Songs in the Night

The girl was a psychic. Or that’s what we’d call her today; in ancient times they would have called her a mantic or a Sibyl. For a fee, she would tell her clients what the future might hold for them. Young people with romantic concerns would turn to her, anxious parents troubled by what might become of their children, or just about anyone who had woken up from a strange dream or had difficulty falling asleep at night because all kinds of worries were keeping them awake – they all came to see her, or at least the ones who could afford her fortune-telling services.

This girl wasn’t just a psychic, though, she was also a slave; she was somebody else’s property. And that’s why she wasn’t putting her gift to use at the temple of Apollo like her respectable colleagues, but on the sidewalks of Philippi where she made her owners a great deal of money.

Paul and the others were on their way to the place of prayer outside the city when they first met her; it was the very place where on the sabbath day they had met Lydia, the independent woman from Thyatira who ran her own business and was head of a large household. The contrast between her and the nameless sidewalk psychic couldn’t be more striking.

This slave girl followed Paul and the others, and she wouldn’t be quiet, and this went on for days. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” she would yell, day after day, all the way from the house to the place of prayer.

Who do you think she was addressing? Nobody in particular because she was babbling in a psychic trance? Every pedestrian within earshot? Or – and how intriguing that would be – just her own clients?

I appreciate that Paul didn’t slip her a fifty and ask her to take her message to the market place so even more people would hear her. I appreciate that he didn’t use her like a billboard and pay her owners a handsome price for the publicity. I appreciate that he noted her bondage, her being possessed, and that he addressed her circumstance in the name of Jesus – but I wish I could ask him why he waited until her presence had become an annoyance he couldn’t stand any longer; and I wish I could ask him if he acted solely because she had become too irritating to ignore, or at least in part because Jesus had come proclaiming liberty to the captives; and I wish I could ask him what her name was.

She had spoken the truth when she declared that Paul and the others were slaves of the Most High God, and they knew that no earthly power could enslave them because they belonged to God. Did they ever tell her that she was nobody’s property because she was a child of God? And why did Paul exorcise the spirit of divination and stop there? Why didn’t he cast out the spirit of exploitation from her owners when they dragged him before the magistrates? The little story raises lots of questions.

Luke is painting a very large picture with very few strokes: The followers of Jesus come to the city. The good news of Jesus they proclaim finds receptive hearts and minds among some women who gather for prayer by the river, outside the city. Nobody else is really paying any attention to their presence. But as soon as they confront one of the spirits that hold the city captive, as soon as they interfere with the subtle and not-so-subtle economic and political arrangements that keep a girl in dual bondage to her masters – as soon as they do that, the principalities strike back. “These men, being Jews, are disturbing our city!” we hear the owners shout. Anti-Jewish rhetoric is not a modern invention, nor are xenophobic demogogues. There are enough of them in Philippi to stir up the rabble. It doesn’t take long for the magistrates to bend to the demands of the crowd, and the men are stripped, severely beaten, and thrown into prison.

Luke not only tells us that they ordered the jailer to keep them securely, he shows us the innermost cell where they sit with their feet in shackles; that’s maximum security. That’s Give up all hope all ye who enter here. The slave owners can sleep without a worry now because the people proclaiming the foreign God’s way of salvation in the name of Jesus are locked up in the innermost cell.

Luke is painting a very large picture with very few strokes: The city is captive to the powers of greed, fear, ignorance, and violence. And the people proclaiming the reign of God in Jesus’ name are locked away in the deepest dungeon. What now?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Luke tells the church to have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We will find ourselves at the point where the whole world appears firmly in the grip of powers we can only call demonic. We will find ourselves surrounded by walls too thick to break and too high to scale, and it will be midnight. And some of us will be praying and singing hymns to God, trusting that God will make a way where there is no way, trusting that the way of salvation doesn’t end in the pit. Luke is painting a very large picture for us, large enough to contain our hope and the hope of all captives.

Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

There are mighty powers that hold human beings captive, but whatever they attempt to build on these foundations cannot stand. Whatever they do to keep human beings from living in the glorious freedom of the children of God cannot last. Any systems built on fear and oppression will collapse. In Luke’s picture, all the prison doors are flung open and everyone’s chains are broken.

I find it very interesting that at the beginning of this week when we are making final preparations for a Saturday conference to discuss the churches’ response to slavery and mass incarceration, we are reading and listening for God’s word in a text that addresses these issues in the larger context of our shared captivity under powers we somehow create together and yet we cannot control.

The picture Luke has painted for us directs our attention to the faithfulness of God and to two beautiful closing scenes. In the first, the doors have been flung open and the chains have dropped from the prisoners’ feet, but they are all still there. Paul and the others didn’t just take off and run. It is as though they are waiting for the jailer to wake up, as though they don’t want to be free without him; and when the jailer asks them what he must do to be saved they tell him to trust the God whose songs they sang at midnight. Believe in Jesus. Believe in the power of compassion and forgiveness. Believe in the reign of God.

In the final scene we see just how different life in the kingdom of God is compared to the empire of fear and oppression. We see the jailer washing the prisoners’ wounds and they in turn washing him with the baptism of Jesus. We see them all gathered at the table, sharing food and rejoicing in the power of God who makes all things new. We see a scene of life redeemed and renewed, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine a young woman walking into the room – she’s no longer anybody’s property, and behind her her former owners, finally free as well.

As followers of Jesus we are called to trust in God who raised him from the dead, and in that trust and in his name to address every circumstance that keeps the lives of God’s children from flourishing. We are called to speak the word of the Lord to them, to show them kindness and mercy, and we are called to do so knowing that every small act of liberation will awaken the powers hostile to God’s reign – but they will not stand. Even at the point where the whole world may seem firmly in the grip of demonic powers, the faithfulness of God will prevail. Even when we find ourselves surrounded by walls too thick to break and too high to scale, our prayers will remind us that we are God’s own and our songs will rise on wings of hope.

Several of us have been at Riverbend recently for visits with groups of prisoners, and some of us will be talking about our experiences on Saturday. We were surprised by what we learned – about them, about our courts and prisons, and, perhaps more than anything else, about ourselves. And “surprised” may not be quite the right word. “Surprised” is almost too superficial to describe an experience that broke our hearts open like an earthquake.

It is as though doors have been opened we didn’t even know were there. It is as though chains have been broken, chains that have kept us from being in community with the men on the other side of the gate, chains that have kept us from even considering being in community with them; and now we are beginning to witness how grace drives out the demons of ignorance and fear. This is the awesome faithfulness of God.