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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
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
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
Praying and singing after all this.
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.
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
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?
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