Rise and Go Free
The Great Escape!
A sermon based on Acts 5:12, 17-32
Sunday, April 3, 2016 – Easter 2C
In 1943 members of the Royal Air Force were captured by the Nazis and put into a high security prison camp. Because these allied soldiers had escaped before, this time, the Germans put them in an unescapable prison.
But the prisoners refused to believe that it really was unescapable. So over the course of the next year the men dug three tunnels (three so that if one was discovered the Germans would assume they cut off their only escape and would leave the other two undetected). The prisoners affectionately called their tunnels, Tom, Dick, and Harry.
And finally, in the spring of 1944, wearing civilian clothes and carrying forged papers to cross any borders, sixty-six prisoners crawled through Harry to their freedom. Six years later, Paul Brickhill, one of those escaped prisoners wrote a book about his experience, which 13 years later was turned into a movie by the same name: The Great Escape.
This morning we hear about another great escape. The Apostles of Jesus pulled off an even more spectacular prison break! They broke out of a locked and guarded jail cell without their guards even being aware of the escape and finding the cell doors locked again behind them! They didn't tunnel out or even devise an escape plan, but an angel of the Lord miraculously freed them and told them to go stand in the temple courts and teach the people!
Of course those who imprisoned the apostles were baffled at how they escaped. Much like they were baffled at how Jesus had carried out his great escape from tomb! They tried to silence the escape artists, but couldn't. They wouldn't stop talking about Jesus.
You and I have had our own great escape. We were once prisoners to sin, to death, to hell. But we've escaped! Of course, like it was for the disciples, that wasn't because we could come up with any escape plan, but because of what God pulled off for us. By Jesus blood, by his death, and by his resurrection—by his escape from the grave—we escape sin! We escape hell! And one day we will even escape the grave! And we can't keep that message to ourselves! It's just too exciting! We have to share it!
This morning we hear of three great escapes: one of the disciples from their prison cell, one of all people from sin, death, and hell. And both were made possible by Jesus' escape from his tomb. All three are described for us in Acts 5:12, 17-32…
12 The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade…
17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 "Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life."
21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 "We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside." 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this.
25 Then someone came and said, "Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people." 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
27 Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood."
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men! 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."
What brought about such hostility toward the apostles from the leaders of Jerusalem. Our text seems to indicated that they were jealous of the disciples' ability to do miracles, connecting verse 12 to verse 17. But the Greek word translated jealousy is zaylos, the word from which we get the English, "zealous." I personally don't think it was petty jealousy ("People will like Jesus' disciples more than they like us."). I think they were genuinely zealous to stop anyone from blaspheming God by suggesting that he was the homeless bum named Jesus.
They wanted to stop this "Christian heresy" from spreading, from robbing people of their Jewish faith, from taking them away from the true God. And to stop the message, they had to stop the messengers. They tried to command them to stop and "gave [them] strict orders not to teach in this name."
But these apostles, as they called themselves, refused. They continued to meet together in public places, right next to the temple itself! Well, one sure way to shut them up was to lock them up. And we see their considerable power and authority that they can and did.
How bleak it must have seemed for those apostles as they spent the night in that cold, dark cell. Here they were, only trying to do what Jesus had told them to and now they were facing such opposition they were locked up. How would they spread the message now?
Well, we know what it's like. Okay, maybe we don't know what it's like to be jailed or imprisoned for talking about Jesus… at least, not yet. The day may come sooner than we think. But still, we do know what it's like to face persecution for what we believe. We know what it's like to be teased for being "holier than thou." We know what's like to have others shun us because of our faith.
And, in a sense, we know what it's like be imprisoned too—shackled to our guilt, locked in to our sinful habits and patterns, caged by our selfish nature, so the good we want to do we don't do and the evil we don't want to do, well, that's what we find ourselves doing again and again.
We know what it's like to be stuck in sin. We know what it's like to be too timid to speak up about Jesus out of fear of persecution. We know what it's like fail to put our trust in God and to look only to our own resources and strength for deliverance.
And so we too are "guilty of this man's blood." We are responsible for Jesus' death. He died because of our sin. And we were in a bleak situation, locked up with no way out, deserving of eternal prison in hell that makes any Nazi prison camp seem like a vacation cruise. And no matter how well organized we were, no matter what schemes we devised, that prison really was unescapable. We could never break out…
Though the apostles could never devise a plan to break out of their jail cells, they didn't need to. They didn't spend that long in prison before their jailbreak! And what a mystery faced the leaders in the morning. How in the world did these Houdinis do it?! How did they escape and leave the doors locked behind them with the guards still there, yet oblivious to their disappearance? How did they sneak out?
Of course, we know the answer. Luke tells us how the apostles flew the coop: the angel of the Lord miraculously broke them out! What a great escape! And no wonder the Sadducees, who denied the existence of heaven or hell, of angels or demons, of anything supernatural really… no wonder they were left puzzled. No wonder the guards and the chief priests were puzzled at the report of this jailbreak!
It must have been almost as puzzling as that other great escape: Where in the world did the body of Jesus go? How could the disciples have hidden it? Where did they take it? How did they pull it all off?
But it's no mystery to us. We know that Jesus came back to life after his death on the cross. We know he sends his angels to guard and protect us. And we know how he sprung us free from the prison of hell.
Jesus broke us out by his blood. By being killed, by hanging on a tree, by his blood, Jesus paid for our sins. By his exaltation, by his resurrection, by his jailbreak from the tomb, we have the proof! We know that our Prince and Savior has given us repentance (that is, a change of mind about our sin and need for deliverance) and he has given us forgiveness of sins (for every sin – for being too scared to speak about our Savior, for our failure to put our trust in him, for trying to work out our own escape, for every one of our sins!)
Our "Savior" has done just that; he saved us. He has set us free! The Greek word that's translated "forgiveness" in verse 31 is aphesis, which literally means deliverance, liberty, or release from imprisonment. Talk about a great escape! This is the greatest escape ever! We are free from sin, free from guilt, free from despair, free from having to work out our own escape plan! We're free from satan's grasp, free from hell, free from death itself—for we will live again even after we die!
Jesus came to "to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and… to release the oppressed." And that's exactly what Jesus did. He said in John 8:36, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." And we are free indeed—free from sin, death, and hell, but also free to serve God in thanks…
How frustrated the Jewish leaders must have been. Even after being imprisoned, even will all their threats, those pesky apostles just wouldn't shut up. "We must obey God rather than men!" they declared and just went right on teaching right in the temple courts, even preaching to the Sanhedrin!
What courage these persecuted men had! They came to trial when they were summoned and didn't disobey the very government that had them unjustly arrested when their command was in no way in conflict with God's Word. But when they were commanded to keep quiet, that command was in direct conflict with Jesus' command to go into all the world and preach the Good New! It was in direct conflict with God's command through his angel to "Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life." So that's exactly what they did! With no concern over the consequences they boldly defied the command of their superiors.
How different these men were from before! Before they were hiding behind locked doors. Now they were in the temple courts. Before they were scared for their lives. Now they openly defy those who had the authority to lock them up and throw away the key! What made the difference? Easter. By Jesus resurrection the Holy Spirit set them free from their sin, from fear of death or torture or pain. It made them bold to live for him, come what may, so they boldly preached and taught and filled Jerusalem with their teaching.
And friends, Easter does the same for us! We have been set free from sin and death and hell and guilt and shame. We have been set free from fear of persecution, of death, of torture and pain. We too have seen—through the eyes of faith—the great escape that Jesus made from the tomb! We've seen the great escape that Jesus won for us!
And God has given his Holy Spirit to us too, who makes us bold to say, "We must obey God rather than men!" and to preach and teach the truth of God's Word, come what may. We may face persecution for it. We may be commanded to shut up. But what can they do? Lock us up? Take our lives? We'll escape!—Even from death! We'll escape hell and go to be with Jesus! So bring it on!
With an even greater courage than those brave soldiers in that Nazi prison camp, we will boldly share the message of God's great escape for Jesus from death! We'll boldly share the message of God's great escape for us from sin and from death! We'll bold go and fill the Kenai Peninsula and the internet with this teaching that others too may enjoy God's great escape! In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen!