A Song at Midnight | Acts 16:16-28
Most all of the greatest hymns written were written in pain. Some sort of tragedy. And we love those hymns. “Be Still My Soul”, “It is Well with My Soul”, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”.
George Matheson from Glasgow, Scotland, was born partially blind. By the time he was in college, he lost all his sight. Matheson had been engaged until his fiancé learned there was nothing that could be done for his sight. She told him that she could not “go through life with a blind man” and broke of the engagement.
He went blind while studying for the ministry and his sister was the one who then took him under her wing and became his eyes. She learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew in order to help him study. George lived with her while he worked in the ministry. George led St. Bernard’s Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he regularly preached to over 1500 people each week. But he was only able to do this because of his sister’s continued care.
Finally though, the time came for her to get married. Who would care for him now,? Not only that, but his sister’s marriage brought fresh reminder of his own heartbreak, over his fiance’s refusal to “go through life with a blind man.” On the evening of his sister’s marriage, Matheson wrote “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” His whole family had gone to the wedding and had left him alone at home. Matheson says,
I was alone in the manse, the night of my sister’s marriage. Something happened to me which is known only to myself and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. The whole work was completed in five minutes.”
Jenny and I had it played at our wedding. Here is a line from the hymn,
O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.
The text this morning traces the event of Paul and Silas. Several things I hope you are able to see.
- Christianity sees things right side up and suffers for it.
- That the sufferings of Christians is part of a process. We endure because suffering is part of the cure. Through suffering and weakness, joy and triumph must come.
- Finally, While the text does not say it, it is still worth mentioning here: This joy in the night must be fought for. We are saved by grace, we are kept by grace, but the blessings of the Christian life, while ours in trust, must be pursued by us.
Updside Down or Right Side Up
Now, I want to remind you what is happening here and lets look at some of the things that Paul and Silas must endure. You can look back with me starting in verse 16. Here Paul and Silas free a slave girl of a demonic spirit. You would think that this act of justice would have persuaded the crowd and won them over. Instead, those who had enslaved this poor girl are not concerned with healing, but that their riches will suffer.
Christianity, by doing what is right is often accused of harming society and culture. When we say that homosexuality is a sin and we love the sinner by calling them to repentance that they may know God and walk in the blessedness of His redemption, this is called evil by the world. One day, it may even lead to humiliation and imprisonment. The truth is, the world sees things upside down because Satan’s lies are cunning and crafty. While Acts 17:7 Paul and Silas are accused of having turned the world upside down”, the truth is they are turning the world right-side up.
Over this world is a veil. There is confusion. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes. There is no fear of God. Think of the injustice that is happening at UC Berkley right now. The right thing to do is to allow those we disagree with to have freedom of speech. Instead, there are groups who hate certain world views enough to threaten and use violence against free speech. This very public display of outright censorship of anyone with different world views is upside down. A forcible suppression someone you think is fascist by threatening violence is itself a form of fascism. That’s upside down.
To enslave a girl and use her for financial gain is upside down. Paul gets rid of the demon and his reward is humiliation, false accusations, intimidations, beatings and imprisonment.
Luke tells us that they were dragged into the very public marketplace and brought before the rulers. These were the magistrates. Each city had rulers who could carry out punishments and their place of judgment was in the public area of the market. As the false indictments were read the crowd joined in to attack them so the magistrates stripped off their clothes in front of all and began to have them beaten with rods. Being beaten with rods was a terrible experience. It was physical brutality of the worst kind. Their backs were bruised and bleeding and unwashed.
This is ultimate humiliation. Notice there are elements of racism here (they are Jews and we are Romans). There is a traditional element here as well (it was their customs and not our own). There was intimidation and ultimately imprisonment. All because they healed a desperate and needy slave girl. You know, Luke never says anything else about this girl, she just disappears in the story, but one would have to believe that she went from being a slave to demons and men to a slave to God.
Christianity causes disturbances but it’s not with the sword. It’s not with impressive rhetoric. Not with hatred and condemnation. With a message of peace, grace, and a willingness to put themselves at risk for the injustice of another. Why was Paul and Silas in this mess? They freed a woman of a demon. Whose custom and tradition is that?!?
A Painful Joy
Here they are in prison, backs bleeding and stinging and unwashed. Laying in a dirty prison cell where they are held by tight wooden shackles that bruise and cut the wrists and ankles. And a miracle happens. Paul and Silas begin to sing. The text says that there was an earthquake, the prison doors opened and their bonds became loose. An earthquake might have jarred the doors open, but not the shackles. This was a miraculous act of God.
The real miracle was not in the earthquake. It was not in the prison doors opening or their bonds falling off. The great miracle was what was the heart that led Paul and Sila’s to sing after the terrible suffering and injustice they had just experienced. What led them to singing to God and the kindness to their jailor? Why would God allow them to suffer?
This story reveals that which is particular to the Christian. It’s the victory of the soul over all adverse circumstances. Think of some of the saying of Paul who sang in the night. He says “tribulation works patience, therefore rejoice in tribulation.” He says “Afflictions work a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, therefore we will rejoice in our afflictions.” He also says “Godly sorrow works repentance.” These are all the things that the should of man shrinks from: Tribulation, affliction, sorrow. Yet God makes them allies of the should. Out of tribulation comes patience which leads on to confidence and hope of ultimate victory. And there are some teachings that the goal of Christianity is to be wealthy, healthy, and comfortable and safe. How do they reconcile that nonsense with Scripture? Sorrows of the soul are working toward the change of mind which means its transformation into perfect harmony with the mind of Christ. This is the central value of the story. This is the central truth concerning Christian experience!
C. Cambell Morgan says “To say what cannot be cured must be endured is paganism. Christianity does not say what cannot be cured must be endured, it says, rather, that these things must be endured because they are part of the cure. It’s the part of the putting off and the putting on. Sufferings have the strange and mystic power to make whole and strong and so to lead to victory and final glory.
Joy in the Night
These men sung because they were in God. Their supreme consciousness was not that of the prison or of the stocks or the pain, but of God. They were not callous or angry. Pain was pain to them. Confinement was confinement; loneliness was loneliness. But they realized how all these things were yet held in the grasp of God whom they knew as their Lord and Master and out of that faith they sang Him praises.
Luke tells us it was about midnight when they sang. That is not random. the middle of the night is analogous to that deadly and ominous hour of suffering and trial. it seems that some people dwell here forever. Anticipation of it makes it a perpetual presence and the memory of it an abounding agony. It was about midnight, and then they sang praises to God. Men who sing while they suffer are men who have learned the profound secret that suffering is the method by which joy is perfected. All ultimate joys of the heavenly state are joys that have come out of the agonies of the earthly tribulation.
Men who sing in prison are men who cannot be imprisoned. Men who sing at midnight are citizens of that city of which it is said they need no light. There is purpose, glorious purpose, to suffering. When your sorrow seems unendurable, when we believe this about God, your sorrow can turn to joy.
Let me ask another question: Are you usually miserable, anxious, depressed? Are you angry, bitter, or afraid? I believe that Christianity has an answer. What does Christianity do to change this? The earthquake does not always come. Thousands have been left in prison and have died there, but many have still sang. They sang until they joined the chorus on high.
Most of us don’t want to hear of great faith in the midst of suffering. While we want to know what is objectively true about Christianity, about our status before God, but many of us are not willing to strive for . Our faith is weak, we simply want to believe, but to pursue the deeper joys of Christianity is too hard, so we don’t engage.
But hear what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am saying you have not because you ask not. I am saying your body is not conditioned for this race because you don’t discipline it. Blessed is the man who hears, and believes, and then does. What I’m not saying is that salvation is not yours. It is. By grace through faith. But I’m also saying there is work to be done if we are going to have a song in the night.
My dad once wrote in a Bible that he had gifted me these words, “It is with great pleasure that your mom and I give you this Book. Study it, meditate on it and apply it to your life. I am convinced that this book can keep you from sin just as much as sin can keep you from this book.”
My dad saw the Bible as a pearl of great price where one would by the field just to gain the pearl. The Bible is available. Prayer is available. Worship is available. Do we strive for it?
You might ask, “Why, Ricky, do you place these burdens on me?” Because there is singing in the night for the Christian. There is more going on with the Christian than simply being forgiven. We have promises. There is joy and hope and gladness that can be found in our misery.
Their song was not simply to God or about God. Their song was God himself. That is what the Christian has. God. We have more than the objective truths of the doctrines of grace. We have the promise of the presence of God.
“Blest is the man, O God, that stays himself on thee! Who wait for your salvation, Lord, For Thy salvation they shall see.”
Paul and Silas didn’t sing because they thought God would bring an earthquake that would let them out of prison, they sang because the prison did not matter.