Epiphany 1b

Preached: January 11, 2009

Through Jesus, Look Death in the Eye
Acts 16:25-34

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus, our Savior is Acts 16

Throughout the middle of the night, Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God as they prayed. The prisoners were closely listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the prison's foundations were shaken. Immediately all the prison doors opened and everyone's chains let loose. When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the jail open, drawing his sword he intended to do away with himself, thinking that the prisoners had run away.

Paul called out in a loud voice, “Don't harm yourself, for all of us are inside.”

He called for lights and entered. Trembling he fell before Paul and Silas. He led them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your house.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all in his house. He took them along at that hour of the night and washed out their wounds. He and all who were his were immediately baptized. After he led them to his house, he had a meal prepared. He, together with his whole house, rejoiced having believed in God. (Acts 16:25-34)

This is the Word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior,

“My life flashed before my eyes.” That's what some say happens when they face a sudden, life-threatening situation. What is it like to face death eye to eye? Maybe some of you have had a moment or more when you feared for your life. We've also faced death in saying goodbye to loved ones.

Yet it's not a thought we dwell on, facing death eye to eye. We let the funeral home make death look nice. We let professionals take care of the dying. And although we might see a lot of death and dying in movies and TV, that's the Hollywood version, not reality.

In the text today, we see how death without Jesus terrifies. Then we see how faith in Jesus changes everything, not only in death but also in life. Those are the two parts that help us focus on the theme: Through Jesus, look death in the eye. Yes, look death in the eye without terror or false hope, but with bold faith in Jesus, the faith Baptism worked in you.

A. Without Jesus, death terrifies

1. What are the events leading up to the text?

The text transports us into the middle of trouble for the Apostle Paul and his coworker Silas. Now sometime before this, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke had arrived in the Greek city of Philippi on Paul's second missionary journey sometime around 50 A.D. Work there had begun well. Philippi didn't have a synagogue, so on the Sabbath Paul and his coworkers went out to the river to find a place of prayer. They spoke to the women there, and the Lord opened the heart of Lydia to believe Paul's message. She and her household were baptized, and she invited Paul and his coworkers to stay at her house as they continued to preach the Gospel of Jesus.

After that though a slave girl, possessed by an evil spirit, would follow Paul to the place of prayer, shouting after him. This kept happening day after day, and finally Paul turned around and said to the evil spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” And the spirit left her.

But by the power of that evil spirit, she had been making a lot of money for her owners. They were furious that Paul had smashed their money-making dream. They seized Paul and Silas and hauled them before the magistrates accusing them of causing a riot and promoting customs unlawful for Romans. The crowds joined in the attack. The magistrates ordered Paul and Silas stripped and beaten. After this flogging, the jailer put them in an inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. That's where the text begins.

2) How did the jailer feel as he looked death in the eye that night?

Let's focus on the jailer first. Here you witness the terror that death brings if you look it in the eye without Jesus. The jailer must have seen death many times. Ancient Philippi had no 8th Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. Severely flogged prisoners may have died in his custody, not to mention those sentenced to death. Maybe this jailer was a military man as well and had seen death on the battle field. But whatever his background, he had not looked death in the eye the way he was forced to on this night.

First the earthquake. How terrifying that is! Imagine yourself there. Not even the terra firma under your feet isn't firm anymore. What a brush with death! After surviving this first fright, he stumbles to his feet and sees the prison doors wide open. “They've escaped! They've all escaped!” Roman law demanded his life in exchange for the prisoners. If he had only died in the earthquake, then he wouldn't have to face that public shame and disgrace of failing in his duty. “What else can I do but end my life right now,” he reasons as he draws his sword. Do you feel his terror and despair?

Even after Paul assures him that they are all there and that he has no reason to harm himself, even then the terror lingers. He calls for lights and rushes in. He falls before Paul trembling, trembling because he has looked death in the eye without Jesus. What a horror that is!

3) Why do we do well to realize the real horror of death without Jesus?

Dear friends, don't dismiss the real horror of death. We see stories of the glorious death of a warrior, or the calm death of a good man, or the tearful death of a loved family member assuring the others that he'll be better off so they don't need to cry. Even when people on TV face a troubled death, sooner or later they cross over into the bright light. And all this without a mention of Jesus as the Savior. That's Hollywood's version of death, not much to be terrified about.

But you and I do not face a Hollywood death; we face real death. Like the jailer at Philippi, we must one day look death in the eye. And if you are without Jesus on that day, death will terrify you. For death without Jesus brings hell and unending pain and torture. People may joke about death or refuse to talk about it or deny there's a real hell, all trying to avoid the terror. But death looks each one of us in the eye sooner or later. Some may figure they haven't been all that bad so why should death terrify them. But even the best that we do melts away into terror when death stares us down. Only one thing changes all this. Only faith in Jesus.

B. Faith in Jesus changes everything

1) What did Paul and Silas tell the jailer to free him from the terror of death?

Where could the jailer turn? Death had stared him down. The earthquake. The open prison doors. Oh, he escaped death this time, but sooner or later death would come. Where could he turn?

What about those two prisoners? They had been beaten severely without a trial. Yet instead of cursing and swearing, they had been singing hymns to God and praying. They had looked death in the eye but they sang in joy rather than cringe in terror. They must know the way to be saved even from death.

So he brings Paul and Silas out and asks, “Sirs what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 NIV). And they answer. They don't give a list of deeds to do. They don't mention any kind of work, no matter how great or small, that merits salvation or earns escape from death. No, they point the jailer to Jesus alone. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved ;;; you and your household” (Acts 16:31 NIV). Then they speak the word of the Lord to him, explaining who this Jesus is and what he has done for them. They tell him the same Good News that you have been blessed to know for many years.

What might they have said? Maybe something like this: Death terrifies you because you are a sinner. Your conscience convicts you for not doing all that God requires. Death is justice's punishment for us sinners, death that leads to unending hell.

But God wants to save you. He sent his Son to do that. That Son is Jesus of Nazareth. He is God our Savior. Throughout his life he did good. He healed the sick, made the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the blind to see. Then he laid down his life for you. He died the most horrible death. Although innocent, he was condemned and crucified as a criminal. God punished him for our sins. Through his death you are reconciled to God. For Jesus' blood has ransomed you to be his own, so that he is your Lord.

For you see, Jesus rose from the dead. He conquered death. He came back to life. Since he paid for your sin, death has lost its power to terrify you. For the sting of death is sin, but Jesus gives you the victory. And Jesus is coming again to raise the dead and give eternal life in heaven to all who believe in him.

God makes this promise to you through the water and word of Baptism. He promises that your sins are washed away so that you need not fear death. He promises that you are reborn as his dear child so that you become an heir of everlasting life. As a baptized child of God, clothed with Jesus, look death in the eye, without fear, without terror.

2) What changes did the Good News of Jesus work in the jailer and in us?

That Good News, however Paul phrased it, changed the jailer and his family. It has changed you and me as well ;; not only for the day that we face death but for every day until then. Note how the jailer's attitude and actions change. See the kindness and compassion the Gospel created in him. He washed their wounds, brought them into his house, prepared a meal for them. He and his household were overjoyed. That's the joy the Gospel brings, the joy expressed in acts of love and kindness toward others, the joy that can fill our lives each day. And when that joy feels empty, go back to your Baptism and the promise God made to you there. As a baptized child of God, you have an inheritance in heaven waiting for you who believe. What a reason to rejoice every day!

Also think about the joy of Paul and Silas. They were unfairly arrested, illegally beaten, and unjustly jailed, but they praised God and sang hims to him. They prayed, unburdening their hearts, committing themselves into his hands. Through Jesus they looked death in the eye and rejoiced. For whether they lived or died, they belonged to the Lord. He would take care of them. Baptism had washed away their sins in Jesus' blood so that not even death could separate them from him. They were his baptized, blood-bought people. That was their faith.

So also you and I, dear friend. Whatever trials and troubles you face, even death itself, look at them through Jesus. Look at them through the water of your Baptism. For just as looking at something through water changes its appearance, so also troubles and even death change when you look at them through your Baptism. For when the water and word of Baptism washed away your sins, death lost its power over you. Don't return to the tyranny of death's terror by turning away from Jesus. Only faith in Jesus saves. Without Jesus, death ought to terrify us. Don't forsake your baptismal faith.

Rather remember the promises God made to you in Baptism and trust them unconditionally ;;; promises so powerful that even death's power perished. Promises so powerful that they penetrated our pompous hearts producing faith in Jesus. Promises so powerful, for they point you to Jesus, your precious Savior. Through Jesus you can face death eye to eye. For Jesus has faced death down for you. Through Jesus you can live each day rejoicing in the victory he has won for you and freely given to you through Baptism. And who knows who might see that joy and, like the jailer, ask, “How can I be saved?” Then like, Paul and Silas, you can point them to Jesus and tell them how he has faced down death for them.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313