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Good morning. We’re celebrating Mothers’ Day today and I just wanted to first wish God’s blessings on all the mothers who are here and express gratitude for our mothers who may not be here. My message today is not about mothers per se but I hope it will serve as an encouragement for all of us, no matter who we may be.
Acts 16:16-34 (NLT) – Paul and Silas in Prison
16 One day as we were going down to the place of prayer, we met a demon-possessed slave girl. She was a fortune-teller who earned a lot of money for her masters. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.”
18 This went on day after day until Paul got so exasperated that he turned and said to the demon within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And instantly it left her.
19 Her masters’ hopes of wealth were now shattered, so they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities at the marketplace. 20 “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!” they shouted to the city officials. 21 “They are teaching customs that are illegal for us Romans to practice.”
22 A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. 23 They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. 24 So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.
25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. 26 Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! 27 The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” 32 And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. 33 Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.
It started out as a very bleak situation. Paul and Silas were just minding their own business, going down to the house of prayer. Along the way, they met a demon-possessed slave girl who earned a lot of money for her masters doing fortune telling. The demon in her recognized them and she kept shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.” Isn’t it amazing that even demons can’t help proclaiming that? J She followed them for days shouting until Paul got so exasperated he commanded the demon to leave her. And then there was an uproar! Her masters falsely accused Paul and Silas of teaching illegal customs and they were thrown into prison. Not only that. Before they were thrown into prison, they were mobbed, stripped and beaten severely with wooden rods. It was a very bleak situation indeed. Through no fault of their own, Paul and Silas were unjustly accused and severely beaten. They experienced pain and injustice, without any warning. To make things worse, to ensure they didn’t escape, they were placed in the inner dungeon and their feet were clamped in the stocks. Absolutely no way to escape. What could make a situation more hopeless than that?
How would you react if you were in their shoes? Unfairly accused, beaten up, no hope of escape? I’m not sure about you but I would feel angry. I would feel like fighting back. “It’s not fair! I don’t deserve to be treated like this. I’ve done nothing wrong.” Then slowly I might realize I have no power to change things and start to lose hope. I might become depressed and even fear for my life. The Bible doesn’t really tell us how Paul and Silas were feeling but whatever emotions they were struggling with, we know that around midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Wow! Praying and singing hymns to God…at a time like this. That’s quite something, right? But what was even more incredible was the fact that there was a massive earthquake suddenly and all the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! Not just Paul and Silas’ chains but every prisoner! I’m not sure if you have been in an earthquake before (I could tell you some funny earthquake stories that I have experienced) but it can be quite scary because the ground that you and I are usually so sure of and feel completely secure standing upon starts to shake and sway and you almost feel like you are in the middle of a stormy sea. Well, in this case, the earthquake was so massive the bolted prison doors flew open and even the chains fell off. The jailer woke up, saw that the prison doors were wide open and assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he tried to kill himself. But Paul stopped him and assured him they were all there.
At that moment, the jailer realized these were not ordinary men and they didn’t just believe in an ordinary god. He fell down trembling and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” They then shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. And even at such a late hour, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized….in the middle of the night! He then invited them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God. Wow! What a fantastic ending! Did you think there would be such a marvelous ending when the story first started? Everything seemed so bleak in the beginning. There was only pain, injustice and hopelessness. Who would have thought it would end up with an entire household beliving in God and getting baptized? And all this happened in just one night! Talk about turning things around.
At this time I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “But this is a story from the Bible. Of course, it has such a dramatic turn around. That doesn’t really happen in real life.” Well, that may be true but this story in Acts actually reminded me of an incident in history that has similar threads running through it. This incident didn’t end the same way but the arc and the key elements of the story are very similar so I thought I would share it with you. Has anyone here visited Nagasaki before? Have you heard of the story of the 26 martyrs? Nagasaki is a city in Japan and it has the highest number of Catholic believers in Japan today. When I was there, I remember standing on the hill where hundreds of years ago, 26 brave men died for the sake of the gospel. And I just wanted to share a little bit of their story here and perhaps you can observe what key elements are similar to the story in Acts?
If you can imagine with me, the date is February 5, 1597. The shogun of Japan at that time was afraid of the influence that Christianity was having on the Japanese people as it was spreading very quickly. He pronounced an edit to ban Christianity and the conversion of believers. To show how serious he was, he rounded up 26 believers — 6 were Franciscan missionaries, 3 Jesuit priests who were Japanese and 17 Japanese lay believers — and he ordered that they all be executed by crucifixion. The youngest among them were two altar boys, a 12-year old and a 13-year old. This group was forced to march almost a thousand kilometers from Kyoto to Nagasaki on foot in the wintry snow. Each of them had their left ear cut off just before the march started and it took them 30 days to reach Nagasaki. They were bleeding and worn out but witnesses recall them singing hymns throughout the journey to encourage one another.
When they reached Nagasaki, the believers knew that each had his own specific cross because they had been made to measure. The first to arrive on the hill goes straight to one of the crosses and asked, “Is this mine?” It is not. Taken to his own cross, he kneels down and embraces it. The others, one after another, start doing the same and it was quite a sight. One by one the prisoners were fixed to their crosses. No nails were used. Hands and feet and neck were kept in position with iron rings and a rope around the waist kept the victim tightly bound to the cross. After a while, one of them started suffocating because the prop on his cross was too low so the whole weight of his body hung from the ring around his neck, choking him to death. Witnesses heard the rest lifting up their voices in a chorus of hymns and prayers.
Among them was a seminarian named Paul Miki. He was well known as a Japanese preacher among the people. Even on the cross, Miki’s instincts as a preacher didn’t change. He realized one of the best things he could do at that moment was to preach his final sermon. So he straightened himself up, looked at the crowds and said in a loud voice: “All of you who are here, please listen to me. I am not a foreigner. I am a Japanese by birth, and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime, and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, you can rest assured that I am not trying to deceive you. I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that human beings can find no way to salvation other than through Jesus Christ.”
Witnesses say that some of the guards started edging nearer to Miki’s cross, spellbound by his words. Miki looked at them as well as his executioners and said, “The Christian religion tells us to forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us, and so I say here and now that I forgive the shogun and those responsible for my death. I have no hatred for the shogun; indeed, I wish that he and every Japanese would become Christians.” With those last words, the men continued to sing hymns as they were speared to death, one by one.
So why did I share this incident with you? Did you pick out any elements of this story that sounds similar to the story in Acts? Yes, the men were unfairly accused. They were put to death because of their faith. There definitely was pain. And like Paul and Silas, these men sang hymns and prayed in the midst of a horrible situation. And to the casual observer, this situation seemed hopeless. There was no escape. In fact, unlike the story in Acts where there was a miraculous and happy ending, the ending here for the 26 martyrs was their tragic deaths. But let me ask you, do you think that is the actual ending of the story? From a big picture point of view, the real ending of the story took place many years down the line. This incident at Nagasaki happened more than 400 years ago. It should have been forgotten by now. But the testimony and behaviour of the believers were so astounding and awe-inspiring this story was recorded down in Japanese history and passed down through many generations. Japan has less than 1% of their population who are Christians but the Japanese government in Nagasaki decided to immortalize the story of these 26 martyrs by building a museum and monument dedicated to their memory in 1962. And many visitors each year catch a glimpse of God through the lives and deaths of these men.
In both the stories of Paul and Silas as well as the 26 martyrs, we see pain, injustice and hopelessness at the beginning. But the end of these stories is amazing —- people see the light and truth of God. And the sense of hopelessness turns into a glorious hope. So how did things turn around? What were the circumstances that helped turn things around? Well, of course, it was God’s miraculous power. That is first and foremost always. Without God’s power, we can accomplish nothing. But if you know our God well, you would know that God often works in a way that involves us. Of course, God can work without us. In fact, it probably would be easier for God to do everything instead of involving people like us. But that’s where God’s wisdom and kindness is beyond our human understanding. So what is going on in the middle portion of these stories? How did the people respond in the midst of pain, injustice and a seemingly hopeless situation? Wouldn’t that be helpful to know, especially for those of us who may be struggling? I pondered over these stories and 3 elements stood out. I titled this sermon “Turning Things Around with L.U.C.” and for me L.U.C. stands for Love, Unity and Courage.
Let’s first look at love. In both these stories, we see tremendous love for God, love for one another and love for the oppressor. Even in their darkest moments, these people didn’t forget God. In fact, they worshipped and prayed. And as they sang hymns, they were actually encouraging each other as well. Lifting each other’s spirits and reminding one another to look to God. They showed love towards their oppressors and those who treated them unfairly. For example, Paul stopped the jailer from killing himself and shared the gospel with him and his household. Paul Miki shared the gospel from the cross and told his oppressors he had no hatred for them, he forgives them and wishes they would know God. They stood up for what they believed in but they did it with love.
One more element we see in both of these stories is the unity of hearts. In Acts, none of the prisoners tried to escape even though they could have. They were united in wanting to do the right thing. It was the same with the 26. They were united in mind, heart and spirit. When love and unity is present, that is where we also see tremendous courage. Courage that is beyond mere human ability. Courage that can only come from divine love and empowerment. Courage that comes from knowing you’ve got my back and I’ve got your back, no matter what. Courage that overcomes all fear.
I wonder how many of us are going through a situation right now that fills us with pain, injustice or a sense of hopelessness? Maybe it is a relationship that is not working out the way you hoped? Or perhaps someone close to you is sick or suffering? Or maybe over the past week, you heard yet another pastor preaching that homosexuality is an abomination to God? And all you can feel is the pain and injustice of it all. And a part of you feels discouraged and wonder if things will ever change or improve. I want you to know that whatever you may be facing, we can overcome it together. And God will have it no other way. God is working, of course, but for some reason God wants all of us to be involved as well. What role will you play in these challenging situations? Will we respond in love, unity and courage? I know it’s rather idealistic to talk about unity, especially when we may have our differences. And it’s only human to like some people and dislike others. But can I ask you, do you know what is the one thing with the power to bring us all together? Can you venture a guess? Is it love? Well, maybe. In an ideal world, we wish it’s love. But some people have honestly not experienced love in their lives before. So they don’t know what it means to love and be loved. But the one thing that is common to all of us sitting here, no matter who we are, is pain. All of us have experienced some form of pain in our lives — be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Whether it is a dull ache that stays hidden in the inner recesses of your heart or a gut-wrenching agony that makes you feel like crying out or the sting in your eyes just before the tears form, we have all experienced pain in one way or another.
Dr Kelly Flanagan, an author and clinical psychologist, says, “We can let the pain be the common ground upon which we meet each other, separate but equal, different but equally broken, unique but sharing in the suffering of life. When we allow ourselves to feel our pain—when we allow ourselves to feel at home in a world riddledwith pain—it will not make our pain disappear. But it will redeem it. Because redemption isn’t always about making our pain go away—sometimes it’s about choosing how to live it. ”
How will you live your pain? I’m not sure about you but I choose to live it
like a welcome mat,
like a front porch light on a dark night,
like a lighthouse on a stormy sea,
like an invitation on a lonely day.
I want my pain to invite everyone else home.
“Our pain can lead us home by leading us to create a home, right here in the middle of this broken humanity.”
Many of life’s situations begin with pain, injustice and hopelessness. But what is the ending that God has in store for us? Will it shock us like the massive earthquake as in the case of Paul and the jailer in Acts? Or will it seem to end tragically at first but leave a lasting legacy of hope and inspiration to future generations? What role will you and I play in this story? Will we let God turn things around by offering ourselves in making love, unity and courage a reality?
Will love (love for God, love for one another, love for the other), unity and courage be the signature of your life and of this community?
I would like to end with this prayer that Jesus prayed for us in John 17:20-23. This is also one of our lectionary readings today. Such amazing love, such incredible courage, such unbelievable unity must come from a divine origin. And Jesus said:
20 “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”