Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist whose image will someday 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. The vision came after Paul had traveled over 300 miles throughout the Province of Asia (Modern day Turkey), finding doors to spread the gospel closed repeatedly. Yet Paul persevered and managed to get one household to convert – Lydia, a well to do Gentile businesswoman, as we heard in 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. 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. So much for Paul’s vision, right?
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 an hour when one might be filled with doubt, or distress, even anger toward God, 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 opened and the chains broke. 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. The gospel seed had been planted in the West. The world would never be the same again.
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.
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. Harriet Tubman knew this. That’s why she was so successful and never lost one slave she brought to freedom.
Any individual, any church, that seeks 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.
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 named Lydia, a slave girl, and a Roman soldier. Not some pious male Jews. You see, that is God’s vision – that we learn to embrace through trials and hardships. A vision so different from our own. 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“ We can take a page from Tubman’s book.
This church has a vision. This church has a calling to spread the gospel, to bring good news, in the community. How will we discover what that vision is? Like the early church in the midst of discernment, change that uproots old, hardened habits. Like Paul who journeyed and journeyed never giving up even with the door slammed in his face, even when beaten down and thrown in prison. The vision comes, in the songs and praise at midnight. Do we have a vision waiting for us? Do we have a vision calling us? Are we willing to change, to let go of old tired ways, ways that are safe, familiar? Are we willing to let go? Are we willing to praise God at midnight so we can align ourselves with God’s calling? Are we willing to pray ceaselessly in our prisons for the sake of the vision of Jesus wants to pour out in our hearts? Are we willing to be freed from our prisons?
God has a vision for us. Like he did for abolitionist Harriet Tubman, like he did for the disciples Paul and Silas. Let us heed 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 evil can withstand the vision of God, no prison walls can block the vision of God, no chains can hold down the vision of God, no defeat, no failure can keep the vision of God from filling the hearts of the people of God, as long as we pray and praise God at midnight and right here, right now. Let us pray and praise. Let us pray and praise. Let us pray and praise and let us pray for God’s vision to break through. amen