Sunday, May 20, 2007

Seventh Sunday after Easter

Acts 16:16ff
One day, as we 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.
While 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."
She 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.

I won’t begin this morning with the embarrassing question “who has visited a fortuneteller?”

I am happy to report, however, that if you are in the habit of visiting fortunetellers you can do so in Dickson, Tennessee without hindrance. A few years back a woman named Beth Daly set up a little shop in Dickson with all the usual elements of fortune tellers’ shop: she had the little candles and crystals, scented things and all the rest, and at the back of the store she offered Tarot readings. This is where she ran afoul of the local authorities.

It seems that Dickson has long had a statute on the books that makes it unlawful to engage in any type of activity related to fortune telling: Tarot, palm reading, divination and a long list of other practices ending in a general ban on any supernatural activity.

(I wonder if this included Superman, Spiderman, and any other superhero with the last name “man.” Do they understand what they are giving up when they outlawed the “man of steel”?)

Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union picked up her case and took it the State Supreme Court. After reviewing her case and taking at hard look at the stature, the court threw out the law and Beth Daly is now allowed to practice her supernatural powers unmolested. The article ended, of course, with the entirely predictable question: “Do you think she could see the whole thing coming?”


If we were looking for candidates for “world’s second” or “world’s third” oldest profession and likely candidate would be fortuneteller. It seems as long as there has been people with something to trade or pay, there has been other people offering their services as a fortuneteller. Enter Luke:

Luke recounts the story of the next leg of Paul and Silas’ missionary journey to Macedonia. As we learned last week, they have settled into the home of Lydia and are busy bringing the Good News of Jesus to the people of this area.

Then something unexpected happens: they are being followed. Day after day, Luke says, they are followed by a certain slave girl with the gift of fortune telling. She follows them everywhere they go, and as she follows she shouts, “These men are slaves of the Most High God: they proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Needless to say, they find this rather annoying. And Paul, the scripture tells us is the first to crack. He finally stops her and says to the spirit that is within her: “I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her.” That same hour it leaves her.

No surprisingly, the owners of this certain slave girl are annoyed. They have just lost their business, and they are not impressed by the power of God displayed in the work of Paul and Silas. They immediately go to the local magistrates and complain that these two are disturbing the peace through their actions. They must also have been leading members of the local business improvement association because soon most of the town is in the streets demanding an end to the ministry of Paul and Silas.

Their complaint successful, Paul and Silas are severely beaten and taken off the local jail. The jailer is given specific instructions to keep these two secure. Like any good prison break story, the instruction to put them in the most secure cell usually means only one thing: a good story is coming as they find a way out.

Luke tells us they are secured in the innermost cell: their legs are shackled, and they begin a long night in a cell in the centre of the prison. What do they do? They pray and they sing hymns to God. The scripture tells us that the entire prison population of listening to Paul and Silas when something terrifying happens: and earthquake. An earthquake shakes the prison. As debris falls and rocks are shaken from their foundation Paul and Silas suddenly find themselves unshackled and the door of the prison open. They are delivered from bondage.

What happens next is a twist on every prison break story ever told: The jailer, unconscious from the destruction and the falling debris wakes up. In the dim light he can see that the door of the prison is wide open and he supposes (as anyone would) that the prisoners have escaped. At this very moment he imagines that he has failed in his task and unsheathes his sword as he is getting ready to take his own life. Suddenly there is a loud cry: “Wait!” Paul and Silas cry out, “we are all still here.”

Amazed, the jailer calls for lights and sure enough, Paul and Silas are still there: he falls at their feet. Trembling, he says “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Without a moments hesitation they said: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your entire household.” And to that household they went, where Paul and Silas shared the story of Jesus. Wounds were tended, and that same evening the jailer and his family we baptized.


What kind of story is this? First of all, it is an adventure story, found in a book of adventure stories called the Acts of the Apostles. It is one more adventure story in a book filled with men being thrown from their horses, shipwrecks and narrow escapes. There are several stories woven together, and the action proceeds from one group of apostles to another is the most engaging way.

More than adventure story though, it is a story about the in-breaking of the Spirit. The Spirit enters the world in several ways in the story and we are left to marvel at this in-breaking and try to understand it and allow it to speak to our spirits today.

The first in-breaking is the quite unexpected. It is not often that miracles are proceeded by annoyed healers, but in this case Paul seemed to tolerate the cries of the slave girl for some time until her could take it no longer. Contrast this with Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, where it is the crowd who are annoyed and can no longer take his refrain, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Either way, the Paul heals almost out of frustration and the first in-breaking of the Spirit occurs.

The second in-breaking is equally unexpected: The earthquake that shakes the prison (it is unclear if it was felt throughout the town as well) is one of those impossible to explain and difficult to understand events that happen from time to time in the scriptures that demonstrate the power of God to alter events and reflect the divine will in human affairs. To our modern scientific minds such things seem the product of overactive imaginations or a primitive understanding of the natural world. For our purposes today, I wonder if we can suspend our disbelief for just a moment to imagine this as an in-breaking of the Spirit.

The third in-breaking is perhaps the most miraculous and they one that is the also the most implausible: Paul and Silas fail to run. I don’t know about you, but if I was beaten by and angry crowd, tossed in jail with little hope of release, and shackled in the innermost cell of the prison, I would run. I would sprint to the nearest hiding place before you could say “Acts of the Apostles” and never look back. I would be out of that town on the next Greyhound, never to return.

But Paul and Silas wait. They wait for their jailer to regain consciousness and save him from himself. They likely knew the terrible fate that would befall the jailer who failed in his task to keep them secure and they waited the darkened prison to save this man. The Spirit of God breaking into our world!


With permission from my friend and frequent running partner James I share another story of the in-breaking of the Spirit, a more contemporary example of the ways in which the Spirit of the Living God is at work in our world. James was feeling rundown in the late winter, not an unusual thing in cold and flu season, but odd for James who has a healthy lifestyle and a pretty good set of defenses.

When his vision began to change quickly, and flu-like symptoms persisted, he went to the doctor. This led to an MRI and eventually to the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Looking back of similar events through the years, it is likely that he has had the disease for perhaps six years.

The in-breaking of the Spirit happened at Forest Grove, the congregation that James serves in North York. Initially they were worried at his sudden and unexplained illness, and this (of course) was followed by concern and sadness at the MS diagnosis. Then something unexpected happened: in a little over a week the congregation raised $9000 for MS research. The Spirit moved people beyond their sadness to find a way to foster hope. With his MS entering remission, James marvels at the blessing of the Spirit in their midst.


All of this begs the question: where is the in-breaking of the Spirit in our lives? Where is their evidence that the Living God has intervened in some way to bring new life? Maybe it’s not in an earthquake or some other supernatural event that until recently would contravene the law in Dickson, Tennessee. Maybe it is not in what we would expect to be a miracle in the commonly understood way. Maybe it is something simple, like failing to run away when there is a danger that the hated jailer is going to harm himself. In this case the in-breaking of the Spirit was simply staying with someone who needed support, who needed to be reminded that they are a child of the Most High God.

I encourage you, in this week leading up to Pentecost, and the time we mark the most public in-breaking of the Spirit, to look for the smaller ways the Spirit is entering you life. And may God bless you. Amen.


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