Sermon: How to Glorify God in the Tough Times
Scripture: Acts 7:54-60
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: May 14, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Easter
For us to have a deeper appreciation of our scripture Story today, it’s vital for us to know a little about the overall scene. Our Story begins back in Acts 6. The Church at this point was still located in Jerusalem and the first scene in Acts 6 introduces the necessity and ordination of the first seven deacons who were charged to tend to the everyday care of members of the church while the Apostles were devoted to healing and preaching. One deacon stands out above the others and that is Stephen who is described as full of grace and power.
Stephen began to display wonders and signs among the people and a group of Jews related to the Jews of the Diaspora, in other words, the scattering of Jews after the exile, were among them. They began challenging Stephen and his teaching saying that he was speaking blasphemous things about God and the Temple. This group began to spread rumors about Stephen and the message of Christ and planted false witnesses in the crowd to stir things up. The crowds grabbed Stephen and took him by force to the Jewish religious council, the Sanhedrin, and demanded Stephen be punished.
The High Priest asked Stephen if he was indeed speaking blasphemy against God and the Temple and this begins Stephen’s long biblical and historical defense of God’s interactions with the people of Israel beginning with Abraham and the Patriarchs to Moses and the Tent of Meeting God used to travel around in with the Hebrews in the wilderness. Stephen lectured the religious leaders on the fact that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands but that God created, dwelt and lived anywhere God felt like it. The Jewish prophets spoke on God’s behalf but people refused to listen. Then Stephen goes and puts his foot in it. He declares, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…They killed those who foretold the Righteous One (i.e. Jesus), and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
This was the trigger that exploded the religious leaders and crowd’s sensibilities. It’s at this point we pick up in our scripture today which marks the end of the Jerusalem narrative of the church and begins to move the Christian Story out into the larger world. Also, as emerging church leader Stephen dies, a new leader is introduced who would, ironically, pick up Stephen’s arguments with the Greek-thinking Jews and forever change the course of Church history. Listen to the Word of the Lord!
54 When 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.
Mob mentality. It’s a scary thing to be caught up in one. I was an R.A. in college and remember how Georgia Southern’s campus exploded with unrest during the American hostage crisis in Iran back in the early 1980s. One hot afternoon, mobs of people began moving en masse from all the dorms and usually well-collected and mannered people were shouting epithets and rage dragging an Ayatollah’s effigy behind a car. The students used it as an excuse to pour out their stress and rage with liberal amounts of cheap beer. It does not take a lot to cause a mob scene. All it takes is a little stress mixed in with some righteous indignation, a bit of boredom, and sprinkled with a few well-placed instigators. It does not take long for a crowd to turn into a toxic mess of vented anger.
Stephen, very much like Jesus before him, was caught up in the swirling pot of political, military, economic, cultural and religious turmoil. The Jews were afraid of the Romans. The Romans kept a wary eye on their Jewish citizens. The Jewish religious leaders were pitted against the Romans who saw Caesar as a god and then there were people like Jesus, followed by Stephen, who declared that the Messiah and Righteous One was already in their midst. There were political and religious splinter groups all vying for control and the undercurrent of distrust and cultural hatred of “the other” was laying the foundation for a brutal war that would break out some thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death. It sounds all too familiar with our world today.
Did you know that there are 15 countries in the world today that still use lapidation as a form of capital punishment? Lapidation is simply a sanitized way of being stoned to death. Today the accused has his, or in most cases her, hands and feet tied and they are placed into a hole buried up to their shoulders. Rocks are thrown first by the witnesses to the alleged crime and then by the rest of the crowd until the person is dead. You see, this way everyone in the community gets to exact the sentence on the guilty one without anyone knowing whose stone it was that actually killed the person. This way your conscience is assuaged because you can say, “It was not my stone that killed them!” Death by stoning is a horrible, barbaric way to die. Yet, in our Story today, amid this horror, Stephen kept his wits about him.
Stephen shows us how we can glorify God in the direst of situations. He shows you and me how to keep our head in a world that is all too cultivated for mob mentalities. He does this by glorifying God and this glorifying of God has three distinct parts.
First, Stephen in the midst of the mob and frenzy never took his eyes off the Lord. He stayed true to his convictions and pointed to the power of God displayed by Jesus Christ. In the midst of the evil swirling about him at his kangaroo court, Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. He kept his eyes on Jesus.
Some have wondered why Jesus was standing and not sitting at the right hand of God in a place of magisterial splendor. Many believe Stephen saw Jesus standing at the Father’s side because he was about to rush in himself as Stephen’s advocate; Stephen saw Jesus ready to run to his aid.
The second aspect of glorifying God is that even during the moment when the rocks began hitting him, Stephen committed himself to the Christ. Stephen had the long view. He knew his physical life was only one aspect of living and he realized that through Jesus’ resurrection our life continues in the presence of the Almighty in ways we cannot imagine. During his pain, amid his crisis, Stephen not only kept his eyes on God but he committed himself to God’s Spirit and cause when he cried, “Lord, receive my spirit.”
This leads us to the third aspect of glorifying God and if we are honest, it may be the most difficult for us to do. Rocks were pounding him and his last recorded words are, “Do not hold this sin against them.” It’s so much easier for us to keep our focus on God and to commit ourselves to God than it is to forgive those who are causing us pain in our life. Stephen’s last words were words of forgiveness to those who were killing him. Stephen was demonstrating the highest expression of agape love and that was his intentional, volitional letting go of any hate or contempt he might have felt. They say the greatest act of love is to give one’s life for someone else. That may be very true but for the clear majority of us, the greatest act of love we can express is love through the forgiveness of those who have hurt us the most. It’s in the act of forgiving someone else that we are giving them life back – a life that perhaps they did not even know they lost. Remember that Stephen’s words of forgiveness and release were uttered within earshot of a young man who needed to hear those words whose name was Saul! When we forgive others, we are de-clogging our spiritual arteries by letting the cleansing Spirit of God spread out in our own lives that give us new hope and freedom that withholding forgiveness prevents.
Beloved, what in this life is overwhelming you? What are the mobs of life that are pelting you with rocks? Is it a relationship that has turned south or is abusive? Is it a job or work conditions that feel unbearable? Is it an illness that is robbing you of health, financial resources, and hope? Is it a traumatic event in your life that has crippled you emotionally? Whatever it is for you, just look to Stephen.
In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he never took his eyes off Jesus. In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he once again entrusted himself to God. In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were the worst and as his life was ebbing away, he prayed for the pardon of the ones who were causing him pain. This, my friends, is how we glorify God even when the world feels as though it has aligned itself against us.
What is overwhelming you right now, my friends? Keep your eyes on Jesus!
What are the rocks of life which are about to knock you unconscious? Even if you do not understand why it is happening to you, once again, commit yourself to God.
Who is it that is killing your spirit because you are still harboring resentment and hatred towards them for what they have done or did not do? Show them the love that only can emerge from forgiveness because when we let them free of their debt, we become free ourselves!
This week, let’s all be more conscious of glorifying God even when life makes it difficult to do so. Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Please see https://mic.com/articles/68431/women-around-the-world-are-being-stoned-to-death-do-you-know-the-facts#.uGpMR6zTx. Accessed on 5/12/2017.
 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning. Accessed on 5/12/2017.