May 12, 2013 Acts 16: 16-34
Rev. Catherine Purves
I am at that age when most people have already had to figure out what it means to be a grandparent. I’m certainly not eager to feel old enough to have grandchildren, but I imagine that at 62 many of you were already known as Grandma or Granddad. My main role model for grandparenthood is my mother’s mother who lived to be 100. So I expect I will probably have to learn to live with this new identity for a good long while, even if I don’t start right away. One of the many things that I remember my grandmother saying in various and sundry puzzling or upsetting situations was this: “God works in mysterious ways.” What a cop-out, I always thought. That’s so trite, I remember thinking. How true, I now believe.
Maybe you have to reach a certain age to be that wise. Maybe you have to have gone around the block enough times, and seen enough life to perceive the truth in that statement. Maybe you need to be surprised at how things turn out again and again before you begin to see a pattern. Maybe you just need a mature faith to really trust that God can work in all circumstances, turning dead ends into open doors and bringing growth out of pain. God works in mysterious ways. Do you believe that?
If you want an example of this, you can almost open the Bible and start reading on any page. From the Garden of Eden to the final Amen at the end of the Book of Revelation, we have a comprehensive catalogue of how God has worked mysteriously throughout history. From the burning bush to the Babylonian exile, and from a newborn in a manger to an empty tomb, the Bible is just full of mystery. There is not much that isn’t surprising, when you get right down to it. Mana in the wilderness – did you see that coming? The destruction of the Temple – several times – could you have anticipated that? The unleashing of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost – no precedent for that. Even the movement from a single chosen people to the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ was a shocker that is still just as mysterious today as it ever was when Jesus and his followers proclaimed it.
God works in mysterious ways. Even if we narrow our focus to this one passage from the Book of Acts, we are still overwhelmed by the unexpected, inexplicable, surprising ways in which God chooses to act. And we should also note that the powers of evil also never fail to surprise us with their ingenuity and determination to thwart God and those who are faithful to Christ.
As our account from Acts opens, we see Paul and Silas being badgered by a slave girl who was being used by her cruel owners as a fortune-teller. This “spirit of divination” was not of God, but, curiously, she became a walking advertisement for the ministry of Paul and Silas. Most committed evangelists would not reject free advertising, but after several days of listening to her cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” Paul and Silas got fed up with her, and Paul decided to rid her of that annoying spirit. He ordered the spirit to come out of her. The first mysterious thing, then, is a miraculous healing that was performed not out of compassion, but out of annoyance. That’s odd, but God works in mysterious ways.
Next, we see that no good deed goes unpunished. Not surprisingly, when the owners of the slave girl saw that their livelihood was jeopardized by Paul’s act of healing, they hauled both Paul and Silas before the magistrates on a trumped up charge of disturbing the peace. Proving that there is no justice in the world, the crowd also started attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown into prison. What a rotten thing to happen to the apostles. The powers working against God were doing everything they could to silence Paul and Silas. But all was not lost, because God works in mysterious ways.
Undeterred, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns around midnight when there was a terrible earthquake. The foundations of the prison were so shaken that the doors to the cells were opened and the chains that held the prisoners were unfastened. There is another story in the Book of Acts about a jailbreak arranged by God, and we might expect that Paul and Silas would have claimed what appeared to be their God-given freedom. But again we would be surprised, because they didn’t go anywhere.
Their jailer was about to kill himself because he feared that his prisoners had escaped. Paul stopped him and assured him that they were all still in their cells. At that point, the jailer fell to his knees and said, “What must I do to be saved?” Who could have seen that coming? After they proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus Christ, the jailer tended their wounds, fed them, and then he and his entire household were baptized. Once again, we are forced to admit that God works in mysterious ways.
So, what are we to make of all that? Should we jump to the conclusion that everything that happens is God’s will? No. There is no reason to think that God wanted the slave girl to be possessed or that God had stirred up the crowd or inspired the greed that motivated the slave girl’s owners, or that God condoned the brutality of the magistrates. It is simplistic to assume that God is the only source of power in the world, and it is dangerous to underestimate the devious and destructive forces of sin and evil. In our little story from Acts, we see a pitched battle going on between God and the powers that have pitted themselves against Jesus Christ and his followers. This battle is still being waged today, and we are caught up in it, just as Paul and Silas were.
But this struggle, as real as it is, should not cause us to panic or despair. Look at the example of Paul and Silas. They had been falsely accused, cruelly beaten, and thrown into prison. But at midnight in their dark, dank hole of a prison cell, while chained to the wall and in terrible pain after being flogged, they were praying and singing hymns. They were singing and praying! That sounds like the most impossible part of this whole impossible story. But they knew, they knew(!) that God works in mysterious ways. God could bring something good out of their desperate and terrifying circumstances. The forces of sin and evil had done all that they could to defeat the apostles, but God was stronger, and God would have the final victory. Paul and Silas knew that. And they were right.
At the end of this bizarre series of events we have one slave girl healed, Paul and Silas set free (the magistrates even apologized to them before they were released!), and we have the jailer and his entire household baptized. That is a pretty resounding victory for God even if it was accomplished in fairly mysterious ways. Of course, the slave owners were still slave owners, the crowd was still fickle, and the magistrates were still unreliable. There is still sin and evil in the world. But God continues to act in mysterious ways. God is still working to bring good out of bad situations. That is why we can sing and pray at the darkest times of our lives when sin and evil seem so strong, when we feel weak and vulnerable, because God’s victory over sin and evil and even death is assured. The risen and ascended Christ is proof of that.
And so, Paul and Silas continued their adventures. They did not live happily ever after. The battle between God and the forces opposed to Jesus Christ was ongoing, and Paul, Silas, and the other apostles were still right in the middle of it. Many more strange things happened to them, but God continued to act in mysterious ways as the church empowered by the Spirit struggled to gain a foothold in this fallen world.
As Jesus’ disciples today, we may not live happily ever after either, but we can be assured that God will continue to act for good in mysterious and marvelous ways in this world. And so we can and must keep on praying and singing, even at midnight, even when the forces of evil appear to be winning. They will not win. Jesus Christ has already won the final victory over them for us. Our job is simply to sing and pray and witness to his victory in our own lives.