And now he’s in the area around the major Roman city of Philippi continuing to preach and teach.
As he and his companions approach a place of prayer, probably a house church of some sort, a female slave approaches them. This woman has some sort of spirit within her which allows her to see the future. She follows Paul around for a few days. And as she follows him she shouts out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”
Well, as you can imagine, this would get tiring quick, and I am impressed Paul was able to be patient enough to allow this to go on for several days before he decided he needed to deal with it.
So he turns to her and he addresses the spirit within her. He says, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!”
And sure enough, the spirit left her body.
Now there was a problem. It seems the owners of this slave woman used her spirit to make a lot of money. So they aren’t very happy to have lost this valuable source of income.
The owners then drag Paul and his companions out to the middle of the town and throw accusations at them. “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” (Acts 16:20-21)
Then the crowd joins in accusing them. Then the government officials get involved. They take Paul and friends away and have them beaten, flogged severely we’re told.
All of this may start to sound familiar to us just after Easter.
But instead of death, like Jesus suffered, Paul was thrown in prison.
Now this prison would certainly not have been anything like the prisons we know of today. There wouldn’t be rows and rows of bars. There’d be no fences or high walls with watch towers. Chances are this would have been pretty much like any other house in the city, but with locked doors, shackles and guards.
Now, if you ended up in prison, assuming you haven’t already been to prison, how would you spend your time?
Me? I’d probably just sit quietly minding my own business.
But not Paul and his buddies. What did they do?
They were praying and singing hymns! In a home, watched by a guard, locked in a room with other prisoners because they were praying and singing hymns, Paul and his friends were praying and singing hymns. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to help defend your case any.
But the other prisoners were listening. They were taking it all in. They were learning about Jesus the Messiah.
And then hear what happens next,
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. (Acts 16:26)
The guard, who was sleeping, woke up and saw the doors were all open and he began to panic. Why? Because he fell asleep and the prisoners all escaped. Or so he thought.
The guard chose to do the “right” thing, and drew his sword to kill himself. He did this because it would be a lot easier for him and his family if he ended it right there. Failure on the job as a prison guard was severe. Punishment would have been quick. He would not work again, and his family would suffer. Romans don’t like failure at all. And the guard knew it well. He would have heard stories, if not seen examples himself, of people who failed the Roman empire. Some of them would have been killed for their failures and shame they brought upon the empire. So he decided to take his own life, to spare his family and also spare himself. That’s how bad it is.
So he’s pulled his sword and he’s ready to end his life. But someone calls out to him. It’s Paul! “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
And sure enough, torches are brought in the home and the guard sees all the prisoners sitting in their rooms, doors wide open, shackles lying open on the floor. And then the words of their prayers, their songs of praise, they all come to mind and he wants to know their faith in Jesus. The Jesus Paul and his friends have been singing about.
About a month ago there was 36 hours of prayer held at Munroe Academy in Balls Creek. Bev and I went on Saturday evening for about an hour, offering our prayers and listening for what God had to say. This was a weekend of prayer for Cape Breton. It was billed as a time of prayer to bring change to the island.
As I sat and prayed, which then led to me pacing and praying (sometimes I feel I pray more effectively if I’m moving), there was a woman in one of the rooms who could be heard quite audibly. Almost to distraction, well, she was pretty much a distraction, I’ll be honest.
Her “prayers” were simple, and not quite what I would call prayer in the traditional sense. What you heard echoing through the school was “Hallelujah! We praise you Jesus! Hallelujah! We need you Jesus. We want you Jesus. Hallelujah! We praise you.”
And it was pretty much like that on repeat for maybe half the time we were there before she left. I don’t know how long she was there before us. But I’ll be honest, as I was trying to focus on my on prayer time, she became a distraction. There were actual moments when I wish I could have gone to her and cast out whatever spirit was causing her to do this.
I honestly don’t know what the motive was for her praying in this way, but I did find it distracting. I know that she would have never intended it to be such a thing, but it’s how it impacted me in my prayer time. Now for others, maybe they didn’t find it such a distraction. I didn’t take a poll so I can’t be sure.
You’d think at this point I’d be used to praying with evangelicals and their tendency to “praise you Jesus” in the middle of prayers, and I am.
But as I look back, and even in the moment, I guess I knew Jesus was doing something in this woman. I can’t see someone praising Jesus over and over again just because it felt like the right thing to do. I’m sure Jesus must have done something for her in this time of prayer that she felt the need to thank him over and over and over and over again. I just wish I knew what it was. I wish I could understand what was happening for this woman in the moment.
Whatever it was, she felt really close to God, right there.
And this makes me think of the guard. As Paul and his friends praised Jesus all through the day and late into the night, as they prayed, and whatever else they did, I’m sure there were points in the day where the guard would have loved to barge into the room and say, “Would you just shut up already?”
Not that I think it would have stopped them. But the guard was probably tired and fed up with it all.
But then God did something. Big.
An earthquake shook the home and the doors all popped open, the shackles fell open, and in effect, all the prisoners were free. They could have stood up and walked out in freedom.
I suspect Paul recognized God’s hand in the earthquake, it was a message, an opportunity to show what they had been sharing in their words for hours. It is time for the rubber to hit the road. It’s time to put up or shut up. It’s time to walk the talk.
So Paul, and all the other prisoners stayed put. And the guard came in, fearing for his life, suddenly relieved to see them all still there.
He wanted to thank God for this scene instead of the one which flashed into his head when he woke up. He wants the joy they have, even though they have been locked into a prison on minor, nuisance accusations.
So he asks, “What must I do to be saved?”
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
That’s all it takes, it’s really that simple. Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved! The same Lord Jesus who met us in our Set Free weekend just a couple of weeks ago. The same Lord Jesus who called 12 young men to follow him and changed their lives, and the entire world for all time. The same Lord Jesus who wants to have the same relationship with Paul and the others with us today.
A relationship of love, joy and peace. A deep relationship. A committed relationship. A life giving relationship.
If you are saying to yourself this morning, “I could never have such a relationship with Jesus, I’ve not worthy!” then you need to take a closer look at Paul’s life.
Before Paul became a Christian, he hunted Christians and threw them in prison. He killed them! And yet Jesus poured out his love, joy and peace into Paul and he goes on to write a significant portion of our New Testament in the Bible with many inspiring messages we still read today.
If Jesus can love and use Paul even after all he did to destroy the church at its inception, then Jesus can use you today.
And even if you still feel guilt for what you have done, then you need to take it to God in prayer and seek forgiveness. Forgiveness for the harm you feel you have created, whether it’s to God or to another person, take it to God and let him help you sort it out.
Forgiveness is an important part of living a life of faith. Much bigger than we might imagine. And it’s not always easy. But God is willing to take the steps necessary if you are willing to trust him in the healing process. And, as always, I am here to help you.
After all, I see this as my major role as a pastor: to help others engage and grow in their own faith.
So, if you need help, let me help. Let Jesus help.
In the end, the guard, with Paul’s help, gave his life to Jesus, and from there they went to his home and his whole household gave their lives to Jesus. And the whole household was baptized as recognition of their commitment and the welcoming of Jesus into their lives.
After the family came to faith, what did Paul do? They went back to the prison to wait out their sentence. It just so happened though that they were released the very next day.
Paul started all of this with a few simple words. “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out…”
And from there a chain of events started which led a Roman guard and his entire household to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. All because Paul was willing to be public about his faith and stand for what he believed in. Even if it sent him to prison.
What do we believe in? What do we stand for?
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to wash me free of my sin and be the Lord of my life. And that is what I stand for.
What do you stand for? What will you let God do in your life through a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ?
Sometimes we may need to be so bold as to command things in the name of Jesus Christ in order to make things happen. Even if they may not unfold as we might expect them to. I’m sure Paul didn’t expect to end up in prison because he cast a spirit out of a woman, but in the end we can see how God was very present in all of it. And through his faithful witness, praying and praising God, a new family came to know the life Jesus brings, and the church grew.
The church who set up the booth at the psychic fair, they prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, a name that has great power and authority, a name that changes lives. And through their witness, people came to know him and hear him in their lives. And they were drawn in, they heard what God has in store for them. For some, their lives were forever changed. All in the name of Jesus Christ and a few simple prayers.
May we hear God in our own lives. May we know Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Saviour, and be set free from our own prisons in his powerful name.
Let us pray,
Your name carries such power that the mere mention of it sets in motion a movement of God which no one can deny nor withstand.
We saw some of this here in our own church just a few weeks ago. People touched by your Holy Spirit and moved to make changes in their lives. We thank you Jesus for this work you have put in motion here in this church, and in this community, and even more thankful for doing these things in our own lives.
Jesus, we call upon you today, to continue this wonderful, transforming work, and may we be so strong and bold to let it continue to work in us.
May your Holy Spirit come into each and every one of our hearts as we live out your call to love and serve as you so love us.
We pray this in your most holy name. Amen and amen.