Raven Cannon, Children's PastorAugust 19, 2019
How will we respond to the truth of Jesus' message?
Read Full Transcription
We’ve been walking through this movement of Jesus. We’ve been calling it rise as we’ve explored the early portion of the book of Acts. Each week we’ve been examining different figures that have stepped into the place of their moment in which they would get all the prominent attention. We’re going to look at this man named Stephen, but what I want to put on the table here is that the grace of Jesus in our lives will do something to us. It meets us right where we are. He will embrace us right where we are. This is His promise. That is what grace does. Jesus will also simultaneously birth a desire to boldly acknowledge, stand in, and affirm what we know to be true. We will find ourselves in a tension point. The truth of the matter is that following Jesus creates tension within the human soul. It confronts us with things and it does not always create comfort, sometimes it creates discomfort. I call us to a point.
I have to say, I think His calling to us to become truth seekers is one of those things that will cause us to decide how we respond. Whether or not we are willing to face some fears and courageously step forward. I say that because to me, this perhaps more than most is a rather personal topic or theme. I have had a relationship with the truth. I think we all have relationships with truth. Before I came to a point of faith, I have to tell you, and I’m not happy about this, it’s quite embarrassing. Before I knew Jesus, I tended to avoid the truth. Wherever I sniffed it out, wherever I felt it, I tended to hide from it. I tended to pretend it wasn’t there or that I wasn’t aware. I would behave aloof to it. I tried to mask it. I tried to cover it up. I became a person who, well, certainly in my youth was rather adept at figuring out how to hide, pretend, deny, lie, and twist it.
It wasn’t until I came to a point of faith that actually that it started to shift in my own life. The bottom line was that I was uncomfortable with it. Why? Because we live in a society today where we want to know what people are saying and living what is true. Things are examined extensively. Everything is brought out of the woodwork and put into the open because we want to make sure they are being truthful. We live in that. That is the society we live in. Simultaneously, we have an increasingly hard time looking at what is true within. Declaring what is true about us individually and being comfortable with what is true in our soul. I was there, many times I’m still there. That tension point is the tension point I would love for us to explore because it was when I came to a point of faith that I actually discovered. I found it impossible to step into a point of personal truth before experiencing the amazing grace of Jesus.
Only when I received the grace of God in my own life did I find myself feeling safe enough to start acknowledging things. To start recognizing things and step into moments of honesty, not about others, but about me. That was the hinge point. That was the turning point. The thing is, here I am over 20 years later and I have to say that process for me, it still happens. I think it’s only in the confines of safety that we are comfortable becoming seekers of truth, not of the externals, but the internals. This is something that I share because I don’t think I’m alone. I think most of us are afraid. I think it’s safe to say that we feel far more comfortable fearing what is true about us, avoiding and denying it than we are declaring it.
It’s why, I think in our society when we see somebody who steps into that moment, they own themselves and everything about them. They declare it is something inside of us that perks up. Have you noticed that? Something inside of us pays attention, what is that? How did they get it? How do I get it? We see and admire it, when somebody steps into the public scene, not lying, but acknowledging, affirming, and declaring, something inside of us is inspired. Why? Because it’s so rare. It’s increasingly rare. That’s why for me, as we explore Stephen’s life, my true, genuine hope and prayer is that we may sense something of arising courage within our own soul. To say, I want to be more of that. How are you even convinced God wants us to become bold true seekers? That always begins at a personal level before it ever becomes a public thing. In fact, if you open your hand out, I think we’re getting to see an example of what this might look like.
We see it in Acts 6:8. We’ll just jump right into it from the very beginning here. We’re told in verse eight that Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. We have to know this, Stephen was one of seven men entrusted with the distribution of goods in his community of faith. He was a man of integrity and trustworthiness. He was a man of high character, but he was also a man of faith. What we’re led to believe here is that Stephen was a man that rose head and shoulders above all his other peers. Why? Because we’re told he was full of God’s grace. Look at this combination, grace, and power, power that showed up through amazing miracles and signs among the people. Luke says that there was external evidence to what was going on within his soul internally.
We’re told in verse nine, “but one day, as he is serving the community of faith, some men from the synagogue of freed slaves,” which is another way of saying this was a gathering of men and women who were either descendants of former slaves or had themselves been slaves and were now free. These men and women came from the synagogue of freed slaves as it was called. We’re told that they were the ones that Stephen was with. They started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia. They were from all different parts of the world. In fact, I asked them to give us an idea of what this might look like visually. Jerusalem would be the epicenter of this movement of Jesus.
In that time, in the Roman Empire, there were extensive roads were created. The famous, ‘all roads lead to Rome’ was the reality of the day. That created an extensive empirical reach, which meant that people could freely, for one of the first times in history, mobilize themselves in ways they could not before. There were people from all over. You could see it from east of Jerusalem and the Northern parts of Africa. They were there and a part of this synagogue of former slaves or descendants of former slaves. They were in opposition to what Stephen was saying. Here is the context. We’re told that as they are opposing him, verse 10, none of them could stand against the wisdom and the spirit with which Stephen spoke. It’s another way of saying they debated and debated and debated, but they could never undermine him.
Stephen continually held his ground and was able to resist their desire to silence, marginalize, or discredit him. They went head-on in opposition to what Stephen was talking about. What was he speaking about? He was speaking about Jesus and recognizing that they were unable to oppose Him. We’re told in verse 11 that they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen saying, we heard him blaspheme Moses and even God. It’s one of these fascinating accounts where it’s put there front and center. They could not oppose Jesus on the basis of facts, so they sought to undermine and silence this movement by moving toward deception and lies. It’s an interesting thing. In my opinion, it is a difficult challenge to oppose Jesus’s voice and reality with truth. We can’t do it. The only way to do it is to move into deception. This is what they did. They employed a tactic as old as time.
They may have leveraged some influence over a couple of people, holding certain things over them, perhaps a suggestion laced with a threat. ‘We know this about you, but if you help us, no one else will know. All you have to do is say what we tell you to say, will you do that?’ They readily acquiesce and we’re told here that as they step into what they know not to be true, they step into a lie. Verse 12, they proclaim this. ‘We heard him blaspheme Moses and even God, this roused the people, the elders, and teachers of religious law, and they arrested Stephen.’ They brought him before the high council, the Sanhedrin, the most powerful political arm and religious institution in his day. The lying witnesses said, verse 13, “This man is always speaking against the holy temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
In order for us to truly try to grasp the gravity of what’s going on here, they’re falsely accusing Stephen. They’re touching on the two most sacred pillars of their society. They’re basically saying, the temple and mosaic law are in danger under this man’s teaching. This Jesus he talks about opposes it all. It would be the equivalent of somebody being falsely accused of one of the most polarizing topics of today’s politically charged environment. It would be the equivalent of somebody being charged with racism or sexism. It’s a death blow to one’s reputation; to recover from that is next to impossible. They knew what they were doing. They employed the hardest blow they could to Stephen. It had its desired effect. The entire body became roused with frustration, anger, accusation, and skepticism. There was so much going on. A storm started brewing as they brought Stephen before the Sanhedrin. It allowed the accusers to vocalize what they were saying.
All the while, as this crowd is becoming very much enraged with what is going on, you see Stephen and the contrast is actually amazing. We’re told in verse 15, that at this point, everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, not unlike a dominating intimidating stare. What they see is not a man who was afraid, what do they see? They see something else. Instead of trying to dominate him, they are attracted to him. Why? Because his face became as bright as an angel. This is to say that there was Stephen in the midst of the storm, brewing all around him, outside of his control, about to truly threaten or decimate him. The best way Luke can describe it is his face was as bright as an Angel’s face. In my opinion, it’s his way of saying, this was going on. Heaven was paying attention and Stephen wasn’t alone. The reflection, this is the insinuation. Angelic brightness is coming off his face, peaceful, strong, secure, it’s remarkable.
In the face of such severe opposition and intimidation, we’re told in verse one of the following chapter that the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these accusations true?” Stephen ends up giving the most extensive oral history of Israel. It’s a fascinating recounting. The theme that he continues to drum and hit throughout his entire recounting of Israel’s history is essentially this. God has been trying to reach you for the entirety of your existence. He has been rejected by you more times than we can say. In His kindness, grace, and love for you, He has sent men and women to you, prophets. He has sent people to reach, pull, speak, and love you. Every single time that this has happened, our people have rejected and resisted Him.
In fact, he says, and it epitomizes, this has been the course of history as God has lovingly truthfully extended His arm toward us, we have resisted it. In verse 37, we’re told he says, ‘Moses himself told the people of Israel, God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people. But even then our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. It’s not Jesus who’s opposed to Moses it’s us. They rejected and wanted to return him to Egypt.’ They rejected him and the one he spoke of. He’s speaking and pointing toward the Messiah who is Jesus. Stephen begins at a point of peace, truth, and grace. He tries to lovingly speak to them. It culminates in the most severe rebuke he could ever deliver to the most powerful body present in front of him. It’s remarkable evidence of what conviction can do and how much power truly comes out of integrity.
In verse 51, he says, “you stubborn people. You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. You can no longer hear it. You’ve been so resistant, you can’t hear it anymore. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, don’t you get it? That’s what you’re doing right now. Name one prophet our ancestors didn’t persecute. They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the righteous one, the Messiah, whom you betrayed and murdered, not but months ago. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels. Now you’re resisting this.” Do you know what Stephen is doing? Stephen is not in any way, stepping into the trap of defending himself. Instead, he recognized they weren’t opposing him, they were opposing the one he spoke about. They were opposing Jesus. Jesus, Stephen basically says, needs no defense. Really, it says more about you than it does about Jesus, how you are responding right now.
It says a lot about your heart and inability to hear and recognize truth when it’s right in front of you. In my opinion, Stephen is saying this with boldness and compassion. In that, you know their response as he calls them out. Their response is indicative of exactly what he was saying. In verse 54, we’re told the Jewish leaders were infuriated with Stephen’s accusations, and they shook their fists at him with rage. Which in my mind, I don’t know if you’ve ever been called out by somebody with something you didn’t want to be called out for. Has that ever happened? I don’t know how many of us are happy when that happens. I think they are very human in their response. We might be a little bit more like them than we might be willing to recognize and admit. They were so angry and enraged. These sophisticated political beings of high means, status, and power lost their cool.
So penetrating were the words, so on the nose, they had to decide and they made the decision. We’ll see in the coming week. I want to think about this in a different way. I want to say that this serves as an example. Stephen is an amazing figure here. I don’t know if this is what we are or that we’ll never be in that situation. But it does represent something to us. It does eliminate what it looks like to be on this faith journey. Whether we are people on a faith journey, no matter where we might be, we need to know a couple of things that this brings to the surface. One, Sean, put it out there, skepticism. Skepticism is not a threat to Jesus. Jesus is never threatened by questions, doubts, or the intrigue of wanting to push against what is stated, ever. He’s never threatened.
He’s absolutely secure with who He is and capable of handling any examination. Any examination we might want to give, Jesus is not threatened by skepticism. Thank God, that’s the case. But I’ll tell you what, stubbornness is a threat to faith. There is a difference from skepticism. In my opinion, I think Stephen started out as a skeptic. I think he was one who had questions and doubts. He asked, prodded, and pushed. When he came to know Jesus, not all of his questions were answered, but enough were for him to discover there’s something we’re trusting. There’s somebody who’s worth following. As he followed and came to know Jesus, he applied Jesus’ word to his own life. This skeptic became one who followed and then loved Jesus. The one who may have at one point in his life, not really wondered or was sure about who Jesus is, became one who’s an advocate of Jesus.
Stephen was willing to say whatever needed to be said that was true about Jesus. He knew it to be true in his own soul. For Stephen, it wasn’t an external reality. It was internal. For many of us, this is a large categorization. There are many things here that may not be 100% true, but I think it’s safe to say there are many people who are ambivalent to Jesus and His ways. God desires to entice and awaken a desire. There are those of us who are curious about Jesus and His ways. I would say we’re the skeptics. God welcomes the questions. He welcomes us to push back, press in, and make sure that what we’re hearing is real and true. He welcomes it and meets us there. I would say if they’re ambivalent and curious, then there are also those who are opposed. There are those who are opposed.
The difference is clear. It has to do with openness because all of us have a preconceived set of beliefs. None of us come to faith or come to explore faith without an already established set of things we believe to be true. Put into that, the time in which we live, and our culture has really strong things to say of what we should adopt to be true. Put our own emotions into things, our own backgrounds in our families, in our education, you put everything in, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a place where we have to decide what is true. In that place, it is healthy to push, prod, challenge, question, and doubt. It’s healthy. The only difference between skepticism and stubbornness is skepticism says, I will push and I will allow you to push back. I will question, and I will allow you to question back. I will explore, and I will allow you to explore.
Stubbornness says, no. What I say is, ‘end of discussion.’ That’s the place that will never allow faith to arise. Skepticism though, I know I would be a lifer in that club and you know what? Jesus is okay with that. I envy the ones who don’t ‘not’ question. They believe without having to have questions answered. I really envy them. It reminds me of my daughter when she’s sitting on the edge of the pool, but sometimes she just leans in and jumps. I catch her sitting on the edge of something and she just goes for it. You know God meets us in both places. We have to know this. There is a difference. There’s a thin line. We have to be very cautious of it. Secondly, do you know what this reminds us of? The fact that lies produce fear, and truth produces freedom.
What does that mean? It means that a lot of times, the reason we run away from the truth is, because we’re afraid. In our fear, do you know what we do? We create lies. In all the lies that we weave, whenever those lies are threatened, you know what happens? That fear starts to become something of anger, frustration, anxiety, and stress. It creates this storm. It’s no surprise to me that the Sanhedrin and the ones opposing Jesus were the ones who decided to incorporate deception. They were the ones who became enraged. They had all the power and were enraged. Why? Because they were afraid. Yet the one who had received the grace of God in his own life by first admitting what was true about Jesus. But what was true about his own needs first. Before he ever had to affirm what was true about Jesus publicly, he had to affirm what was true about his need privately.
In that place, he received the grace of God. He received the one who met him in his need. Whether we’re familiar with grace, church, faith, or what it looks like to follow Jesus, we might think it’s all about forgiveness. The best way I can put it is, forgiveness gets us to zero balance. We were in debt and forgiveness gets us to zero balance. That’s great, no more debt. But then I need to buy something I don’t have, so I go back into debt. Forgiveness only goes so far is my point. Do you know what grace does? Grace says, all right, you’re forgiven, you are at zero. You own nothing now. You don’t have to earn anything anymore. You don’t have to pay back anything. It’s gone and forgiven. Grace says, now you have far more resources in the areas of virtue, life, passion, purpose, strength, forgiveness, mercy, and gentleness.
Now, you are filled to the brim overflowing with something coming out. Jesus said, it’s like a fountain birthing out of you of living water. It will come out of you endlessly, perpetually, and as an ever renewable resource. That is what grace looks like. In that place, something inside of us starts to feel safe enough to say, if this is true, then I’m going to go ahead and examine what else is true about me. What we discover is that truth humbles us, grace lifts and fuels us, truth strengthens and fortifies us. Grace covers us. Truth can break us, but grace restores us. Truth protects us and grace feeds us. Jesus did not come as one with a sledgehammer of truth. He came with a delicate balance of grace and truth to set us free. Freedom always leads to courage, always.
We may see society around us in need, but we have to understand before we could ever help those around us. We must receive what Jesus wants to do inside of us. We must be able to boldly stand in it, live in it, and affirm it. With Jesus, truth is always on our side, always. I think it’s safe to say the Sanhedrin felt Jesus was opposed to them and so they resisted Him. In the resistance of Him, they became convinced that He was against them. Stephen discovered Jesus is for him. In discovering that Jesus was for him, he became one who received Him. He received everything about Jesus and everything Jesus said about him. Jesus is the one who gave it all for us. He didn’t give it all to oppose us. He gave it all because He’s for us.
Do you know what the truth says ultimately? We’re so afraid of what it’s going to say about us or not say about us, but in Jesus, it says we are loved. It says we have a purpose. It says that we are being created with value, intrinsic value. Every human being on the planet has been created with value beyond its recognition. It says that we have courage we do not know of because the spirit of the living God lives inside of us, that is the truth. It says that our weaknesses will never push Him away. Our flaws are never able to overcome His ability to create wholeness. Our darkness can never snuff out His light. That is His truth. It says that our past will not dominate our future. It says that we no longer need to live in the past, we can live in the present with hope in the future. It says that He is the one who is completely 100% true. Because truth is not an idea or a concept or a theory. The truth is a person and truth declared, I will never leave you. I will never forsake you because I am for you.
He invites us to seek Him to become truth seekers. May that be the case. I want to pray. God, thank you for the way that you are able to meet us with a gentleness and grace that never condemns but promises life eternal. I pray that you would help us God courageously respond to you and receive all that you say is true about us because of what you did on the cross and in the resurrection. We ask for this in Jesus’ name. Amen.