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Belmont United Methodist Church in Belmont Massachusetts

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The Change in the Prison - Pastor Jon - May 16, 2010 - Acts 16:16-34


Last Sunday one of the scripture readings was Acts 16:11-15, which was about the conversion of Lydia. While Paul was preaching to women in Philippi, Lydia opened her heart to what Paul was saying. She and her whole household were baptized and invited Paul and Silas to stay in her house. And today we find Paul and Silas in prison. One day it seemed that they were doing a great job spreading the gospel among people. And the next day they are in jail.

The story goes like this. One day, Paul and Silas met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination. While following them, she shouted, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. One thing that we know from this text is that the spirit that possessed her was not from God. I do not know how many of you actually believe the existence of evil spirits. Demon-possessed is not such a common word that we use these days in the 21st century. I did not believe it until I witnessed it when I was a kid. There were several people in my hometown who were possessed with evil spirits including a friend of mine. One could dismiss them as mental patients with pathological behaviors. However, there were something different about them. We may still dismiss such a story as explainable with medical study and neurological analysis. However, the writer of Acts was Luke, whose occupation was physician. He clearly knew the differences between illness and demon-possessed. We can also know that the spirit that possessed this little girl was not God’s because it was exploiting her while earning a great deal of money to her owner.

She followed Paul and Silas and shouted, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. We do not know what drove Paul angry. Paul’s motivation to exorcise her was not his compassion nor her faith. The Bible says that he was so annoyed that he turned to the spirit and said, “Come out of the girl in the name of Jesus Christ.” The spirit obeyed Paul’s word that very moment. She was healed. And it caused a problem for her owner. Her fortune-telling was a great means for him to make money. And now that is gone. For the owner, she was nothing but property to make fortune. He was not concerned with her health. He did not pay for her health-care. He did not care about her education. She was on the streets. She was a great property and now she is useless. When her owners saw her healed and well, they shouted, “Seize them!” But look at the charge that they accuse against Paul and Silas before the magistrates. “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.” They do not say anything about the little girl who they had exploited using her suffering from evil spirit. Paul and Silas were severely beaten and thrown into jail.

What comes next is what I find the highlight of this text. Paul could have regretted in the jail, “I should have controlled my temper. Only if I stayed calm and passed by her, we would not have ended up being in jail. No. no. The Bible says that at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God and the prisoners were listening to them. The state put these people into the prison because they committed crimes, whether authentic or false charges. They were cut off from their societies. They could not see their parents, children, and their families. What hope could they have? Being freed and going home? The state threatened people with the fear of separation of violence. If you do not behave as a good citizen here, you will be punished. For these people, however, the prayer and singing of Paul and Silas brought a whole different world into the prison. Their song was song of hope in the place of hopelessness. Their prayer was prayer of faith in the place of faithlessness. The prison was supposed to be a place of torture, pain, and suffering. But it became a place of praise, prayer, hope, and faith. The Spirit of God was in this place.

All of sudden, there was an earthquake. The Bible says that the foundations of the prison were shaken. All the doors were opened and the chains on the prisoners were unfastened. If they had been yearning for freedom, now was the time to escape. There was no one to stop them. And that is exactly what the guard thought when he saw the prison doors open. He thought that all the prisoners were gone and afraid of the charges against him that he did not stop them. Then Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” Not just Paul and Silas, but all the prisoners did not escape. They were al staying where they were. Did Paul and Silas tell them not to escape? Everyone was looking for some form of redemption. But the redemption was there. Paul and Silas’ prayer and praise turned the jail into the house of worship. Their prayer and praise turned their sorrow and pain into hope and comfort. Certainly a different world broke into the prison. When Jesus broke bread with sinners, drove demons out, performed the miracles for the poor, the Bible says that the kingdom of God was there. The kingdom of God is not heaven that we go to after our death. It already began with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

That is what happens when we gather to worship and praise. That should be what happens when we gather to do good. We come to the church not because we are perfect and good. We come to the church as we are, often broken in heart, suffering from many things. But we experience some change in heart that sorrow is comforted, hope is found in the midst of devastation. Last month our youth group joined the only Haitian church in our conference in their worship. They speak both Creole and English in their worship service so we could not understand many of the worship service. However, language barrier did not block us from witnessing their faith in Christ in their suffering of loss and tragedy. These people literally lost their families and friends in Haiti. The pastor of the church has also her brother living in Haiti who lost his children. But they gather Sunday after Sunday praying and praising God. To many eyes and ears, that may seem absurd. There is something happening in their gathering to pray and praise God. In the midst of tears, sorrow, and sighs, when they gathered to pray and praise, the kingdom of God was among them.

Is it not that why we gather to do good? Our church participates in the Bristol Kitchen that feeds the homeless. If you have ever participated in this, you may realize that there is something more than just feeding the foods in this event. I believe that those who help with the Bristol Kitchen feed the hungry as if they pray. When we scoop the salads, pasta, and pour the milk, we pray in our heart, “Lord, they are your children that you love so much that you sent your only Son to this world. Give them the daily bread.” Every time I go to the Bristol Kitchen, I closely feel the mood in which the foods are served and eaten. It is very emotional and spiritual. People keep coming to the Bristol Kitchen to serve and receive the foods. It is because in the midst of sharing the foods, the kingdom of God is among us.

I personally experienced such a transforming moment when I was in Nicaragua. When I went to Managua, Nicaragua, in mission trip, I had an opportunity to stay in a host-family. My spanish was so bad that I could not communicate with the family well. However, in communicating with gestures and flipping my spanish dictionary, we found joy in getting to know each other. This was such a big family, two grandparents, living with their two daughters and son-in-laws and their grandchildren. The house... there was no such a thing as wall that divides the rooms. Each room was created by furniture. No hot water for shower. No laundry machine. No Microwave. No Air-Conditioner. No Car. What we take for granted in this country, they did not have. But their smile and laughing did not stop flowing on their faces. The next day while I was helping with a Nicaraguan church, the youngest kid in the family came and grabbed me. I followed her to the house and I saw that they prepared the lunch for me, which they did not have to. Me and the three children had plates filled with rice and beans. Yeah. just rice and beans. But there was something more in my plate. There was a drumstick of chicken. I told the family that I could not eat that. But they urged me to eat it. I prayed for a while thanking for their hospitality that touched my heart. And the chicken, rice, and beans... I cannot still forget the tastes of them. It was not just about the foods. In their hospitality that welcomed a stranger into their family, I witnessed that the kingdom of God was among us that day.

That guard asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” His question was not “Sirs, how did this happen? Who are you?” But his question was about salvation. “What must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” The guard and his family were baptized and rejoiced. Sure the healing of the demon-possessed girl was a miracle. Sure the earthquake that shook the doors of the prison and changes of prisoners was a miracle. But are they more miracles than the guard and his family becoming believers in God? Something happened in the prison when Paul and Silas prayed and praised God. The prisoners listened to their prayer and praise. They did not need to escape the prison to find their redemption. Their redemption was already there. The kingdom of God was among them. Beloved. How about our families? How about our jobs? How about our church? Do you find joy in going home? Do you find excitement in going to work? Do you come to church with expectation that God will do something marvelous today? I do not know how you feel about such places. But I believe that God is calling us to transform any places we step onto to flow with prayer and praise. I pray that the change that took place in the prison where Paul and Silas were kept would happen in our life too.


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Belmont United Methodist Church is a Certified Welcoming Congregation


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