Slavery, in all of it’s various forms is still very much with us. We like to believe that we live in a modern, enlightened age where all persons are treated with the dignity and the respect that they have been created to receive, but that is not at all the case. We live in a very broken and evil world, where millions of people are held against their will and compelled by their owners or handlers to commit unspeakable acts that destroy both their bodies and their spirits. This is not a world where freedom is cherished or defended. Tyranny exists in every corner of our planet. It wasn’t that long ago, right here in our own state, that a prostitution business was dismantled, and it was discovered that the workers were all being held against their wills. They were slaves in one of the most humanly destructive businesses that has ever existed. We may be appalled by slavery, but we have certainly not eliminated it from our society.
Children, especially, are vulnerable to this kind of abuse. And in our passage this morning we meet a young slave-girl who has some pretty amazing talents. She is possessed by a spirit of divination, and can apparently predict the future by telling people’s fortunes. To her handlers and owners, she is a living, breathing gold mine. I wish that Luke had given us a little bit more information about her. How did she come to be owned by her handlers? Was she an orphan? Was she a runaway? Was she kidnapped? Did her parents sell her into slavery? All of these are very real possibilities that could lead to juvenile slavery not only in the first century, but also in the twenty-first century. In any event, this young lady was both a slave and a prisoner. She is a slave, because she is a piece of property owned by her handlers, and she is under their control. She is a prisoner because she is possessed and held captive by an evil spirit of divination that allows her owners to make a fortune off her ability to tell fortunes.
In all worlds, both ancient and modern, fortune telling is big business; or at least it used to be. I’m probably out of the loop, but I don’t hear as much about psychic hotlines as I used to. Madam Doo-Doo used to tell us that for just a couple of bucks a minute, we could learn all we wanted about life, love, and the pursuit of riches. Just dial her up. She was waiting for our call. I don’t know if Madam Doo-Doo is still around but I do know, that if one is willing to make the investment, one can have their fortune or mis-fortune explained in great detail, right here in downtown Thomaston. I saw that just the other day while I was waiting at the stop light. Of course stopping by to consult with Madam Doo-Doo is strictly forbidden by the Scriptures, however tempting it may be. Our wisdom is to come from God, and God alone. Madam Doo-Doo’s words come from somewhere else.
It took the Apostle Paul according to Luke, many days before he actually set this poor slave-girl free from her imprisonment by the spirit of divination, and free from the bondage of slavery that her owners kept her in. I can’t judge Paul’s motives, but I can certainly judge my own. This girl is avidly promoting the mission of Paul and his companions. She is telling the absolute truth. She is pretty much the fan club of the mission. I would have been delighted, but, after many days of this blatant promotion of the mission, Paul is not so much delighted, but rather very much annoyed. And so with the power of the Most High God, Paul the slave of Jesus Christ sets this girl free from her afflictions.
This did not go well with the ones who owned and kept the slave-girl in bondage. They suddenly realize that she can’t tell fortunes anymore. She’s been broken. And this is a problem because she is, apparently, the sole source of their income. And now, because she is broken, she is worthless to them. She is a liability to them, not an asset.
What do you suppose became of this slave-girl? Luke doesn’t say a word about it. But let’s think about what we know about the followers of Jesus. First of all, I am quite certain that she was abandoned by her owners. She is broken. They obviously have no further use for her. Their next concern, after exacting some revenge and retribution, is to find a new source of income.
But to the followers of Jesus in the Christian community in Philippi, she could not have been worthless. She was, after all a lost child of God. I cannot imagine anything less than that she was adopted by the fellowship of believers there in Philippi. This is how followers of Jesus conduct their lives. Perhaps this should probably be so obvious to us that Luke didn’t feel the need to include that part of her story in his narration. In any event, it would have been completely unconscionable for that community of believers to have witnessed the miracle that took place in her life and in their lives, and then to ignore or abandon her as her captors had. Followers of Jesus behave very differently. I’m convinced that she was adopted and nurtured and encouraged in her new-found faith by the believers in Philippi. And there in the midst of that loving community, she discovered her God-given worth and value as a child of God, and in that new-found environment of freedom, she became a slave of Jesus Christ. Think that one through. A girl who was once a slave, imprisoned by an evil spirit, and held captive by the ones who owned her, is set free by a slave of Jesus Christ, and she in turn, because of the loving nurture of a fellowship of believers, glories in that freedom and becomes a slave of Jesus Christ. Anything that we can do for children, we ought to be doing.
True freedom can only come when we share our lives in community with others. True freedom comes when we participate in a community of believers where it is safe to share our joys, our hopes, our fears and our love. True freedom comes when we know that we can be forgiven, no matter what our sins may be. True freedom comes when we are no longer enslaved or held captive by the Powers of Darkness. True freedom is relationship. God is the originator and prime example of relationship. God invites us into relationship with him and with one another. And in this relationship we love and we serve, and we help, and we participate in shared ministries, and we experience joy unimaginable, and we willingly and gladly call ourselves and each other slaves of Jesus Christ. There is awesome and ultimate freedom in this kind of slavery.
Unfortunately, many will still choose to be slaves of some one or some thing other than Jesus Christ. The tragedy of these kinds of people is well told in the lives of the slave-girl’s owners. They witnessed a tremendous change in the girl’s life. They watched her as she was set free. They could have been set free themselves. They didn’t miss a thing. They saw everything, and yet they missed everything. But tragically, like too many people that all of us know, they could not imagine living their lives in any other way. They were imprisoned, and they were their own jailers, slaves to themselves.
And so what did they do? They attacked the freedom-givers. They hauled Paul and his companions before the local constabulary, accusing them of all kinds of trumped up charges, not the least of which was, “These men…are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Now of course, there wasn’t a bit of truth to that charge except for the part, “These men…are Jews.” But a statement like that will get a serious hearing even today. No one likes outsiders coming to change that which has always been. The truth, or course, might have sounded like this: “These Jews broke our slave-girl. And now she can’t tell fortunes anymore, and we are out of a source of income.” But, truth doesn’t always enter into the picture, does it? And the truth wouldn’t have gotten them very far with the authorities. There wouldn’t have been much sympathy for the girl’s owners, and probably not any legal recourse.
As a result of the trumped up charges, Paul and Silas were stripped of their clothing and beaten with rods. And then, for good measure, and to drive the message home, they were given a severe flogging, and tossed into prison. We’ll not have any strange customs advocated by outsiders in this place. We’re gonna keep things the way they are.
Kind of ironic, isn’t it. These servants of God ended up in jail because they acted on God’s behalf and set someone free. Slaves of Jesus Christ, who knew and understood true freedom, are now incarcerated because they brought the hope and evidence of freedom to the community of Philippi. But even in prison, these slaves of Jesus were free. At midnight, bruised and bleeding from their wounds, with their feet securely in stocks, they were singing and praying and worshiping God in all of the freedom that heaven can give. There is no other path in life to choose other than this one. It is slavery, but it is the only true freedom to be found.