In pondering this text, I found myself struck by how Paul and Silas responded to being beaten and thrown into jail. The text tells us that they “were praying and singing hymns to God.” I began to think of the many times I have experienced difficulty in life. I am more than aware that my immediate response to such circumstances is not always to “pray and sing.” There’s a quality even of rejoicing to the text that is hard to relate to given the situation..
As I sat with this text, however, I began to suspect that it was the “praying and singing” itself that produced the hopeful and persistent spirit Paul and Silas display, rather than the other way around. Perhaps the praying and singing came first. Perhaps they weren’t naturally hopeful people, but like us, they sometimes required some divine help in moving to that faithful place. Perhaps, in their prayers, they experienced God’s presence and rejoiced that they weren’t alone. Perhaps in their prayers, they were encouraged that God had a purpose that was larger than their circumstance. Perhaps in their singing, they joined with a song that began long before them. Perhaps they heard God’s song at the beginning of creation, a song that continued brightly as God liberated the people from slavery, a song that sounded powerfully as God provided manna in the wilderness, a song that sounded persistently if dimly as the prophets exhorted the people to remember the orphans and the widows, a song that continued with Jesus as he taught them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. Perhaps it was the praying and the singing that allowed for their hopefulness, their compassion for the jailer, and for their persistence in ministry.
How do you find hope in the midst of hardship? Can you recall a time when you turned to prayer and singing in such a way and found that it sustained you? This story ends well, with everyone sharing a meal and rejoicing. Not all of our stories will have such happy endings. How can prayer and singing sustain us even when the outcome isn’t what we would like it to be?
These are reflections on the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 8th. You can hear an audio recording by following the link to my Sound Cloud Page. The scripture text is included below.
Acts 16:16-34 (NRSV)
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.