150111 Acts 16:25-34

Last Updated on Sunday, 11 January 2015 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Acts 16:25-34
Theme: A Philippian Epiphany

It's not unusual for people to associate specific places with certain events. For example, the two numbers 9/11 remind many Americans of the tragic events that took place in New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001. Or the word, "Lambeau," might make you think about a certain football game that will be played later today.

If that is the case, if people regularly associate specific places with certain events, where do your thoughts take you when I say the word, "Epiphany?" I wouldn't be surprised if your first thought was Bethlehem because Bethlehem was the place where the star led the Magi on their search for the Christ child.

The familiar account of the Wise Men was the gospel lesson and sermon text for last Sunday, and the Festival of the Epiphany of our Lord was January 6, last Tuesday. But Epiphany is more than a one-time event that is observed on a single day of the year. According the church calendar Epiphany is a season that will last for another five weeks, and the sermon text for today (the first Sunday after Epiphany) takes us to a different place.

This morning we don't follow a star. We follow two men. We follow Paul and Silas to the province of Macedonia, to the city of Philippi. What the Lord did in this place through these missionaries gives us reason to rejoice. And so today our Epiphany celebration continues. Today we celebrate...

A Philippian Epiphany

I. God revealed his power to a group of prisoners
II. God revealed his grace to the man who guarded those prisoners

"No good deed goes unpunished." If anyone understood the meaning of those words, it was Paul and Silas. Things had started out so well in Philippi. Not long after their arrival they met a woman named Lydia. She believed their message. She was baptized along with the members of her household. And to show her appreciation she insisted on taking care of the missionaries for as long as they stayed in city.

Their encounter with another female in Philippi was not so pleasant. One day Paul and Silas came across a slave girl who had an evil spirit that enabled her to predict the future. This girl followed the missionaries around for days shouting: "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved" (17).

Finally Paul put an end to her possessed proclamations when he commanded the evil spirit to come out of her. That's good news, right? It was good for the slave girl, but not for her owners who counted on her fortune telling to provide them with a steady stream of income. Instead of being grateful, they were outraged. And in their rage they dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace where they accused them of starting a riot in the city.

When the authorities saw that a riot was starting (although the real cause of it was the slave girl's owners) they acted quickly. Without any trial, Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten. Even though they had done nothing wrong, even though they had done the slave girl a great service, they were rewarded with a night in a Philippian prison.

How unfair! How unjust! How do you think you would have reacted if you were Paul or Silas? Would you have cursed the men who mistreated you? Would you have cursed God for allowing such terrible things to happen to you? Paul and Silas had a thing or two to say to God, but they didn't curse him. They prayed to him.

Maybe it was because they couldn't sleep. Maybe the pain from the severe beating they received wouldn't allow them to sleep. Even though it was the middle of the night Paul and Silas were still awake, and so were the rest of the prisoners because Paul and Silas were singing.

These hardened criminals who had been locked up for legitimate reasons didn't tell Paul and Silas to stop. And they didn't try to shout them down either. Instead Luke tells us that they were listening, and we can only imagine what they heard. We can only imagine the message that music carried. Perhaps Paul and Silas were singing the first century equivalent of some of our favorite twenty-first century hymns, hymns with titles like "What God Ordains is Always Good" (CW 429) or "Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness" (CW 353) or "I Am Jesus' Little Lamb" (CW 432).

We don't know if the prisoners were moved by the singing of Paul and Silas, but they were definitely moved by something else: "Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose" (26).

For every person in that prison this earthquake was an epiphany. By shaking the thick prison walls, by opening the heavy prison doors, by unlocking the chains of every prisoner in every cell, God gave them a glimpse of his divine power.

The prisoners had been set free, but they were still shackled by something else, something that makes slaves of us all. We are bound by the chains of sin, the sinful nature we inherit from sinful parents, the bad habits we wish we could give up, the secret addictions we don't want to give up. We are so depraved, so corrupt, so helpless and hopeless that it would take a miracle to save us.

Enter God. The God who causes earthquakes, the God who uses earthquakes to open doors and loosen chains, has the power to free people from the bondage of sin. But he doesn't do it just because he can. He does it because he wants to do it, because he wants us to spend eternity with him. And one man found that out in a most amazing way when he became the object of God's amazing grace.

While Paul and Silas were singing, the jailer was sleeping. And when the earthquake roused him from his slumber he was in for a rude awakening. When the jailer opened his eyes, he saw that all the prison doors were open, and he assumed the worst. He assumed that the prisoners had escaped and that he would be punished in their place.

How bad did the jailer think his punishment would be? So bad that he decided it would be a better option to take his own life. But before he could act on his suicidal impulse, before he could fall on his drawn sword, he heard a voice from the bowels of the prison shout: "Stop!"

The jailer didn't expect to hear that, and nothing could have prepared him for what he heard next. Paul said to him: "Don't harm yourself! We are all here" (28)! And when the jailer called for the lights and rushed in to inspect the cells, it was just as Paul had said. It was a miracle. Not a single prisoner had fled.

But instead of feeling relieved, instead of feeling like his life had been spared, the jailer was scared to death. He was shaking like the prison foundations, and as he fell trembling at Paul's feet he stammered out a question, a question that exposed the innermost thoughts of his soul, a question that expressed the slightest glimmer of hope. The jailer asked Paul and Silas: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved" (30)?

I wonder what kind of answer the jailer expected to hear. I wonder if he anticipated that Paul and Silas would say things like: "There's no hope for you. You can't be saved" or "If you want to be saved, you have to make amends for all your past sins. You have to offer so many sacrifices. You need to say so many prayers."

"What must I do to be saved?" That question didn't make Paul uncomfortable. It made him smile. He longed for situations like this. He wished that more people would ask him questions like this. He looked down at the jailer, knowing that he had the answer, the perfect answer, the only answer. He said: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household" (31).

Paul's response can be summed up in a single word: Nothing. He said: "My dear friend, you don't have to do anything to save yourself because Jesus has done everything for you. He lived a perfect life for you. He died on the cross for you. He has washed away your sins. He has removed your guilt. And he has prepared a place for you in heaven."

"And as an added bonus, what the Lord has done for you he has done for everyone, including every member of your household, young and old, male and female, slave and free. You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26)."

The jailer couldn't believe what he had heard, but at the same time he believed everything he heard because the Holy Spirit had given him faith, saving faith. And then the Lord gave him the chance to put his new found faith into practice.

Immediately the jailer took Paul and Silas and washed their wounds, and then he was washed by them in the water of baptism. He invited them into his house. He invited them to sit down at his table. The same man who had been so desperate that he wanted to take his own life was now filled with joy because God had given him the gift of eternal life. And serving Paul and Silas was his way of saying "Thank you!"

There is a reason why this lesson was chosen for this Sunday. And there is a reason why our worship began with a special gathering rite today. On the Sunday designated as The Baptism of our Lord we remember how Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And when we think about Jesus' baptism we are reminded of our own baptism.

Because most of us were baptized when we were babies, we don't have any recollection of it. That is precisely why it is so important for us to review and (in a sense) relive what God did for us on that day. On the day of your baptism God the Father made you the object of his grace. On the day of your baptism the Holy Spirit planted the seed of faith in your heart. On the day of your baptism the Lord Jesus declared: "This child belongs to me."

There were probably some special people present when you were baptized, friends and family, parents and godparents. But don't forget about three other guests who were there, guests who played an important role at Jesus' baptism and your baptism, guests who were mentioned by name when the pastor sprinkled the water and spoke these words: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

In spite of some of the obvious differences (like the earthquake), the day you were baptized has much in common with the day the jailer was brought to faith. Both events could rightly be called epiphanies. Both revealed God's power over sin. Both revealed God's love for sinners. And ultimately both you and the jailer can link the miraculous events of that day to one specific place: heaven. Amen.

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