“Seeds in the Wind” – Acts 6:8 – 8:8
Easter 3 – April 30, 2017
- Mosquitoes and Dandelions
A couple of things that I find annoying are mosquitoes and dandelions. While I am thankful for the ten mosquito bites I get each summer here compared to the ten mosquito bites I got each minute when we lived in Winnipeg, I am reminded that it IS dandelion season. If you have any lawn or garden space in your yard, you are probably seeing dandelions emerge. Yes, children love to pick the abundant little yellow flowers for mommy, but otherwise they are a pest. They pop up everywhere. They have deep roots. And when they mature, their helicopter-like seeds blow everywhere when the plants are “persecuted” by the wind. Then they pop up everywhere. They develop deep roots, and blow everywhere all over again. It’s an insidious and annoying cycle for those who are trying to garden or for those who prefer to mow lawn rather than dandelions. How do you resolve the dandelion dilemma? The answer, my friend, is “blowing in the wind.” We’re going to come back to this thought again in a few minutes.
- The Story of Stephen
But let’s pick up another essential Bible story in Acts 6 – 8. This is the story of Stephen. Stephen was NOT one of the disciples of Jesus. But when the disciples of Jesus were caught up in some of the common tasks of distributing food among the widows instead of proclaiming the word of God, everybody realized that this was neither a responsible use of the strengths of the disciples nor a recognition of the fact that they had spent three years in “Jesus-seminary.” So, a decision was made to appoint some men to be responsible for that social ministry of caring for the widows, while the disciples would turn their attention to prayer and to the ministry of the word. Stephen was one of those seven deacons who were appointed, prayed over and singled out for acts of compassion and mercy.
But Stephen was more than just a care-giver. We read in Acts 6 that he was full of God’s Spirit, God’s grace and God’s power. Not only did Stephen add great wonders and miraculous signs to his social ministry, but he also successfully and persuasively defended the teachings of Jesus and the truth that He had risen from the dead. Acts 6:10 reports that some members of a certain synagogue “began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” He knew what he was talking about and could handle himself in a debate.
But sometimes deception and injustice overthrow truth. And that’s what happened in the story of Stephen. These synagogue members were also persuasive, and sinister. They didn’t like being outdone by Stephen so they persuaded some men to give false testimony, saying that Stephen had spoken words of blasphemy against God, and that Jesus would change the customs of Moses. The one good thing was that Stephen was allowed to defend himself before the religious leaders. The one bad thing was that he broke all the rules for guest preachers. His sermon, which comprised virtually all of Acts 7, was too long, his topic was too broad (he tried to explain the entire Old Testament), and he finished with some high-volume, finger-wagging, and very personal accusations directed to his audience. He closed with these words: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him.” You never get a second invitation with that kind of message.
[Note to self: “Don’t use Stephen as a model for how to conclude a sermon.”]
The response to Stephen’s message was predictable – the people were furious, and when he said he could see Jesus standing at the right hand of God they literally covered their ears (“la, la, la, la, la… don’t want to hear any more of that”), and then they dragged him out of town and stoned him to death. Stephen became the first Christian martyr, dying for his faith. Even in his death, he was very Christ-like. From the cross Jesus had said “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Stephen echoed that sentiment: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” How magnanimous that was toward his enemies! Jesus had also said, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit,” and Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Oh, yes, one other brief but significant detail: “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul, who give his approval to Stephen’s death.” We’ll come back to this coat-check guy in a couple of minutes, too.
- “Deaf” to God
God had given Stephen a message for the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Tragically, they weren’t the least bit interested. The action of covering their ears indicated that they were “deaf” to God, “deaf” to the message of God. Why?
For one thing, they were too angry. They were angry with Jesus in the first place. He had consistently broken their rules of the Sabbath – picking grain, healing people – and he said things that they didn’t agree with. They were angry because the body of the crucified Jesus had somehow disappeared from right under their noses, from right under the noses of the soldiers who were posted as guards at His tomb. They were angry because Peter and John gave credit to Jesus for healing a lame man on the temple steps. They were angry because the followers of Jesus refused the “cease and desist” order… to cease and desist from speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus in Jerusalem. They were angry because so many common people were following the teachings of these unschooled, ordinary men – the aggramatoi and idiwtai – that I talked about last week. So, when God performed miracles through Stephen, and when Stephen dominated not the political debates but the religious debates of the day, they had even more reason to be angry, and to not listen to his speech.
Are you “deaf” to God? Do you have trouble listening to God because you are angry? Oh, getting angry happens to religious people. Don’t kid yourself! These guys in Acts 6,7,8 were the religious guys, the God-guys, but that didn’t stop them from getting their noses out of joint. What might followers of Jesus get angry about today? What might you get angry about? Maybe bitterness about how much you feel expected to do around the church. Maybe anger about not getting what you are expecting from the church, from the pastor. Maybe frustration with God because of health struggles, marriage struggles, money struggles. Maybe you sense that God is saying something to you that you don’t want to hear. Maybe you are upset that God doesn’t make Himself really clear and that makes it more challenging to believe. And when you’re angry for any of those reasons, it’s tough to hear God.
b.Love ‘religion’ more than God
A second reason that these God-guys in Acts 6,7,8 were “deaf” to God is that they loved their ‘religion’ more than they loved God. They had catalogued some 613 mitzvot / commandments from the Old Testament, on topics such as sacrifices and offerings, tithes, the Sabbath, dietary laws, the poor, injuries and damages, and so much more. When they were at loggerheads with Jesus it was often because they were more concerned about the rules and regulations than they were about their relationship with God. When Jesus and an expert in the law agreed that loving God and loving your neighbour were critical for getting to heaven, the expert didn’t ask for clarification about loving God, but he did ask about who was the neighbour he was to love, and then Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan.
On another occasion, some Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands according to the rules. What? Did they consider the disciples to be little children who didn’t know how to do it right? Well…yes. They just were all about the rules and the ancient traditions. They were more interested in doing things right than in doing the right things. Their religious practices became an end in themselves rather than being a means to the end of loving God and their neighbour. Because of that, they struggled to hear God if something wasn’t quite right.
Put one of those religious leaders in our church today and they wouldn’t be able to listen to the message if: the organ had one note out of tune, a light bulb was burned out, someone was sitting in their pew, the bulletin had somebody’s name spelled wrong. Those things we may all agree are trivial. But more importantly, they wouldn’t be able to listen to God’s Word if the paraments were the wrong colour, if one of the Bible readings was missed, if the prayers were before the sermon instead of after, or if the confession of sins wasn’t the same one as we use every Sunday.
There’s nothing wrong with appreciating your church and its traditions, but watch out if those things become more important than God, Himself. Be cautious about loving your ‘religion’ more than God. It has been said many times, and it’s still true: Jesus never came to start a religion; he came to start a relationship… with people… with you!
God-forbid that we would ever be like Stephen’s accusers – stiff-necked, with unconsecrated hearts and ears, resisting the Holy Spirit, and outright disobedient to God. Any one of those responses would prevent us from hearing God’s message to us, for us. Any one of those responses would interfere with our relationship with God.
- Seeds in the Wind
Now, the stoning of Stephen was the end of that story… but the beginning of another. And here’s where the dandelion illustration comes in…
Acts 8:1 + 4 continue: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
On that very day – the day of Stephen’s stoning – something happened that was both gruesome and awesome at the same time. The gruesome part was the great persecution that broke out against this fledgling group of believers. The great persecution was probably mostly at the hands of Jewish people who were angry at this new sect that had grown out of their own Jewish faith. They were out to squash it, defame it, destroy it. Saul (who would later adopt his Roman name, Paul) was one of those religious guys who dragged Christian believers off to prison. In fact, one chapter later, Saul is still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, and taking Christians prisoner to Jerusalem, from as far away as Damascus.
Sometimes the wind can be a nasty thing (dandelion seeds spread, trees and branches broken, hard to walk, worst case – hurricanes & tornadoes), sometimes it can be a good thing (a clean source of energy, pollen transported). Sometimes persecution can be a nasty thing (people get bullied or even killed for what they believe), sometimes it can be a good thing (commitment to God is solidified in a person, and noticed by others and adopted). Around 200 A.D., ancient theologian Tertullian wrote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Stephen’s blood caused by the stones was the seed, the impetus, for greater proclamation of the Word.
Did you notice what happened? All the leaders, the apostles, stayed at headquarters in Jerusalem. Many of the other believers were scattered throughout Judea – that’s the countryside around Jerusalem, the province – and throughout Samaria – that’s the province north of Judea where the Jewish people wouldn’t normally travel and among people with whom they would not normally associate. Philip was one of the men who went to a city in Samaria to proclaim Christ. The last sentence in this part of the story simply says, “There was great joy in that city.” And why not? They came to know and believe that Jesus was both their Lord and God’s Christ – for them. When dandelion seeds blow in the wind, they germinate almost anywhere. When the Holy Spirit blew these believers into a variety of places, the Christian faith germinated everywhere. The persecution wasn’t welcome, but the scattering of believers had God’s purpose written all over it.
It’s kind of like the advice of Gamaliel that we heard from Acts 5 last Sunday. He said, “If this new sect is of human origin, don’t worry about it – it will sputter and fail, but if is of God, you won’t be able to stop it!” Well, in Acts 7, they killed Stephen, but that only poured fuel on the fire of those early Christians.
The take-home point today is really a question: “Where is the Holy Spirit blowing you? Where is God scattering you?” Just like Stephen, just like the Jerusalem believers, just like Philip, you have a wonderful message that is percolating in your heart and life – Jesus, who died for the forgiveness of our sins, rose again to conquer sin, death and the devil, and to give us new life and a sure and certain hope of eternity. [blow] Where and to whom is the Holy Spirit blowing you as a seed to share the grace of God that you have experienced in Jesus? Wherever and to whomever… there will be great joy!
- Saul… to be continued… Acts 9
There is one unresolved thing / person in this story… Saul. That story – like any good suspense story on TV – is to be continued… in Acts 9… in three weeks. Stay tuned… same time, same channel, same theme – God’s grace, blowing in the wind, blowing in people’s lives. Let’s pray…