"FOCUS" - Psalm 27; Acts 16: 16 - 34

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, June 2, 1019

Texts: Psalm 27; Acts 16:16-34


            What do you do with what happens to you?

            I remember it like it was yesterday. Our daughter, in the seventh grade at the time, had had a terrible day with some friends at school. I was sitting on the side of her bed as she was trying to go to sleep. The tears were flowing. In her mind, her world was falling apart. I felt so sad for her and frustrated that I could not help, could not console her, could not help her understand that everything would work out. So after a pause, I tried a new tactic. I said, “you know how when you are riding your bike, you come upon gravel, and the gravel feels unsteady sometimes, making the wheel slip and you might even fall.” She said, through her tears, “Oh, dad. . . . yeah, ok.”

I continued, “when that happens, and your tire slips on the gravel, you might fall off, you might bang your leg on the crossbar, you might skin your knee; it is a pain; it’s not fun. . . .But you keep riding, right?” She said “yeah.” And I continued: “and then sometimes you are riding your bike and you are going too fast, . . .and you lose control, . . .and you end up in a ditch, . . . and you go flying off, and you might bang you head, and get hurt, . . . even have to go to the hospital. . . . . This is kind of how life goes. We have to deal with gravel under our wheel sometimes. And other times we have a big crash. . . .    Which do you think this is?”

            She paused and remained silent for a moment, then she said, “Ok.”

            We said her prayers . . . . and she went to sleep.

            What do you do with what happens to you? We never stop struggling with this.

            This is something we have to sort out as kids growing up. This is something that athletes have to figure out – through injuries and rehab. This is the test of recent our graduates who move on to college and new chapters. This is a major topic as we meet with law enforcement officers to encourage them and guide them after they have been involved in critical incidents. Do we become bitter or better? This is something we confront almost every season of life – with changes and losses, . . . .with heartaches and struggles. How do we get past what has happened? How do we carry on? Can we find resiliency?

It is never WHAT happens to us that really shapes us. It is HOW we respond to what happens to us that makes us who we are. The great Victor Frankl gave such depth to this in his writings from the Nazi concentration camp. We need to be asking - what is life demanding from me now? (see D. Brooks, Second Mountain, p. 91)

We have another story from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is the story of the disciples of Jesus striving to become the church – the community of God’s faithful people living and serving in the world. The story today unfolds in the Roman Empire, away from the Holy Land, in the port city of Philippi east of Greece. Paul and the disciples are moving across the region, sharing the news of Jesus, and starting little communities of believers. This story has a number of people in it. Each individual in this story responds differently to the things that happen. Listen. Acts 16, beginning at v. 16:

16One day, as we (disciples Paul and Silas) 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.17While 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.” 18She 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.19But 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. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

What do you do with what happens to you?

Let’s think about the slave girl. She has a “spirit of divination.” She possesses some kind of prophetic spirit, and her owners are making money from her alleged powers. More likely, she has some kind of mental illness – she utters things. People might believe what she is saying. Or they might not. But this slave girl has taken to following around Paul and Silas. “Slaves of God the Most High,” she yells at them, “That’s what these men are! They are announcing salvation!”

Now that was true, but probably not in the sense either that she meant it, or that people would understand it. “God Most High,” to someone living in Philippi, would NOT mean the God of Abraham, the One God of Jewish monotheism. It would mean either Zeus, or whoever people thought was at the top of the pantheon of gods in that day. And “salvation” would NOT mean what it meant to a Jew of Christian – entry into the world of God’s new creation, God’s promised reign of light and life, overcoming corruption, and evil, and death. It would mean “health,” or prosperity, or “rescue” or from some disease.

So, . . .annoyed and harassed by this kind of publicity, Paul, probably feeling deeply sorry for the woman, turns around, and calls on the name of Jesus, not some “Most High God” of Greco-Roman culture. And the spirit came out of the woman. (see N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, p.64)

The story does not say what happened to the slave girl. I like to think that she eventually found her way into the loving community of God’s people, finding care, support, and wholeness. Who knows?

What do you do with what happens to you? The story continues. The slave girl’s owners are now bereft of their business, like fishermen without a boat. Their hope of making money was now gone. These slave owners seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. Their response is rage, selfishness, and action.

Most of us know how tempting and even normal this is – a setback. A diagnosis. A loss. Rage! Selfishness! Certain actions can flow almost automatically when bad things happen to us. We know.

The slave girl’s owners went on the attack: “These men are disturbing our city. They are Jews, and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans.” They are not just responding with anger and selfishness. They are invoking religious and political prejudice.

We keep seeing this – we are so good at it – religious and political prejudice. In Charlottesville, at the infamous rally, they were chanting against the Jews. In the horrific murders in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, in graffiti, in unknown gatherings and subtle messages, we see this effort to invoke religious and political prejudice. Drum up the crowd. Generate fear. Create frenzy. It is frightening.

Philippi was on the main road between Rome and Turkey. It was an important colony in the Roman empire. They had to keep up their Roman standards and culture. And these men, Paul and Silas, they said, were not their sort – they belonged to a different culture – which is half true: they belonged to God and God’s new community. So the crowds joined in attacking them. The frenzy picked up. They stripped Paul and Silas, and beat them with rods, and after flogging them, they threw them into the deepest part of the prison – the innermost cell, and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Bad stuff can happen to you when you are seeking to love and serve God. We have to remember that. People can get mean real fast.

But notice how Paul and Silas responded to what happened to them. Deep in the jail, with their feet in the stocks, about midnight, they began to pray, and sing hymns to God. And the other prisoners were listening to them. Imagine that: Joyful, joyful, we adore thee; God of glory, lord of love. Was it something like that? Or maybe this: Praise my soul the King of heaven, to his feet your tribute bring.

What do you do with what happens to you? Can you keep singing hymns of faith, keeping reciting words of God’s abiding care? Can we?

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? Can we say that?

Suddenly there was an earthquake. Everyone’s chains fell off. The doors of the prison opened. And we meet another person - the jailer. He is so shocked that he is going to be flogged or killed for letting the prisoners escape that he threatens to kill himself.

This is another reaction to what happens to us. Some of us understand this too.  We jump to the WORST possible conclusions and stay focused on that. We cannot think about anything else but the worst thing, and doing the worst thing. We forget to whom we belong. We throw in the towel on anything positive or hopeful. And sadly, suicide today is becoming an epidemic in our culture. Why are we so quick to give up, . . . to forget God, . . . to take matters into our own hands?

Fortunately, Paul shouts and stops the jailer. “Don’t harm yourself. We are still here!” And who knows what really happens between that almost suicide . . . and the question from the jailer: “what must I do to be saved?” It was midnight and dark. There had just been an earthquake. The chains and doors had fallen off. And his understanding of salvation would have been more like the slave girl. He could NOT have gained a quick concept of heaven, or “justification by grace through faith,” or even any real sense of Jesus. He just wants out of the mess of that moment, . . . and the mess of his life. “What must I do to be saved?”

Paul gives an answer: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.”

That same verse is on a huge billboard even today as you drive up I-95 right into Richmond. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

Too bad some have put all the emphasis on a few words. And then we wonder, what if I do not believe? What it I do not believe enough? What does “believe” mean anyway? Believe certain doctrines? Believe and not doubt, never doubt?

Everyone doubts. Or what if I do not know what being “saved” means? I suspect all of us want to get out of the mess – the frustrations, the fears, the concern about another shooting, and crises of life.

Friends, it is always about our FOCUS. It is about leaning in to God’s abiding care that promises never to let us go. Lean in and keep trying to lean in. I think it is about opening our hearts to God, hoping, waiting, striving for God to get into our hearts so we know Whose we are in all times, and we know what we are called always to do – trust God and serve God with our lives. I think it is about finding our lives aligned with something more than the difficult, mean, hurtful, uncertain things of life and also aligning our lives with the things that God cares most about – healing and helping, spreading kindness and peace in a tumultuous world.

It is about our FOCUS. We FOCUS on God always, and we seek to FOCUS our lives as God would have us live – loving and serving, following Jesus everyday, working for the justice and joy of Jesus.

When we gather at this table, we seek to re-FOCUS. God is in our midst in bread and cup. God nourishes us with his presence, his body. We do this to remember. We do this to stay FOCUSED. No matter what happens, we live our lives in the presence and care, and in the loving purposes of God. May it be so. Alleluia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, Lord; help our unbelief. And move us to keen focus in loving you and loving others, following Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on June 2, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.