Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus  Christ. Amen.

Suffering and tragedy often color our relationship with God, though it doesn’t necessarily need to diminish or destroy faith.  The Swedish hymn writer and poet Lina Sandell-Berg, the author of many familiar hymns wrote words expressing complete trust and confidence in the Lord even in the midst of sorrow. Lina, the daughter of a Swedish Lutheran pastor, was stricken with a paralysis as a young child and confined to her bed with little chance for recovery, but by the age twelve she had improved so that she was able to walk. From this experience, she began writing verses to express her gratitude to God, and at age sixteen she published her first book of poems. The beloved hymn “Children of The Heavenly Father” was part of that collection. 

When Lina was twenty-six years old, she accompanied her father on a journey to Gothenburg, but tragedy occurred again before the destination was reached. The ship gave a sudden lurch and Lina’s father fell overboard and drowned before the eyes of his devoted daughter. Although she had written verses prior to this tragic experience, more songs began to flow out of her broken heart which reflected a simple, child-like trust in Christ and a deep sense of his abiding presence in her life. In time, she would write over 650 hymns which many Swedish immigrants brought with them to this new land.  They knew that singing spiritual songs and hymns had a way of nurturing their faith, proclaiming their trust in God, a comforting their hearts in challenging times. No apostle understood this truth, better than Paul.

One day as Paul and Silas, and their companions Timothy and Luke were going to the place of prayer beside the river in Philippi where they had met Lydia, they noticed that they were being followed by a slave girl. She was possessed by an unclean spirit and had the power of divination which earned money for her owners by fortune-telling. Even though she was stating the truth, Paul was annoyed by her and cast the spirit from her.  Her owners soon became angry because they had lost their ability to make money using the girl to predict the future.  So they seized Paul and Silas and brought them before the city’s authorities claiming that as Jews they were advocating customs unlawful for Romans. Surprisingly, even though Paul and Silas were both Roman citizens, they didn’t argue and try to get out of jail. They accepted full responsibility for freeing the girl, and were stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison. And there they sang hymns of praise and prayed.  The were not ashamed of the cost of being faithful to Jesus- and in the process, lives were touched.

My friends, let me share with you this morning, a reverie of sorts, of lessons drawn from Paul and Silas’ singing in and the power of hymns written by Lina-Sandell Berg.

Singing hymn kept Paul and Silas focused on the mercies of God and not on their sorrows. Even though the two had been beaten and thrown in prison with their feet shackled, they sang hymns.  No doubt, we have all experienced moments when it has been difficult to praise God, when life didn’t seem make sense or seem fair. Frankly, you may have preferred lashing out against God instead of praising him.  Certainly Paul and Silas would have been justified in embracing such thoughts, but instead, they chose to sing hymns.

In spite of the great tragedies Sandell experienced throughout her life, she always focused on God’s blessing.  Like Paul and Silas, she could find the sweetness of God’s grace even in the midst of life’s most bitter experiences.  Turn in your hymnal to hymn 683,and let us join in singing the first verse of “The Numberless Gifts of God’s Mercies.”

The numberless gifts of God’s mercies my tongue cannot fathom or tell.

Like dew that appears in the morning, they come to us shining and full.

The numberless gifts of God’s mercies my tongue cannot fathom or tell.

We sing hymns to keep our thoughts focused of God’s mercies and away from our sorrows.

Paul and Silas’ realized that singing hymns of praise and praying not only helped them, but it was a comfort to those who were listening in the prison.  Martin Luther once wrote, “God does not need your good work, but your neighbor does.”  I might say the same thing about worship and music.  “God does not need to see or hear you, but your neighbor does.” Going to worship and praising God may not feel the like the most meaningful spiritual and religious thing you do, but it is if you think your witness is important for your neighbor. We read that while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns, the prisoners were listening to them.

When Lina Sandell’s mother died in 1860, shortly after her father’s drowning, Lena took up residence in a home maintained by the Evangelical National Foundation in Sweden and joined their editorial staff, where she became acquainted with a young, unconventional church musician and singer Oscar Ahnfelt who accompanied himself on a 10- string guitar. He too was the son a Swedish pastor, but while studying music in Stockholm, he became a follower of the Swedish revivalist preacher Carl Rosenius. Ahnfelt travelled with Rosenius across Sweden on these evangelism crusades introducing the hymns that he had written to Sandell’s words.  She later wrote that, “Ahnfelt has sung my songs into the hearts of the people.

Just as the Holy Spirit was moving through Paul and Silas distant voices in the prison’s darkness bringing light and hope.  Lena Sandell-Berg’s hymns brought light and hope to oppressed peasants in rural Sweden and new immigrants in America.  Ahnfelt’s music matched Sandell’s texts perfectly.  Some music historians believe that the hymn Day by Day was inspired by her father’s tragic death. Turn in your hymnals to hymn 790, and let us join in singing the 3rd verse.

Oh, what joy to know that you are near me when my burdens grow to great to bear;

Oh, what joy to know that you will hear me when I come, O lord to you in prayer.

Day by day, no matter what betide me, you will hold me ever in your hand.

Savior, with your presence here to guide me, I will reach at last the promised land.

Singing hymns also has the power to free us. And, suddenly, there was an earthquake that shook the prison, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. and the doors flew open.  Yes, everyone’s chains came loose.  That is the power of singing.   It wasn’t a release for just Paul and Silas. Through the apostles’ worship, the hearts of all the prisoners were raised into the joyous presence and peace of God, and they were all made free.  It was a profound word of truth. We are never ever beyond the reach of God’s love- not even in the darkest of prisons.  Turn to hymn 613, Thy Holy Wings and let us sing the first verse.

 Thy holy wings, O Savior, spready gently over me,

and let me rest securely through good and ill in thee.

Oh, be my strength and portion, my rock and hiding place,

And let me every moment be lived within thy grace.

Perhaps the story’s most important detail. is what Paul and Silas didn’t do. When the jailer woke up after the earthquake, and saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself.  That was the custom and practice. The jailor was directly responsible for the lives of his prisoners. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” If the apostles and other prisoners had escaped when their chains came loose, the jailer would have been put to death. Surprisingly, by not fleeing, they saved his life.

In was an incredible act of discernment. When the jailor heard Paul’s voice, he called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas, and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.  That was the power of singing. God was working and using that sorrowful and tragic situation in prison for something good.  Singing has the power to free us.

You too may one day encounter a midnight hour when you wonder how you can believe and sing the Lord’s song.  Certainly, that is how Lina Sandell-Berg felt at that death of her father and mother, and well as countless other sorrows. I hope someone in the darkest hours, will sing a familiar, spiritual song of faith for you and that you will not dismiss it as a naïve or simplistic tune.

In the late 1860’s, the leaders of the Church of Sweden were so critical of the evangelist Carl Rosenius and his singing troubadour Oskar Ahnfelt that they begged the monarch Karl XV who ruled over both Norway and Sweden to bar him from singing these “questionable, spiritual songs,” primarily the works of Lina Sandell-Berg. Ahnfelt was commanded to appear at the royal palace. Being considerably anxious as to what he should sing to the king, he asked  Sandell to write a hymn for the occasion. With his guitar under his arm and a new hymn in his pocket, Ahnfelt went to the palace and sang for the monarch. The king listened with tears in his eyes. When Ahnfelt had finished, Karl XV gripped him by the hand and exclaimed, “You may sing as much as you like in both of my kingdoms!”

My friends, in the darkest hours, and in the deepest prison, music and prayers powered by the Holy Spirit, still keep us focused on the goodness of God’s mercies, they proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those who have not heard, and they have the power to set us free.  Amen

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.