Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ethiopian Baptism

Explain it to me. 

Acts 8:26-40

New International Version (NIV)

Philip and the Ethiopian

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”[b]
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [37] [c] 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

On the heels of dealing with Simon the Sorcerer, the Apostle Philip moves on to engage in conversation a special someone traveling down the road of life. Unlike Simon, who seemed to have life all figured out, this man has questions that need answered. 

The interesting part is how these two parties seem to find each other.
It says in v26 that "an angel of the Lord said to Philip..."
The first thing we should note in today's passage is that when the Lord speaks, we need to listen.
We need to follow the Lord's direction for our lives. We need to go where he wants us to go. We need to follow where He leads us. How does Philip know that it's time to leave the area he was working in around Samaria and drop down into the region of Judea to meet a Ethiopian man on a desert road? Philip is in touch with the Lord on an intimate level. Becoming a disciple of Jesus meant turning his life over to the Lord and following wherever the Lord led him on the road. For three and a half years Philip had been walking with Jesus all over this countryside. How did Jesus know when he needed to be in Bethsaida to give a blind man back his sight or drop in on Jerusalem because there was a lame man lying by a pool? The Spirit led him. Now, the Spirit that Jesus promised to give them is leading these new apostles to speak, to heal, to lift up the Lord in the same manner Jesus did. 

Have you ever been put in a place, at the right time, at the right moment to speak with someone? Maybe, to show them love and grace, peace and kindness, so that they could come to understand who Jesus Christ is truly? 

I'd like to tell you about a guy named Matt.
Matt grew up going through high school as one of two dudes in his circle of friend with a solid church experience. I say church experience. Not a spiritual experience. Matt grew up in a church where the Gospel is shared openly. People go to an altar to pray. People ask Jesus to come into their hearts. Only, Matt claims to have never actually done this. He has waffled around on the subject. After high school, Matt decides to try out for the Marines. His brother was in the Air Force. His dad served in the Army. Military is an option on a paternal level. The thing is, Matt happened to be one of the scrawniest kids in his graduating class. The Paris Island experience does not go well. Matt is sent home with nothing to show for his time except regret and dismay. Except for one small thing. 

Matt finds Jesus while he is there.

Matt accepts Jesus as his Lord and Savior. If failing to make it in the Marines in a source of pain or remorse what he gains in finding Jesus makes up for everything. Matt comes home with a crazy drive to make sure that everyone in the circle of friends he runs with will find Jesus too. Some might suggest that Matt had to go through hell to discover heaven. And, Matt came home to make sure that everyone he knew as going to make it to heaven with him. He would, out of the blue, show up on people's doorsteps and come in with a bible in his hand. He would sit there and read scripture and talk about the importance of knowing Jesus as your Lord and Savior. How did he know whose door to knock on next? How did he know who needed to hear? He just listened and followed. Everyone needed to hear. Everyone needed to know. Following Jesus didn't mean there was a specific target in mind. Following Jesus simply meant that Jesus needed to be introduced to anyone who would listen. 

But, what about the people he spoke with?
How many people had questions just like our Ethiopian here?
A better question to ask might be - how many people are willing to put themselves in the right place so as to be available to answer those questions? It's because Philip had long ago surrendered himself to the will of the Lord that he finds himself in this place. Long ago he came to know who Jesus is and began to follow. Now, he is in place to help others follow. 

The one who is seeking has questions that need to be answered.
He has read some scripture. That's always helpful. 

He is in one of the most familiar books that speaks to who Jesus is. The prophet Isaiah. 
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”[b]
 What would cause someone to turn to such a provocative passage as this?
John Wesley would describe the grace of God in such terms as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. Prevenient grace goes before us. Leading us. Guiding us. Drawing us in. Maybe even causing us to question, to ask, to desire the things of God before we even are able to define or understand what is happening.
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
 Have you ever had questions that just needed to be answered? Deep spiritual questions.
Questions that plague the soul unless there is something or someone who can retort with the proper message that will fill the void. We should know the only answer that will suffice. The Ethiopian wants to know who Isaiah is talking about? He has been to Jerusalem to worship. Most likely, he has been to the Temple and offered his sacrifice for sins. In other words, he has done what he needs to do on a religious and ritualistic level. But, still... There is something missing. How many of us come to church each week simply because it "the requirement"? Is there anything missing? Is there something longed for? Is there an empty spot that has not been filled?

This Jesus that Philip speaks of can come to the heart of any one will turn their lives over and ask for forgiveness. Philip, most likely, shares the history of why this Jesus came to give his life so that all could know this forgiveness. The way of the believers thus far has been to accept the message of Christ as Savior and Lord and then be baptized. The subject must have been on the table for discussion since the Ethiopian is the one who calls it out. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Here is a moment for being justified. When we come to Jesus, inviting him to enter our hearts and lives, we are coming to God in justifying grace. If we came to God in any other means, there would not be anything to warrant the approach. Jesus makes it possible for us to know God. There is no other way. There is no other person. There is no mysterious knowledge that need to be covered. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life. Jesus gave his life so we could be in a right relationship with God. 

In this moment of baptism, we are sprinkled with water as a sign that the Holy Spirit has come to rest upon us. The Ethiopian go the fully immersed route. He puts his old life down into the abyss, the deep, and comes back up to new life. Any way we choose to be baptized it shows that God has come into our lives and made us his child. We take vows in our baptism that mean Jesus is what matters most. We want to live for Jesus. We want to be like Jesus. We want to follow the example that he lived out. We turn our lives over to God and we let God lead the way. 

There's one last matter to discuss in our scripture passage today.
As soon as the Ethiopian has been baptized, as soon as his life is in the Lord's hands, Philip is whisked away. It seems that as soon as the work is completed, Philip is needed elsewhere. Can you imagine being there in the moment. You come up out of the water and see this person just taken away. It's rapturesque. I have wondered why Philip isn't left there. He could have been a person of support for this new convert. But, that doesn't seem to be a point of major importance to the Lord. There will be others whom this Ethiopian will intersect with in life. 

Sometimes we tend to put too much emphasis on a certain person. We get too attached.
Later in his letters, the Apostle Paul would speak with the Corinthians about following a person. says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” ” Maybe the Lord takes Philip away so that the Ethiopian won't become dependent upon 'the man'. The new convert's faith needs to focus on the Lord and Savior that Philip has introduced. People cross our paths for a reason, I believe. People strengthen us or challenge us. Then our path is changed or their path is changed. Suddenly they are gone. Maybe we never see them again. We are left with the lessons we learned. We are strengthened by the truth shared. But our lives cannot be wrapped up in the person. Our focus must be upon the Lord. The Author and Giver of our lives. If we make anything or anyone else our cornerstone, we are missing the point. 

Jesus. Name above all names.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sorcery Gone Wrong

Truth that money cannot buy.

Acts 8:9-25

New International Version (NIV)

Simon the Sorcerer

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
25 After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

What would you classify as "sorcery" or witchcraft?
A simple definition reads...

Full Definition of SORCERY

1:  the use of power gained from the assistance or control of evil spirits especially for divining :  necromancy
2:  magic 2a 

That word in the first line of the definition seemed very familiar. Needed to look that up too. 

Full Definition of NECROMANCY

1:  conjuration of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events
2:  magic, sorcery

One of my favorite movies actually covers this subject in-depth.
The Chronicles of Riddick starring Vin Diesel brings with it a character who conquers worlds and destroys peoples lives in hopes of creating a universe of order. An order that follows him, of course. The title given to the world conquering leader is the Necromancer. He is half man, half...something else, as the narrator of the movie describes him. Lest we Hollywood-ize this moment too much, the subject matter is something that is real and consistent with our reality. 

The beginning of this great country we call America, land of the free, home of the brave, has it's own grave origin story. The Salem witch trials are a dark blot for a culture in which legalism, conspiracy, and fear were driving forces. We are afraid of what we don't understand. We lash out at those who we fear are trying to lead us astray. Many times innocent folks gets caught in the crossfire. Innocent folks following the ones doing the leading. And, innocent people who weren't leading anybody astray in the first place. 

Sorcery. Magic. Trying to see beyond our current reality into another world is nothing new. 
One of the many tragic stories in the Old Testament comes to us from the dismal moments of one King Saul. Saul had not followed the Lord through much of his later days as king. The Spirit of the Lord had been taken from him, the "anointing" lifted. Saul still very much wanted to know about the direction for his life and his kingship, so he began to consult other forces outside of the God who had given him his position. King Saul and the Witch of Endor is just such a moment. 

What we see in King Saul's story is that God can use the moment to speak.
Sorcery is something that we are told not to dabble in, and rightfully so. Well, if God can use anything or anyone, then why not dabble in this area and see what God has to say to us?
Interestingly, the New Testament Greek word translated “sorcery” is pharmakeia, which is the source of our English word pharmacy. In the Apostle Paul’s day, the word primarily meant “dealing in poison” or “drug use” and was applied to divination and spell-casting because sorcerers often used drugs along with their incantations and amulets to conjure occult power. 

One of the most relevant pictures I can paint here in from the origins of Mormonism. The truth behind this occult style faith is that the father of their movement, Joseph Smith, openly and knowing went out into the woods, took some peyote, which is a hallucinogenic drug contrived from a cactus plant. He then wrote on some gold plates the words that he felt God was speaking to him as he supposedly witnessed God and Jesus coming down out of the clouds to him. Smith, of course, was the only one who could properly read the plates and translate what they had to say. This is where the Mormons get their "Book of Mormon" that they hold up next to a King James Bible and use it to try and interpret what God wants for our lives.

Sorcery can be a drug.
There are people all over the religious landscape who get too high on themselves, or an ideal, or a person leading them. Look at our example from Acts 8 today. These people gathered in this region of Samaria have looked to this Simon the sorcerer as "...
rightly called the Great Power of God". They have become dependent upon him. It says in v9 that "He boasted that he was someone great..." People in this world tend to be attracted to the charismatic styling of a person. Look around at the televangelist scene. People are very much into just dropping their dollars on a person who can weave a nice message and sound very spiritual. There are people willing to not pay their own bills and fulfill responsibilities to their own families in order to send money off to people like this. And, there are leaders who seem to have some kind of mystical hold over the people following them. 

There is nothing, however, that can stop the word of God once it has been interjected into the mainframe of our lives. It says here that once the Apostle Philip stepped in and began to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ that everyone who was following Simon finds themselves in the baptismal pool. Everyone finds Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Even the Simon the Sorcerer. He is also baptized and begin to follow Philip around like a lost puppy dog. Once we begin to share the message of what Christ has done the words can squelch the loudest storm. 

Persecution has been on the table these last few weeks. This is the backdrop for all of this.
Some of you have heard me refer to one of my former bosses. He was a man who owned an appliance store. Previous to that he worked at an AMF bowling parts plant. While on this job he was subjected daily to the taunting of a Jehovah's Witness man.  Here's is another ill-conceived religious front born out of the same time period as our Mormon friends. It seems around 1870, a Congregationalist minister named Charles Taze Russell, grew tired of the subjects of hell and damnation. So, he devised a way to eliminate the power those subjects. By taking Jesus of the throne and not proclaiming him as God's Son, the keys of death and hell were no longer in the hands of Jesus. 

Over the years, truly starting in 1950, the Watchtower Society began to take the KJV and change certain phrases and words to fit their own liking.  John 1.1 no longer reads "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (capital G - the Greek word here is Theos). In their conveniently framed New World Translation bible the line now reads "...and the Word was a god" (lowercase g - The JWs would say the word here is logos, which doesn't even mean "god". It means "word". The Word was the "word"???).  Along with this twisted view of the scriptures came a desire to predict when the end of the world would come about. I can remember in 8th grade sitting there in class when one of their world ending predictions was to come about. We all sat their quietly waiting to see what would happen. And, of course, we are all still here today. 

Back to my former boss... 
He had to put up with this JW man coming to him everyday, giving him grief over what he believed as a Christian. Everyday my former boss put up with this. He is retelling this story to me as we are driving one day in the company truck. You know what finally silenced this guy? My boss says he just simple told the guy what Christ had done for him. He just told him about the day he knelt down and asked Jesus to come in to his heart and life. Jesus forgave him for his sins. When he got up after that prayer everything changed and he was a brand new man. The JW guy just sat there and listened. He got up, shook my boss' hand and never said another word to him about anything. 

There is another matter that needs to be covered here. The giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit. 
Not only is there a moment when a person comes to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but there is also a moment when the Holy Spirit comes. This is sadly something that we need yet is missed by so many. We need to power of the Spirit! But, how does that happen? In many cases, the Holy Spirit is given by the laying on of hands. The Apostles, John and Peter, come down to Samaria to see about all the news they are hearing. We when arrive, they pray for all the people who have come to Jesus. They lay their hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. 

This next part troubles me. 
When Simon, this former sorcerer now come to Jesus, sees that the Spirit is given by the laying on of hands, he offers money to the Apostles in order to get that same blessing. I am mystified. Why not just comes to the Apostles and say, "Hey, lay your hands right here! PRAY FOR ME!" It is as if the sorcerer has now become to misguided follower. How many people have simply given their money to Simon over the years without even thinking about it? It is truly sad how quickly some people will jump to the point of wanting to give up all they have in order to get that "power". That thing they crave. Simon has been tricking people all these years. Now he sees the real Source of all power and can't dish out his money fast enough to get his hands on it. 

"May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!" 

We cannot buy our way in to what God offer. Some folks think they can do enough good things in life that God will show them favor and blessing. Not how it works. We simply come. We simply ask. We simply receive. "Pray for me!" If that's the kind of blessing you are looking to receive, a blessing that doesn't come with a price tag, then come and ask. 

Receive the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Joy in the Morning

Weeping may endure for a night.

Acts 8:1-8

New International Version (NIV)    scripture courtesy of
8 And Saul approved of their killing him.

The Church Persecuted and Scattered

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Philip in Samaria

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.

As we continue on through the book of Acts we note as we turn the corner from chap 7 to chap 8 that there is a character shift. A new face. A new name. Saul. Last week we covered the stoning of Stephen. It was noted near the end of the chapter in v58 that the men doing the stoning "dropped their coats at the feet of Saul". If you've read enough of the bible, you will note that there are places where it seems a verse from the previous chapter gets leftover as we begin the next chapter. Perhaps there is contextual issue that the translators of our scriptures feel requires that one line to be included in the next chapter. Such it is as we enter chap 8 of Acts. 
And Saul approved of their killing him.
Last week we were wondering what the dropping of the coats at the feet of Saul meant.
We need look no farther.

These last few weeks we have noted the subject of persecution.
It's going to get worse. Especially now that this religious Pharisee named Saul is in the picture. On the same day that Stephen is killed by stoning, it says a great persecution broke out against the church. Especially those centrally located in Jerusalem. Stephen is buried. Then this wretched verse.
But Saul began to destroy the church.
 Could you imagine someone just coming into your house and taking your husband? Your wife? Your children? All because of their religious beliefs. In our country, we really have no idea what real persecution is for the believer. We have freedom given to us by our founding fathers. That is not to say there hasn't been heinous and unimaginable wrong done here in our country. People sue other people over their religious views. People get bent out of shape over another person's personal beliefs.  But, look half way around the world and we see a much different point of view. The kind of persecution we read about here in Acts is going on this very day. Just this week I read where the Islamic hate group ISIS is said to have massacred another 2,000 civilians as Iraqi Christians flee for their lives. Persecution is real. Another group in Africa called the Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist sect, is said to have killed more than 13,000 civilians between 2009 and 2015. Why?

What does that word 'fundamental' mean? The 2nd line is our focus.

Definition of FUNDAMENTAL

2 a :  of or relating to essential structure, function, or facts :  radical <fundamental change>; also :  of or dealing with general principles rather than practical application <fundamental science>
   b :  adhering to fundamentalism
Lets see that last word there, too. 


1 a often capitalized :  a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching
   b :  the beliefs of this movement
   c :  adherence to such beliefs
2:  a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles <Islamic fundamentalism> <political fundamentalism>
Yes, fundamental teaching was an explosion through the 20th century. I believe, mainly because of mankind's inherent need to oversimplify. I just need to know the basics of how this works. You've heard me talk about sanctification before in my blog. One of the big reasons there is a gulf in thought between groups likes Nazarenes and Methodists, I believe anyway, is that there is an oversimplification of theology. Our Naz friends went the route of treating sanctification like a math equation. Just give us the basic ideas of how this works and we'll wipe out sin in man's heart in one felled swoop. While this sounds nice and God's provisional work through Christ means sin is dead, the actual working out of those fundamentals takes time. The human heart is rocky ground. It doesn't happen overnight. 

Fundamentalism isn't meant to be a violent means to an end.
Too often though this form of theological thinking brings on a radical means of living out one's religion. Fundamentalism can bring with it a "jumping to conclusions" mentality. Instead of taking the time to methodically think out where one is going in their theological thought, people instead think that everyone needs to be doing exactly these things in order to live a pleasing life. People begin to make up rules based upon these basic lines of thought and enforcing a rule for living that all must follow in order to be living right. Pharisaical thought seems to follow right along these lines. It was the work of the Pharisees in Jewish culture to interpret the law and provide application as to how to live it. Can you imagine what a line like "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" would be viewed? Have you read verses dealing with punishment for sin in the Old Testament? Verse like these would be dealt with by the letter of the law. If it says you should be stoned, then stoned you would be. There was no allegory with which to interpret. There was no reverse psychology with which to analyze. In many cases, there was simply a reading of what the words said and that's what they meant. Maybe from this line of sight we can understand why the religious leaders had such a hard time understanding what Jesus taught. 

Maybe from this vantage point that we can understand why the Sanhedrin of Acts (and more specifically, Saul) approved of the killing of Stephen. These new believers weren't keeping the law the way that it had been interpreted for centuries. There were basic rules here to keep. A certain social class that wasn't to be disrupted. These new believers were selling land and giving it to the poor. They were putting all their belonging in a community pile to help any one in need. The Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection of the body. These new believers were going on about this "Resurrected Jesus". None of this was acceptable to the life of a religious Jew in Jerusalem. Heresy. False teaching about false gods. What would have been done to those in the time of Ba'al when Elijah killed 450 prophets for misleading the people? How should these new revilers of the Jewish faith be dealt with?

A more important question to ask - what happens to a faith that is persecuted?
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
 I know if I was treated harshly over a subject I had been promoting there might be a bit of uneasiness as I went out the next day. Do I want to keep talking about this? What if I get treated just like I did yesterday? What if something worse happens than yesterday? Say...I die or something? All meaningful questions that deserve attention. You might have a family to support. Talking about Jesus could put that entire dynamic in jeopardy. Your job. Your livelihood. Maybe no one will want to do business with you once they know you're a believer in Christ. What we know here is that none of this seemed to bother or worry this new band of believers scattered over the Holy Land. They were persecuted for what they believed in the very city where their Savior had been crucified. As they are sent all over Judea and Samaria, they go with a new fervor to speak about this Messiah they trust and love.

There is another person who gets some minor attention as we travel on through Acts and that is Philip. This man of Bethsaida is said to have gone down into a city in Samaria and that he began preaching there. How do you go down when you're traveling north? It's an elevation issue. Coming down from Jerusalem, Samaria is at a lower elevation in the north. This was familiar territory. Jesus had been through this region. Philip might have been remembered around these parts as one who followed Jesus. Why not go back to place where some seeds had already been planted? In the midst of this recent persecution here comes someone preaching boldly the message of Christ. It's funny the effect persecution has on the sharing of this salvation. You'd think people would be in hiding. You'd think this would make the entire movement vanish. Remember the Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, back in chap 5? He predicted that these men would pretty much be like all the other that had been chased off after their revolting leaders had been silenced or put to death. But, if God was with them they would succeed at what they were doing.

Philip has amazing success at what he does. v6 says When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. People are listening and God is doing great and mighty things. That's the key, lest we forget. It's about God. It's not about us. Yes, it is human beings who feel the suffering and shame. The hurt and the pain. The same pain that Christ himself felt at the hands of people who didn't understand or listen. Which lets us know that we are not in this alone. God knows what we are dealing with and what we have to endure. It is utterly amazing how much God is with us when we face trials and sufferings. So much so that the devil has no foothold. It says here that evil spirits came out of people. People who couldn't walk got up and walked. People who were paralyzed suddenly could move again. 

Joy. Unspeakable. Full of Glory. 

In the midst of heartbreak and strife joy rears it glorious head. 

Psalm 30:5

New King James Version (NKJV)

Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Best Man's Speech

I'd like to make a toast. 

The 7th chapter of Acts is quite long (60 verses).
I hope you'll take the time to go to Bible Gateway and read it.
For the sake of space here I have linked to it. Go and read. Then come back. 

We are going to look at this 7th Chap a few verses at a time. A chunk at a time.
Yes, we are going to cover the whole 60 verses in this message.

You'll recall from last week that Stephen has been taken by the Jewish religious leaders and brought before the Sanhedrin, the large group of Jewish rulers from every city in the land. They have accused Stephen of saying all kinds of horrid things against the Temple, against the Judaism, against Moses & God.

Now Stephen stands before the high priest.
It is eerily similar to another moment in which we are familiar.

Matthew 26:57

New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Before the Sanhedrin

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled.

Just as in the instance of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, there are people who speak up in false pretenses. We noted last week, there were several who spoke up with things to say about how Stephen was doing his ministry. They make up sayings or twist what he has said just a bit. Didn't they do that to Jesus also?

Matthew 26:59-61

New International Version (NIV)
59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.
Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’”

The parallelism between Jesus' & Stephen's encounters with the  Sanhedrin and the high priest end there. Other than that they give their lives in defense of the Gospel message they have been presenting, the rest of the story is vaguely different. Jesus says little or nothing before his adversaries. Stephen, on the other hand, launches into an unforgettable sermon.

What we are going to do is look at Stephen's message piece by piece, chunk by chunk. 
What we see Stephen doing is recounting Israel's history back to them while inserting the message of Jesus in the proper places and times. He hopes to help them see just how hard headed and hard hearted they have become. That can be dangerous. It's one thing to go head strong against someone you personally know. A loved one. A longtime friend. To walk into a room full of strangers and assume that we know their history or their feelings beforehand and then speak in this way... This I do not recommend. You better feel as if this is what God really wants you to do. 

I would like to suggest that there are ways to prevent such persecution from happening. 
Sometimes, I think we bring such harshness upon ourselves by not taking a gentler approach with those outside our faith. There are times where I read a news article of someone who was arrested or thrown out of a public place for their faith and I think, "Why exactly did that happen?" In our great country where freedom roles on and we do have the ability to meet and worship wherever we want there are times when maybe we take it too far. Instead of making it about God, we make it about ourselves, our faith, our church. We want what we want the way we want it. When we go shoving our faith and beliefs down someone else's throat, well, we're asking for trouble. And, according to Jesus, there enough trouble with simply being associated with the name of Jesus. We don't need to go heaping more trouble up our heads by making it all about what we want. Having said all that, Jesus mentions that the world will hate us because it first hated Him. That's enough hatred for all of us. Let that ride without making them hate us more because we are overbearing, forceful, faith pushers. 

Stephen's persecution comes on the tail end of an already frightful event.
Jesus has been crucified. The sky went black as night. An earthquake shook the land. The veil in the Temple was torn in two. Even though the moment of Pentecost has given new life to a band of weary believers we should look at the land of Israel as a place that has come though a trial of apocalyptic measures. There is still tension. Its not like the religious leaders just forgot about this Jesus. No doubt, the name of "Jesus" is still a household name. In my own feelings, persecution can, in some cases, be avoided. Maybe that's why Jesus told several of the people he healed not to go about publicly telling everyone they knew. He was trying to prolong the event that he knew was on the horizon. After three and half years of putting up with the Messiah and his teachings, the religious crowd had enough. They don't give this new band of believers and apostles quite that long. 

The confrontation begins with the high priest's words. "Are these charges true?"
Instead of answering "No" and then defending himself, Stephen launches into a sermon with these few fleeting moments he has left. Maybe he thinks that his life hangs in the balance anyway. They are looking for someone to kill, it seems. They want someone to make an example of, so why not Stephen? If you knew you have one chance to speak up and share the message of Jesus, would you do it? 

Instead of defending himself, Stephen cuts right to the chase. 

Acts 7:2-3

New International Version (NIV)
To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’[a]  

For the Jew, the Hebrew, their story begins with Abraham.
Sure, mankind's story, for many people, goes back to Adam and Eve. The beginnings of this great nation, however, starts with the one they call the "father of the faith". Once we are past the historical and allegorical stories on Genesis 1-11, then the history of a nation begins. 

Acts 7:4-8

New International Version (NIV)
“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’[a] Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

Stephen's retelling of Israel's history should put his hearers in the shoes of their patriarch.
Can you imagine being told to leave your home, your familiar surrounding and traveling to some far off place? What would that do to your faith? Would it strengthen it? Would it weaken it? Would it deflate it and make it unusable? All of Stephen's audience listens intently as he recalls the actions of this "man of faith". 

Acts 7:9-10

New International Version (NIV)
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

The history stretches from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and then to the life of Joseph who would find himself living in Egypt. First as a slave, then in a dungeon, then risen to power at the right hand of the Pharaoh. Abraham's lineage would be saved. Joseph's family would make it through the hard years of drought and famine. 

Acts 7:11-19

New International Version (NIV)
11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’[a] 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.

Sometimes we are softened when we hear our family's history.
We recall hard times and bask in the wonderment of how they could have survived such hardships. How did we get to where we are today if our families had to go through all of that? Stephen's plea tugs at their heart strings as he tells them the story of their people's destitution.

Acts 7:20-29

New International Version (NIV)
20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child.[a] For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’[b] 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.

From Abraham to Joseph to Moses. the Jewish historical spectrum goes through some of the most memorable figures. A man who was born and then placed in a basket, set adrift while his mother hopes for the best. he is raised in Egyptian hands and, no less, by the hands of his own mother, as God would see to it. Triumph turns to tragedy as he flees in his later years following a misunderstanding, taking the life of an Egyptian soldier in defense of one of his own people. 

Acts 7:30-36

New International Version (NIV)
30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’[a] Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’[b]
35 “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

Now, it's getting good. God is front and center. The same God who sent Abraham on the journey. The same God who wrestled with Jacob. The same God who walked with Joseph through his trials and triumphs. The God of the burning bush. If I'm in a seat in the Sanhedrin, then I'm leaning forward a bit wondering where this Stephen is going with this. Stephen has his crowd's attention and begins to lay out the final edges in defense of the Gospel. 

Acts 7:37-38

New International Version (NIV)
37 “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’[a] 38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

"...a prophet..." There were lots of prophets down through the centuries. But, there's only one prophet were are concerned about here. To the Christian, we should be able to see what direction Stephen is steering towards. To the unbelieving Jew, they might still be wondering where this message is headed. 

Acts 7:39-43

New International Version (NIV)
39 “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’[a] 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
    forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’[b] beyond Babylon.

Wow. Stephen is strnging Israeli history through Abraham and Moses all the way through their country's disobedience and then into exile in Babylon. If I'm sitting there in the Sanhedrin I have to be wondering if Stephen is doing what I think he is doing. Now he begins to touch upon Israel's turbulent years when they did not listen and follow God. He can't possibly be trying to connect that to us, can he? Their assumptions are fulfilled as Stephen closes out his message. 

Acts 7:44-47

New International Version (NIV)
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.[a] 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

Didn't these "witnesses" accuse Stephen of saying blasphemous things against God's Temple and against the customs of their religion? Wouldn't you think that would be an area you'd want to steer away from then if you are speaking with someone you're in conflict with in such a serious discussion? The thing is...sometimes you can't do that. While we would like to avoid persecution and conflict there are moments where a particular subject needs addressing. And, here it is. God is front and center again. While these religious leaders want to rule over the customs and interpretation of the matters pertaining to the Temple, it is God who owns the Temple. It was God who directed Moses' steps. It was God who sent Abraham on his journey. It was God who gave instructions of Solomon to build the Temple. And, while is part of the viewpoint for the Jewish thought and practice of the day, the central focus in on what they want and how they want it. And, Stephen strikes at his final point. 

Acts 7:48-53

New International Version (NIV)
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by 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 where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’[a]
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Stephen has done what we like to refer as "preaching Genesis to Revelation in one sermon".
I like to think of it as a best man speech. Stephen truly is the best man to give this speech. He is the man in the moment with the Spirit of God resting upon him. All eyes are focused on him as he weaves his tale of woe and conflict, history and lesson, into a story with a point they cannot miss. He has given them their entire history in a nutshell. The central focus, the monument, if you will, is their liberation from Egypt. The giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. God's interaction with them through Moses, their greatest prophet. Their lineage back through the greatest patriarch, a man of faith, Abraham. But, what did they miss? What have they been missing from the moment Jesus was born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem? Why are there so many today who miss the point? Why is it so hard to accept that we need love and forgiveness? Maybe it the requirements that need to be met. We need to admit our sin. Sometimes it encompasses accepting the sin of our forefathers. maybe the load is just too much to come to grips with and we end up lashing out instead.  All of that comes to fruition as we wrap up this chapter in these last six to seven verses.

Acts 7:54-60

New International Version (NIV)

The Stoning of Stephen

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts takes a different direction after this.
This man named Saul. These other men who are doing the stoning have dropped their clothes or "coats" at his feet. Scholars suggest that it suggest that Saul was chief in setting up this witch-hunt and stoning. A man, born of Roman origin, outside of Israel, has come back to settle here in this region. He has a seat on the Sanhedrin. he has a vote in what would transpire. The stoners drop their coats here in front of him. Maybe they don't want to get any blood on them. Maybe Saul will round them up. Later, in his letters, Paul will give reference to just such a moment. This moment. "I am the chief of all sinners". 

Why do we persecute others? What is our problem with accepting other people's beliefs?
Why do tend to make it all so personal and then rage in protest when we don't like what they present? It happens on both sides of the ball, to use the football picture. People line up on both sides of the playing field and try to annihilate each other. While that is the purpose of football, it is not the purpose in religion. But, too often, that is what comes from our less than frugal approach to exchange our words and thoughts. 

If you've been on the receiving end of persecution, let us pray that our attitudes can be like that of a Stephen. While being stoned, or persecuted, or spoken to harshly, raged against by people who don't truly understand what they are doing and saying, let our hearts and minds be about forgiveness. Let us say what needs to be said and let the chips fall where they will. Regardless of the outcome, regardless of the retaliation, let our focus be on the One who saves all souls. 

Matthew 10:17-20

New International Version (NIV)
17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.