Perks of Citizenship (Acts 16)
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Perks of Being A Citizen – 04.03.2022
There’s an old story that people tell about Franklin Roosevelt – I’m sure it’s not true, but it makes my point and it makes me laugh, so here we go. As the president, Roosevelt often had to endure long receiving lines at the White House. You know that thing, where he sits there and a parade of important delegates or ambassadors or world leaders comes through and he has to shake all their hands. And it was frustrating for him because he felt that the people in the line were not even listening to him. They just mindlessly said the pleasantries and moved on. SO one day, during a reception, Franklin Roosevelt decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” And the guests responded with phrased like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are so proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not until the end of the receiving line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “Well, I’m sure she had it coming.” How many of us, in our walk with God, approach him with a couple pleasantries and absolutely no intention of listening? But see, when we actually listen for the voice of God tugging on our heart, he will set us free to do incredible, unexpected things.
Today we are finishing up a series in the book of Acts. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the rhythm, we spend a little time in Acts, and then we’ll go do something else, and then we come back to the book of Acts. And we’ve been doing this for several months now, reading the entire book of Acts one chapter at a time. Now I haven’t made this disclaimer in a while, but I wanted to make sure I included it – we are reading a chapter a week, and sometimes there is a LOT in a chapter. In order to give you the full message, sometimes I have to skim over some sections and today is one of those days. Chapter 16 has like six big stories, and we’re going to focus in on 1 or 2. We will touch on the stories, but I want to encourage you – go home this week and check out all that chapter 16 has for you. Let’s get to it.
If you remember last week, there was an argument in the church about how to welcome new people who were different, and at the end of the chapter Paul and Barnabas decide to go in different directions. Paul takes his friend Silas and they are headed to Derbe and Lystra. [read v.1-3]. Oookay, so this is a bit of a delicate situation and if you know my preaching that’s not my strong suit, but this first bit sets the framework for the rest of the stories. Paul meets this guy Timothy, and everybody likes him and so their first bit of business hanging out together is that Paul takes him and cuts off part of his special place – which feels like a bold move when you first meet someone. I would think that’s sort of a third or fourth hang out, but Paul’s a bold guy. Now we have to figure out why. Why on earth would Paul do that to Timothy? You see, Paul was busy traveling around the world visiting synagogues telling people about Jesus. That was his method. He would come into town, visit the Jewish folks and start telling them all about Jesus. He told everyone, but the synagogue was usually his starting place. And by now he was starting to get used to being received by the church leaders. He would show up where they pray, and then they would invite him to speak. So if he’s going to bring Timothy, he needs to make sure Timothy is dressed for the part. We’re going to go meet some fancy and important people, and you have to fit in. You see, Timothy’s mom was Jewish, but his dad was Greek. And in the eyes of the Jewish leaders, that hurts his credibility. So even though in the last chapter Paul was arguing AGAINST circumcision, in this chapter he caves to peer pressure to get Timothy to fit in with the cool kids. Because Paul thinks, “God is about to use me in the synagogues, in the well respected circles.” Paul is planning – I’m going to go evangelize the cool kids table. Now, Timothy turns out to be a great guy, travels with Paul a bunch – some of the letters in the bible are actually written TO him. But I think Paul owes Timothy an apology.
Alright, now that they’re dressed for the part. Now that Paul and Timothy are ready to fit in with the community leaders and church elite, they start travelling. But what happens is fascinating. God starts saying no. Verse 7 – they want to go to Asia, but the Holy Spirit says no. Verse 8 – they want to go to Bithynia – but the Holy Spirit says no. Paul has these plans, and God keeps shutting him down. And then we get to verse 9 [read v.9-10]. So they set out for Macedonia and they end up in a place called Phillipi. It was not where they wanted to go. It wasn’t their first choice, or even their second choice or even a choice on their radar at all. God called them to somewhere they weren’t even thinking about. And boy, I’ve got to tell you this resonates with me. Have you ever had a plan, and God said no? Like, you had this great idea – and it wasn’t selfish, it wasn’t greedy or harmful, it was such a great plan, and then God said no. The doors closed and funding fell through, volunteers didn’t show up, opportunities evaporated and then you were so confused. Why would God shut me down, when I had such a great plan? This chapter is a beautiful story about what do we do when God says no. Paul’s got plans, but God sends him to Macedonia.
[read v.12-13]. Alright, so remember Paul’s plan – with Timothy – is to go on the sabbath to the place where they pray and then to be invited to speak by the synagogue leaders. That’s the plan. To start out at the top, with the respectable, influential, powerful leaders of the church. But listen to what happens, [read v.14-15]. So rather than influencing the respectable community leaders and starting a massive movement, they meet one small business owner named Lydia, who gives them a place to stay. Now, if I was Paul and I’m looking at how this all played out (first, I would NOT be able to look Timothy in the eye, oops, sorry dude), but I feel like I would be disappointed. Ah man, this is not the plan I had in my head. But what did he do? Even though it turned out very different than he expected, Paul told Lydia about Jesus, shared God’s love with her, baptized her. This is so important, because no matter what comes in life – big, small, massive crowds or one person, whether everything goes to plan or it’s totally unexpected – whatever comes, we need to do God’s work wherever we are. Nothing you do is insignificant if it’s a part of God’s plan. Even if what you do in life only affects one person. You might think your work is insignificant. Like it’s not important, but nothing you do is insignificant if it’s a part of God’s plan. Paul had a plan, it fell apart, but no matter what happens, Paul shared the love of Jesus with the people around him. And this is the example for us today. No matter what comes, do the work God puts in front of you.
Alright, now here we start to get into the good stuff. Paul and Silas are now working in Philippi, and they meet this slave girl. This girl has a spirit where she can predict the future. And her owner, her slave master, makes a lot of money off of her abilities. She sees Paul and Silas and says, “these men are servants of the most high God.” We pick it up in verse 18, [read v.18-24]. Wow. So, Paul was annoyed by this girl, so he pulls this spirit out of her. Owners are furious, they drag Paul and Silas to the magistrates and gets a mob to attack them. The magistrates, without a trial, have them beaten with rods, and then they shackle them to the wall by their feet. I wonder if Paul is sitting there shackled to the wall thinking, “Ah man, we could have been in Asia, hanging out with the well respected Jewish leaders. My plan was so much better than what’s happening.” That’s what I would be thinking, “God said no and I’m so mad about it.”
But that’s not what he does. Paul is shackled to the wall and this is where the story gets amazing. [read v.25-27]. Paul and Silas are hanging out in prison, and they’re NOT grumbling about what could have been – they’re singing praise songs about Jesus. They are worshipping in this prison, and then there’s a massive earthquake, everyone’s chains come loose. The prison guard wakes up, sees the open door, draws his sword to kill himself, because escaping prisoners is punishable by death. And THEN [read v.28-30]. This is the craziest thing. The doors open, but Paul and Silas STAY IN PRISON. They don’t leave! Right? If I’m in prison, and the shackles come off, I’m going to tell myself, “sometimes when God closes a door, he opens up my shackles” and then I’m going to NOPE right on out of there! But they don’t leave. God has put them in this tough spot, and rather than worry about their personal goals, they realize they have work to do where God has put them. And the jailer just crumbles. He can’t handle it, he falls down trembling at their feet. He looks at these guys and he says, “whatever is motivating you in life. Whatever would keep you here. I want to understand. I want to know that peace. I want to know how to be saved. I was a dead man, but because you’re here – I’m going to live. Tell me everything.”
And this is my absolute favorite part of this incredible story [read v.31-34]. They tell him about Jesus, and he washes their wounds. And I want you to hear the echoes in this moment. Jesus who was an authority over the disciples, washed their feet. This jailer who has practically died, and been saved from death, washes their wounds. There’s this incredible moment where the jailer is this Christ like figure, serving them in this way. The jailer takes them from prison into his house, he washes their wounds and they baptize him and his family. This is an incredible transformation story. Maybe there wasn’t some big movement with the respected church leaders where Paul gets to crowd surf on the multitudes of believers he has created, but you know what? One man who used to imprison people for a living, now sets them free and washes wounds. His life has been radically changed by the gospel of Jesus. Even in prison, do God’s work wherever you are.
The chapter finishes up, [read v.35-37]. So the magistrates have had a change of heart. They realize that they should not have beaten them up and put them in prison without a trial. Oops. So they tell the jailer, “hey, let them go.” And the Jailer, probably thinking to himself, “you mean the guys who are currently sitting on my couch eating breakfast in my living room? Sure, I’ll let them go.” But Paul’s not having it. This will become important later, but Paul is actually a Roman Citizen. And Roman Citizens are guaranteed certain rights – like a trial. So the Magistrates change their tune, and they are in full appeasement mode: they are doing some serious butt kissing. [read v.38-40].
Listen, listen, listen – I have two big teachings from this chapter and they are both so important. First, God is going to set you free. There are things in your life that are shackling you to the wall. Maybe you’re struggling with anxiety or depression. Maybe you’ve got some family drama or difficulties at work. Maybe your kids or grandkids or parents – it’s just messy and complicated. Maybe you’re a workaholic, a slave to a busy schedule. Maybe you’ve got some medical stuff going on and you’re scared. Or you’re having financial troubles and you don’t know what’s coming next. There are things in your life that are shackling you to the wall. God is going to set you free. Like an earthquake that comes in and shakes up your life, God is going to set you free. The prison doors are open wide, the shackles are broken and you will be free. Jesus Christ the son of God is here to save you. This is the message that Paul has for everyone – Timothy, Lydia, even the prison guard. Jesus Christ died for your sins so that you could live free. Whatever your sin is – it’s different in each of our lives, but we are all united in the fact that we all have something – your prison might be built out of different sins than mine, but we are serving the same life sentence. Whatever keeps you away from God, whatever your sin is, whatever burden you are carrying – Jesus conquered it with his death on the cross. You have been set free from your sins. Like Paul and Silas in the prison cell, the shackles are no longer holding you back, your sin has no hold on your life, you can walk, you can run, you can dance on out of that prison. Jesus has set you free from your sin. That’s the first good news. God is going to set you free.
But here’s the other piece. Somewhere along the way Paul and Silas realized that there was one more thing they were a slave to. A slave to their own expectations. When their prison doors opened and they didn’t run for it, they achieved one more level of freedom. Freedom from their own plan. Freedom from the expectations of tomorrow. So many of us lives our lives with a picture of the future. We got a plan and we know God’s going to get on board, because the plan is a good plan. But when the plan gets off track, and things don’t turn out exactly like we hoped – we fall apart. We fill our lives with stress and burdens and feelings of failure. We turn dreams of a good future, and a beautiful tomorrow into a tyrant that enslaves us and shackles us to the wall today. Has anybody ever felt this? You had a picture in your head, and when it doesn’t go that way you just get completely wrapped in feelings of failure? I had a lady I was talking to one time, and she had put together an outreach event at her church. And she did all this prep work and got all the pieces together, and only two people showed up. And those two people had a good time, but it was discouraging. And she told me, “the whole event was a failure” And I stopped her and I said, “No it wasn’t. Not for those two people.” Do not be a slave to your plan. If you are faithful to do the work God has given you, you cannot fail. God is going to set you free, and then call you to a work. So wherever you are, and whatever comes in your life – do the work God has given you. Paul writes in Galatians 5, verse 13 [read v.13]. God has set you free, and that’s true, but he didn’t set you free so you could keep living as a slave to YOUR plan. He set you free so you could work a transformation in the lives of even just one person around you.
I’m going to be honest with you, this chapter had way more in it than I expected. It kind of rocked my world this past week. But I’ve got two clear challenges I want you to work on this week. First, I look at the beginning of the chapter and the way Paul is listening to the Holy Spirit. Don’t go to Asia. Don’t go to Bithynia. Go over to Macedonia. Don’t leave the prison. Like his whole story is guided by the Holy Spirit and I think that’s something we all need to work on. So this is what I want you to do this week. Ask the Holy Spirit where God is calling you with your life, and then listen for a response. Who are you supposed to reach, to care for, to love with your life? We all have an assignment in building God’s kingdom, we all have someone we are specially designed to reach. Who are you supposed to reach out to in your life? Could be that co-worker who’s going through a rough time. Could be that neighbor you always wave to but you don’t even know their name. Could be a long time friend you haven’t talked to in ages or a complete stranger. Ask the Holy Spirit “Where are you going to send me” and then LISTEN for the response. See what prison doors God opens in your life.
The second challenge – wherever God calls you to go, wherever you end up in this crazy world – do the work God has given you. Don’t burn yourself up dreaming of what could have been. Maybe you’re like Paul and you were thinking, “I’ll probably be influential with this group over here” but God puts a Lydia in your path, or a prison guard who wants to know about Jesus. Wherever you end up, listen for the Holy Spirit, and then do the work God has given you – you might completely change someone’s life.
Franklin Roosevelt realized that he could say whatever he wanted, because the people weren’t even listening to what he was saying in those reception lines. Let’s not treat God like that. We all have our dreams of what life is going to look like, but sometimes when you actually listen to God, he will send you to unexpected places to do incredible, transformational things. And so I’ll leave you with this. May God shake your life like an earthquake in a prison cell. May you be free from your sin, and free from your plan for tomorrow. And finally, may you listen for the Holy Spirit, and wherever God sends you – do the work God has given you, and change someone’s life. Amen.