Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist whose image will soon grace our $20 bills, was known for her prophetic visions. While young she kept having a dream about a line that seemed to divide slavery from freedom. She did not know anything about the Mason-Dixon line, but that was what she was seeing. In the dream, she kept seeing people from the North calling her Moses and holding out their hands to her, beckoning her to cross the line. As a slave, she was brutally treated. Once her master threw a two pound weight at her head for failing to help recapture an escaped slave. This caused her a severe concussion and a lifetime of headaches and narcolepsy. She was 14 years old.
Eventually Tubman escaped to freedom. Not satisfied with her own safety, she founded the Underground Railroad, returning to the South at least 19 times, helping over 300 slaves to freedom. Despite the dangers and trials she face, Harriet Tubman remained true to her vision of freeing slaves, even when a bounty of $40,000 (now about one million dollars in today’s money) on her head.
Last week, we heard how Paul also had a vision of a man from Macedonia (now north-eastern Greece) pleading with him to come and help them. It was Paul’s longed for vision to go into the west, to Gentiles, a seed planted at his conversion 14 years earlier. This vision came in the midst of change in the fledgling church and in the midst of disagreements and other setbacks. Yet Paul persevered and managed to get one household to convert – Lydia, a well to do Gentile businesswoman, if we recall last week’s lesson. Not a bad start, but not exactly what Paul expected. Where were the regular, god-fearing male prospects that would lend credence to this new movement?
So who was the next believer after Lydia? Today we learn it is a slave girl possessed by a spirit of divination, whose talent made lots of money for her owners. However this slave girl follows Paul and Silas around for days, proclaiming, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Instead of welcoming the free advertisement, Paul, in a fit of annoyance, rebukes the spirit and it leaves her. Angry that their source of income has been destroyed, the slave owners have the mob incited against them claiming they are upsetting Roman customs and disturbing the city. Paul and Silas are stripped of their clothing and beaten with rods. After a severe flogging they are thrown into jail, taken to the innermost, most secure cell, with their feet fastened in the stocks. It is a story in many ways, reminiscent of the treatment Jesus received before his death. So much for Paul’s vision.
So beaten and bloody, bound with chains, in a windowless cell, their future uncertain, Paul and Silas find themselves in the middle of the night. The hour of visions and dreams. The hour of soul searching and self-appraisal.
At a one hour when one might be filled with doubt, or distress, even anger toward God, or perhaps curse those responsible for this dire predicament, at this midnight hour Paul and Silas did none of that. Instead they found another way to deal with their dilemma. The midnight hour finds them praying and praising God. And something happened as they prayed and praised God. An earthquake occurred. The doors were opened and the chains were broken. Paul and Silas had the opportunity to escape but they didn’t. Instead they ministered to the terrified jail guard and told him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and he and his household would be saved. As a result in the middle of the night the West received another native convert: a hardened Roman prison guard. This very same guard took Paul and Silas home, washed their wounds and set food before them. So the gospel seed had been planted in the West. The world would never be the same again.
This is a powerful and moving witness that when God gives a vision – whether it’s for moving the gospel to the west or for an Underground Railway, God will find a way, despite whatever conflict and change around us.
Now we know that the midnight hour does not always come at 12:00am. It descends upon us whenever it feels as if the forces have turned against us. When we have been misunderstood, lied about, manipulated, imprisoned or entrapped in some situation. At that moment praising or thanking God, praying to God, feels furthest from our lips.
Praising and praying to God at the midnight hour is one of the most misunderstood principals of spiritual life. It doesn’t mean we discount evil. It doesn’t mean we bury our anger. It doesn’t mean we fail to lament. We can praise God and pray to Him while we experience and express all these things. It does mean we try to put into practice that very hard teaching of Jesus from Luke 6: (“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you….your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” 22-25.”)
The real test of our faith, as Paul and Silas demonstrated is praying and praising God when life doesn’t feel all that joyful and full of promise. Ultimately it’s about cultivating hope, faith and love --the foundation upon which visions from God are built to last. Tubman knew this. That’s why she was so successful and never lost one slave she brought to freedom.
This kind of praise is true grace. Any individual or church seeking to fulfill its vision must possess this gift. Visions come and grow in the midst of change, uncertainty, challenges and setbacks. Visions are sustained and grow in the soil of midnight praise, thanksgiving and prayer.
I’ll never forget another woman who found a big vision: Christy, who when I first met her was a near-homeless addict. At first she thought, “What’s wrong with these people?” The people, at Broadway church’s ministry who kept accepting her, loving her and telling her to keep come back. After a year of sobriety, she wrote this poem about discovering the vision of sobriety and praising God through it all:
Thank you Higher Power, for making me aware
That I am not alone here, you were always there
In my darkest hours, you were the one for me
All I had to do was let you in to be there
Why I was dying, you said, “no, not yet dear,”
Your lessons were all ending
Let’s see if they were clear
You have another ending, but Chris, it’s up to you
I want to see you standing, you can come shining through
My sweet, it was time to bring you through the crisis
And it didn’t take much time
So you may not believe this
But God says thank you too
He’s humble and forgiving
See Christy, he’s a part of you.”
Christy found her vision to stay clean in the context of midnight prayer and praise to God. It is significant to recognize that the western church truly emerged from the ruins of a prison. The walls of the prison were brought down by praise and prayer. Our walls, our prisons can be demolished, the vision emerge, through the power of hope grounded in midnight prayer and praise.
Whatever notions Paul and Silas had, God saw it fit that the first believers to come out of the western effort would be a gentile businesswoman, a slave girl, and a Roman soldier. There is God’s vision. Paul kept praying and praising, through all his trials, imprisonments and challenges. Harriet Tubman gave all credit to God
“Twasn't me, 'twas the Lord! I always told Him, 'I trust to you. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,' an' He always did. “
Let us hold onto our visions of hope and a better future, like abolitionist Harriet Tubman, like a recovering addict named Christy, like the disciples Paul and Silas. This Mother’s Day, let us remember the example of countless mothers who cling to a vision of a better future for their children – and who know more than anyone what it means to pray to God at midnight. Let us head Jesus’ words of the Great Commission – to go forth to all the nations with the gospel. Surrounded by so many great examples, let us pray and praise God like them even when midnight closes in -- because no prison walls can withstand the spirit of God as long as hope, faith and the love of Jesus remain rooted in our hearts. Amen.