11th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 13 – C)
Sermon Series on the Book of Acts
July 31, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle reading, which was read a few minutes ago.
One of the most difficult aspects of preaching for pastors is properly presenting the Law and the Gospel. Martin Luther said, “Therefore place the man who is able nicely to divorce the Law from the Gospel at the head of the list and call him a Doctor of Holy Scripture.” Luther was an incredible preacher and part of what guided him was remembering that the both the Law and the Gospel have their proper places. He also knew that, for the sake of those who listen to sermons, the pastor needs to be very sure that he’s preaching these two doctrines correctly. Do you ever wonder why I don’t give you sermons that teach you how to be better parents or financially responsible? Do you know why my sermons aren’t like the ones that you see on TV? It’s because these kinds of sermons aren’t sermons at all, they’re speeches. Rather, good pastors preach the Law in all its sternness and the Gospel in all its sweetness because that’s what all people need, whether they realize it or not.
The events leading up to today’s account are important to set the stage. Paul and Silas are in the city of Philippi, a major city that attracted all sorts of people. For several days a slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit that enabled her to tell the future followed Paul and Silas. As she followed them, she kept calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Annoyed, Paul drove the spirit out of her. When her owners realized what had happened, they became furious because the girl’s fortune-telling had been a good source of income. But now that was gone, so they dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates of the city and charged them with throwing the city into an uproar and advocating illegal customs. Without a trial, Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison.
We would expect this mistreatment would dampen their spirits, but it had the opposite effect. Luke writes, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” I think we can assume that the Philippian jailer was likewise listening, what we can’t know though is what he was thinking. Was he bewildered by the two beaten men and their good mood? Was he listening intently or was he listening with half an ear? Did he think that what they were spouting nonsense? Did he fall asleep with their hymns in his ears?
This side of Heaven, we won’t ever know, but it’s not all that important. What’s important is what happened next, he had a near-death experience. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.” Can you imagine his terror? He was in charge of the prisoners and if any escaped he would receive their punishment. So in his panic and fear he decides the easiest thing to do is to commit suicide. He won’t have to face his superiors and maybe he can avoid whatever abuse they would dish out. In this instance the Philippian jailer is experiencing the weight of the Law. He sees the future and he’s terrified. He is in full despair and he sees no way out. In his mind, there’s absolutely nothing that can save him.
Now it might sound like this isn’t your typical “Law of God” sort of thing because nobody pointed out to the Philippian jailer that he was a sinful man doing sinful things and needed to repent. And yet, it is. Who sent the earthquake? Who kept Paul, Silas, and their criminal cellmates from running into the night? It was God, right? The jailer realized this, he saw his sin and hopelessness and it drove him to his knees before God’s messengers, begging to know, “What must I do to be saved?”
The Law of God is absolutely necessary because people outside the Church need to know that they’re sinners. They need to hear the stern voice of God calling them to repent or die. They need to know that they’re lost and they’re cut off from God. This is what the Law does, it hammers people, driving them to their knees, forcing them to look for help. This is why we don’t sugarcoat the Law. When the Church doesn’t speak the Law in all its sternness and when it makes God some sort of wishy washy deity, the Law doesn’t work. The Law doesn’t work when we tell people that it doesn’t matter what they do because Jesus loves them and forgives them. We’re being unloving to our neighbors when we tell them to go on living in their sin because it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal, especially to God.
The Law though isn’t just for the sinners outside the Church walls, it’s for us as well. It’s why I don’t stand up here and tell you that as long as you love Jesus you can do whatever you want. It’s why you and I say at the start of every service that we are poor, miserable, sinners. We don’t need the Law because we’re unbelievers headed for Hell, we need it to open our eyes to our sin that angers God. We need the Law to be an earthquake that rattles us and reminds us that we’re ignoring or disobeying God. The Law says, “Repent!” because in repentance is found forgiveness.
The jailer doesn’t use the words “I repent of my sins of thought, word, and deed”, but his urgent request to know “What must I do to be saved?” is a cry of repentance. Suddenly, everything that Paul and Silas were saying started making sense. In the face of death and despair, he had to know the way out. Like a bent nail, he was hammered down by the Law, but, and this is important for every, single one of you to remember, he wasn’t left there. Rather he hears those beautiful, comforting words, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul and Silas spoke the Gospel because it is through the Gospel alone that we are forgiven and saved.
When those outside our Church experience pain and despair, when they’re lost and hurting because their lives are upside down, when things never go right because they’re stuck in a vicious cycle of sin, they need to hear the Gospel in all its sweetness. They need to hear the Word of forgiveness that’s for all people.
You need to hear it too though and it’s why every single sermon I preach will, in the end, tell you the same thing: you are forgiven. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter what sin you’re wrestling with. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard God’s Word in a while. What matters is that you are forgiven. Not forgiven in the sense that you can suddenly feel better and know that life will suddenly be grand, but forgiven in that you no longer have to fear God’s wrath. You no longer have to feel like you’ve been hammered down to nothing because Christ has died for you. By dying He has lifted you up. By bearing the punishment you deserve, He has forgiven all your sins. You have heard the Law, now hear the Gospel. You are a sinner, but you are forgiven so go in peace.
There’s one last thing I want to tell you and it’s important. When Paul and Silas told the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They weren’t giving him a duty or a chore, something to work at. They were telling him he needed what God had already given him, faith. The Holy Spirit is the one who speaks through the Law to bring people to repentance and through the Gospel to comfort the hurting. We contribute nothing to the Gospel. When the Law has crushed you don’t think you need to pray harder, work harder, or believe harder to be forgiven. Simply believe that Jesus has done all that is necessary, that He has come to you speaking the Word of Absolution that forgives all your sins; not some of them, all of them.
At the end of the text we see the Gospel at work in this jailer and his family. Luke writes, “And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” What joy is found for those who hear the words of the Gospel. The joy that belonged to Paul and Silas as they sat in prison is the same joy that was given to the jailer and his family. And it’s the same joy that Jesus wants you to have. There are times, many times, that I will preach the Law to you that’s not easy to hear. But I will never leave you beaten down, for when you ask, “What must I do to be saved?” you will hear the sweet Gospel news of forgiveness that is yours through Christ Jesus, the Gospel that brings pure joy.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen