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Sermon: Paul Silas in Prison

Date Preached: 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 subjective focus.
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 them.

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: WORSHIP.
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 spiritual equilibrium.

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 would say.

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 break free.

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 I’ve sinned
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 future.

Thank you for dying on the cross – for me
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 go
Thank you Lord Jesus. Amen.


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