People Are Listening (Acts 12-28)

Have you ever noticed that if you’re holding a camera and you point the camera at something, the thing you’re pointing the camera at suddenly becomes much more interesting to everybody else?  Pointing is a powerful thing.  Try it for yourself when you’re out in public: find the least interesting object around, something totally ordinary, and point a camera at it.  And I guarantee that everybody who walks by will turn their heads to see what you’re looking at.  

            In fact, you don’t even need a camera.  You could simply use your finger.  Get a few friends together and all of you stare at the sky and point. Again, I guarantee that you will attract a crowd, and everybody will start staring up into the sky to figure out what it is that’s so interesting.

            Pointing is a powerful thing.  So much so that we were taught growing up that it’s not polite to point at people.  But when you see something that other people need to see, the best way you can get their attention is to point.  You don’t even have to say what it is you’re pointing at, because your finger will say it for you, “Look over there at that.”

            There’s an interesting piece of artwork by German artist Matthias Grunewald.  It depicts Jesus on the cross.  But notice John the Baptist on the right side of this picture, with that long finger pointing to Jesus.

            You could say that the book of Acts is all about pointing, or to use Luke’s terminology, it’s about testifying or bearing witness, words which are used throughout the New Testament to describe what the early Christians did.  But, this morning, I want to use the word “point” because “testifying” and “bearing witness” sound like churchy words that nobody pays much attention to.

            And so, this morning, we’ll just simply say that the book of Acts is all about pointing, specifically, pointing to Jesus.  At the very beginning of this book, Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

            Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses.  You will see something great and wonderful, and you will point others to what you have seen.  You’ll start here in Jerusalem, and you’ll work your way out to the ends of the earth.”

            This morning, we’re going to take a look at Acts chapter 16, where Paul and Silas continue that mission of being witnesses to the ends of the earth.  They sail over to Macedonia and they bring the gospel to the continent of Europe for the very first time. 

            But before we see what happened to them there and how they pointed people to Jesus, let’s take a look at this overview of the second half of the book of Acts, and then I’ll be back to take a closer look at chapter 16.

            Show VIDEO (Acts, part 2)

            In the first part of Acts 16, we see Paul and Silas traveling to the city of Philippi, where they make the very first converts to Christianity in Europe.  Among those converted were Lydia and her household.  And everything is off to a great start, but it doesn’t last long.

            Shortly after that, Paul and Silas were met by a demon-possessed slave girl whose owners used her to tell people’s fortunes.  Paul cast the demon out of this girl, but that made her owners angry.

            “When her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.  And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city.  They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.’” (Acts 16:19-21)

            And we see here in this passage what we have witnessed so many times in life – that people don’t really care much what you believe unless it starts to affect them, and especially if it affects them in a financial way.  You would think that these owners would be happy for this girl that she was no longer possessed by a demon.  But, no, there’s only one thing they cared about – “How much money can I make?”  And when the source of their income disappeared, they took it out on the ones responsible – Paul and Silas.

            Their accusation against these two is rather vague.  As the Contemporary English Version puts it, “They are telling us to do things we Romans are not allowed to do.” (Acts 16:21, CEV).  Which doesn’t exactly seem like it’s enough to get somebody arrested.  But what we have here is one of the earliest examples of racial profiling.

            You see, Paul and Silas were Christians, but they were also Jews, and “anti-Jewish” sentiment was running high in the city of Philippi.  Around this same time, the Roman emperor Claudius got angry with Jews and banished them from Rome, and Philippi was a Roman colony.

            Now, you need to understand that in the Roman Empire, there were two very different sets of laws: one set of laws for citizens of the Roman Empire, and another set of laws for those who were not citizens.  Roman citizens had very carefully guarded civil rights.  Non-citizens had no civil rights, and they were subject to whatever the crowds and the officials wanted to do to them.

            Now, Paul actually was a Roman citizen.  But, because he was a Jew, the people assumed that he wasn’t.  So, “the crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.  And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.  Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.” (Acts 16:22-24)

            So, here we have Paul and Silas, with their feet in the stocks, and open wounds on their backs from a beating by the authorities.  And the only thing they had done to end up there was to try to help somebody – they set a slave girl free from a demon.

            Imagine today if you found a girl who had been caught up in sex trafficking and you rescued her from her pimp.  But instead of the pimp getting arrested, the cops start beating you with their batons and they arrest you.  That’s basically what happened to Paul and Silas.

            They ripped off their clothes and beat them with rods.  That tore their skin, raised welts and bruises, maybe even broke some ribs.  Then Paul and Silas were put into the deepest part of the prison.  And to increase security and their misery, their feet were put into stocks.

            Imagine being in that situation. You’re in a dark prison cell in the middle of the night.  It’s cold and damp.  You need medical attention.  You’re hungry.  You can’t move more than a few inches in any direction.  You have nowhere to relieve yourself.  And you did absolutely nothing wrong to deserve this.

            If you were in Paul and Silas’ place, how would you feel?  I think it’s safe to say that we’d be pretty upset about it.  But we would probably also be confused.  Why would God let this happen to us?  We’d be afraid.  Is this how we’re going to die?  We might even start to feel hopeless.  Our story doesn’t tell us how Paul and Silas felt, but it does tell us what they did.

            Verse 25 says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” (Acts 16:25).  Despite everything they were going through, Paul and Silas began worshiping God right there in that prison cell.

            I can understand them praying because I think most of us would pray if we were in a situation like that, but our prayer would likely be something like, “God why did you let this happen to me?  God, why don’t you do something and get me out of here?  God, I want you to punish those pagans for their sins.”  But I have a feeling that’s not the sort of prayer they were praying.

            I don’t think Paul and Silas were complaining to God about their situation.  I think it’s more likely they were giving thanks to God – not thanking God that they were in this situation but thanking God despite the situation, and praying that God would use this situation to his glory.

            And the reason I say that is because they weren’t just praying, they were also singing.  Singing hymns.  Singing songs of praise to God.  And that’s what I find most incredible about this story.

            There’s tremendous power in song.  I read recently about a music therapist who goes into neonatal intensive care units and sings for infants to calm them down and relieve their stress.  More and more, medical science is discovering what we have understood since the earliest days of human existence. And that’s the power of song.

            Music has the power to heal.  To calm.  To soothe. To diminish pain in our bodies and our souls.  Music therapy is gaining acceptance as a treatment option not only for babies born prematurely, but also for pain management, psychological disorders, even Alzheimer’s.

            I heard about one nurse who told about how she was taking care of a very sick, and very lonely elderly man. And he just wasn’t responding to any conventional treatment.  She went to her aunt—who was also a nurse—asking her what she should do. And her aunt said, “Did you sing to him?”

            Well, singing to a patient wasn’t exactly in any of her nursing school textbooks.  But she did.  She began to sing that beautiful hymn, “It is Well with my Soul.”  And that’s when she finally got a response from her patient.  She could see tears beginning to form in his eyes.

            That story testifies to the power of song.  Singing has the ability to transport you to another place and time.  That’s one reason it’s so effective as a medical treatment.  It can help remove you from your pain and suffering.  But a song can do so much more than that.

  • A song can break your heart and put it back together again.
  • A song can teach you new ideas.
  • A song can bring people together and show you that you’re not alone.
  • A song can open your eyes to new possibilities and help you to imagine a better world.
  • And a song can set you free.

            And I think that’s why God’s people have always been a singing people. I think that’s why songs are so important to the worship and spiritual formation of the church.

            The church has an incredibly rich heritage of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. From the book of Psalms in our Bibles. To the grand old hymns of the Reformation. To the words of lament and hope found in African-American spirituals.  To the praise and worship music that’s become so popular in the last couple of decades.

            Songs help us to express how we feel.  They help us to communicate our sorrow and our joy.  They connect us with God’s people throughout the ages.  They give us courage and strength.  They give us hope—in this life, and for the world to come.

            There are times in our lives when we’re overwhelmed with emotion, and the only way we know how to express it is to sing about it.   Perhaps some of you may have specific songs that speak to you in those moments.  And those songs can calm and quiet your soul, just like those babies in a NICU.

            But not only do these songs that God has given us have the power to calm us and soothe us and ease our pain. They also have the power to make a difference in this world.  They have the power to move the heavens and shake the earth.  And that’s exactly what happened here in Acts chapter 16. 

            While Paul and Silas were singing, “suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken.  And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.” (Acts 16:26)

            But, as powerful as that earthquake was, there was something even more powerful that resulted from Paul and Silas praying and singing that night.

            When I read verse 25 a few moments ago, I left off the last few words, but those words are so significant.  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God……and the prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)

            Prisons can often be a noisy place.  Prisoners may complain about the food, or scream to be set free; guards often yell at the prisoners.  But I doubt if anyone had ever heard this particular sound before.  In the middle of the night, in the pitch dark, Paul and Silas sang praises to the Lord.  And that caught the attention of every other person in that jail – the other prisoners, as well as the jail keeper.  They could all tell that there was something different about these two prisoners, because they were able to praise God in the midst of their trouble.

            Those prisoners who heard Paul and Silas singing were well aware of what had just happened, how these two men had been mistreated by the authorities.  And, yet, here they were, singing songs of praise to God.  “And the prisoners were listening to them.”  

            It’s important for us all to remember this — the “prisoners” are always listening to us.  People around us are always watching us and listening to us!  And we need to make sure that they hear something good from us – something that points them to Jesus. 

            But, as I said, it wasn’t just the prisoners who were listening.  As we read a little bit further in this story, we found out the jailer was also listening — and what he heard led him to Jesus, as he and his family were baptized into Christ that very night.

            Be certain of this — whenever those of us who are Christians face adversity, the world watches us with great interest. Every single person on the face of this earth faces hardship.  Every single person loses loved ones.  Every single person faces sickness.  Every single person encounters difficulties and hardships in life.  But whenever those things happen to Christians, the world is watching to see if our faith is genuine.  And those are the times when we have the greatest opportunity to point people to Jesus.

            People are watching you and listening to you right now.  And they are forming an opinion about God based on what they see and hear.  It has been said that every Christian is an epistle that is written by God and read by men.  You are the only Bible that some people ever will read.  They are looking at you, they are listening to you, and what they see and hear may well determine the course their lives will take.

            The story of Paul and Silas in prison has an important message for all of us.  You see, the church exists to spread the word about Jesus, and all the wonderful things God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ to save us and redeem all creation.  That’s why we’re all here. 

            And singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is a powerful way for us to spread that word.  A song can cause someone who’s listening to sit up and take notice.  And as they hear the songs that you and I sing, God can use that to accomplish some powerful stuff.

            If you’ve ever been to a Christian camp, you’ve seen that happen.  You’ve seen young people connect to God through those campfire songs we sing together.  Kids learn to worship before we get them into the water.  And I think that’s because it’s through singing praises to God they learn how much God loves them.  It’s through singing those songs that they are led to surrender their lives to God.

            And if you’ve been in church for any length of time, you can probably testify to the power of the songs you’ve sung in worship.  You’ve seen it.  You’ve felt it.

            But here’s where I want to challenge some of you with a question.  Do you ever sing those songs of praise outside of gathered worship?  When you’re not in a worship service, or at camp, or at a devotional?  And if you don’t, my challenge to you this week is to find a way to weave the singing of hymns and worship songs into the fabric of your daily life.

            Martin Luther once said that music is God’s gift.  And that singing praises to God makes your heart joyful because it drives away the Devil.  It turns your anxious thoughts away from your anger, lust, and pride because it focuses your heart on God.

            I would agree with that.  And I think the apostle Paul — one of those men who was singing in prison in the middle of the night — I think he would agree as well.

            I want to take a quick look at something Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 5, beginning with verse 15.  In the churches of Christ, we have typically turned to a verse in this passage to lay down guidelines for our singing during worship services.  But I would make the argument that this passage doesn’t have anything to say about a worship service.  Rather, Paul is talking about everyday life.

            Beginning in verse 15, Paul says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.”  He’s not talking there about worship service.  He’s talking about how Christians should live from day to day.  We should live wisely.

            In verse 16, “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”  Again, he’s not talking about worship service.  He’s saying, as you live out your life from day to day, don’t waste your time.

            So how do we live in a way that doesn’t waste our time in these days that are evil?  Verse 18, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”  Paul is still talking about day to day living.  And how do we fill ourselves with the Spirit of God?

            Verse 19, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”  That’s exactly what Paul and Silas were doing in the prison at midnight, wasn’t it?  When the days were evil, they were singing out to God.

            And God responds to our songs just as surely as God responds to our prayers.  Because, when you get right down to it, all a psalm, or hymn, or spiritual song really is, is praying to a tune.  The beauty of it, though, is this – unlike prayer, it’s not just something you do all by yourself.  Paul actually says when we sing hymns together, we actually speak to each other, we calm each other, we keep each other focused on what’s really important.

            So, I would encourage you to follow Paul’s advice, and his example.  Sing more praises to God!  Not just in gathered worship, but as part of your daily time with God.  

            And whenever you sing praises to God — whether it’s by yourself, or with a small group of friends, or in worship on Sundays — I challenge you to remember our story today.  What happened when Paul and Silas sang to God from their prison cells.  How God heard their songs, and sent an earthquake that threw open the prison doors and broke everyone’s chains.

            We need to sing believing that our songs have the power to make an impact. 

            When we sing “It Is Well With My Soul”—no matter what dark prison it may feel like our hearts or lives are trapped in. 

            When we sing, Amazing grace / how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me — and we can look back over our lives, and see everything that God has done for us.

            When we sing together about how Jesus is Mighty to Save, and we remember the night Paul and Silas sang in prison, and God sent that earthquake that shook the prison, opened the doors, and broke the chains

            Can you imagine how much stronger and closer our church family would be if we would sing to each other, and with each other, outside of our regular worship service?  Just to remind each other of God’s goodness and mercy and love?  Just to remind each other by singing about the plans God has for us, and the dreams God has dreamed for us?

            And don’t ever forget that people are listening.  This world is watching those of us who are Christians.  And if they see Christians who are reacting to difficult circumstances just like they do, they may conclude that being a Christian doesn’t make any difference.  But when they see and hear Christians rising above their circumstances and giving praise to God even in their deepest trial, then those who are unsaved will realize that Christians have something in their lives that they don’t have, something that they need.

            It all comes down to pointing.  And if we do our job of pointing to Jesus, people will turn their heads and they will look to see what it is that makes our lives so different, what it is that brings us joy and peace in difficult times.

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