|Around Cow Creek, North of Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA|
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Preached on Sunday, September 25, 2016
Scripture readings: Genesis 13:1-18
A man’s car had a headlight out, and so he drove over to his favorite mechanic’s garage and told him what was wrong. The mechanic had the right bulb to replace the old one, so he did this while his customer waited. It didn’t take long.
When the work was done the customer asked what he should pay and the mechanic said, “You don’t owe me a thing. It was a small job and I’m glad to do it for you. The customer insisted on paying, and the mechanic responded, “For cryin’ out loud; can’t you just let me do something to stretch my soul?”
I puzzle over where Abraham shows fear and where he doesn’t. That fear reflects on his faith. His wife, Sarah, seems to have scared him. That fear of Sarah caused Abraham to make some big mistakes. He also seems to be afraid of other people being generous to him; as if he were afraid of owing them something. But Abraham is not afraid of being generous to others. And, maybe, being generous to others was one way that Abraham stretched his own soul.
Abraham was not afraid to be extravagantly generous to his nephew Lot. Lot’s father, Abraham’s brother, Haran, died at some point way back before Abraham’s father (and Lot’s grandfather), Terah, took the whole the family about half of the way to the promised land, and stopped there. Abraham called Lot his brother, and the situation in their family may have made Lot seem like Abraham’s baby brother.
Abraham and Sarah being childless, and staying childless over the years, may have seen the much younger Lot almost as if he was their son, and (probably) the heir to everything they had.
The Lord’s promise to make a great nation out of Abraham really didn’t tell him much, and Abraham may have thought that the promise of the blessing could involve Lot. It’s only after Lot left that the Lord specifically spoke about Abraham’s descendants.
The truth is that what the Bible tells us about all this doesn’t give us many details. It doesn’t explain much.
Lot would naturally have started out with his share of the grandfather’s inheritance and he seems to have done very well with it: about as well as Abraham. Lot seems to have been blessed by association with Abraham. But you also have to give Lot credit for taking off into the unknown with Abraham. Lot seems to have started out on the same journey of faith with Abraham.
The Lord had given Abraham the promise of land but not the ownership of that land. Abraham wouldn’t dare to act like he owned the land because other people already owned it. They had homes, and farms, and towns on that land.
Abraham would have gotten in terrible trouble if he acted as though their land was really his. He never owned any of the promised land except for the hill where he buried Sarah after her death. (Genesis 23)
Abraham, and Sarah, and Lot, and their people could never settle in one place because they could only use the land that no one else would claim because it wasn’t worth settling on. They migrated back and forth on marginal rangeland, and so they lived in tents and moved whenever their herds and flock had overgrazed wherever they happened to be.
The more successful they were, the more often they had to move, because the growing herds ate everything faster and faster. It was becoming a problem, and Abraham was finally forced to admit to himself that the only real solution was for him and Lot to divide their herds and go their separate ways.
Abraham was the uncle who had always acted like the older brother. It was true that he was the senior partner and (having seniority) Abraham had the privilege and the right of first choice of the land.
In spite of knowing his rights, Abraham’s generosity kicked in. He refused the privilege of first choice. He gave the honor to Lot.
Lot seems to not have deserved the honor that Abraham gave him. At least he didn’t use the honor very honorably. He didn’t return Abraham’s generosity with generosity of his own. Lot used the choice to his own advantage and, apparently, to Abraham’s disadvantage. Lot chose the best land for himself.
The Jordan Valley was Lot’s choice, and the land there was almost too good. Jeremiah, later on, would call it “the jungle of the Jordan” (Jeremiah 12:5) It was so extremely fertile. It was so well watered. The soil in that valley was so ridiculously good that you could never hope to stretch your soul by living there.
The proof of this was that, at the southern end of the valley, the land sank down to the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah where life was so good that it always went bad. They could have been called “the sin cities”. Lot knew this, and he couldn’t resist.
He had joined the journey of faith with Abraham, but he turned out to be ready for something else. He wanted to live on more than promises. He wanted to live on more than faith. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews says this about faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Traveling on the journey of faith in the promises of God with Abraham, Lot had been living a different way of life: not an easy life but a soul stretching life. It was a life with a purpose, because it belonged to some great thing that God wanted to do in the world.
The promised land was their land even though they never owned it. In a way the whole world was theirs because they lived a promised life. Most of the promised land was very sandy, and it ran through your fingers, and you could never hold the deed of ownership in your hand.
The Valley of the Jordan was rich ground and you could hold a ball of that soil in your fist, and you could hold the deed of ownership to a house in Sodom in your hand, and Lot did just that. He chose a blessing that you could see and hold onto, even though doing that made the good life go bad.
Abraham’s life was based on a promise that he mostly never saw come true, but the substance of what he hoped for was in his heart and in his life. God gave Abraham a lot. Abraham became rich. But what he had was always at risk. Abraham and Sarah were always on the edge; on the edge of drought and famine. They had already seen that before.
Their journey of faith had included scarcity and danger, but they had faith in God’s promises. They had faith, which means trust. They trusted the God who called them to leave everything that made their life secure. They trusted the God who made them part of a great thing he was beginning to do to change the human world.
Because of this, Abraham and Sarah were normally able to live generously. They were normally able to live bold lives. They were also able to give boldly.
They could know scarcity but they didn’t live accordingly. They didn’t feel that their lives were scarce. They felt that they were able to give, and that they didn’t need to be given to. They had enough. They had God. They had God’s promises. It made all the difference in the world to have that.
The choices of Abraham and Lot tell us about our own choices if we want to travel with God on the journey of faith.
Lot chose the gold. He chose the sure thing, the safe thing. He looked out for number one. And his number one was himself. By choosing this way, Lot lost himself.
Abraham was generous toward Lot, but he was even more generous to God, because he let God be in charge of all those promises and blessings. He didn’t hold onto what he had with a tight fist. He was gracious to God by putting his life in the hands of the grace of God.
Abraham and Sarah were well off and safe before they left the city and became wanderers in the desert in their old age. In a way they sacrificed their future for the sake of the God who gave them promises that they would never see fulfilled. So they journeyed to the land of faith which they would never own.
For a while it seemed possible that Lot would be their future, in their old age, and yet Abraham let go of that. He let Lot go. Lot could have the first choice and the first claim on the land that God had not promised to him.
Abraham let go of his own rights. He put God’s promises back into God’s hands.
In the future Abraham and Sarah would have the promised offspring: the one son to carry all the promises, and all the future. And then Abraham would have to be willing to offer this one son, who carried all their hope, back to God who seemed to ask for the impossible.
He trusted the God who gave him the promise, and this was the generosity of faith. The faith of Abraham was well placed because God turned out to be the kind of God he had promised to be.
The God who is faithful to his promise makes it possible for us to live with the generosity that comes from faith. We see this God in the gift of Jesus: the only everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. God is the generous giver and the generous gift. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
The God we meet in Jesus is the God who gives and does not grab. This God is not like Lot who only grabbed the best.
This God loves to wander through deserts with his people. He loves to give his gifts to those who live on the margins and in the deserts. This God comes to barren lands like our own lives, and makes us his own promised land.
He sent his Son to die for us on the cross, in order to make us his own promised land. In Jesus he gave us his life in order to give us freedom from our sins and freedom from the fear of death.
God delights in his own generosity which we call grace. Gracious giving is God’s glory and riches. Our own being able to give to others is grace.
In Jesus, God would make himself into our own generosity. We might know scarcity of our own, and yet God makes us able to give back to him and to others. Lives in which we are able to give to others are richer than the lives of those who always grab for the gold and for the sure thing for the sake of number one.
The choice to live by giving is, above all things, a choice as well as grace. God organized our lives so that, like Abraham, could choose it: so that we could choose to live by giving. And we can only have such a life by choosing it. Let us choose the life of grace. Let us choose the life of giving. Our God gives us Jesus, and Jesus is the way of giving.
Monday, September 19, 2016
Preached on Sunday, September 18, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 12:10-20
|Along Crab Creek, North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA|
The old-time comedian, Henny Youngman was famous for the kind of short joke called the one-liner. Lots of these one-liners were about his wife, or his mother-in-law. For instance, one went like this: “I just got back from a pleasure trip; I took my mother-in-law to the airport.” His most famous joke was this: “Take my wife, please!”
This seems to have been Abraham’s favorite joke, only it wasn’t funny the way he used it. His excuse was fear. Abraham was afraid that beautiful Sarah would get him killed. He was afraid that, when they passed through, or stayed in, some new city or kingdom, that some powerful man, seeing beautiful Sarah, might have him killed to take her for his own. So Abraham had an ongoing strategy of claiming that Sarah was his sister.
All of this raises some questions.
Sarah was about sixty-five years old at this time. Given that she was a beautiful sixty-five-year-old; would a king still want to add her to his harem? Would a king kill in order to get his hands on a beautiful sixty-five-year-old? Please forgive me for bringing this up!
Sarah eventually lived to be one-hundred-and-twenty-seven years old, and Abraham lived to be one-hundred-and-seventy-five years old. But, through it all, they showed every sign of living with a tremendous amount of energy in everything that they did.
If the average ancient person reached the end of an average life-span (for an ancient person) around the age of forty-five, it might have taken Sarah one hundred-twenty-seven years to reach the same old age of an ancient forty-five-year-old. Sarah, at sixty-five going on one-hundred-and-twenty-seven, may have looked like a twenty-year-old. Not only was their life span spread out, but their youthfulness may have been equally spread out. That’s the understanding that has been passed down for centuries.
Then there is the oddity about Sarah being Abraham’s sister. Apparently Sarah and Abraham had the same father, but different mothers, in those old polygamous times before the Ten Commandments. Those were the days before God began to break through the barriers that Adam and Eve had raised against him.
On top of that, listen to what Abraham said, when he tried to pull off the same stunt in Genesis, chapter twenty. (Genesis 20:11-13) When Abraham and Sarah left their family in order to follow the Lord to the promised land, this is what Abraham said to Sarah: “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”
We often speak as though Abraham showed an amazing faith when he and his wife (or his half-sister) crossed over into the desert in order to follow the Lord to whatever land that the Lord would show them. But they started their journey of faith with this terrible understanding, this conspiracy, between them. And they carried it out at least twice (that we know of). Imagine being the wife of a husband who asked her to live such a lie.
Their faith was a very imperfect faith from the beginning. Their real story is about God’s willingness to love and bless people who have a very horribly imperfect faith. Abraham and Sarah needed God, in his infinite faithfulness and grace, to continually come to their aid, and rescue them from themselves over and over again.
That was their secret of faith, or their secret of success. It was not about their success at being faithful. It was their depending on God’s success at being faithful to them, in their need, and in their shame.
The Lord was faithful to them in spite of their fear; or, at least, in spite of Abraham’s fear. Abraham’s general fear of the danger of Sarah’s beauty caused him to create a policy of lies that got both him and her in trouble, more than once.
The sin wasn’t their journey to Egypt, as some believe. After all, the Lord allowed the chosen family to take refuge in Egypt later on, when a famine hit the promised land in the time of Jacob and Joseph. Their sin was the lie, and Abraham failed at this point more than once. Even a pagan like Pharaoh could see this.
And the lie came from fear.
Fear is a strange thing.
It isn’t always a bad thing. There is the mysterious fear called “the fear of the Lord.” Scripture tells us that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:19)
Fear is the beginning of wisdom but, perhaps, not the completion of wisdom. John wrote: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:16-19)
Fear is a strange thing. It isn’t always a sin. Some years ago I found a rattlesnake on my driveway. I jumped when I saw it, because I had almost stepped on it. The fact is that I always almost step on rattlers before I see them. Jumping when you almost step on a rattler is a good thing. Well, after I jumped, I walked away. I got a shovel, and came back, and killed it. Did I kill that snake because I was afraid of it? You better believe it!
There is a healthy fear. You need a healthy fear when you’re running a chain saw, when you’re driving on the freeway, when you’re preaching a sermon, when you’re in love. There’s a healthy fear.
Even Abraham’s fear of the beauty of Sarah had something reasonable about it. But a healthy fear makes things better. A healthy fear protects and blesses others. Abraham’s fear didn’t protect anyone, and it didn’t bless anyone. Abraham’s fear endangered Sarah, and Pharaoh, and the whole nation of Egypt. And Abraham’s blessing was supposed to bless nations. (Genesis 12:3)
It isn’t hard to see how many great blessings in life depend on the kind of healthy fear that builds a healthy courage. Marriage requires the kind of courage that is built on a healthy fear. I saw a joke the other day that said: “You can’t scare me: I have a daughter.” Parenthood is a bold step that carries a special set of healthy fears. Starting a career, or starting a business, or being a farmer require a healthy fear that builds a healthy courage.
Sharing your faith with a friend, or with anyone you do things with, requires a healthy fear. This is because sharing your faith is important. All important issues and goals can be scary. We can’t let fear be our reason for not dealing with those issues or facing those goals. We can’t let our fear twist us into betraying our own faith, and our own values, and those who are counting on us to be faithful.
Being a church, in this place and this time, may be scary, but it’s important. This community is full of people with needs that only a family of faith can serve and heal, with God’s help. What we may be called to do, and to risk, in order to make Jesus real around us, outside our walls, may make us feel uncomfortable and seem like something we would rather leave to others; and so we may choose to sit it out.
We can listen to our discomfort and not be the blessing that we are called to be. We can listen to our fears like Abraham did, so many times. And we will very well seem to be blessed anyway, just as he was. Abraham was sent on his way with Sarah unharmed, and Pharaoh allowed him to keep everything that he had gained from his act of fear.
In a way, the pagan Pharaoh was more of a “man of God” than Abraham was. Pharaoh put things right, and he also protected Abraham and Sarah from harm.
The story in Genesis doesn’t tell us much detail. It doesn’t explain anything. How could Abraham get away with what he did, and why was he able to benefit from his lie? Did God bless him through all of this?
Of course Abraham was blessed. God was faithful. God is faithful still. I believe Abraham knew that he had failed Sarah, and Pharaoh, and God, and that Abraham’s real blessing was the blessing of living with his shame, knowing that God is faithful still.
If you read the life of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, you might notice that sometimes the pagans are smarter than God’s people. They sometimes know what’s right when we don’t. At the time, Pharaoh could plainly see that Abraham was not a blessing to the nations, but a trouble-maker. The people of the world can often see exactly what is wrong with us when we fail to be faithful. And they’ll gladly tell us what’s wrong with us, whether we want them to or not. We should consider what they say, and ask God to help us to live what we learn from them by faith.
God has so designed and organized the universe so that everything that really matters requires us to live out a healthy fear by sacrificing our fears and moving forward with a healthy courage. That is faith. Faith means trusting God.
God wants to build a new world of blessing and he will never give up on his plan. This is the secret to the core of his plan in becoming a human being in Christ.
When our fears become sins God himself feels them and dies for them on the cross, in order to set us free. Faith means trusting what God is up to and trusting what God requires of us, if we are going to follow him. And God is still faithful.
We may not pass the test, but God passes the test every time. The story of Abraham and Sarah teaches us this. God was using the story of Abraham and Sarah to teach them this, in their own lives.
The God who passes the test and who is faithful when we are fearful and faithless is the God who sent his Son to die for our sins on the cross. Abraham and Sarah didn’t know this part of the story yet. Their lives were only the first step toward the God of the cross, but they didn’t know that yet.
God is faithful because God is love. In Jesus, we see our fear of the Lord become something else. In Jesus, our fear of everything can become something else: a faith that that has the courage to build upon love.
Fear not. Have faith for the journey. Love the Lord. Love everyone whom God calls you to bless, and don’t be afraid.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Preached on Sunday, September 11, 2016
As ancient as they are, the very
heart and core of what we are, in Christ begins, with Abraham and Sarah;
because Christ began with them. Abraham and Sarah are the barren couple who
became the parents of the family that became the tribe that became the nation
that produced another tribe that produced the king (David) who became the
ancestor of a different kind of king: King Jesus.
Scripture reading: Genesis 11:27-12:1-9
Ancient Abraham and ancient Sarah! Ancient in so many ways! For one thing: they are so old! And yet I’m almost as old as they were!
For another thing, they live so very long ago (almost 4,000 years ago).
|Along Crab Creek, North of DesertAire/Mattawa WA|
In the New Testament, Paul says (in Romans 4:11) that Abraham is “the father of all who believe.” Abraham being our father doesn’t just mean that he is our ancestor (in this case our spiritual ancestor). Abraham is more than a name on our genealogy. Abraham is even more than a name on our spiritual genealogy.
Abraham being our father means that he has essentially shared what he is with us. In Isaiah, the Lord speaks to the people of Israel and says, “Look to the rock from which you were cut and the quarry from which you were hewn, look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave you birth.” Spiritually, we are chips off the old block of Abraham and Sarah.
In God’s scheme of things Abraham and Sarah are an important way to understand ourselves. They show us what it means to live with God in this world.
They show us some things we better not imitate. God’s people, and God’s heroes, are never perfect; and Abraham and Sarah could be terrible. But the pattern they show us is the pattern of faith. Abraham and Sarah are there to answer the question: What does it mean to live in this world by faith in God?
In the experience of living by faith, all though the Old and New Testaments, and all though history, there is this pattern where the Lord does what he did with Abraham. The Lord steps into your life. The Lord interrupts your life, and says, “Come with me. Go with me. Follow me.” And, as you go and follow, your life is changed forever, and for good.
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, and your people, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you.” And, “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon, and his brother Andrew, throwing a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. In the New Testament gospels Jesus says, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:16-17) It’s the same God making nearly the same kind of call to the same kind of journey.
We are a family with a four-thousand-year history of having the Lord of Heaven and Earth step into our lives and call us to come with him and go where he goes him.
Abraham was a wanderer, and an explorer, and a seeker, but (more than that) Abraham was a partner. Abraham and Sarah wandered in partnership with a God who had already befriended them. They were on a journey of faith with a God that they knew just a little bit about. They didn’t know much, yet they decided to trust what they knew, and they were willing to learn more as they went.
The same Lord who called Abraham later joined the human race, and was born into a family where the father was a carpenter, and so the Lord Jesus became a carpenter too. He looked like nothing more than a village carpenter.
But when he stepped in, and interrupted the lives of the men who would become his disciples, they could tell that they were doing the right thing to follow and trust him. They knew something about Jesus without being told, and they decided to trust what they knew.
The same Lord speaks to us now from a bloody cross, and from an empty tomb. The Lord is the same. And there is something about his calling to each one of us, in our own place, that is the same, and must be followed, as they followed long ago.
I need to tell you that I am not talking about “special callings” (like to be a missionary, or a minister). It’s not even such a special calling like that of being a farmer, or working with computers, or driving a truck, or being an accountant or an engineer, or teaching, or becoming a salesperson; because all work is holy, all work is a calling, even when you don’t get paid to do that job (because your unpaid jobs are crucial parts of you calling).
The most important calling of all is the call to belong to God and live with God by faith. If you belong to the Lord and live with the Lord then this will be true: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17) This is what you do when you belong to God and follow: “Whatever you do you do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks.” This calling to do whatever and everything leads us to strange places on the journey of faith.
Nowadays the word “whatever” is a word of indifference and apathy, but in the Bible “whatever” is an invitation that opens every door if you will walk through it as a person of faith.
Still, if you are going to live with God in faith, it feels like leaving all the familiar places and going to a land that has yet to be shown to you. God calls you to start something. God calls you to stop something. God calls you to learn and take something to heart. God calls you to let something go. God calls you to turn around. God calls you to accept the fact of his blessings and gifts to you. Faith means trusting even though the calling could lead to anything and to whatever.
Because Abraham and Sarah didn’t know where God was taking them, they were no longer in control of their lives. That is part of what it is like to live with God in this world. In any relationship in this world, when you are living by faith, you always have responsibilities and duties, and you may often have blessings and rewards, but you never have control. This is always true, even when you are not a person of faith; but faith changes you and enables you to live in the name of Jesus and give thanks in everything even when you are farthest from being in control.
Abraham and Sarah were big city people who became semi-nomads on the edge of the desert. They moved with their livestock according to the seasons and the quality of the grazing. They moved their herds and flocks over the land that was not good enough for anyone else to claim it.
As long as they on the marginal land the other people mostly left them alone. Abraham went around digging wells because he was living off the parts of the land where no one else would be dumb enough to bother going through all the work of digging wells. And so their life was a continuous journey on the edge of the wilderness.
The disciples took to the road with Jesus, and their lives became journeys too. It was a road that most normal people wouldn’t dream of taking; and so it was a journey through a kind of wilderness. Going on a journey with the Lord is the model of life that we believe in.
Going on a journey with the Lord is a crazy thing to do. The friends and family of Abraham and Sarah, and the friends and families of the disciples must have thought they were crazy; especially the families!
They were called to do what no one else would understand, or even respect. Abraham’s and Sarah’s going off into the wilderness at their age is supposed to startle us and amaze us. If you didn’t love them, you would have to laugh at them. What is God thinking?
Later on, ancient Sarah would finally give birth to a child and name him Isaac, which means “laughter.” That is what God’s calling often looks like.
On one hand the direction in which Abraham and Sarah and the disciples were called sounded crazy. But the people called by the Lord seem to be crazy choices, in themselves.
Abraham and Sarah sometimes do absolutely terrible things: unforgivable things. How could the Lord have thought to call them? Abraham and Sarah were barren and childless. How could the Lord have thought to start a family with them?
Then look at Jesus’ choice of followers. If Jesus claimed to be the Messiah the people of his time would have expected him to choose fighters to drive out the Roman occupation. Or they would have expected Jesus to choose an army of rabbis as a holy inspiration to give the people something to fight and pray for.
A friend of mine says that Jesus’ first miracle was not changing water into wine, but changing commercial fishermen into disciples. And there was the turncoat taxman Matthew.
The rest could have been farmers. But the really remarkable thing about them all, as the gospels tell us, is that they continually amazed Jesus with how very little faith they had. What could he have had in mind by choosing them?
This craziness about the people who get called by God is all for our sake, because who would ever think that the great plans of God could rest in the hands of people like us.
Faith means seeing the humor in your calling. Your journey with God is just one more chapter in the story of the unlikely people of God’s crazy choices.
The Lord’s call to Abraham was one of the threads of a plan that brought the Lord to earth in Jesus Christ. It was the first spinning of a thread that would lead God to become human in order to die for the sins of the world, and for our sins.
We have to say, here, that this road, this journey of faith, becomes, more and more the road of a new life; a changed life. But how is that good news? How can you be glad if I tell you, for Jesus: “Listen up, people! Change and become new!”
Here is the good news. If you can really see that Jesus died for you and for a world lost in sin, and death, and terror, and that he carried all of that darkness upon his shoulders on the cross, for you and for the whole world, then something breaks in you. Something melts. Something dies. And you hear Jesus say, from the cross: “Come die with me, and live again. Come die with me, and rise from the ruins of your death with me on the cross. Come die with me, and be born again. I will make you new. I will live in you.”
That is the road. The road of faith means for you to live in Jesus, and for you to let Jesus live in you.
Everything God calls you to do, and everything God calls you to be in this life, is another one of those threads in a plan where the center is Jesus Christ, and leads to Jesus, and where it all depends on him: on the one who died for you. And yet the thread of the plan that leads you to Jesus is also the thread by which others, finding you, can find Jesus.
Everything that the Lord intends for you is tied to his sacrifice for you, and for the whole world. Everything that you are called to do and to be is covered by him, and connected to him. The whole story of the Bible tells us this. The lives of Abraham, and Sarah, and Jesus’ disciples tell us this.
This is the road of the God who called them. This is the journey God calls you to. God came in Jesus and died for you in order to call you to this journey. Say yes to God, and take your journey with him.
Monday, September 5, 2016
Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2016
Scripture reading: Acts 7:51-8:1
|Photos Along Lower Crab Creek, WA: May 2016|
A mother was making pancakes for her family, and her two sons started arguing because each one wanted to get the first one. The mother tried to reason with them, “Now, boys, think of what Jesus would do. Jesus would let his brother have the first pancake.” The oldest boy had a comeback for this: “Mom is right. Billy, you be Jesus.”
In our reading from the Book of Acts, the author (Luke) tells us that Stephen, in his sacrifice, is Jesus. Stephen’s last words are a prayer for those who are killing him: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60) On the cross, Jesus prayed for those who were killing him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Stephen, in his final prayer in this world, was being Jesus, just as we are called to be Jesus. At least we are called to represent him in this world, and to be like him.
Our reading from the Book of Acts is part of the story called “The Martyrdom of Stephen”. Stephen was the first disciple of Jesus to die for his faith: the first to die for Jesus. Martyr is a Greek word that has come to refer to those who die for their faith; those who die for what they believe in and who die for whom they believe in.
But the word martyr didn’t start out that way. It really means witness. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, Jesus, just before he returned to heaven, told the disciples: “You shall be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) The Greek word here, for “witnesses”, is the word “martyr”.
The word martyr is a courtroom word. It’s a legal word. It means giving evidence. Since a witness, in court, tells what he or she has seen and heard (telling what he or she knows), a witness is, in some sense, serving as evidence. In some sense, surely, the witness is the evidence.
The false witnesses who gave false evidence against Stephen, at this trial, are also, in the Greek, called martyrs. They gave bad evidence. They were false evidence. In a sense, they also sacrificed themselves, but not for a good cause. They did it for a lie.
And so they made themselves into a lie. They were bad evidence for what they saw as a good cause, but death was at work in them. They were bad martyrs in a bad cause. Yet Stephen prayed that the Lord Jesus would forgive them. He prayed that the killers and the bad witnesses would receive grace.
We are all evidence for something. Stephen was the living and dying evidence of Jesus.
Before we picked up this story in our reading, Luke wrote that Stephen was full of God’s grace and power, and that (as such) he did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. (Acts 6:8) We need to see that his arrest, and his trial, and his suffering and death, were just as full of wonder and power as anything else Stephen ever did. His suffering and death were Christ-filled and Spirit-filled.
We look for the experience of being Christ-filled and Spirit-filled in our joys and happiness, but Stephen also found this in his persecution, and his suffering, and his dying. Perhaps we can find our greatest filling with Christ and the Holy Spirit where Stephen found his.
If a mob of people started lying about you and making fun of you, and then they started hurting you with the intention of killing you, what would you pray for? Stephen prayed for grace for the mob because he was full of Christ and full of the Spirit.
Stephen was full of grace. This grace didn’t suddenly appear in the moments before his death. Stephen belonged to the group of seven who were chosen to make sure that the widows of the church were properly cared for. The presence and work of the Holy Spirit had shaped him into the kind of person who was the natural choice for that kind of responsibility and ministry. Stephen was Spirit-filled with compassion, and love, and kindness.
Without remembering this, we will not understand Stephen’s last testimony, given at this own trial. In that message he gave an outline of the history of the people of Israel, blessed with so much grace from God, yet always failing to truly understand the meaning of that grace in the form of Moses, and God’s law, and the Temple where human beings could come into the presence of God.
Stephen’s outline was his evidence that they were once again misunderstanding God’s grace, because they had rejected Jesus, who died to fulfill the law of God in order that we could receive the grace of God. They had rejected Jesus, who was God in the flesh, and in whom human beings could come into the presence of God himself.
Where we misunderstand the power of this message is where we hear the anger and judgment in the message, and we think the story tells us that the council and the mob responded to this anger. The truth is that Stephen loved these people. He called them “brothers and fathers”. (Acts 7:2)
The anger in his words came from the grace of God in his heart. The people in the council, at the trial, saw that his face looked like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15) Angels always see the face of God and are filled with love, wonder, and praise. Stephen himself saw the glory of God and Jesus standing up in love for an innocent person in the process of being judged, and about to be condemned and killed. He saw, and he was, as always, full of grace.
Someone has called this the balance of Stephen. There is his great integrity, and his anger, and his grace, praying for those who are the focus of his anger and who are angry at him. All of this goes together at the same time. This is what made Stephen such a powerful witness and this is what made Stephen such a powerful martyr.
Think of this balance as something we are called to if we are to be full of Christ and full of the Spirit. Stephen had great integrity, and a fine capacity for anger, and he was full of grace and prayer for the forgiveness of others.
I don’t have that balance.
I have trouble with anger. I hate anger. I hate it. I hate having anyone angry with me. I hate my own anger too. I have things in my past that make me angry, and I have never gotten over them.
I pray to be over them. I try not to let those angers rule me. This is a part of my life that reminds me that I am a sinner, and that I need the grace of God, and that I need the grace of gracious people, and that others need grace from me.
There is a thing called “righteous anger”. Stephen showed this in his last sermon. Jesus showed it in his dealings with the Pharisees, and in the scene where he drove the money-people out of the Temple. (Luke 19:45-46) Those people played a part in the killing of Jesus, and Jesus prayed for those people: “Father forgive them.”
I don’t know if I’ve lived up to that. Do you pray for the people you are angry at? Do you pray for the people who are angry at you? Yet this is part of being full of grace.
It isn’t only people who are the targets of our anger. We have a whole world to get angry about. We have politics, and nations, and wars to get angry about. We have issues and causes to get angry about. We have great dangers and injustices in our world. There is so much hurt and pain in our world.
We live in God’s world. We live in a beautiful world. We also live in a world where God moves in very mysterious ways. We live in a world full of sin and evil. I get mad when I look at this. But I get mad when I look at myself.
There is a classic verse from the prophets in the Old Testament. In the Book of Habakkuk (1:13) the prophet says this to God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”
We could be like that too. That would shape us into something like anger; and wouldn’t that make us like a holy God?
But look at what this God does. Instead of not looking on evil, and instead of not tolerating it, God came to stare that evil in the face, and to die for those who are evil. He came to die for us. Instead of not tolerating wrong (like the wrong that is so much a part of us) God carries the wrongs of the world on the cross. Then the wrongs of the world die with him on that cross, and God carries us, as we die with him on the cross, to the resurrection. And then we find a new life.
There is a verse in the Gospel of John that describes very well what this holy God, who cannot look on evil, did. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
There was a cross on a hill called Calvary: a name that refers to the top of a human skull. There was great evil and injustice done on Calvary, the place of the skull. On Calvary, the world reached out to kill goodness itself, and in doing so it reached out to kill God, if it could.
There was the same evil at work in the killing of Stephen. We see the same anger and the same falsehood in the perpetrators of that evil. We see the same innocence and love and grace at work in the one who died. With Stephen, we see a kind of repetition of Calvary (the place of the skull); only we see it happening in different circumstances. We see a different version of it.
We live in a world that repeats Calvary over and over again; against goodness, against the weak, against the innocent, maybe even against us, and certainly against our brothers and sisters in Jesus in the darker parts of the world.
But Calvary, the place of the skull, is more than a terrible pattern done to the small people and the innocent people. Calvary is a thing that God has done for us.
In Jesus, God has entered the place of the skull and, by dying there, and by rising from the dead, God has made the place of the skull into a doorway to him, and to healing, and to a life that is full of grace for us and for others: full of grace for a graceless world.
At every Calvary in this world, it is God, in Christ, who has the upper hand. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we can see him there, in our own Calvary, just as Stephen did.
This is what a holy God, who hates sin, does. This is the God we know, when we know Jesus. This is the good news that we are witnesses of. This grace is what we are called to be the evidence of.
This is what the balance of integrity, and anger, and grace, and prayer for the forgiveness of others looks like. This is what we have working in us when we have Jesus living in us as he truly wants to live in us.