“Midnight Strength for the Journey”
In his 1967 sermon, A Knock At Midnight, Martin Luther King Jr famously used the metaphor of midnight to describe the challenges people face. King writes of a midnight within the American social, moral and individual orders. And what happens when a midnight interruption allows something new to develop.
On his second journey, the Apostle Paul faced several interruptions in the midnight darkness which signaled God breaking in. Showing that the holy can come at any hour. For him and for us. Let us pray. Loving God, we long to walk with you this Lent. Show us the meaning of your word and the reality of your presence at all times. Amen.
On their second three year journey, Paul, Silas and their companions left Antioch in Syria, and revisited some of the churches in Pisidia, modern day Turkey, we explored last week. Then headed further west, to Philippi and Thessalonica and then to Athens and Corinth. Then Ephesus, Jerusalem and then back to Antioch.
Our text says that in the middle of the night, Paul had a vision telling him to go to Macedonia, in Greece, rather than go to Asia as he had originally hoped. Louisville Seminary’s Albert Winn suggests that had Paul stuck to his original plan, we in America and Europe might have heard the gospel from Japanese and Indian missionaries rather than the other way around. But a vision at night directed Paul’s path to Europe.
Near Philippi, Paul met and converted a wealthy women named Lydia. Lydia was a purveyor of purple cloths, perfect for us during Lent. She was a wealthy businesswoman and the text says that through Paul God opened her heart. She invited Paul and his companions to stay with her and they used Lydia’s house as a home base for their ministry.
From there they met a slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit. Like Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter series, this girl was good at divination, fortune telling, and foretold that they would “proclaim a way of salvation.” She was right about that. Luke, a doctor, was likely writing about someone who today we would say suffered from some mental illness.
Our text says Paul was annoyed, but the root of the Greek word there suggests Paul was grieved, suggesting he may have acted out of compassion. Paul ordered the demon to come out of her mind in the name of Christ and she was healed.
Now the owners of the slave girl were using her fortune telling abilities to make a lot of money. Once Paul cast out the demon, he also cast out their ability to make money off her. They were infuriated. In the “no good deed goes unpunished category,” they had Paul and Silas jailed.
They were Jews in a gentile area. The girl’s owners appealed to racism. The crowds jeered them using racially motivated language. Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned. Sitting in prison covered in blood they had to wonder whether they should have really followed that midnight vision after all. This month our adult education series focuses on mass incarceration and the racial disparities in our nation’s justice system. The text makes clear that if Paul and Silas had not been minorities, they likely would have not been imprisoned.
As we walk our Lenten journey we can run into roadblocks. Midnight comes for each of us.
I think about the road walked by those who found the gravitational waves proving Einstein’s theory of relativity last month and the incredible patience scientists showed overcoming obstacles and frustration over decades working on that project.
We follow a particular political candidate and get discouraged when our idealism or practicality runs into someone else’s idealism or practicality.
Some have sat in my office during Lent praying about the demon inside us or the uncertain future for a loved one or the chronic pain that just won’t go away or the anxiety of the courtroom.
When things seem hard, do we have the stamina to give up sweets for Lent? Or alcohol for good? Or that abusive relationship with family members? Or our life of distraction in order to say yes to God’s call?
How did Paul and Silas deal with their roadblocks? Our text tells us that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing songs.”
In the middle of the night, in the darkness of their hearts, they faced their captivity with prayer and singing songs. The other prisoners listened closely and their spirits were likely raised as well.
They stood with a tradition as old as humankind of meeting hatred with songs, prayers and praise in the face of injustice. Nelson Mandela wrote in his book The Long Walk to Freedom that during his 20+ years living in prison in South Africa that the singing of those imprisoned was critical to his ability to survive.
In 1905, song writer Civilla Martin and her husband visited their friends the Doolittles in New York. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for twenty+ years and her husband was as well. Despite their afflictions, they lived positive lives, often singing. So Martin and her husband asked their secret and Mrs. Doolittle quoted from Psalm 32 and Matthew 6, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” Martin went home and wrote a famous song by that name.
Paul’s experience shows us that God is present in the tender and difficult moments of life. In the injustice, the captivity, the possessed and the disposed. And God is in the healing.
Dr. King ended his sermon about midnight by quoting the Psalmist, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Or as our choir sang, “After wind, after rain, when the dark is done, through the air there’s a calling…..that will lead me home.”
The midnight songs kept Paul and others from despair. Suddenly there was a midevening earthquake and the doors opened and their chains were unfastened. If we just hang on long enough, an earthquake of freedom is possible.
The other prisoners were amazed. The jailer woke up and saw the prison doors open and immediately fell to his knees in panicked fear then drew his sword to kill himself.
The jailor had witnessed Paul’s prayers and songs and spiritual strength and wishing that strength for himself, asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?”
Paul, perhaps seeing some of his own Damascus road conversation experience in the jailer, told him to hold onto faith. And as with Lydia and the slave girl, Paul healed him.
Significantly, the text tells us that “at the same hour of the night” the jailor took Paul and Silas home to wash their wounds. They baptized the jailer and his family and they joined the faith.
We don’t know exactly where the jailer’s family lived, but one can presume it took some time to go from songs to an earthquake to captives freed to the jailor’s threats to redemption to traveling to the jailer’ s house to cleaning and to baptizing them. Yet the text tells us it all happened in the “same hour” of the night. That could mean it all happened really fast, but it also could mean it happened metaphorically at midnight in their lives. When light came into darkness. When Paul encouraged them to put their faith in the Christ who had died not only for Paul but for the jailer and for all who need freedom.
We walk through Lent remembering as Matthew tells us that an earthquake also resulted when God’s angel rolled back the stone from Jesus’ captive tomb at Easter.
For all for whom life is fragile and are in need of healing and strength in their midnight hour, Christ travels our roads with us.
Wednesday’s earth shaking rainstorm this week reminded me that on Wednesday January 20 our family flew back from a trip and landed at BWI around 7pm. Seven of us piled in our minivan and began the usually uneventful 45 minute trip to Bethesda. That evening a coat of ice hit at rush hour. It was so bad that by the time we got to I-495, the roads began to freeze. 495 was at a standstill. Maybe some of you were on it. We waited and waited. After a while we had had enough and managed to get off at 29 S. We figured it couldn’t be worse. It was. A sheet of ice. We made it through Silver Spring and onto East West highway. But now just past midnight, we were stuck. The modest hills on east west highway proved perilous. We saw drivers sliding backwards into each other. People unable to make it up the hills.
We rolled down our windows and asked people walking about the conditions. Two men had walked through the snow to Silver Spring from the Bethesda metro because the busses had stopped. One young women had left her car after having been hit and was walking home. Two others had abandoned their vehicles because they could not make it up the hills and advised that we were never going to make it. We had come many miles and were only 4.4 miles from our house. But we were captive in our car.
Our four children were by this time quiet in their seats. We had started the trip with them singing songs and us praying for some quiet. But as the night wore on, they could sense how serious the situation was by how concerned their parents where. We were past midnight and no good options. We couldn’t drive home. Unlike some others, with temperatures below freezing and the four kids we couldn’t just ditch the car and walk home.
This was a good time for a prayer. Yet I think I know why Paul was also singing. Prayer can be often private. In such times we as a group need something to break the tension and keep our spirits up.
I tried to find a hotel in Silver Spring but most places were booked with the stranded. I felt like Joseph trying to find room in the Inn for his family.
At 1:00am I reached someone at the Sheraton. The reservation person asked, “Who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?” I explained that we were desperate to find a place for our children to stay. She asked me if I would like to enroll in their star points reward program. I said no, I just want my children to be safe and to go to sleep. They had a room. Then she asked me if she could make any more worldwide reservations for me. Overhearing the conversation my wife yelled out, “Yes, Bali would be lovely.” And I cracked up.
Levity in a time of crisis. The power of laughter, as Noelle explained to the children. Breaking the tension and refocusing on something hopeful. We somehow made it to the Sheraton to spend that fragile night. After tucking the last child in, we were finally able to hug. Prayers were answered. Companionship helped. A song or a smile along the journey goes a long way.
Whenever you are at a midnight, look for God there too, knocking on the door of your life with healing and salvation.
In our scripture a wealthy businesswoman who needed a heart, a poor Greek slave who needed to recover her mind, a roman prison guard who lacked courage, were lifted out of what kept them captive on the road by this wonderful wizard of God through the song of Paul’s heart.[i]
Perhaps they formed a small group at the local church that Paul had founded near Philippi? The good news is that there is room in this small group for us as well. For none of our differences define who is allowed to sing the song of salvation God offers to us in the middle of the nights of our lives. We come just as we are before God. The Lenten journey leads us to the realization that if Christ died for us, then we will rise with him. And then nothing ultimately stands in our way. May it be so. Amen.
[i] William Barclay. The New Daily Study Bible. Acts. P. 147.