Message Delivered on May 12, 2013
In 1987, I visited the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated. In Greece there are “documented” sites and “traditional” sites. As I looked at the hillside where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated, I could still see the iron rings where the shackles on Paul and Silas’ feet had been attached. I could imagine the intense heat of the jail by day and the penetrating cold after the sun had set. The two missionaries had been flogged before being imprisoned and their feet secured in stocks for good measure. It was a grim bit of news recorded in Acts but at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God. I doubt their choruses were happy tunes; after all, jails were designed to make their residents unhappy in those days. Paul and Silas were not wailing tunes of despair, rather they remained surprisingly calm throughout the ordeal.
I cannot imagine what Paul and Silas were feeling in this dungeon, but as Christians their hope in God remained paramount. Recall the days of your childhood and learning the tune, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…stomp your feet…nod your head.” There were sixty kids in the primary department of my Sunday school and after a rousing chorus of this song (I now call Christian calisthenics), even the usual “antsy-pantsy” students had an opportunity to expend energy, calm down and be receptive to the morning Bible lesson. At a youth rally one of the speakers emphasized that because the kids were Christians and had the good news of the gospel, they should be happier than other people and smiling all the time. One of the kids responded, “O great, now I have something new to feel guilty about; I am a Christian and I do not feel happy every minute!”
When Charles Schultz died, the next day the Peanuts cartoon pictured the faces of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the gang resting on a fence with tears rolling down their cheeks. The master cartoonist, who had brought joy to many, was gone. In one of Schultz’s early comic strips, Lucy was acting philosophical and asked Charlie Brown, “Why do you think we are put on earth?” After pondering this profundity, Charlie replied “To make others happy.” Not a bad answer from the round-headed kid. Lucy was momentarily happy, but then a scowl darkened her brow, “I don’t think I’m making anyone happy, but of course, nobody’s making me very happy either.” In the final cell of the strip, Lucy screams out in big, capital letters: “SOMEBODY’S NOT DOING HIS JOB!”
The notion that Christians should be happy all the time is one that just won’t go away. Pop-gospel writer, Gary Paxton, penned: “If You’re Happy, Notify Your Face.” I learned in anatomy/physiology in college that it takes more muscles in the human face to frown than it does to smile. On varying occasions our faces project pain, anger and joy. Most of us find it impossible to be happy all the time. Life is too complicated for that.
Scripture tells us a lot about joy in the lives of those who try to serve God and follow Jesus. Joy in the biblical sense is something different from happiness, even though the two often coincide. The Bible does not command us to feel joy or to notify our faces or any other parts of our body to reflect joy. Joy is what life looks like when we really trust God.
Captivity and liberation are themes that run through the biblical account of Paul and Silas in jail. The scene is set when a slave girl, possessed by a spirit, is liberated by Paul. The slave girl’s owners are displeased because they have lost the spectacle that made them money. Paul and Silas are consequently brought before magistrates who order them to be flogged and thrown into prison. Divine intervention frees them from the jail by an earthquake. Having every opportunity to escape, Paul and Silas call out to the jailer and save him from committing suicide because he assumes the prisoners have escaped during his watch (The death penalty was issued to Roman guards failing to carry out an assignment). The jailer leads Paul and Silas to safety. The jailer is further liberated by Paul and Silas when they teach him and his family about salvation, to be set free from sin by belief in the Lord Jesus. The jailer and his entire family are baptized into the body of Christ. God’s liberating activity transforms the lives of the faithful. The incarceration of Paul and Silas is a reminder that God’s faithful will never face adversity alone. Even as Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God in the midst of their imprisonment, Paul and Silas demonstrated how they were spiritually liberated by God, even before they were physically freed by God through the earthquake.
Paul and Silas were Roman citizens and servants of God, but they were accused of being Jews and following customs that were unlawful for Romans. They had professed to be servants of the MOST HIGH GOD, rather than citizens loyal to the emperor. Another common theme throughout this passage is that God is proclaimed. The power of God and merely mentioning the name of Jesus chases away the spirit from the slave girl. The way of salvation is made clear. The God with the real power to control the cosmos shines forth and this God has provided the only means of salvation for all who are willing to believe.
The Bible does not tell us what to feel, and we have no Christian obligation to demonstrate joy. But when we are in the darkness and trusting God, joy is simply a description of what is happening in our inner beings. I shared childlike joy when I sang “I Love to Tell the Story of unseen things above; of Jesus and his glory; of Jesus and his love” in Sunday school. As I grew in faith and trust in Jesus, my joy became, “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul. I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.” As mothers and fathers, care-givers of young and old, may we share the joy that comes from knowing and trusting Jesus as our Savior, the lesson Paul and Silas have given to us for today. Amen. Happy Mother’s Day!