Surprise Escape

What does it mean to be free? In our reading from Acts for this week, different people are set free in different ways. How are we bound and set free?

Read Acts 16:16-34 here.

I woke up on Thursday morning thinking that Highway 14 south of town had finally opened. Most of you probably know that it’s closed because of the flooding that has plagued our area for the past couple of weeks.  I can usually see the flashing lights on the barricades through my living room window, and at first I couldn’t see them and thought they were finally gone.  It turned out I was wrong[1], but I was surprised at how much the idea that they had been removed lifted my spirits. I hadn’t realized how much I’d felt trapped by that barricade.  I didn’t need to go down that road, but knowing that I couldn’t made me feel trapped. Although the barrier was physical and real, the entrapment was psychological.  I could have gone where I needed to go.  I was free to find another way.

How many of the barriers in our lives are perceived more than they are real?

My mother told me on more than one occasion that I could do whatever I set my mind to, but one time in particular is blazingly clear in my memory.  We were standing in a parking lot at twilight talking about whatever decision I was trying to make at that point in my young adult life.  Nothing about the particulars of the conversation made it into my long term memory, just that one sentence:  You can do whatever you set your mind to.  We might get frustrated that our parents tell us this because it doesn’t seem like it’s really true sometimes, but it is.  It doesn’t mean it will be easy, but if we set our mind to it, we can overcome quite a bit.  And whether my mom realized it or not, she was giving me biblical encouragement.  Jesus said, “With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26, Luke 1:37)

All things. We can overcome barriers. I want to be clear, however, that I am not telling you to ignore the barriers across our flooded roads.  I am saying that blocked avenues don’t have to mean giving up. It’s likely that Luke wrote the book of Acts to encourage believers who were struggling with barriers and obstacles and needed to see that by the power of the Holy Spirit the barriers could be overcome.[2]

In the Bible, in the book of Acts, we see that the gospel was running in to obstacles.  People were getting killed for it.  And a whole bunch of people were telling new believers that they didn’t just need to believe in Jesus, they also needed to follow the Jewish laws and get circumcised (Acts 15:5).  This was a very big obstacle to the growth of the church.  So they had their very first church council meeting in Jerusalem to talk about it. Peter and Paul both testified.  Peter said:

“God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:8-11)

The council was persuaded and agreed that circumcision should not be required, and they wrote a letter to the churches to spread the news.  When Paul and Timothy delivered this news to the churches, there was great rejoicing.  So the churches were strengthened in their faith and grew larger every day. (Acts 16:5)  A major obstacle to the spread of the gospel had been removed.

The stories in Acts that follow show how after this the Holy Spirit was freed to move among the people and the gospel spread.  In the part we read today, Paul and Silas are in Philippi preaching and healing, and they meet a slave girl.  She is bound by an evil spirit that enables her to tell fortunes.  That spirit knows who Paul and Silas are and she keeps calling them out, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.” (16:17)  You can see how Paul would get annoyed after several days of this. I imagine it was getting in the way of their attempts to connect with people.  Let me paint you a picture.  What if every time I walked into a room, somebody ran ahead of me shouting, “This woman is a pastor and she wants to tell you about Jesus.” It’s the truth, but it’s a little off-putting.  So Paul commands the demon to leave the girl and it does.

Now she is free from the burden of that evil spirit, but her owners are not rejoicing because they have just lost their source of income. It’s funny, then, that money is not even mentioned when they go to the city officials.  Instead they charge Paul and Silas with this: “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!  They’re teaching customs that are illegal for us Romans to practice.”  The only thing true about their statement was that Paul and Silas were Jews.  Nobody was in an uproar except these men.  Nothing was illegal, and in fact it would be discovered later that putting Paul in jail was illegal because Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37).  The underlying issue, the truth of the matter, was that Paul and Silas had messed with their source of income and disturbed their financial security.

We too base our sense of security on money, and so it drives our decisions, and traps us in many ways as we become slaves to it.

Paul and Silas got trapped.  They were thrown in jail.  They were bound in the most obvious way – by bars and chains.  Being inside that prison didn’t stop them from praying and singing hymns to God.  Can’t you just hear them?

 “I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart (where?), down in my heart (where?), down in my heart….”

Everybody sing along!  Prayer and singing together are powerful.  Then an earthquake shook open the doors of the prison and the chains were unfastened. They’d set off a chain reaction.

I’ve been in a lot of earthquakes and I’ve seen a lot of things breaking and falling apart, but never chains coming unfastened.  That was a Holy Spirit earthquake for sure!  The Holy Spirit set them free.  The Holy Spirit does things we don’t expect.  He shakes us up.

What does the Holy spirit need to shake up in your life?  Where are you bound?

How much of what binds us is really only a matter of perception?

Thinking about that question, I thought of Liz Willis.[3] Liz is an amputee.  Many of you know her.  She grew up here in Sterling, and is the daughter of Glen Holman, a former pastor of this church.   I contacted Liz this week to find out if I could talk about her in this sermon.  Eight years ago when she was 32 weeks pregnant she went to the doctor feeling ill and discovered that she was so seriously ill that she would need to have an emergency c-section.  She woke up in the hospital to find that she’d been in a coma for ten days. Not only that, but they’d also had to take her leg.  This week I asked her if she saw her amputation as a barrier, and she said that instead she sees it as a blessing because it meant she wasn’t six feet under. Her condition is so rare that there have only been five recorded cases, and she is the only one to have survived.

Liz Willis Max Dutton Sr ProjectI can think of all kinds of ways that losing a leg could be a barrier, but God has helped her overcome many obstacles, and she is doing things she never dreamed of doing before, even competing in the Paralympics in Rio in 2016. She now runs an organization that empowers people with disabilities to be active: Wichita Adaptive Sports. In this picture, she’s with Max Dutton who did his senior project working with Liz on the Living Incredible 5k[4]. a race that raises money for racing chairs and running prosthetics.  Max won the “Senior Project of the Year” award, by the way.

Liz’s life is entirely different than she thought it would be.  Before everything changed, she thought she’d just keep on being a teacher. Liz could have been totally dragged down by what happened, and for a few years she did struggle, but God showed her an amazing new direction, and she’s doing more now than she ever imagined she could do.  I’m so inspired by Liz!  Through her brush with death, Liz was set free to find new ways to live!

In Acts, when the prisoners are set free, it’s the jailer who becomes psychologically bound.  The poor jailer – waking up to find that the prison doors were all open.  Immediately he’s imagining his boss coming in and saying “You had one job…..”  In today’s world he’d be fired.  In Bible times, he’d be punished by death, and probably death on a cross or by being impaled.  The only honorable way out was to do the job himself, and so he draws his sword to kill himself.  Paul shouts out just in the nick of time, “Hold up!  It’s ok!  We’re all still here!”

Why hadn’t they left the jail?  Because bars and chains were less important than the bonds within our minds and souls.  And in staying, they showed the jailer that there was more at work than money and politics.  Realizing this brings the jailer to his knees, asking, “What must I do to be saved?”

Paul replies, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, you and your household.”

Ask and you will receive freedom that transcends earthly boundaries.  So let me ask you, what are the boundaries in your life?[5]

Sometimes we base our understanding and feelings on the wrong things.  We are not free if we are slaves to fear, money, power, preconceived ideas, expectations or prejudice.  But through grace, Jesus sets us free from the bonds of sin. If Jesus sets you free, you will be free indeed.


[2] “Despite Gabriel’s assurance to Mary that ‘with God nothing will be impossible’ (Luke 1:37), when one encounters official opposition, violence, misunderstanding, demons, it is easy for believers like Theophilus to lose hope.” –Willimon, William H.. Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 12). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Liz Willis is interviewed by Katie Taube here:  or here:

[4] Hosted at the Augusta Lake on August 10th

[5] “By the end of the story, everyone who at first appeared to be free—the girl’s owners, the jailer—is a slave. And everyone who first appeared to be enslaved—the poor girl, Paul, and Silas—is free.” Willimon, William H.. Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 140). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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