Sermon: Paul Silas in Prison
Sunday 16th May 2009
Bible Reference: Acts 16
There’s a fascinating research study
done by an academic from Northwestern University in the United
States. She studied Olympic medallists and discovered that Bronze
medallists were happier than Silver medallists. Here’s why. Silver
medallists tended to focus on how close they came to winning gold so
they weren’t satisfied with silver. Bronze medallists tended to
focus on how close they came to not winning a medal at all so they
were just happy to be on the medal stand at all.
It’s a fascinating insight into human nature: that what we focus on
and pay attention to determines our reality: that how we feel often
isn’t determined by objective circumstances. If that
was the case then winning Silver rather than Bronze
medallists would feel better because it is an objectively better
result. But how we feel clearly isn’t determined by such things. How
we feel is determined by how we see things – by our
The poet John Milton said it best: “The mind is its own place,
and in itself, can make a Heaven out of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
We tend to see what we’re looking for don’t we? One preacher I
came across thinks there are two basic types of people in the world:
complainers and worshippers. Complainers can always find something
to complain about. Worshippers can always find something to praise
and thank God about.
I used to teach a bit of psychology in university. There’s a school
of thought called Personal Construct Theory; the theory is idea is
that we’re develop ideas – hypotheses - about everything - all the
time – and then looking for evidence to support these ideas and
opinions, and ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit.
So if we decide we don’t like someone we’ll notice everything
that is wrong with that person - and ignore anything we could
potentially like about them. Vy the way that’s the problem with
interviewing people, if you’ve ever done that – because we tend to
make snap judgements and form impressions of people within seconds
and then have to work hard to be open to other evidence. Mind you
the flipside is true as well. If you fall head-over-heels in love
with someone you tend to only notice those things you love about
So we see what we’re looking for.
Now what does that have to do with worship? Well a worshipper makes
a decision to look for something to praise God about even in the
direst of circumstances.
And what a story we have in Acts 16 – because by anyone’s assessment
this was a bad day
(Think about it). Paul casts a demon out of a fortune-teller. Her
master doesn’t like it because she loses the ability to predict the
future and earn money - so he has Paul and Silas arrested. They both
get severely beaten, and thrown into prison. The jailer’s ordered to
make sure they don’t escape, so he takes no chances and puts them
into the inner dungeon and clamps their feet in the stocks.
I don’t know about you, but if I put myself in the sandals of Paul
or Silas I’d be emotionally, physically and spiritually spent -
drained to the last drop - nothing left to give. Their backs are
bleeding from their flogging; they’re black and blue all over – so
much for the joys of ministry - it just doesn’t get much worse than
this. And that’s why the verse right in the middle of our reading is
so incredible (have a look): “About midnight, Paul and Silas were
complaining bitterly about their circumstances and how badly they’d
been treated.” Okay, but that’s not what it says, is it??
“Around midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns
to God, and the other prisoners were listening.”
Incredibly they’d somehow managed to ‘zoom out’ from the horrible
situation they were in to be able to see the bigger picture.
When I get into a spiritual or
emotional slump – and it happens more regularly than I’d like, it’s
usually because I’ve done the exact opposite and zoomed in on
some problem or other. Perhaps I’ve got back late after a busy few
hours feeling pretty knack’d – and instead of focussing on what had
gone well, when the washer holding a tap together breaks – and I
successfully knock over a jug with hot stock in it you won’t exactly
hear me praying and singing hymns to God - it’s all the problems I
become fixating on – focussing on the wrong things – and quickly
losing perspective - and my cool.
Sometimes we’ve got to zoom out and
look at the bigger picture. That’s what the following university
student did in writing this letter – and this is ingenious:
Dear Mum and Dad,
I have so much to tell you. Because of the fire in my hall of
residence, which was set off by the student riots, I experienced
temporary lung damage and had to be rushed to the hospital. While I
was there, I fell in love with a porter, and we’ve moved in
together. I dropped out of college when I found out I was pregnant,
and he got sacked because of his drinking, so we’re going to move to
Alaska, where we might get married after the birth of our baby.
Your loving daughter ~
PS: None of this really happened, but I did flunk my chemistry exam
and I wanted you to keep it in perspective.
So how do we manage to zoom out? There’s a one - word answer:
When we worship we take our eyes off of our external situation and
focus on God. We stop being preoccupied with what’s wrong with us or
with our circumstances. Like Peter walking on the water, looking
into the face of Jesus – until he started focussing on the water
lapping around his feet.
Paul and Silas could have done the
same. “For goodness’ sake God we cast out a demon and this is what
we get?? We’re on a missionary journey to share the Gospel and we
get beaten and thrown in jail?” No not a bit of it! They could
have complained till the cows came home. But they made a choice to
worship God in spite of their circumstances.
And here’s what worship does. It restores spiritual equilibrium. It
helps us regain our perspective. It enables us to find something to
praise God about even when everything seems to be going pear-shaped.
It’s refocusing on the fact that two thousand years ago, Jesus died
on the cross to rescue us and free us from our sins. It’s refocusing
on the fact that God loves us when we least expect it and least
deserve it. It’s reminding ourselves that God is going to lead us
where he wants us to go (if we let him). It’s realizing that
we have an eternal purpose and direction in our life – and can look
forward to a time where there’s no more sickness or sorrow or pain.
So it’s in and through Worship that God helps us regain our
Is it easy? Absolutely not!!. Nothing’s more difficult than praising
God when everything seems to be going wrong. But one of the best
forms of worship is praising God even when we don’t feel like
it because it shows God that our worship isn’t based on what we’re
going through. Worship – ‘worth-ship’ - is based on the character of
God – and focussing on that can actually allow us to view our
circumstances differently – to reframe them as the psychologists
It’s always a challenge to read the accounts of Holocaust survivors
about their experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Everything was
taken away from them. They were stripped of their clothing, their
pictures, and their personal belongings. They even took away their
names and tattooed numbers on them.
Victor Frankl was one – and he said
everything was taken away except one thing. Frankl said, “Everything
can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to
choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
At the end of the day (as they say), one way or the other, what
we choose to focus on determines our reality!
Paul and Silas were chained up in prison – and their choice to
worship set off a chain reaction. To cut a long story short, there
was an earthquake, the prisoners were set free, but they didn’t
leave! The jailer who was about to kill himself must have been so
affected by what was happening that right there and then he gave his
life to Jesus and he and his entire family got baptized in the
middle of the night.
You can’t script this kind of thing. You can’t plan miracles. But
when you worship God in the worst of circumstances you never know
what’s going to happen. Worship sets the stage for miracles! Worship
causes spiritual earthquakes that can change the topography of
peoples lives. Worship can be like the shifting the tectonic plates
of our thinking. It may not change the circumstances. But it will
change our lives.
The key is focusing on the right thing – or Person – which is what
our Communion Services are all about – and they culminate in meeting
the risen Jesus at the Table he invites us to – to share a meal and
be blessed by him!
Paul gives some priceless advice in his letter to the Philippian
Christians. It’s a list of eight premeditated things we can decide
to think about. He says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble,
whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is
admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such
things.” And here’s a closing thought: the circumstances we complain
about can become chains that imprison us. Worship is the way out.
It was worship that set Paul and Silas free physically. And it’s
worship that will set us free emotionally and spiritually. Worship
sets off a chain reaction. The prison doors fly open. The chains
I wonder - are there circumstances
that you’re allowing to imprison you? Have your complaints about
something or someone become like chains? Here’s some good news: if
you start focusing on Jesus the perspective will come.
That’s what the jailer did when he
became a believer – when he committed himself and said this
is the way I’m going from now on. I wonder if we need to re-affirm
our commitment to him. Perhaps for some this might be the first time
you’ve used such a prayer – and it might be like inking in the
pencil marks and coming into the fullness of a relationship with
Jesus that you’ve heard others talk about but which has been a bit
distant for you. So try praying this in the quietness of your own
hear as I carefully go through the words.
Lord Jesus Christ, I know that
and done things that have hurt you. And I really am willing to turn
away from what is wrong in my life.
I want to go where you lead in the
Thank you for dying on the cross –
so that I might be forgiven and set free.
Thank you that you offer me
forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit. I now receive that gift.
Please come into my life by your
Holy Spirit to be with me for ever. And lead me where you want me to
Thank you Lord Jesus. Amen.