“Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans” said John Lennon. It’s trite, but it is also true. It’s only human to want to know and control what happens in our lives, but I think most of us can look back and see that many of the really significant moments in our lives weren’t the ones we had planned, but the ones that came about apparently by accident. A chance meeting might have resulted in a lifelong marriage or friendship. A stray comment from someone might have propelled us into a career we’d never have thought of for ourselves. The future often hinges on things which at the time seem unimportant, inconvenient, or even disastrous.
In the first reading we heard today that was certainly the case.
St Paul was in Philippi with Silas, his preaching companion. It was all going well. He’d already made a convert – Lydia, a wealthy dye trader. A new church was starting to form.
But then, as we heard, it started to go pear-shaped. A slave-girl who had what is described as a spirit of divination crosses their path. Her job was to listen for messages from the gods, so perhaps its no surprise that she recognises something divine in Silas and Paul. However it happens, there is no shutting her up as she shouts it from the roof-tops. Paul is “very much annoyed”. This isn’t how he imagined things would be. He’s trying to advance sophisticated philosophical arguments for following Jesus; some wild woman shrieking out prophecies doesn’t fit with the image he’s trying to project at all. Since he can’t shut her up any other way, he casts the demon out of her, much more out of irritation than compassion.
But now there’s another problem. No sooner has peace descended, than the slave girl’s owners’ show up, and they’re not happy at all. She was a good little earner for them. There will always be people who want their fortunes telling.
So they have Paul and Silas thrown into prison.
But even here events spiral out of control. An earthquake strikes in the middle of the night, and the doors fly open. The jailer, terrified of the retribution of his Roman bosses, is about to kill himself when Paul and Silas call out that they are still in their cells. He is so astonished at their reactions to what has happened, and at the peace and joy they have displayed in the face of their troubles, that he announces that whatever they have, he wants too, and by the time the sun rises on the new day he and his household have all been baptised.
Who knows what Paul and Silas had expected from the preceding 24 hours, but it probably wasn’t all this. And yet, in the midst of all this chaos, despite all their plans going haywire, people have found transformation and freedom that they could never have imagined. The slave-girl is freed from whatever it was that had taken possession of her, whether you want to call it a spiritual ailment or a neurological or psychological one. The jailer, who almost killed himself, finds life that is richer than he had ever known. Everything is changed.
And maybe even Paul and Silas have found some freedom they didn’t expect too. The freedom to trust God’s judgement over their own, to believe that truly, as Paul says in one of his letters, “all things work together for good for those that love God”. That doesn’t mean that everything is easy; happy ever after. How will the slave girl earn her keep now? Will the jailer be able to keep his job? Paul and Silas will face further persecution and death. But they all find the freedom which comes from knowing that whatever happens, God is with us, we are loved, and nothing can destroy that love.
As we ponder this story in the silence now, perhaps we can look back over our own lives. Are there times when we felt as if everything had gone wrong, when all our plans crumbled to dust, but in retrospect we found gifts we wouldn’t have known otherwise? And as we face the future perhaps this story might remind us that if the things we are anxiously planning don’t turn out as we expect, all will not be lost. Perhaps we can put our anxieties into God’s hands and let him show us the true freedom that comes from trusting him.