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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Imprisoned, Yet Praising?

Pastor Shim's sermon on September 4, 2011
- Acts 16: 1-34
How was Paul able to praise God even though chained in prison?

You may have heard of Fanny Crosby. She was blind, but despite her darkened life was able to write songs of praise to God. What was her secret? Like Paul she was deeply moved by the love of Jesus. Her hundreds of hymns are witnesses to all of us who use her songs to praise our God. Fanny Crosby has been called "The Songbird in the Dark." Though blinded in infancy, she wrote hymns that inspirationally envision our future reunion with Christ. Early in her life, Fanny had a dream in which she saw the panorama of a glorious heaven, and many of her songs reflect that theme. By the time of her death, she had penned at least 8,000 hymns—praise to God and encouragement to her and to us.

Do you feel surrounded by dark and confusing circumstances? You can still lift your praise to God for the bright future you will share with His Son. The words of Fanny Crosby's beloved hymn "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine,” encourage us as we anticipate this glorious reunion with Christ. - Dennis Fisher

In Acts 16, we learn about Paul and Silas’s second missionary journey. They visited Christians in Syria, Cilicia, Derbe, and in Lystra. They met Timothy in Lystra and the church highly recommended him to Paul. He joined the team and they continued in the journey, sharing the gospel and encouraging Christians. Their plan was to go to Bithynia but they were forbidden by the Spirit; instead they were led to Troas. Why did God close the door to Bithynia? Because God had a better plan.

Paul found out why he was not allowed to go to according his plan. “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” By following the leading of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his companions were led to an amazing harvest of souls for the kingdom of God. God had a plan for the people in the story to hear the Good News about Jesus Christ in order to have eternal life. Keep God’s appointment and be blessed and be a blessing. God has unlimited resources to fulfill his plan. If we obey God’s leading, we will be blessed and be a blessing.

When we follow the Leading of Holy Spirit, amazing results await us (Acts 16:11-15. Lydia became the first Christian in Europe. She was a business woman and a seeker of God. She and her friends took time for fellowship and prayer by the river, maybe because there was no synagogue for true worshippers of God. Paul and his friends might have inquired about a place of worship, and they were sent to find Lydia and her friends. When we follow God’s guidance we end up in the right place, like Paul did, “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth and a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.”

What were the signs of Lydia’s transformation by Christ? Three acts of obedience shows the changes taking place in her life. (1) She accepted Christ as her personal Savior, (2) she identified with Christ by baptism with her whole family, and (3) she showed hospitality to Paul immediately. If that is not evidence of a life being transformed, what is it? Have you done what Lydia did since you have committed your life to Christ? A Christian is a witness of Christ by his behavior and words.

What was the significance of Lydia’s conversion to the spread of Christianity? Christianity spread throughout Europe and the Americas through missionaries. People were reached with the Good News as a result of Paul’s obedience to follow God’s guidance to go to Philippi. And the Philippian church was the most helpful church to Paul and the happiest Church to read about. The next person that Paul was able to help was a slave girl. God does not show favoritism.

A nameless slave girl was controlled by demons, a fortune teller. It seems she earned a lot of money for her masters. She followed Paul and his friends and proclaimed them to be men of God, loud and often. Paul was irritated by this constant display, and he rebuked the demon the evil spirit in her. “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” Acts 16 says at that moment the evil spirit left her.

Setting the girl free meant a loss of profit for her owners and trouble for Paul and his companion. The reaction of the slave girl’s masters was swift and full of deception. Those with power often abuse those without power. When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

The crowd and the officials of the law all joined in abusing Paul and Silas. The two ambassadors of Good News were thrown into prison and chained to the stock. “The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” Paul and Silas’s response shows they knew they were following God’s leading. God has the power to work good out come out of a bad situation, as it is stated in Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”

By what followed, we can see Paul and Silas were where God wanted them to be, even though they were prison. God had a plan to reach the Philippian jailer. Pain can prepare us to open our heart to God.

“Bless You Prison,” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from The Gulag Archipelago.

“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing well, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts...

“...It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

“And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions of history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

“And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison!’” – Posted by Dan Graves, May 14, 2009

Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Paul and Silas found reason to praise God in prison and the result was amazing. It is reported in Acts 16:25-26, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.”

At the beginning of the message I asked how Paul and Silas were able to praise God in prison. The reason is found in Paul’s philosophy of life, as it is stated in 1Thessolnian 5:1-17, “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” Paul could praise God in prison because he loved Jesus more than his life, and he saw himself as Christ’s ambassador even in prison.

When Paul had a chance to escape, he decided to stay to save the jailer’s life. The jailer was going to kill himself because he thought the prisoners escaped. Paul shouted out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” Paul’s act of kindness was the best sermon that the jailer ever heard, and he was convinced what Paul and Silas were preaching was worth risking his life for. The jailer wanted what they had. “The jailer called for light and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” This is the most important question ever asked, and accepting the answer Paul gave can change anyone’s destiny from Hell to Heaven. Paul and his companions told the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” God had prepared the jailer as he did Lydia. The jailer became the followers of Jesus Christ.

The jailer’s action shows the immediate effect of a life being transformed by Jesus Christ, “At that hour of the night, the jailer washed Paul and Silas’ wounds. The jailer and his entire family were baptized immediately. He took Paul and Silas upstairs into his home and gave them something to eat. He and his family were thrilled to be believers in God.”

Every true conversion shows a sign of transformation. Jesus makes all things new for those who surrender their lives to him as Lord and Savior. Is Jesus Christ your Savior and Lord? If you are not sure, simply ask Jesus to come into your life and take residence, and the difference will be joy forever! Joy will be your partner as you walk with Jesus, the source of joy!

Pastor Shim Habte, 1st United Methodist Church,
544 N. Shasta St., Willows, CA 95988 (530) 934 -3190
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