How to Glorify God in the Tough Times; Acts 7:54-60

stephenSermon:        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!

Acts 7:54-60

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.[1]

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[2], 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.[3] 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
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 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.

[1]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.
[2]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.
[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning. Accessed on 5/12/2017.

Abundant Life and Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice, John 10:1-10

Sermon:          Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice
Scripture:        John 10:1-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                May 7, 2017, The Fourth Sunday of Easter; Communion

 Turn in your Bible to John 10.  Let me set up the scene while you’re getting there.  In order for chapter 10 to make any sense, we need to know what’s going on in the chapter before it.  You see, when placed together, chapters 9 and 10 create a drama in three distinct acts.[1]

Act One is from verses 9.1-12.  It’s a Story whereby a man who was born blind was healed with a little of Jesus’ spit that was rubbed on his eyes.  Miraculously, the man was able to see for the very first time in his life and the crowd was going crazy over it.

Act Two is from verses 9.13-41.  This part of the Story reminds us that no good deed ever goes unpunished.  You see, Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath which was considered a violation of the Law Code for doing any work on God’s day.  The healed blind man was brought before the Pharisees and religious leaders and was demanded to explain what happened. Sadly, the Pharisees and others did not like the man’s explanation and called for the healed blind man’s parents to come and testify. The parents, who did not want any problems with the religious officials appeared before the court and said, “Hey, he’s of legal age and isn’t our responsibility so take it up with him!  We had nothing to do with his healing!”  So, the religious officials call the healed blind man back to appear before the court, who by this time was pretty much over having the best day of his life ruined by the religious buzzkills.  He finally told the Pharisees, “If this man, i.e. Jesus, was not from God, he could do nothing.”  Well, the Pharisees got upset for being schooled by the illiterate healed blind man and kicked him out of the community.

Act Three is where we pick up today.  Jesus hears the healed blind man has been excommunicated for giving God the glory for the healing and seeks him out. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and the man declares, “I believe it’s you, Jesus!”  Some Pharisees heard this and confronted Jesus about it and he tells them, “This blind man sees and yet you who are the keepers of the Law are blind as bats about the Ways of God and your sin remains!”  This is where we pick up in the Story today.  Remember, Jesus is speaking to the religious officials in our Story. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.[2]

Some of you may not know but I married a twin. I first asked Kelly’s twin sister Kathy out on a date and she shot me down as she was already dating somebody; graciously, however, she suggested I meet her twin sister when she arrived for the next quarter in a few weeks. It was the proverbial love at first sight, at least for her! Ha! Me, too! It was only after we started dating that I learned there are certain challenges when dating a twin.  For example, it was hard for me to tell the two of them apart on the telephone whenever I called. I thought I recognized Kelly’s voice from her sister, Kathy’s, but there were a few times in the early stages of our relationship Kathy led me on a time or two.  It was only after getting to know Kelly and spending time with her that I was able to discern the subtle nuances of each of their voices.

Beloved, this is what Jesus is telling us today. This is what he was telling the Pharisees centuries ago. The religious officials who were to be shepherding the people with the Words and Ways of God corrupted the message ever so subtly. Over the centuries, they transformed God’s covenant of loving relationship with the chosen people into a relationship conditioned on proper spiritual and physical behaviors. The Pharisees made God’s Word to mean that if you do certain things and behave in a certain way, then you can have a relationship with God. Jesus turned what they said upside down. Jesus proclaimed that if you have a meaningful relationship God, then a person’s behaviors will naturally fall into place.

Hence, the fact the blind man was healed on the Sabbath was a violation of behavior that there should not be any work on the Sabbath because it pollutes the day’s holiness; Jesus, on the other hand, declared that the healing of a broken man and restoring him to health and relationship with God’s community will prompt the healed man to live a God-honoring life. It’s here that Jesus goes and really stirs the proverbial pudding raising the ire of the Pharisees.  Aristotle’s first rule of rhetoric is to know your audience before speaking to them and Jesus had his audience nailed.  He was speaking to the supposed shepherds of the flock of David. He was speaking to those who were entrusted by God with the care of the Jewish people.

We miss the shock value of Jesus’ words today that were clearly heard by the Pharisees because they knew their Hebrew scriptures. As Jesus spoke, I must believe the Pharisees had churning around in the back of their mind the words of God spoken by Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel some 600 years earlier wrote in Ezekiel 34 the following condemnation from God to the religious leaders of his day.  God declares,

1The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

It’s at this point Jesus begins speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, the gate to a place of safety and the caretaker of the Sheep.  Jesus was announcing that from now on, the voice the sheep will hear is a voice of love and grace, a voice of concern and care, and a voice of protection and solace. It would be a voice of comfort and not a voice of burden.  It would be a voice correction and not a voice of retribution.  It would be a voice of grace and not a voice seeking personal gain.  Jesus’ words were the equivalent of a rhetorical slap across the face of those religious leaders in charge because they knew the rest of Ezekiel 34 where God declares,

15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

If we are honest, we will admit it is often hard for us to discern the stranger’s, the thief’s voice, from the voice of the Shepherd who wants to care for us.  On one hand, we hear the stranger’s subtle voice because our lives have been inundated by the din of our world; on the other hand, we hear the subtle voice of the thief within the church itself. Like the times of both Ezekiel and of Jesus, some things just don’t change.

The voices of the culture wooing us away from abundant life are many.

There’s the voice of, “If it feels good, do it.”

There’s the voice of, “Bigger is better.”

There’s the voice of, “The more you have, the happier you are.”

There’s the voice of, “My way is the best way” which is similar to the voice that says, “If it does not harm anyone else then what’s the problem?”

There’s the voice of, “The product and result are more important than the people who are involved in the process.”

But the church also declares strange, thieving voices that compete with the words of the Good Shepherd.  There are elements in the church that have reimagined the voices of the Pharisees like the voice of the Prosperity Gospel that declares God will abundantly bless you with physical and tangible blessings if you have enough faith.  These are the ones who forget that Jesus was born surrounded by manure, was homeless, and who did not own a thing other than his clothes.

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that says if you don’t believe like I believe or do what I do then you’re not a real Christian at best or you’re going to hell at worst. These are the ones who obviously have not read our Story about the Good Shepherd today.[3]

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that dares to lift the so-called charismatic gifts above the supreme charismatic gift all Christ-followers are to demonstrate and that is self-sacrificing, intentional, inconvenient agape love.[4]

There’s the thieving, strange voice in some churches that tell you that it’s okay to believe whatever you want to believe about Jesus but who ignore the Lord’s words in today’s scripture whereby Jesus says he is the gatekeeper and caretaker of the sheep. Jesus is not a way but the Way. How God works that out, I don’t know as that is God’s work. I believe the demise of the American church began decades ago when we ceased to unequivocally declare loud and clear that Jesus is the gate and that whoever enters through that gate will be made healthy and whole.

The Good News of our Story is that Jesus comes to give us abundant life.  We tend to think of abundant life as that when God pours blessings upon blessings in our life like the Kia Soul commercial that has it compared to a Nissan and both are filled with Skittles and the Kia has so much more room to hold more!  Friends, our understanding of abundant life is too westernized, too Americanized.  We think abundant life is about more and more when it really is about less and less.

Abundant life is the embracing of the simple gifts of life that God provides.  UCC pastor, Dr. Shannon Michael Pater says that throughout John’s gospel, Jesus outlines the abundant life in clear but simple ways. He is the water of life (4.14); he is the bread of life (6.35); he is the light of the world (9.5); and today he is the gate, gatekeeper, and shepherd.  Living abundant life is about the simple basics of drinking water from the Spring of Living Water.  Living an abundant life means breaking and eating the body of the Lord Jesus Christ in a community of fellow believers manifesting the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Living abundantly means sunbathing (pun intended) in the Light of the World so that in turn we as Christ-Followers will shine it upon others.

This morning, we come to the Table provided for and prepared by Christ to remind us what abundant living truly is. Abundant life is simple. Abundant life is sacrificial. Abundant life is life-giving to others.  As we come this morning, let’s ask ourselves which voices we are listening to in the world. Today, let’s make the commitment to earnestly listen for the Shepherd’s voice. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 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.

[1] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2) (Kindle Location 16078). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.  Article by Shannon Michael Pater.
[2] 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.
[3] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 16105-16107). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. Ibid.
[4] See 1 Corinthians 13 en toto. Speaking in tongues is fine but Paul insists that love trumps it in the gifts department.