Singing God’s Praises
Our story in the Acts of the Apostles this morning is a real “story.” Paul and friends have shown up in a Greek-speaking city. Paul, being well educated, spoke Greek fluently, as did anyone who was either educated or a merchant. A young slave woman who is psychic recognizes them for who they are, and starts telling everyone: “These men are the real thing. Listen to them.” But she doesn’t just do it once and stop. No, she does it day after day. Finally, Paul has had enough of it, and he tells the spirit to come out of her. It does, and – she ceases to be anything special.
There’s just one problem here. The girl is a slave, she is the property of someone else, and Paul has just made that property worthless. This is a business issue. The owners are really angry, with good reason. So they grab hold of Paul and friends and go to the magistrates, riling up the crowd as they go. They convince the magistrate that these guys are a threat, not just to them personally, which they obviously are, having essentially destroyed their property, but also to the community. The magistrate hands them over to get flogged, a normal punishment, but also tells the jailer to keep them very safe, because they are very dangerous. The jailer gets the message, and puts them in the inside cell, probably manacled to the wall.
Now I don’t know about you, but I would not be very happy at this point. But Paul and friends start singing hymns and praising God. There they are, in prison, obviously in major trouble, they’ve just been flogged, and you know that there were no doctors tending to them in prison, and what are they doing? They are in deep gratitude, praising God! Singing!
What is the result of this? The other prisoners are listening. They get that something very strange is going on. Here are these new prisoners, obviously in big trouble, but they are not acting right. They should be very worried, they should at least be complaining. But no! They are praising God. This is something to pay attention to – why are they doing this crazy thing? They listen. They are open to hearing the word of God. They are clear who is in charge here, and it is not the jailer. Of course, the jailer does not know this yet.
Then the crux of the story. There is an earthquake. The earthquake loosens the doors and manacles. It is actually a wonder that they are not all killed by having the building fall on them. However, the jailer is terrified. He runs in, sees the doors open, and panics. If he has lost the prisoners, especially this last bunch, he will be tortured. Better to commit suicide. Paul knows this – it is standard procedure, both the torture and the suicide. So he yells to the jailer to stop what he is doing and come see, they are all there. Now the jailer gets it. He is not in charge, these strange new prisoners are. He comes in, and listen to what he says! He addresses them with the honorific, Master. He acknowledges that they are the masters, he is the servant.
What has happened here? How can this be, that the master of the situation suddenly proclaims himself as the servant? Something very deep has shaken his world radically, down to the roots, enough to make him abandon his social standing in this way. He has recognized that these men have a different authority, one that supercedes anything he has ever known. For us, it would be as though some aliens suddenly showed up in a space ship. We would realize that these folks had more power than anyone we have ever known. That’s what happened to this man. Clearly, these prisoners, for whatever reason, had chosen to be in prison, because when they had the chance to escape, they didn’t. Anyone who is not afraid of what the Roman magistrate can do is clearly in charge, and he, the jailer, wants to be in their camp. So he wants to know: what does he have to do to join them?
Then the jailer takes them into his house, washes their wounds, makes them dinner, he, acting as servant, serves them, listens to the word of God, and then he and his whole household are baptized. There is rejoicing all around.
And don’t you know that the other prisoners that witnessed all of this also would be very interested in knowing about this new thing? In fact, the prisons and slave labor camps were hotbeds of Christianity. These people, who had been told they were worth nothing, were told by the Christians that they were really children of God, that in baptism they were adopted by God. They understood what adoption meant in that society. It was amazing. It changed your status in a way that we can only vaguely understand.
So what do we hear from this story for us now?
Well, first off, life is not always nice and easy. Paul lost his temper – we never lose our tempers, right? And as a result, he and his friends get flogged and thrown in prison. If I had been one of Paul’s friends, I would not have been very happy with him right then. I definitely would not have been happy about getting flogged, and about being thrown into the innermost dungeon. But while the loss of temper is acknowledged, and the results of that are stated clearly, their response to this is not typical – and this is something we can also do.
What do I mean? Life happens. Sometimes things feel good, sometimes they feel bad. Sometimes they feel very bad indeed. Sometimes what happens is because of something we did, sometimes not. Here’s the ticket. It doesn’t matter. In any case, no matter what happens, we get to choose our response.
What Paul and friends suggest is that we praise God.
I remember hearing about this way back with a woman in my father’s church. She got the message: no matter what happens, praise God. So when her husband got his third DUI and lost his license, and the judge turned to her and asked what she thought, her response was “praise God.” The judge was a little non-plussed, but she kept at it, refusing to see it as a terrible thing. In fact, what happened, as I remember, is that the guy got a bicycle, since he could not drive any more, lost weight, felt better, and turned his life around.
When I was called to the hospital bedside of a woman who had two broken legs, I prayed for the bones to heal, and I also talked to her about praising God in all things. She went home to her abusive husband who told her to get up and make dinner, and she did, and fell, and one of the casts broke and so she had to go back to the hospital. They could not put a new cast on until they had done a new xray. She told me later that she remembered, and praised God, and so was not surprised when they did the xray again, and it showed that the leg was not broken any more. Praising God is strong medicine.
I cannot say what will happen if you praise God when things get tough, except that things will be different than if you do not. So if are not happy with your current reality, try praising God! What will it hurt? Well, it may do some damage to our pride. It may change some of the people we deal with. It may hurt our pocketbooks some. It may shift our personalities, because it is very difficult to be pessimistic and praise God at the same time. It may also move us into being more realistic about some things, and give us energy and momentum to work on things that are not right.
One thing it will definitely do is to keep us from being depressed. It is very difficult to maintain both an attitude of gratitude and depression. I am not talking about “just looking on the bright side” here, nor am I downplaying depression. But if you tend toward depression, this can really help. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is a deep spiritual practice. It is an exercise of faith, one that requires consciousness and discipline. But if we “practice” this exercise, it will be there for us.
Going back to the story, and what else we can get out of this – I look at the jailer. I think about what it must have been like for him to step up to the plate like that. He did several things. He was ready to end his life when Paul called to him. He listened. Are we willing to listen? When he rushed in and saw them there, he made a split-second decision to change his allegiance. He saw that they were in a lifeboat that he knew nothing about, and so he demanded to know how he could get into it with them. The answer was simple and not necessarily easy. He had to change his allegiance. The Lord of Life was not the Roman lord that he knew about, not the Roman emperor, not any other god that he had heard about. Yes, he said, yes, I want this. What do we say? And what do we continue to say?
Those of us who grew up in the church, do we continue to say yes? Or have our allegiances slipped? Do we remember that we are adopted sons and daughters of God?
On this Mother’s Day, I am reminded of the book, The Shack, where God is a big woman with a large belly laugh. And we are all adopted children of this God who loves us immensely. How can we not sing God”s praises?