That's Some Singing!

Acts 16:16-34  John 17:20-26

Did you folks pay attention to that reading in Acts? Did you notice that when Paul and Silas were singing hymns at midnight the walls shook, the doors flew open and their chains fell off! What do you think? Did they sing good? Or were they so off key that God was trying to get their attention and tell them to be quiet?

Now, I'd like to see our choir make this old building reverberate with its singing. Amen! In fact, I'd like to see the whole congregation sing with such enthusiasm that everyone can hear us down the street that they would look in the windows to see what's rocking!

There's something really invigorating about singing a song that comes from deep down within. There's something powerful and rejuvenating about singing - even when you can't carry a tune in a bucket. If you're like me you do your best singing in the car when no one's with you. You sing in the shower where the ceramic walls and steaming water drops drown out the sour notes. Or maybe you just don't care, and you sing when the spirit moves you.

But think about Paul and Silas. Think about their circumstances. Could you sing after you had been beaten with rods and you were left bleeding and bruised? Could you sing when you were sitting on a dirt floor with your feet locked in the stocks? Could you sing in absolute darkness of night with other prisoners around you, rats and spiders crawling in the corners? And yet that is what they did. They brought light into the darkness, a presence into the loneliness, life when it seemed there was none.

Some of our greatest spirituals have come from those who were imprisoned or enslaved by someone or something. Favorite hymns and songs help people in desperate situations find the strength to endure. That's the power of song. It doesn't matter if the notes are right. What does matter is that the song reflects your inner feelings, that it voices the hope or the despair that is in your soul. It connects you with your surroundings. It lifts your emotions into the air where they can be carried to the heavens. Perhaps it empties you of a great burden or explodes with your joy.

There's a TV show, American Idol, where young aspiring and hopeful voices have an opportunity to grow and mature with their talents in front of every household in America. One of the most frequent recommendations by the three judges is not that they impeccably copy the original artist, but that they make the song their own, let it emanate from within. Let it speak of their life's experience and their hopes for the future.

Well, something just that amazing happened that night in prison. Two men prayed and sang and God caused an earthquake. And by morning they were free and an entire household believed and was baptized. How does something like that happen? It certainly wasn't just Paul's voice hitting beautiful tenor notes or Silas with his deep bass resounding in the deep caverns called prisons. It had to do instead with the stuff for which Jesus prayed. Unity.

Unity with God. Jesus prayed, "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them."

When there is unity with God, there is power. Just look at the change that occurred with the jailer. Now to understand the magnitude of this miracle, you have to understand the depth of the concept of honor in people of the Middle East and Asia. We read that the jailer drew his sword and was about to kill himself. At first glance we can say, "Well, that was a fate better than what would have happened to him when the Romans found the prisoners had escaped and he was there unscathed. They would assume he had neglected his duty and would have inflicted a terrible punishment." And this is true. But this emanates from the code of honor that permeated Rome. A nation cannot grow in size and might as Rome did, unless it is fiercely built on honor. Everyone's purpose is directed to an ideal. Everyone's station in life has meaning beyond survival, food and shelter. Every movement, every effort reflects this unity, this oneness to the glory of the empire.

If any of you watched the movie The Last Samurai, you will have a glimpse of what I'm talking about. Without a doubt, this movie is filled with violence. When the Samurai are placed in a situation where they must take lives, it is swift and with great skill, but brutal to our American sensibilities. The era of samurai arose during a time when Japan was ruled by many Lords. And to protect his kingdom, the Lord gathered around him this elite troop whose sole purpose in life was duty to his Lord and to honor. Failure to accomplish his task would dishonor him and he was expected to take his own life. The narrator of this movie said something toward the end that helped me understand the Gospel message in a whole new light. With the samurai, every movement, every action, every thought would reflect the code by which one lived. A samurai never had to make a promise because his word meant exactly what he said.

We see this concept elaborated in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:33-37. Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times. 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven or by earth. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No.'" All the admonitions Jesus taught in this sermon had to do with complete unity of purpose with God. There is no room for any doubt. "You have heard it said, 'you shall not murder.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment. 'Do not commit adultery,' but I say anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Jesus turned everyday rationalizations on their head. Unity, oneness with God meant not just outward actions based on a decision to do it, but inward thought and belief emanating from one's heart. This is what Jesus prayed for in his farewell prayer in John.

"May they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent meI ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word." Paul understood this concept of honor well for he himself was a citizen of Rome. So, when the doors of his prison flew open and his chains were released, he did not run. To run would say he did not trust in his God. To run would have surely meant the death of his jailer and possibly the other prisoners. To stay gave him the opportunity to witness. Paul knew that the value of a human life was not in that person's obedience to Jewish law, but to God's unfathomable love, to God's willingness to keep GOD's word, GOD's promises. And he knew his value as a disciple of Christ was in keeping to his own word. Jesus said, love God and love neighbor. And at that moment, the jailer was his neighbor. And by honoring and living the principles that belief in Jesus Christ meant - even at the risk of his own life - he changed lives. That jailer understood that Paul was at one with his God as Jesus had prayed. It was a language that spoke louder than any sermon Paul could have preached. It opened the doors to the jailer's heart like God opened the doors to the cell. Complete unity with the purpose you proclaim.

There in the depths of his prison cell, Paul prayed and sang. He did not sit and shout obscenities at his guards or tell the other prisoners to be quiet and let him alone. Instead he established a strong connection with God even in his physical misery and God worked the miracle. I can believe that the songs he sang were from deep within his soul. They were probably the songs of his people when they had been in bondage in Egypt. They were probably the songs they sang as they wandered in the desert. And the songs they sang when they were free at last.

Every song has merit whether old spirituals, current traditional, or new and contemporary IF they speak your heart's connection to God. It's not so much about liking the tune or the words, but creating a oneness between your hope and your reality - Jesus Christ. My parents' generation came through World War II and their music reflected that history. My teen years were surrounded by the events of the Vietnam War era. And my children's music reflects a whole different set of circumstances. In a multi-generation congregation, our songs must honor the realities of all the generations, or our message will not reach everyone. Music inspires, music speaks to the heart, music carries our heart to God, music opens our senses to new horizons, music bonds us to Jesus Christ in a way my sermons cannot.

Let the music flow through you from Jesus and from within you from your heart. Be at one with God.


Read other sermons by Pastor Joan