Sunday, 18 May 2014

Light in the darkness

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.  Acts 16:25 

Well, what's so special about that? All right, perhaps the timing - midnight - is a little unusual for a time of worship, but as long as they weren't annoying the neighbours, why not?

You need to read back a few verses. Does this make any difference?... Paul and Silas have been "stripped" and "beaten", they have been "severely flogged" and "thrown into prison", they are in "the inner cell" (sounds nastily like a dungeon), and their feet are "fastened in the stocks". Ah!

Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn't spell out any more details. But I'm sure he could have mentioned the gloomy darkness, the cold, the damp, the smells (I doubt if there were en suite washing facilities and other hygienic provisions), probably spiders, not to mention rats and mice. And just the sheer pain and discomfort. Not  nice.

And yet they are singing and praising God. An obvious question arises: Would you - would I - have been doing the same? I can only say, speaking for myself, that I have my doubts.

The message is easy to understand even if hard to put into practice: faith in Christ should enable us to be cheerful and positive even in the hardest of circumstances. I'm sure that Paul and Silas will have consoled themselves with the thought that God's hand was somehow in this turn of events (God does indeed "move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform") and that good would ultimately come of it.

If you read on you find that that was exactly what happened. An earthquake strikes and everyone is in fear of their lives. The jailer, probably a semi-retired Roman centurion, hard-bitten and used to squalor and violence, is converted to Christ. An impromptu baptismal service takes place in the early hours of the morning. True, Paul and Silas feel it prudent to move on from Philippi - but never mind, they leave behind them an embryonic church (Paul wrote them a letter some time later - have you recently read his beautiful little Letter to the Philippians?).

There's a detail I'm really glad Luke gives us: he goes out of his way to say that while Paul and Silas were having their prayer and praise session the other prisoners "were listening to them". Can you picture that? I wonder what they thought? - "What's that noise? Is somebody singing? Surely not!" Had such a sound ever been heard before in that horrible place? Cries of pain, yes. Shouts of rage, fury, frustration, perhaps. Sobs of despair, I suspect. But hymn-singing? Praying? This must surely have affected them. (Perhaps it explains why, when the doors flew open, none of the prisoners attempted to escape - they sensed that something very wonderful was taking place.)

What can I say? Just this, perhaps. May God help us to maintain our faith and positive spirits in all the circumstances that come our way. And may he also hear our prayers as we remember that even today there are many of God's people in similarly horrible situations all around the world. 

Dear Father, forgive us when our faith fails us and we allow ourselves to be crushed under the weight of our circumstances. Help us to learn from the example of Paul and Silas. And please show mercy today to all who are suffering in our world for conscience' sake. Amen.

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