1st Sunday after Epiphany
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, how much joy do you have? I’m not talking about “happiness” is a feeling that can easily fluctuate and is really derived from the word “happenstance.” But joy is something else. Joy is something that lasts and is present no matter what. So how much joy do you have? How joy-filled is your life? There’s so many little things of life that can rob us of joy, isn’t there? So many distractions, so many worries, so many problems. Weeks of frigid, biting temperatures, then the heater breaks, all kinds of traffic and red lights – when you’re in a hurry, groceries need to be bought, clothes washed – when your to-do list is a mile long. So many things in life can rob us of joy, right? Well, in our text this morning we see two instances of incredible joy. How did they get it? Can we have that same joy?
Paul is on his second missionary journey with Silas. Paul was intending to go to the area of Bithynia but was prevented by God from going there. He then had a vision at night of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come to Macedonia to help us.” And Paul concluded they should share the gospel in Macedonia which is north or Greece. So off they went and they went to Philippi which was a Roman colony without very many Jewish people. While he was there a slave girl who was possessed by a demon kept following Paul and Silas. Supposedly this demon enabled the girl to foretell the future and so her owners made a lot of money from her. But after this demon kept calling out after Paul and his companions he drove the demon out of the girl in the name of Jesus, but in doing so he also drove out her owner’s hope of making money. Because of that a raucous was started and a flash mob formed and they seized Paul and Silas and brought them before the magistrates of the city who had them stripped and beaten.
The Jews administered something called the “forty lashes minus one”; 39 lashes, 40 was considered the death penalty and too cruel. But these aren’t fellow Jews. These are Romans and Romans don’t count. Apparently the magistrates would have their men beat criminals until they gave the signal and here the verb is given in a tense that means they kept beating and beating them. And all of it completely illegal, not only were they totally innocent but it was illegal to punish a Roman citizen in this way without a fair trial, they just figured Paul wasn’t a Roman citizen. Paul and Silas endured not only excruciating pain here, but also a horrible disgrace having been stripped of their clothes and beaten. And since Paul and Silas were considered highly dangerous Jewish agitators, the magistrates wanted to look more into their case so they had them locked up in prison. They told the jailer to keep them securely.
A jailer had a lot of freedom as to how he was to keep his prisoners. But since they ordered him to keep them securely he took no chances. Jailers at this time were held responsible with their own lives for the securing of their prisoners. Earlier in the book of Acts we’re told about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison and we’re also told that Herod had the guards executed when they couldn’t explain how Peter had escaped. So this jailer had Paul and Silas put in the inner cell – so maximum security – and fastened them into stocks, which served a dual purpose: both to secure prisoners and to further torture them. You put your feet in these stocks and they could be spread apart so to give your muscles excruciating pain and cramping. Bleeding, bruised, sore, no ibuprofen or Tylenol or bandages or pain reliever, sitting in a dark dungeon, the last place in the world we would figure they could do mission work, but it’s the very place where the Lord was about to give them mission work to do.
Now, this past week, I’ve been battling a cold, it hasn’t been much fun, but because of it I know I haven’t been quite as upbeat and joyful as I could be, I’ve been somewhat irritable, maybe a little cranky, perhaps you can relate, how easily when the slightest thing goes wrong we can become pessimistic, irritable, cranky, upset, and not only diffuse our own joy but the joy of those around us and then I read this and think, “How silly of me!” If anyone had any reason to become bitter, angry, upset, curse or swear, perhaps we might be willing to give Paul and Silas a pass on that, right? Certainly the jailer was probably thinking they were going to spit at him, call him all kinds of nasty words, curse at him, try to cause a raucous, I’m going to guess he thought of everything except what they did. In the stocks, in prison, bleeding and sore, and what do Paul and Silas do? Pray and sing hymns to God!! Really?? What’s up with these people?!?
Of course we don’t know what they were singing, but I’m guessing they weren’t singing some weary, somber song. Likely they were singing Psalms. And about what? Was it songs of deliverance in line with God’s will? Songs of God’s power and might? Prayer of strength and patience to bear their crosses? Prayers for salvation and conversion of many?
Then about midnight there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the foundation of the jail and released the doors and knocked off the prisoners chains. Coincidence? Or might God be acting in a very powerful way? What is intriguing here is that then no one leaves? Why not run, seize the opportunity, escape prison and punishment? But Paul is a take charge kind of guy. Perhaps he said, “Sit tight.” And the prisoners were connecting the dots, “This Paul guy is sure different, he sure trusts in his God, and what just happened is incredible.”
The earthquake woke the jailer up who seems to go out to check on the jail and seeing the door open and no prisoner in sight was filled with panic and ready to kill himself. If the prisoners escaped he would have been held liable. He figured he might as well be his own executioner, he might as well end it all, when all seems lost he might as well end it with a quick death. (What a difference from the apostles who were happily singing amid suffering, shame, and danger, he’s ready to end his life before he’s even certain of what has happened or what will happen!)
But then without missing a moment Paul shouts out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” What?? The prisoners haven’t left? He doesn’t have to die? Really? This man had just been staring death in the face, now here’s these two astounding men who were singing after being beaten and tortured, who are not in any kind of fear after a massive earthquake, and who haven’t done the normal thing and ran away! No longer does the jailer have to fear Rome and punishment for having lost some prisoners, but now there’s something else he needs to worry about: Paul’s God! He’s on the wrong side of that God. He doesn’t say, “Boy, I’m really interested in your God, tell me more about him.” Paul’s God is his enemy right now. He’s doomed, all he wants is to escape punishment from Paul’s God. So he falls trembling before them and takes them out and asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And notice what Paul and Silas didn’t say. They didn’t say, “Now my dear friend, this is no small matter, for a godless, reckless human being like you this is going to take a long and hard extensive cure that we’ll have to prescribe for you.” Nor did they say, “Well, friend, we must elaborate to you an extensive course on all the articles of the Christian faith before you are fit to make a decision as to whether you really want this or not.” No! They simply say to him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household.” Receive the gift God has given you in Jesus! Trust in Jesus as the Savior that you need! And you will be saved. No conditions, no stipulations, no fine print here.
Then the disciples spoke the word of the Lord to him and all those in his house. Then the jailer took them and washed their wounds and probably with the same bucket of water he was using to clean them up he and his family were baptized right then and there. And what a reversal! Now, instead of causing the apostles more pain, he’s feeding them and caring for them. Then we’re told, ‘He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God- he and his whole family.”
How could the disciples sing and pray to God when they had been ruthlessly beaten and were singing in prison? How could this jailer be suddenly filled with joy? How can you and I have joy when life isn’t so nice, when problems come, when things are annoying? We have the same joy as the apostles and this jailer. The apostle Paul was once on the other side abusing, persecuting, putting Christians to death, the jailer was once on the other side – putting God’s people in the stocks, the fact is, you and I were once on the other side too – by nature we were dead in sins and enemies of God. And yet in incredible grace a man named Jesus walked up to the Jordan River and was baptized – fully relating to human beings in every way and beginning his work that will lead Him to one place: a cross, an agonizing death taking upon himself the sins of the world, the sins of you and me. Why? All in order to forgive Paul’s sins, to forgive the jailer’s sins, to forgive your sins! And then he gave you the faith to believe it! For many of us he first gave it to us when a pastor spoke our name and poured water on our heads and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In your baptism you were connected to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, in your baptism your sins were forgiven, in your baptism you were given new spiritual life, in your baptism you were adopted into God’s family, in your baptism your name was written in the book of life, in your baptism God saved you!
Look at what God did for you on the cross, look at what God did for you personally at your baptism! And since God did the work for you in your baptism, you know it’s true and it can never be taken from you, that means you can rejoice in your baptism as God’s child today and tomorrow, you can rejoice in your baptism if you’re in pain and hurting like Paul, you can rejoice in your baptism if you know you’ve done many things in life you shouldn’t have like the jailer, you can rejoice in your baptism amidst all the problems and struggles and challenges of life.
So, you too are filled with joy because of what God in His grace has done for you. Rejoice!