When Life Goes Wrong

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Acts: The Final Chapter  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  30:14
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What are we to do when life "goes wrong"? Today's passage shows us how we can hang on to God in the midst of struggle and suffering.

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when life “goes wrong”, hang on to God and keep speaking
intro me
sent by God to Macedonia - modern day Greece
arrived at Philippi, the major city of the area
made a plan: go to the place of prayer and speak to the seekers
the plan was working! God open’s Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message
so they’re keeping at it when we pick up the story
But before we read together, I want to remind you of the horse story Pat shared with us last week: horse runs away “that’s too bad” .. maybe .. comes back with 3 more “isn’t that wonderful” .. maybe .. son breaks his leg training them “that’s too bad” .. maybe .. army conscription - but won’t take him because he’s injured “isn’t that wonderful” .. maybe ..
transition: today’s passage invites us to think together again about about how we should respond when life goes wrong
Acts 16:16–40 NIV
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her. When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 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. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household. When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.
Thanks so much Noah - what a great story! There’s a lot here so we’re going to move quickly today. Let’s walk back through what we heard together and think about what’s going on, what we see, what we learn.
First, there’s this poor slave girl with a spirit that can tell the future that they run into. And we’re not just talking about someone acting here, making up fortunes fortune-cookie style or just using a crystal ball and a cloak as props - she can obviously do this well enough to make serious money - money that’s taken by her owners, so there’s something there.
Christians believe in a supernatural realm; we believe there are real powers, that the sort of spirit we’re reading about here is a thing in our world. And lots of the people around us believe similar things too. But if supernatural powers worry you, it’s important to remember these powers are limited - it’s not like if there was to be an arm wrestling match between them and God it would be nerve-wracking and it could go either way. The bible teaches us the absolute and effortless supremacy of God in this supernatural realm - and we see that again and again in the story of Jesus through the gospels: just a word from him and they must leave.
We’re trying something new this week - because that’s just the sort of church we are: we like to try something new. We don’t think we’ve figured out the best way to do everything or probably anything and we’re happy to keep exploring to find a better way. We used to publish what we called a T5 - “talking through the text in ten” - 5 T’s see; a detailed walk-through of some of the behind-the-scenes research our bible teacher had done in preparation, things which probably wouldn’t make it into the main Sunday talk. In ten minutes at least in theory.
We’re going to try changing that to have something like a trailer come out via social media a little before Sunday to encourage us all to read ahead for ourselves and begin to think about what the coming Sunday’s bible passage might have to say to us, and then to publish what we’re thinking of calling “Footnotes” after Sunday’s talk: kind of like the things you find in footnotes at the bottom of the page: details about something for people who want to know more, details that aren’t essential for the main message. So this week I’m going to publish some footnotes about future-telling spirits, household baptism and about what Paul does with his Roman citizenship for those who would like to know more. They’ll be on our social media.
But this slave girl, or the spirit in her, has something to say about Paul and this mission team: Acts 16:17
Acts 16:17 NIV
She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”
But wait.. these men are indeed servants of the most high God and they really are telling people the way to be saved. It feels a bit odd to have the spirit tell the truth - though there are a number of encounters in the bible where we see spirits appearing to tell the truth; like the one acknowledging who Jesus is: “I know who you are - the Holy One of God”, he says in front of a crowd.
Now this shouting goes on for days and days - and the team seem to be ok with it in principle. Is this good news for them? A kind of public information broadcast which is backing up their authenticity and proclamation? Well, think back to the story about the horses.. “isn’t that wonderful” .. maybe.
But then just one moment turns things upside down. Like it so often does - our stories, our paths through life, often seem to have these moments where in just a few heartbeats our course is changed. Paul’s had enough of her announcements so he commands the spirit to leave - which it does, immediately; by the way, see there again the absolute supremacy of God in that spirit realm. But with that, their experience in this city of Philippi takes a sudden turn for the worse.
I expect many of us have been there. Walked through that moment where an act, a choice, a word, suddenly changes our course much more dramatically than we’d expected.
They were just keeping going with the plan. Things were going well, so it seems. And suddenly everything starts coming unravelled. There’s a riot, accusations - not honest ones, not their real motive for hostility, but accusations nonetheless; a painful beating, imprisonment, and then the sun sets. “That’s too bad”.. maybe.
But about midnight, at the end of a rotten day, what do we find? Acts 16:25
Acts 16:25 NIV
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
Praying and singing after all this. Seriously? Can you put yourself in their place for just one moment and imagine what you’d be up to at midnight after a day like that? Really, what do you think you’d be doing there in that prison, bleeding, aching, chained?
Let me tell you, it just takes stubbing my toe, a sore throat, or any minor inconvenience to turn me into a grump, moaning “why me, Lord, why?” Song or prayer the last thing on my mind. I don’t want to sing, I want to grumble. I don’t want to pray, I want to grit my teeth and say to God, “talk to the hand”.
Are these guys for real? Are they supermen? or literary fiction? You know what I think they are doing? hanging on to God with all they’ve got because that’s all they’ve got. They know they are in a desperate situation - but they know they are on God’s mission. So they are hanging on to hope, hanging on to God with all they’ve got.
And then there’s this earthquake - and we’re meant to see that as supernatural because of its effects: all the door fly open; everyone’s chains come loose. That’s not the normal result of a normal earthquake - I know, I’ve been there: floors shaking, lights falling off the ceiling, walls cracking - totally terrifying. But this earthquake just frees all the prisoners.
The jailer knows he’s in trouble - he could lose his life for losing his prisoners. And the earthquake has opened the doors. Surely they’re gone. Back to our horses: an earthquake? “that’s too bad” .. maybe.
Acts 16:28 NIV
But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
Although the earthquake has opened the doors, somehow none of the freed prisoners have made a run for it. And so the earthquake opens other doors. Sometimes a supernatural event begins or advances someone’s journey towards faith - actually, quite often, it seems.
If you’re on our Facebook group, perhaps you’ll have seen the survey I’ve been running there, asking people to tell me a little about their journeys. If you haven’t, why not take a look and tell me about your story? When I last checked, about one in six people said a supernatural experience was a significant part of their faith journey, and for one in ten it was the most significant factor in them becoming a Christian. I wouldn’t have guessed it was anywhere near that high.
Certainly that’s what it does here for the jailer: after the quake, because of the quake - see, I think we can reasonably assume he wasn’t a seeker before that, not going to that place of prayer on a regular basis, not interested in anything Paul had to say. But because of the quake, he asks the question most of us would love to be asked more often Acts 16:30
Acts 16:30 NIV
He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Their answer is simple “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” - they explain a bit more - see that in verse 32: they spoke the word, or the message, of the Lord to him. But it’s definitely a crash course because its still that same night - v33 “at that hour of the night” that they are baptised.
Baptism just hours after first knowing anything at all about Jesus - nearly immediate. From zero to wet in one night. This, and passages like it, are why it’s our practice as a church to move very quickly to baptism, not to have long courses you have to work through first or make you wait and wait or have lots of boxes you have to tick.
We say this pretty regularly but let me say it again: if you’re a follower of Jesus and you haven’t been baptised, don’t delay. In the bible almost every instance follows hot on the heels of first believing, it’s not something to put off or to defer - there’s no biblical support for that. So if baptism is the right next step for you, we’ll get the pool back out and get you baptised next week - just come talk to me or any of the leaders here.
If we were to zoom out from this particular passage and look at this team’s whole time in Philippi, we’d notice there are lots of parallels here with the events Pat was helping us think through last week, when we saw Lydia, a worshipper of God, come to believe in Jesus: there’s the message about the Lord Jesus. There’s the Lord opening someone’s heart to receive it - sometimes takes an earthquake, sometimes just His touch. there’s near-immediate baptism, and there’s this coming into the new believer’s home - a welcoming, an acceptance. “embrace and be fully embraced” is how Pat put it last week.
All these parallels make us want to look at the story of Lydia and the story of the jailer together. And when we do, that makes the differences between them stand out all the more:
A woman and a man - no accident; this gospel about Jesus is for everyone
A native of Asia minor in the East and most likely a Roman from the west, because most jailers were retired soldiers - no accident; this gospel about Jesus is for everyone
Perhaps the biggest difference here is Lydia was a worshipper of God, we’re told, close to faith - maybe the equivalent of someone with a church background or someone actively exploring faith - where the jailer was not. Lydia looks like a seeker where, it seems, the jailer was sought. this gospel about Jesus is for everyone. Cool, huh?
But all that said, what’s the main message from this passage we’ve been looking at together? As I’ve been reflecting on the passage over the past two week, I think the main message is about what to do when life “goes wrong”. What to do when it looks for all the world like the train has left the tracks and life is careering off into disaster. I think this passage has some really practical help for us.
First, I think it calls us to hang on to God when life “goes wrong” - and it shows us some of how:
hang on by praying. Now I don’t want to pray even when I run into the smallest hiccup in life - I’m sorry, truth is I’m that un-spiritual - often when things go wrong, I just don’t want to pray. I think why bother? It’s not going to change anything. God already knows. He’s always in control. So this has to be from Him, His plan. So why bother praying about it?
But although prayer doesn’t always change the situation, it always changes us. It calls us to get our perspective back. To remember God even in the middle of the mess. To acknowledge he is there, with us, involved, listening. It’s a really practical way of re-orientating ourselves when we’ve become disorientated, when we’ve dropped our eyes from the horizon to the mud around our feet that we’re stuck in.
So hang on to God when life “goes wrong”. Hang on by praying. and hang on by singing.
My wife is a lovely singer, and it’s second nature to her to burst into song in response to something. You might not be a great singer. You might need to pry your lips open to sing in that moment - or even pry your mind open to choose to recall a song.
But song is powerful; that’s the reason we sing together as a church so much. It’s powerful because when we sing, we remember what we know is true. Moses talks about how songs lock things in our minds and allow us remember them. It’s powerful because when we sing, we move our hearts, we don’t just express what’s already in them. Part of why we value the arts so highly as a church is because they are affective - that is, they affect us, they make us feel.
If you know you want to change how you feel, songs, the arts, are a powerful tool to accomplish that.
So hang on to God when life “goes wrong”. Hang on by praying. Hang on by singing. And hang on by trusting.
I have a lot of questions. When I read a passage like this, I think of questions like “why didn’t God step in sooner?” I mean an earthquake before midnight would have been nice, right? Why not an earthquake before anyone started to hit them, huh? Look, we don’t know why God didn’t step in sooner here - but let me tell you something we do know through the whole bible, something it assures us of, and narrates for us, time and time again:
God is working through the mess - even when it looks like everything’s gone wrong and all is lost. God has not given up, forgotten, taken his hand off the wheel or gone for a nap. It’s harder to hang on to that in the middle of things - but it’s got to say something to us that we have been given just so many stories of where it seems life has “gone wrong”, terribly wrong, but God is working for good in the midst of it, through the hurt and the pain. That’s almost every bible story.
But most of all, look at the cross. What could be more life gone wrong than that? The son of God, the author of life, nailed to a cross, and killed. The whole Jesus movement finished. If you were there that “good” Friday, you’d think everything was lost. You’d think life had gone so far wrong it could never be right again. But we don’t see well from the valley.
So hang on to God when life “goes wrong”. Hang on by praying. Hang on by singing. And hang on by trusting.
And speak - even in the valley. Because often it’s in the valley, in the darkness, in the pain and hurt, that God opens extraordinary doors. Remember Lydia from last week? Lydia was a seeker, looking for God in the light. This Roman jailer was anything but a seeker. He was never going to run into the message of Jesus at the place of prayer. Yet, in this valley for Paul and Silas of beating and imprisonment, in the darkness of the night, God opened a door for the jailer to hear and respond to the message too.
At difficult moments in life, people are often more open to considering the message of Jesus, a message of hope and light - and if we are able to speak in the midst of our own difficult moments, that is a powerful testimony to our faith which can add weight to our words. People will hear us differently when we say the same things in the dark of night as we do in the light of day.
So hang on to God when life “goes wrong”. Hang on by praying. Hang on by singing. Hang on by trusting. And speak.
Let’s pray together now...
We’re going to respond in song this week with a beautiful song which is so fitting. Maybe it’s hard for you to sing this morning. Maybe you’re in the dark of night, the depth of the valley, the middle of the storm. But can I encourage you to try: let this song carry you, move you. Let’s sing..
Even, perhaps, a disaster of your own making - because although it’s not certain here - different commentators have different opinions - maybe, just maybe, Paul’s temper getting the better of him was the trigger, starting the chain. v18 “Finally Paul became so annoyed that turned around and said…” - sounds like he lost his temper - and maybe he shouldn’t have. Having held his tongue for days and days, maybe he should have held it one day more.
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