Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Chains and Singing

Acts 16:19-28
    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 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.
 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. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

    Have you ever wondered how Paul and Silas could sing hymns while imprisoned? And what was it about their prayer and songs that kept all the other prisoners from leaving? Whatever these men had, it was better to the prisoners than their freedom! Do you understand the power of this statement? This is not jail in America, with social time in the courtyard, guaranteed meals, latrines in every cell, TV, visits from friends and family and even school available to those who seek it. This is Roman imprisonment.
    The prison in which Paul and Silas were being kept was probably underground, perhaps dug out of rock. Often, the only entrance to such a prison was a hole the size of a manhole, through which both prisoners and guards were lowered. Any light came from a torch or oil lamp making the air smoky. No lights were allowed at night, so you were in pitch darkness. But there were worse things than the darkness. Food rations were half that of a slave ration; not truly enough to maintain life. Friends or family could bring you provisions...if they were allowed and were willing to brave being lowered through that manhole, to be lifted out at the guards' whim. And if they were willing to risk being associated with someone accused of whatever crime you were charged with. Most prisoners were whipped or beaten before being lowered in. Do you think their wounds were dressed? Bloody and in pain, they were manacled and left to suffer. There were no baths or potty breaks, not even chamber pots provided. Rats abounded; there were no beds or blankets, just chains. Prisoners often committed suicide, if they didn't die from the conditions and if they could find the means. Their bodies were piled in a corner to be lifted out later. By the way, female prisoners were dumped into the same prison as the males. No separate facilities here. And prison guards were usually the poorest of soldiers. I doubt they had much love for the prisoners whose crimes had forced them into this terrible place. Do you think they were pleasant to their charges?
    Prison for the Romans was not a punishment as it is today, but a place where you awaited trial or punishment. Punishment, when it came, could be enslavement. It could be a lifetime of working in rock quarries, or perhaps in mines, where you would never again see the light of day. Or maybe you would be made a galley slave, where you lived and slept on a bench, rowing a Roman galley until you died. If your crime was particularly bad your punishment would be death by crucifixion, arguably the most painful way to die. But before you received one of these punishments, you had to have a trial. And your trial came whenever they felt like getting around to it. If they did.
    So what was it about Paul and Silas that kept the prisoners, whose chains had been loosed, from running, attempting, at least, to escape this torture and the punishment that awaited them? What strange inner strength gave Paul and Silas the ability to endure this treatment and rather than cursing the all-powerful God, the worship of whom had landed them here, sing hymns of praise and pray to Him? What do you think you would do if thrown into such a prison for a crime you did not commit? Or even if you were thrown into a modern-day American prison? Could you praise God for allowing you to be falsely accused and unjustly condemned? Honestly, I don’t know what I would do. I think it’s impossible for anyone to say until they are in such a situation. But I believe I have had a taste of the joy that caused Paul and Silas to rise above their circumstances and focus on the eternal rather than the temporal.

    What about you? Have you ever tasted of the joy of the Spirit? I’m not talking about the simple pleasure that we often derive during worship time in church. Or the joy you might feel in the midst of good fellowship. Those are nice, but they generally fade as soon as the music dies or the fellowship ends. I’m talking about a deep inner peace, contentment and fulfillment that causes you to hunger and thirst for more. An addiction that drives you to seek the inducing drug, inciting you to go to extreme measures to get another hit. No drunkenness of wine can compare to the glory of this high. Like a lover’s caress, it’s locked in your memory so that you find yourself returning to it again and again, longing for the next embrace, wondering when it will come, how you can hasten it. Because if we allow him to, God will romance us. He created us with a desire for romance, and He is the best lover Harlequin ever imagined. This, I believe, is what Paul and Silas felt. This is what radiated from them, infecting the other prisoners with a passion to experience what they saw in these two men.
    Would you like a taste of what Paul and Silas had? It’s possible, you know. All you have to do is spend time with Jesus. He loves you. He desires you. Just you. Coming to him openly, unabashedly, wholeheartedly. It isn’t easy, of course. It’s difficult to have that with a flesh and blood person we can see and touch. To develop such intimacy with the Christ will take some effort. But if you try, I guarantee you will never look back. And you will not fail. “You will seek me and find me if you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:13)
    “So how do I begin?” You ask. I cannot give you a fail-safe formula for developing intimacy with the lover of your soul. But I can tell you this: when a woman sees a man she desires, she rearranges her schedule to make time to be with him. She sets up a date, puts him on her calendar, and makes sure she is available when he comes for her. So do that now. If you desire Jesus, look at your schedule; figure out where you can fit him in. He keeps his calendar open for you all the time. He’ll meet morning, noon or night. Whenever it’s convenient for you. Give him an hour to start. An hour would be a pretty short date with a desirable man. Does Jesus deserve at least that? A lunch date? Just a quick break from work to get to know him a little better, to find out if he’s as desirable on the inside as he is on the outside?
    I know the holidays are a busy time, but truly, that is why we need, all the more, to spend time with our Lord. Martin Luther once said, “I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.” I’m no Martin Luther, but if a man like him needed much time in prayer, who am I to think I can get along without it? So I challenge you this holiday season, if you have never spent a full hour in prayer, to set aside one hour once a week, at a minimum to spend time in prayer. Plan it like you would a date. Get child care if you need to. But make it a priority. I guarantee that you will be glad you did it.

    Are you wondering how you could possibly spend an hour in prayer? I’ll share a plan that has helped me. Spend five minutes praying in each of the following areas. Set a timer if you need to, but don’t feel like you have to be bound by it if you do. Don't feel confined by the order, either. Let the Spirit lead you.

  • Waiting on God. You can put this after praise or before. It is a time to be silent before the Lord and wait for him to come to you. It is also a time to prepare your heart to meet with the maker of the universe, the Holy God.
  • Praise. The more time I spend in praise, the more joy-filled I find myself to be. If you struggle with praise, here are some psalms you could use:
Psalms 8, 9, 24, 29, 33, 47, 50, 65, 66, 76, 92, 93, 95-99, 104, 111, 113, 139, 147-150
  • Confession. Examine yourself. Think about your day, or week. Look for sins in your life and talk to God about them. Open your heart to him and let him show you things you may not have already seen.
  • Prayer for the world. This may involve some preparation work as you look into what events in the world need praying over. It could include things like praying for persecuted Christians, for the poor, the disadvantaged, for ministries like World Vision, YWAM and Wycliffe. It could be praying for the Syrian refugees or the people in the Philippines who are so greatly affected by the recent storm. Open yourself up and let God lead you in this.
  • Intercession. This is prayer for people you know. People at church, friends, neighbors, your country and city, etc. Again, you may want to prepare by having a list. Once you start writing things down you may feel five minutes is not nearly enough time. Remember, it is not our many words but the simple act of lifting a thing up to God. The Spirit prays for us, too!
  • Petition. This is a time of prayer for personal needs and family. Resist the urge to tell God what he should do. Rather, lift people up. Here is an excellent list of the prayers of Paul, arranged topically. http://www.regent.edu/lib/research/divinity/divinity-paul.pdf
  • Thanksgiving. If you’re going through a tough time right now, this may seem difficult. If so, think of anything good in your life. Do you have a vehicle that works? Clothes to wear? A house? A beloved pet? Food? Health? Even partial health? Do your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and nerves work? Do you have two arms, two legs? There are many who do not have these things. Learn to appreciate the things you do not lack.
  • Singing. Take some time to sing a song of praise to God, or listen to one if you don’t like to sing. It is a wonderful way to lift up praise to him.
  • Read the scriptures. Just a chapter or two. Whatever you can read in five minutes.
  • Meditate on what you have just read. Does it talk about a sin you should avoid? Does it give you an example to follow? Does it speak of a command or promise God gives us? What lesson can you take away from it.
  • Listen to God. What does he have to say to you. This is one of the most difficult things to do.  Simply sitting silent, waiting to hear from God. Maybe he will speak, maybe not. You will never know if you don’t stop to listen, though.
  • End your time with more praise. Praising and glorifying God is, after all, what we were created for. And it is where we are closest to him.

If you commit yourself to God and give him this time, I promise that you will find yourself wondering where the hour went and wishing you could spend more time with the Lord. And you will begin to taste that joy and glory that made Paul and Silas sing in prison.