Lay Reader = Acts 7:2-37 (selections)
2And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’
5[God] did not give him any of it as a heritage, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as his possession and to his descendants after him, even though he had no child. 6And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years. 7‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. 9“The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him.
14Then Joseph sent and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five in all; 15so Jacob went down to Egypt. He himself died there as well as our ancestors.
17“But as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied 18until another king who had not known Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19He dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die. 20At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful before God. For three months he was brought up in his father’s house; 21and when he was abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son.
30“Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight; and as he approached to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32‘I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’
34I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Come now, I will send you to Egypt.
36He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.’
We are continuing our series looking at the Gospel. Last week we heard that Gospel literally means “good news,” and we thought about how Jesus is actually good news in our lives. This week we are looking at the big picture story. Jesus is the climax of that story, but the story stretches far into the past and far into the future as well.
If I asked you to summarize the entire Bible, and it has to fit in a single tweet or text message, what would you write?
Here’s my brief summary. God created everything. We messed it up. God chose Israel as his followers, but they messed it up. Jesus, the Son of God, came to save us from ourselves. The church tries to live like Jesus, but we still mess it up. Jesus will come again to renew everything. That still leaves me 22 characters to spare if I tweeted that, though that would require two text messages.
If you just want the bullet points, I think about the Bible as Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, Final Redemption.
What’s your summary? How do you think about God’s big picture story?
Our text today takes place after Jesus’ death and resurrection. After he stuck around for a while. After he commissioned his followers and disappeared into heaven. After the Holy Spirit empowered the early church on Pentecost. After 3000 people joined the church. After the early church became large enough to be a threat.
And some of the religious leaders capture Stephen and get people to make this accusation against him: “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
That accusation is based somewhat in reality, though the first part is definitely a misunderstanding. One time Jesus and his disciples were walking through Jerusalem, and his disciples were in awe of the Temple’s beauty and majesty. It was a place truly worthy of the presence of God, they thought. And Jesus told them that a day would come when not one stone was left upon another. People didn’t like that.
And they really didn’t like it when people asked Jesus what sign he would perform to justify his radical statements about the nature of God. And he said that his sign was “destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” People thought he was talking about the actual, physical, literal Temple, but we know he was talking about his death and resurrection.
So the first part of the accusation against Stephen is correct, but misunderstood. Jesus did talk about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days, and Stephen did in fact talk about that with people. But he meant something very different than what he was accused of.
But what’s really fascinating to me is that he’s accused of blasphemy – misrepresenting God. And for evidence they cite Stephen saying bad things about the Temple and wanting to change some of their customs. Did you notice that? They didn’t accuse him of changing the law of Moses – they accused him of wanting to change the customs.
In other words, they’re assuming that because Stephen wants to change some of their customs, he is insulting God. That is some serious commitment to your customs and your worship building!
We already heard in our first reading some of Stephen’s response. He started marching through the major events of the history of Israel. And let’s just do a little survey here. Get ready to raise your hand to vote. If you’ve ever read the Old Testament, raise your hand if you would characterize the people of Israel as really good followers of God. Raise your hand if, in reading the Old Testament, you think they did a good job following God. OK, now raise your hand if, in reading the Old Testament, you think they did a pretty lousy job of following God.
If you tally up every king listed in the Old Testament, we have 33 kings who the Bible says “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”. And we have 5 kings who “did what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord.” That’s a 13% approval rate. That’s lower than the approval rating for Congress!
So in the next section of Stephen’s speech, he points out what we already know: the people of Israel didn’t do a great job following God throughout their history. Prophets were ignored or killed. Kings were self-serving. The people went astray. Just like the rest of Stephen’s history lesson, this isn’t news.
But this generation of leaders thought they had it figured out. They thought they were better than their ancestors. Listen to how they respond when Stephen tells them they are just as unfaithful as those who came before them. Spoiler alert – it’s not a very pleasant reaction.
44“Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, 49‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did not my hand make all these things?’
51”You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Famous Last Words
“Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” According to his family who were with him when he died, those are the last words of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as he died from pancreatic cancer.
I find people’s last words to be a fascinating study in human psychology. Would your last words change if you knew they were going to be your last words?
I remember a comic that dealt with this. The caption on the comic says, “sometimes I’m afraid that someone will die while they’re out, and I’ll never forget the last thing I said to them.” Then it shows a husband asking his wife, “while you’re out, can you pick up some spray cleaner that works on cat vomit?” Then he suddenly cries out, “Wait! Uh…you are in my heart always.”
If you want to lose an hour or two going down the great rabbit hole of the Internet, search famous last words and enjoy. Just wait until after my sermon to start your search, please.
A few that stood out to me. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, turned to his wife and told her, “You are wonderful” right before he died of a heart attack.
Groucho Marx, the famous comedian, reportedly told his wife before he died, “Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!” Think about it.
In our text today, Stephen’s last words are, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And that’s while they’re killing him quite painfully.
You know, the text says that Saul was there. Saul eventually becomes Paul, the great church planter and writer of many of the letters in the New Testament. But before Jesus got him, Paul was Saul, and Saul saw it as his mission in life to destroy the Christian church and make sure the Christians changed their faith or they deserved to die.
I wonder, as Saul watched the death of Stephen, as he contrasted the vengeance of the crowd with the serenity of Stephen, as he heard Stephen’s last words, I wonder what he thought. You know he thought about it later when Jesus appeared to him. The way Stephen died – and what he said when he died – spoke volumes about the purpose and direction of Stephen’s life.
Contrast Stephen with Ahab’s last words from Moby Dick: “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Uplifting, isn’t it?
Ahab saw himself as part of a story of vengeance against the great whale. His last words – even as he watches his ship sink in defeat – reflect that story of vengeance.
Stephen saw himself as part of a story of unexpected, radical forgiveness and love. His last words – even as he died a painful death – reflect that story of forgiveness and love.
That’s why I believe it is important for us to know God’s story – the big picture, whole-Bible, all of Creation, eternal story of God. Because when you know the story that you’re a part of, you know how to live your part of the story.
And I think it’s important to know some of the high points, not just say that God’s story is in the Bible. Imagine that I’ve recruited you to be in a play. And I tell you, it’s one of the plays of Shakespeare. “Well which one?” “Oh, I don’t know, I told everyone to just pick their favorite and go with it.” How well is that play going to work? When you know the story you’re a part of, you know how to live your part of the story.
What story are you living? Are you living God’s story?
And here’s where I move from preaching to meddling. Are you living the same story on Tuesday that you live for one hour on Sunday?
Stephen was killed for speaking an uncomfortable truth. That’s why I don’t allow any rocks in worship. No pointy sticks either.
The crowd covered their ears because they didn’t want to hear what he had to say. May we do better than that.
Are you living the same story on Tuesday that you live for one hour on Sunday?
That’s a question I have to ask myself, too. Am I living the story of Jesus when I’m annoyed at something my boys have done? Am I living the story of Jesus when I’m in traffic on I-25? Am I living the story of Jesus when I see or read troubling news? Am I living the story of Jesus when I respond to someone’s critical comment? Am I living the story of Jesus when I overhear something that offends me?
Am I living the same story on Tuesday that I live on Sunday? And are you?
We’re about halfway through our Hot Button Theology class, and our goal is to have the courage to discuss the issues that cause divisions. Our goal is to have the faith to base our conversations on our differing interpretations of the Bible. And our goal is to have the character to disagree without becoming disagreeable. Those are lofty goals, and so far we’re doing pretty well.
But that’s the classroom. That’s the practice. How are we doing when it’s live? How are we doing, not in practice, but on our practical exam? What does Tuesday look like? Do we have the same courage to engage in potentially uncomfortable conversations? Do we have the same faith to base our conversations on our different interpretations of the Bible? Do we have the same character to disagree without becoming disagreeable?
If you have a beef with something someone said or did in this church or at work or in your family or in your neighborhood, what story do you live? Do you contact them directly yet respectfully? That’s the story of Jesus. Go read Matthew 18 – that’s what he tells us to do. That’s the Sunday story. Or, do you get mad and tell your one or two or ten or twenty friends – none of whom are the person who upset you? That’s not the Sunday story! That’s not Jesus’ story! That’s not courage. That’s not faith. That’s not disagreeing without becoming disagreeable. That’s gossip or passive aggressive. Gossip isn’t Gospel.
There are times I have lived the Sunday story, and times I have not. How about you?
Or a different scenario. We are a church with a wide range of political and theological points of view. That’s something that makes us unique, and it makes things difficult, too. When you hear someone say something you disagree with, what do you do? If someone in this church – or at work, or in your family, or wherever – if someone offends you with their take on the world, what do you do?
The Sunday story – the Jesus story – is to speak the truth in love. If you hang onto your bitterness toward someone because of their viewpoint, that bitterness will poison the well of your own heart. You need to give it voice – and not just to your same-minded tribe. If you don’t tell the person that you disagree – and maybe all you say is “I disagree with you” – but if you don’t speak it somehow to them, then you’re hanging onto it in your heart. And gossiping about it with your same-minded tribe doesn’t make it go away – that amplifies it in your heart.
So here’s my challenge for all of us. Jesus told us to bless our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus told us to handle conflict one-on-one directly. Jesus told us to always always always forgive. Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s Jesus’ story. Let’s live that story, and not just for an hour on Sunday – let’s live Jesus’ story on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday, and all day on Sunday. Let’s live Jesus’ story when we’re offended. Let’s live Jesus’ story when we’re angry. Let’s live Jesus’ story when we have a bone to pick. Let’s live Jesus’ story when we want to throw up our hands and give up on someone else. Let’s live Jesus’ story.
I don’t always live that story in those circumstances. Do you?
Sisters and brothers, Stephen had the courage to state his case. Stephen had the faith to base his conversation on how to interpret the Bible. Stephen had the character to disagree without becoming disagreeable – he even prayed for God to forgive those who were killing him. And he was able to do that because he knew Jesus’ story, and he knew how to live his part of Jesus’ story.
Can we do the same? And not just on Sunday, but every day of the week? Amen.