Monday, October 25, 2010

Sermon: The Stories God Tells

(Note: Every now and again, I’m asked to preach at a local retirement center.  I haven’t had any blog updates for a while, so I figured I’d post the sermon that I preached yesterday.)


For a long time, one particular aspect of the story of Stephen has puzzled me greatly. I suppose we all know who Stephen was – the first martyr of the church – and we’ve heard his story many times since our Sunday School days. As you will likely recall, Stephen was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit who had been selected by the Apostles as a deacon, a servant of the church. His main responsibility was to administer the church’s care and feeding of the poor and needy, to tend for the widows who had nobody else to help them. Despite this “day job”, however, Stephen found time to do some preaching and evangelizing on the side, and it wasn’t long before his outspoken proclamation and defense of the apostolic message landed him in trouble with the same authorities who had quite recently been responsible for Jesus’ death.

The accusations leveled against Stephen were certainly plausible enough. His accusers had two primary charges: they claimed first that he had blasphemed the law of Moses; and second, that he had blasphemed the holy temple in Jerusalem. Luke identifies those making the accusations as “false witnesses”, but this may be a critique more of their motives than of the actual content of their testimony, because what they accused Stephen of saying did not go very far at all beyond what Jesus Himself had to say.

But here’s the part that’s always puzzled me. Imagine for a moment that you’re Stephen, called before the Sanhedrin, on trial for your life. What would you say? How would you respond to these charges? I suppose one option would be to deny that you had actually said the things of which you were accused. Another would be to clarify your earlier statements. And I suppose a third, gutsier alternative would be to repeat your controversial views, to re-assert emphatically what had already gotten you into trouble. But Stephen doesn’t do any of these things. What he does do is something else altogether.

The Jewish Story

Stephen tells a story. And not even a new story. He starts by telling the oldest story of them all, a story that everyone listening would have known since childhood. Stephen tells about how God called Abraham out of the land of Ur, and promised him, against all odds, a land that his descendants would inherit. He tells, at some length and in great detail, how God brought first Joseph and then Jacob down to the land of Egypt, then how God brought them back out again through the leadership of Moses. He tells how the people rebelled against Moses, and were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years, before God finally brought them into the land He had promised Abraham, generations and generations before. And he tells about how Solomon built a temple for God, before the people rebelled once again, and were led into exile in Babylon.

As I said, it’s always puzzled me why Stephen frames his reply in this way. On the surface, he doesn’t seem to be saying anything new, and certainly isn’t telling anyone in the Sanhedrin anything they don’t know quite as well as he does. But Stephen, we must remember, was a Jew, and being a Jew means that you come from a long line of professional debaters. Stephen was the heir to centuries of subtle and sophisticated arguments. The rabbis didn’t need to draw out every train of thought, they didn’t need their opponents to make every implication perfectly clear. When you’ve been arguing about the Law for as long as the Jews have, a nudge, a hint, an allusion is sufficient to get your point across. And Stephen’s speech contains quite a few hints and number of not-so-subtle nudges. So as I read through this chapter recently, I noticed that Stephen tells the story in a very particular way, simply through his selection of incidents and passages from the Old Testament. And as I thought about how he was telling the story, I began to piece together his motives for conducting his defense in this way.

Reason #1: Critique of the Temple

Stephen’s first motive for conducting his survey of Jewish history was to point out that the temple was not perhaps all that his accusers thought that it was. For starters, he says, the temple was not a part of the most ancient Jewish traditions. It played no part in the religion of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph. God commanded Moses to build, not a temple, but a tabernacle: not an expensive building which was confined to one place and which could never move, but an inexpensive tent, which was always on the move, a mobile sanctuary that would serve as a constant reminder that Yahweh was not the God of a special place, but the God of a special people. God commanded Moses to build a tent, a σκηνη; David wanted to build him a dwelling place, a σκηνομα: but what Solomon built Him was a temple. At one point, Stephen quotes an accusation made by the prophet Amos that the Israelites had “built a tabernacle for Moloch”, one of the ancient and brutal gods worshiped by Israel’s neighbors. In quoting this accusation, Stephen comes perilously close to saying that the temple itself was pagan. The burning bush was holy, Stephen says; the tabernacle was holy; the temple, by implication, not so much.

Reason #2: Critique of the Jewish Leadership

Stephen’s second motive in retelling the story of the Jewish people was simply to point out that what had happened to Jesus was not at all out of the ordinary. Stephen knew that the real motive behind his trial was not whether he had said ‘x’ or ‘y’ about the temple, but rather his contention that the Jewish leaders had killed the very Son of God. Through his retelling of the story of Jewish history, Stephen made it clear that Jesus was not the first hero chosen by God to be rejected by the establishment. Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers. Moses had to flee Egypt when a fellow Israelite threatened to turn him in. Later, the Israelites again rejected Moses’ authority, and were forced to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness as punishment. And even after they had taken possession of the land God had promised to Abraham, the people continued to rebel against the prophets, until the whole nation came to disaster. In other words, Stephen is saying, the fact that the Jewish leaders wouldn’t accept Jesus’ message proved nothing about whether Jesus’ words were true. “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” Stephen asks, and the story that he has just told makes the answer uncomfortably clear.

Reason #3: Affirmation of the Jewish Story

But I think the final reason for Stephen’s long historical discourse is to make it clear to his accusers that, like them, he was himself a faithful Jew. He recited the long story of Jewish origins, their failures featured prominently against God’s faithfulness, so that his judges would know that he was one of them. Stephen told a story because stories define who we are. All of us, you and I as much as Stephen and the Sanhedrin, know who we are because of what we have been. I know that I am a father, because I can tell you the story of the long years when my wife and I tried to have children and failed; and how God worked to bring three children into our life who are as amazing as they are exhausting. That story of past sorrow and present joy and ongoing toil tells me who I am; and in the same way, the Jewish story of sin followed by slavery followed by rescue followed by more sin, over and over, told the Jews of the first century who they were.

Nor have they yet forgotten these stories: every year, at Passover, the Jewish people tell each other, We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. In the same way, Stephen begins his speech by saying, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia.” These words give Stephen’s message and his trial a context: they place him and his hearers within the great story of God’s action and self-revelation throughout history. They show that Stephen worshiped the same God, revered the same Scriptures, and followed the same teachings. For all Stephen’s critique of the temple and of the current Jewish leadership, he wants to be clear that his faith in Jesus makes him nothing more and nothing less than a faithful, observant Jew. Stephen recounted the story of the Jewish people to the Jewish leaders because it was not just history: it was his story.

The Jesus Story

We all have our stories. I love to sit and listen to the ones my grandfather tells about his childhood in Montana, how he survived the Great Depression, about the winter he spent gold mining on the Salmon River in Idaho. He tells great stories about how he eloped with my grandmother the week after she graduated from high school, about how they moved to Oregon and bought property and built a house and raised a family. I love stories, and our family is famous for telling them.

But sometimes we find ourselves in stories that we didn’t expect. My grandfather’s story isn’t over yet, but it’s taken a hard turn. About fifteen years ago, he lost his eyesight. Five years ago, he broke his ankle, and began using a cane. Three years ago, he lost his beloved wife of 70 some years to cancer. Two years ago, he broke his hip. Last year, he had to leave the property he had owned for 60 years. The brilliant and brash young man who conquered his wife’s heart as easily as he conquered the Salmon River is now lonely, crippled and blind. Every day, he hurts. Every day, he cries. Last week, he asked me, “Ken, why won’t God just take me home?” People like to hear his stories about how, during the Great Depression, he found work and a wife and a home. Nobody wants to hear stories about how he has now lost his work, his wife, and his home. People like to hear about how he cheated death hunting in the mountains. Nobody wants to hear about how he now longs for death to take him. Not all of our stories have the simple, happy endings that we would choose.

Stephen found himself in the middle of just such a painful story. Stephen was a young, ambitious, charismatic follower of Jesus. He was intelligent, well-spoken, and persuasive. He was full of confidence and excitement about the Lord in whom he had come to believe. Yet the situation in which he found himself was one nobody could relish. His confession of faith in Jesus, his rejection of the Jerusalem temple, his criticism of the Jewish leadership, was all quite likely to lead to his death; and he knew this. So why did Stephen speak so boldly and without fear? Stoning is a horrible death. So why was Stephen so reckless with his life?

I think it was because Stephen recognized the story that he was in. He had seen this happen before, and he knew the ending. Everything that was happening to him had already happened to Jesus. Like Jesus, Stephen had been accused of wanting to destroy the temple and to abolish the Law of Moses. Like Jesus, Stephen had been hauled in front of the Sanhedrin where he was confronted by false witnesses. Like Jesus, Stephen was scorned by the High Priest, then looked up to heaven and spoke of the coming of the Son of Man. Like Jesus, Stephen commended his spirit into God’s hands. And like Jesus, Stephen asked God to forgive the very people who were killing him.

Stephen, you see, is not just the archetype of every Christian martyr. Stephen is the archetype of every Christian. Not every Christian will be hauled before the Sanhedrin: but every Christian is called to be crucified with Christ. Jesus said, “If any man would be my disciple, let him first deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ; and nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ who lives inside me.” You see, each of us is living out a part of the story of Jesus. At times, each of us finds ourselves praying in Gethsemane, wincing under the lash, standing silent before our accusers, stumbling down the Via Dolorosa. Each of us carries within our hearts a small sliver of the cross on which God died.

I don’t know your story. Maybe it includes a divorce. Perhaps you’re estranged from your children. Maybe you’ve watched your husband die. Maybe you’ve had to move out of your house, feel your health decline, your eyesight fail, your mobility and independence fade. Whoever we are and whatever we’ve done, there are parts of our stories that we can only wish were different. But it’s precisely when we walk through these parts of our stories that we walk closest to Jesus. The scenes from our stories which are the most painful to endure are the parts which most closely resemble the story that God told when He came to earth. I don’t know why God hasn’t called my grandfather home yet: but I know that even in his present suffering, he is partaking of the life and the death and the resurrection of our Messiah.

And if our story really is the story of Jesus – if all our pains and sorrows and disappointments are really the hand of God working through us – then there is another conclusion we must also draw. We are not just in God’s story: God is in our story. We are not just carrying the cross of Christ: Jesus is also carrying our cross. We may sometimes be blessed to play the role of Simon of Cyrene, and suffer with our Lord through his tribulations: but more often, I expect, we find Jesus suffering with us through our tribulations: alongside us, inside us, lifting us up, giving strength to our stumbling feet, courage to our faltering hearts, steel to our fading wills. For wherever we are, our Lord has been there too; and whatever our story, it is the story of our Lord. And if we turn our eyes to heaven, like Stephen, we may yet see the Son of Man coming in glory, with all his angels.

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