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Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Making of Church: Conversion

Acts 16:16-34

Jimmy and Dave found a sinkhole that seemed to appear out of nowhere. They found the hole on the path they traveled to go to Mr. Earl’s pond where they would fish for perch. Their first instinct was to look in the hole and see just how deep it really was. It was too deep and dark for them to see anything, but if they yelled loudly hey would hear an echo. However, after hollering in a hole for a few minutes, the fun level soon dropped dramatically and the two boys now turned their attention to checking the depth of the hole by dropping things into the darkness. It was a very scientific process. They would drop a rock into the hole and count the seconds until they heard the rock hit the bottom. There was only one problem. The hole was so deep they could not hear the rock hit the bottom. Their fun now turned into work as they dropped huge boulders, tree stumps, and whatever they could find into the sinkhole. They were now desperate to find a bottom to the hole. As they looked for larger items to push into the sinkhole, Jimmy found a railroad tie in the undergrowth near the path. The two summer-tanned boys, with all their might, dragged and pushed the railroad tie to the hole and slowly let it fall into the darkness. As they waited for the sure sound of a crash to the bottom, they were amazed at the sudden appearance of a white goat running from the undergrowth where they found the railroad tie. The goat ran right past the startled boys and dove immediately into the darkness of the sinkhole. In total shock Jimmy and Dave moved slowly to the edge of the hole and looked in. All they saw was settling dust and they heard absolutely nothing. Mr. Earl suddenly came up the path. He approached the now pale boys, he asked them if they’d seen a goat along the way. “Funny you should ask,” said Dave with his eyes as large as china saucers. “We just saw a goat and it did the strangest thing!” “Yeah,” answered Jimmy and pointing to the hole in the path, “A goat just ran out of those woods over there and jumped in this hole for no apparent reason, less than a minute ago.” Seeming somewhat confused Mr. Earl smiled at the boys and said, “Well, that must not have been my goat. You see, my goat was tied with a long rope to a railroad tie.”

This supposedly true story was gleaned from the September 2000 issue of the Tennessee Farm Bureau. While its funny, it also points out how dangerous sink holes can be. If we’re honest, we all have sinkholes in our lives. We give them labels, though -- depression, anger, weariness, grief and brokenness. And, whether you are a person caught in the throes of depression or a goat tied to a railroad tie, sinkholes are prisons that can be easy to fall into, mighty difficult to climb out of.

We’ve been reading in the book of Acts to learn how we can make the church a place that speaks a message of transformation in the midst of today’s cultural chaos. When I look around me, I see stuck in the sinkholes of life. If the church wants to be an agent of transformation, then we need to be serious about saying to an unbelieving world, “I know someone who can help–a rescuer. He won’t remove the pain, or the consequences of your actions, but he will show you the way to safety.”

In our Scripture reading we will hear about four men traveling into Europe to preach this very message. A few weeks ago we talked about the calling of Saul. We mentioned that Saul was renamed Paul and became the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul knew that God called him to Europe, so he grabbed his friends Silas, Timothy, and Luke and set out to the city of Philippi in modern-day Greece. Proud Roman citizens lived in Philippi. The culture of Philippi was entrenched in Roman religion and civic pride. You were accepted as long as you acted like a Roman, and worshiped like a Roman. So you can imagine that Paul and his friends would meet some opposition as they preach the gospel.

In Philippi Paul meets men and women who are in danger. One would think that Paul and his friends were in the greatest danger, after being whipped, tried, and jailed. But by the end of the story, we learn that it’s not Paul who faces the greatest danger, but some of the citizens of Philippi. Paul knows that they face sure death in their own personal prisons.

The first person we meet is the slave girl. Our English translations say that she had a “spirit” in her, but the Greek text actually says that she had “the spirit of the Python.” Roman religion believed that the python was sacred to Apollo, and that he often spoke through it. The slave girl seems to be possessed by a spirit that was associated with Apollo. She would tell fortunes by slipping into a trance, and speaking in the name of Apollo. When Paul came into town the slave girl followed him around, manifesting this manic behavior, proclaiming that Paul and his friends were servants of the Most High God. It is as if she was saying, “Don’t listen to these men. They’re trying to challenge what you believe and turn you from your traditional ways.” Paul eventually gets tired of this opposition, and commands the evil spirit to come out of the women in the name of Jesus Christ. The spirit departs, bringing freedom from the prison of oppression. Here’s a women who’s been enslaved her whole life in the hell of spirit possession and slavery. Instead of serving Apollo, the one who oppressed her, she becomes the servant of the one who set her free -- Jesus Christ.

My suspicion is that there are people here who are trapped in the prison of oppression. Maybe one day they dabbled in something that felt pleasant or profitable, but years later it became a sinkhole. They struggle with their demons on a daily basis. Some people are trapped by hate. They become caged by inescapable hostility. Some people are imprisoned by unforgiveness. Every time they see a certain person, they seethe with indignation and remember all the past hurts. Unforgiveness can be a prison in which people wallow until they self destruct. Some people struggle with addictions and can find no escape. Alcohol, or extra-marital sex, or gambling might have seemed like fun at first, but unbridled they develop into patterns of behavior which produce guilt, failure, and self-hatred. Or how about insecurity– that prison where a person’s inner-voices relentlessly say, “You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. You’re not successful enough.” All of these areas of oppression have something in common. They alienate people from the most high God.

If you are trapped in the sinkhole of personal oppression, then there is good news for you today. Jesus Christ has come to rescue you from the pain of oppression and give you true, ever-lasting freedom.

Getting back to Paul’s story, it turns out that there were people in Philippi who were more interested in profit than in freedom. The masters of the slave girl made money from her oppression. Now that she’s spirituality free, their easy income is gone. The owners have Paul and his friends severely beaten and locked in a jail. They are placed in the inmost and most secure part of the prison, the prisoner’s legs are locked in wooden stocks. There’s no sleep for the missionaries that night, thanks to their pain and uncomfortable position. But in the midst of their suffering they sing praises to God. During the night, an earthquake jolts the prison and sets all of the captives free. The jailer is jarred from his sleep. He sees the open doors of the jail, and assumes the prisoners have escaped.

A Roman guard would never leave his post, even under attack, because he knew the punishment was execution. Here’s a man who is rightfully afraid. He lifts his sword to his chest as if he’s so consumed with fear that he doesn’t know what else to do. At this point, it’s not Paul and Silas who are the prisoners. The real prisoner is the guard, and his prison is fear. The voice of Paul restores the soldier to a semblance of rationality. Humbled by the events -- Paul’s praise to God, the earthquake, the supernatural freeing of the prisoners-the guard asks, “What do I need to do to be saved?”

There are some people here this morning who are trapped in the prison of fear. Fear is irrational. Anxieties can begin to disintegrate us, and cause us to lose our heads. Fear makes us do dumb things. What are the fears in life that keep you from following God? Are you scared that you might look foolish? Are you afraid of what others might think if you get serious about your faith? Are you afraid that God can’t take care of you like he promised? Are you scared because you might have to leave old friends or habits behind, or that it might cost too much to follow Christ? If you are afraid, then I have good news for you today. Jesus Christ has come to set us free from the prisons of fear.

Maybe you are here today and you are tired. Tired of trying to make life better by relying on your own strength– tired of seeing loved one’s suffering – tired of wanting more out of life but never seeming to be able to get unstuck. Maybe, like the Roman jailer, you are running on empty and you are asking, “What do I need to do to be saved?” The answer is the same today as it was back then: you don’t need to do anything. Just be. Be still and know that God is trying to get your attention. Be still and know that God is not asking you to do more to make yourself acceptable – God just wants you to experience the fact that you are fully accepted and loved with no strings attached. God doesn’t love you because of what you do. The first step out of our prisons is not taken by us. God has already taken the first step towards us. God says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you wil1 be saved.” Paul didn’t suggest counseling to the Roman Guard. He didn’t give a lecture on theology, or confront him on his godless way of life. He simply offered him Jesus.

The church is made strong in the midst of today culture of unbelief when it’s filled with people who have dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ. Our families, and friends, and communities can be transformed when we step out of these church doors as dedicated followers who have put their full trust in Jesus Christ as the one who has the power to free us, and set us on a path of wholeness.

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