Tony Campolo, the very entertaining speaker and evangelical activist, tells a story about being pressured by time to make it to a certain church to preach. He had to take a flight from his home near Philadelphia and go to New York City, be shuttled across the city and be in the pulpit within the confines of a very tight schedule. On the Sunday he was to appear, Murphy’s Law kicked in and a series of delays made an already tight schedule even tighter. But Campolo was determined he would keep his assignment so he hastily left the airport in New York, hailed a cab and began the harrowing drive through legendary New York traffic to get to the church. As the cab ride unfolded he knew he’d not make it for the 11:00 a.m. start time of the service. Fire trucks and ambulances and traffic accidents all played their role to have him deposited on the church steps just at the moment when the sermon was being announced. He burst into the church and to the surprise of everyone was able to get into the pulpit right at the exact moment he had to preach.
The kind of character Tony Campolo is allowed him to get right down to business and from a cold start for the next 45 minutes he worked at making his points with the usual laughter and hard points that have made him a highly sought after speaker all over the world. He ended his sermon to the thunderous applause of the congregation and the minister came to the pulpit with words of commendation for Dr. Campolo’s message. “Thank you, sir, for such an inspiring message. We are so pleased to have to as our guest, but WHO ARE YOU? Dr. Campolo in his haste missed his true destination and was supposed to be in another church directly across the street from this one.
It’s a great story, especially the way the flamboyant Campolo relates it, and it’s reminiscent of an episode in the life of St. Paul as he continued his missionary journeys. Acts 16:6-10 shows a preacher seeking his next destination to declare the still fresh message of Christ: 6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
What a cryptic account of the pattern of guidance for these early church missionaries. They were directed through the obstacles; their way was barred in some directions, but opened in others. One thing to note: there was always an open door before them. The Holy Spirit could see the road ahead; He had an appointed way to lead them and to their credit they listened to the Spirit’s inner voice as, like a divine GPS he mapped their journey and set their waypoints.
Let me assure those who have decided to follow the Lord and especially to those who are preparing to follow the Lord and be baptized in water very soon, that baptism is one of the waypoints in your spiritual journey. The ordinance of water baptism is squarely on the pathway set for the children of God. As surely as Jesus made his way to the banks of the Jordan where John was preaching his prophetic message, then you are responding to Jesus’ own injunction to do this to fulfill all righteousness. He stepped into the waters, not to symbolize his repentance, but to set the example for us to use baptism as a clear visible sign of our death to sin, our burial under waters of baptism and our rise from these waters to resurrection life made possible by his defeat of death!
How is water baptism related to this passage from Acts? Paul couldn’t have known it at the moment, but God had placed him on course for a water baptismal service that would have pain as a prelude, but rejoicing as a result. In our text Paul wanted to preach Christ in Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit forbade them from entering that part of Asia. Then in the night came the vision of the man from Macedonia. He implored the apostle, "come over to Macedonia and help us." Paul and Silas and Luke set sail for Philippi. Macedonia was the gateway of the gospel to the European continent. Every Christian should be grateful for this record for most of us are of European descent.
There is a principle I would like to note here. It is the principle of DOUBLE GUIDANCE: Paul was forbidden to go to one area, but invited to go into another. He had a red light and green light at the same time. The danger for us as Christians, at times, is to only respond to the prohibition, to only hear what is forbidden. When the Spirit forbids something, we must then be open to his guidance because very often it is God's way of saying, "Listen closely, I have something better for you.” For Paul and his entourage Bithynia was off limits, but Macedonia was on target. God does not have us stand still. The voyage was quick, only two days to cover 150 miles to Philippi, which scholars assert was likely Luke's home town. On the Sabbath they found a group meeting outside the city gates and approached them. Paul spoke and there were converts, especially Lydia, a textile merchant and all her household was baptized. Did you get that? Salvation resulted in a baptismal service. A theologian puts it this way: “Baptism follows salvation: it neither precedes it nor procures it.”
But God had even more in mind and Chapter 16 records how one day on their way to a prayer meeting they met a slave girl who had a spirit, which allowed her to foretell the future. She was used by her owners to make money fortune-telling. The girl followed the missionaries screaming "... these men are servants of the Most High God ... telling you how to be saved.” She kept this up many days and Paul realized that the cause of Christ was not to be furthered by the devil running your advertising campaign! He was grieved to the point that he turned to the woman, cast out the demon and in exorcising the demon also exorcised her owners’ source of revenue.
Paul and Silas were seized by her owners and dragged forcibly before the magistrates with allegations that these Jews had introduced an alien religion and were advocating unlawful practices. Swift justice was rendered: Paul and Silas were flogged and thrown into the innermost cell in the prison and put in stocks as well.
Luke picks up the story again in Acts 16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
This is a great story. It is a powerful reminder of the sacrifice these early missionaries made to advance the gospel. But just a couple of phrases from the description of the jailer's response touches my heart. They are phrases that speak of the change that takes place in a person's heart when they become a Christian.
"At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds.” - When a person tries to dry the tears they have caused, that person has met Christ. This jailer was the instrument of a cruel regime and when Christ touched his heart, when he saw mercy and felt grace, he tried to bind up the wounds that he had caused. When a person is unwilling to reach out to those he or she has hurt and ask forgiveness and minister to their hurts, they have not experienced Christ's forgiveness like they ought. This official of Rome took his stand in the place he had authority; he could not lead Rome to Christ, but he could lead his household. This man had been on the brink of suicide, ready to take his life before Rome took it for the loss of prisoners. Now he had given his life to the only One who would allow him to have life forever. God drives a better bargain than you will ever find elsewhere. He gives beauty of ashes and the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness!
Some of you know that among my ministry stops before I came here as a pastor, I was a chaplain at Memorial University in St. John’s. I met many fine young people there, but I will never forget one young man who was devoted to Christ and was growing as a Christian. I mentioned his name in a town I visited and someone told me a story. The told me how he was the only one of his family who served the Lord and how as a young boy he went to church and joined the various child and youth programs without a mom or dad who took him or supported him. When his younger brother came of age he introduced him to the church and brought him along to the same church events that made an impact on his life. My respect for this young man’s love for his brother and leadership within his family grew so much upon hearing that story.
One September we held a fall retreat at a popular East Coast retreat centre and a number of candidates asked to be baptized in water. The day we chose was clear, but there was a tiny shimmer of ice around the end of the pond where the camp was located. Into those frigid waters this young man walked out to his chest, confessed his faith in Jesus Christ and I gladly lowered him into the cold lake. We all wrapped in blankets on the beach as we exited the water, but the warmth of the Spirit’s presence and the sheer joy of being able to officiate at this young man’s baptism was not chilled by a few minutes in icy cold water.
Luke writes: "... immediately he and all his family were baptized." - Release from a personal prison through Christ's intervention should always find us at some point in a baptismal service. A changed heart expresses itself in commitment. This man's life had just been spared. He was prepared for suicide, since it was a better death for him than execution by the state. But now he was rescued and set free. Baptism in water was a kind of seal of commitment. It cries out publicly and proclaims that a new day has dawned in a person's life. It is a declaration of a change of ownership in a person's life.
Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ and I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me." Baptism is the symbol of me dying to sin and to self, being buried in waters of baptism and arising to walk in newness of life with my soul purged from all unrighteousness. It is a symbol of a new relationship. (Mass baptism in the Jordan) There was likely a well somewhere close to the prison. This man's family joined him as Paul and Silas immersed them. If there is one prayer in my heart it is for us to have a unity in our church family.
Luke wraps up this story: "The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them..." It is probably well after midnight now. Paul and Silas were beaten and hungry. They had won a new family for the infant church in Philippi and now there is Christian hospitality where before there had been only brutal legal responsibility. A changed heart results in people loving other people, not from a distance, but up close. As much as we would care for each other, the Lord wants to sit at our tables and feed us; the Lord wants to work through the church at the table; the table speaks of an amazing opportunity for fellowship and as I ponder God’s provisions I am convinced He sets the table often.
What a change Luke concludes with as the missionaries face a new day. They had been in the prison, backs stinging from a beating and now their jailer has become their host and Luke writes: "... he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family."
This is the exciting conclusion to this story. Look at it! The Spirit told Paul to stay out of Bithynia ... he went to Philippi to answer a vision ... a church was begun ... a girl was delivered ... opposition was experienced ... there was a beating ... but out of it came a new family for that new church. The pains of childbirth end in joy. The terror of persecution ends in victory. A suicide was averted and a family was baptized ... there is joy.
The pathway to joy is paved with experiences that we do not always understand. There will sometimes be the pain of a beating, the hurt of being misunderstood. We will experience animosity when we have tried to do well. All of us will sometimes sit in a prison we did not make, and the test of our faith will whether or not we can sing praises at midnight when our feet are in the stocks and our back still smarts from the beating. I can keep my song when the sun is shining, but can I keep it in those other times.
Perhaps this message this morning is a personal reflection for me too. I have met many people who have seen pain, but out of it has come joy. I have seen grace triumph and I have watched as the Holy Spirit has changed the course of lives. The sudden turns in the road took you by surprise. You never really planned on ending up here, but here you are. For a few months now I have shared your road and if the Lord tarries there are days ahead of us. I would like to think that around every turn of the road for us there is a need to fill the baptismal tank and give new believers the opportunity to show their obedience. There is such a need of Christ in this city that this baptismal area should be used as often as the Communion Table.
When Paul had occasion to reflect on this church, he did not remember the jail and the beating and the cruelty. He remembered the victory of the Gospel. He must have remembered the two water baptismal services conducted there. Later the apostle wrote this church a letter. Philippians 1:2-7 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.
The story of Paul’s visit to Philippi is our personal story. Around every turn in the road may lie difficult moments … trust the Lord; He has grace for every challenge we face. Let me address those who are candidates for baptism and those who ponder it: you put your hand in His in a tighter clasp and commit to follow the Lord when you step into waters of baptism! You step forward with His blessing! For that I commend your faith and your action!