In Acts 16:9 Paul receives a vision of a man of Macedonia calling for help, and so Paul and his companions conclude that God is calling them to preach the Gospel in Macedonia.
Macedonia is Europe, and Philippi, “a leading city of Macedonia,” was the heart of an ancient evil empire. It was founded by King Philip upon the birth of his son, Alexander, or as we know him “Alexander the Great,” who is the reason the New Testament is written in Greek.
Paul had a vision which was also an epic assignment. And God gives us visions.
When I was in seminary, there was a lot of talk about “Vision, Strategy, and Goals.” Pastors were taught to cast a vision, develop a strategy, and evaluate that strategy by whether or not one had reached one’s goals. It’s a bit ironic; no one ever proposed crucifixion.
In Acts 16:12 Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi and, on the Sabbath, go down to the river and meet some who had gathered to pray—it’s a pretty good strategy. Lydia and her household believe. She’s not from Macedonia but things seem to be going well.
As Paul goes down to the river one day a slave girl, with a spirit of divination, begins to follow him calling out, “These men are servants of the Most-High God.” She follows him “for days.” This was not part of his strategy; he didn’t want to upset the local economy (she made a great deal of money for her owners)—”Greatly annoyed” he turned and cast out the spirit.
Her owners have Paul and Silas arrested. They are beaten with rods and thrown in the inner prison with their feet fastened in stocks.
“Welcome to Europe. How’s that evangelism strategy working? Maybe you’re too stupid to interpret a vision? Maybe God is punishing you for being an arrogant ass? You are desolate,” whispered the demons in the dark, and the pain, and the shame, and the confusion.
Acts 16:25 “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God,” not “about God to other people” but “to God,” as if they loved him—him, just for who he is, for he certainly didn’t seem to be working for them.
Sometimes you find Joy at rock bottom. When everything has been stripped away, it exposes rock bottom, and you realize Rock Bottom is Jesus the Rock, and he’s with you.
Maybe they found Joy, or He found them, and then they only wanted more.
It’s fascinating how singing can do that. To sing is to lose yourself to a logic greater than you can comprehend which surrounds you and envelops you as music; you lose your insular little self and then find yourself singing along.
In Scripture, Rock Bottom is a Song, the Logos, the Reason, the Word of God. When we worship, we harmonize with the Creator and Ground of All Being. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” writes Paul to the Philippians years later. “Whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely… think about these things.”
Jesus is not the sun, but he’s the Light of the sun. Jesus is not a beauty queen, but he’s the beauty in any queen. Jesus is not a car, but he’s the logic in every gear. And when you realize that the Light, the Beauty, and the Logic became a man, who chooses to be with you no matter where you are—the pit of hell or chained in stocks—you will worship.
When we worship, our world expands. When we worship, we bring the Light into our darkness, the Beauty into our shame, and the Logic into our chaos.
“They prayed and sang hymns (praises) to God.”
When we were dating, Susan used to sing to me. When we had been married for a few years, Susan had a vision—a vision of children. And so, she developed a strategy. After a year of trying, she doubled down on the strategy. It was great… and then rather awful, for my bride would cry herself to sleep every night, AND she stopped singing to me.
She’d say, “Oh you’re so attractive, I just want you!” And I’d say, “Well, I’m not complaining, but you’ve never wanted me this often before. It kind of seems like what you want isn’t me but babies or, in biblical parlance, “fruit.”
She grew angry at God; in a way she hated God for love of fruit. One day she utterly fell apart. Sobbing, she forgave our pregnant friends, forgave God, and forgave herself. She said to me “Peter, I’m not even going to try.” And then, her only reason for making love to me. . . was me. And she got pregnant, then pregnant, then pregnant, and then pregnant again.
It often happens that way. And, also, doesn’t happen that way. All of it is a sacramental parable of something far greater than biological fruit.
Years ago, my old friend Heather, lay in a hospital bed losing her second baby. “I hurt so much that I couldn’t pray, but my husband prayed. All at once the room went silent. All my pain was gone. Nothing seemed real… And then I heard singing, as if it was the only thing that was real. All at once, I realized it was coming from me and through me. In the darkest of all places, I sang and sang, and I experienced sheer Joy, Peace, and Love.” That’s the fruit of the Spirit.
Years later, having lost the song and having sunk into depression, not knowing how to pray, she prayed the Psalms (the song book of ancient Israel); she sang that she couldn’t sing. And then she heard Jesus speak into her soul “The woman without children is the mother of thousands.” And she sang.
He not only says that to Heather; he says it to you: “Sing, O barren one who did not bear… the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married.”
In the Philippian Jail, Paul and Silas surrendered their vision, strategy, and goals. And Jesus spoke his Word, which is himself, “You are my vision, strategy, and goal.” He sang to them, and they sang to him. Suddenly there was an earthquake. The chains fell off. The prison doors were opened. The jailer tried to kill himself. Paul stopped him, saying “we’re all here—me and my friend and all these prisoners that have been listening.” The Jailer cried, “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe,” they said. And then, down at the river, the jailer washed their wounds, and they washed him with the waters of baptism.
That’s how the Gospel conquered Europe and gives birth to the New Creation.
But worship is not “a strategy” to accomplish your goals. Paul wrote to the Philippians years later . . . from prison. I’m sure he prayed and sang, but there was no earthquake. And yet, although he was unaware at the time, he did write the Bible—that’s some fruit.
Worship is not “our strategy” for getting things done; Worship is the presence of all that God has done; The Kingdom of Heaven is all creation worshipping.
Worship is not our strategy, but, in a way, it is God’s strategy; it’s how he gets things done; He sings you into existence, and arranges all things, that you would sing along.