Witness Statement - Acts 7
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Witness Statement – 10.24.2021
In confirmation, we do this activity called a Faith Map. Basically the way it works is that we try to map out the highs and lows of our faith journey. We start out somewhere, and then as we live there are often key pivotal moments where our faith is strengthened or even damaged. I’m going to put a picture up of a sample faith map. This is similar to my journey. There are peaks when I got baptized, when I gave my life to Christ. There are valleys, like when I had the death of a family member or when I got to college and went through a period of deconstructing and doubt. The reason I wanted to show you this today is that so many people seem to assume that faith – once you come to know Jesus – faith is just a steady upward slope – always growing closer to Jesus. And in once sense it is true, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life IS a process of growing steadily more and more Christ-like. Steadily more and more like Jesus. But what the faith map illustrates is that journey of loving Jesus with all our heart and all out mind and all our soul, that journey in each of our lives is not a clean move in one direction. There are mountains and valleys in every story.
In fact, this truth has more depth than you might realize. I think I’ve taught you this before – but I want to go over it again. Every single story ever written follows the same pattern. There are always exceptions that prove the rule – but basically every story starts out, there is a struggle, a problem of some sort, and then they fix the problem. [move your hands out, down, then up] The Little mermaid: starts out, daddy won’t let her hang out with humans, marries the prince. Every superhero movie ever: starts out, superhero is sad because they don’t have powers, can’t get the girl, not popular enough, whatever, saves the world. In fact this rhythm is so engrained in the fabric of our universe – that there’s a churchy phrase for it. Creation. Fall. Redemption. This the story of our universe, the meta-narrative of the world and everything in it. The bible starts out, we fell and then God redeems us. Creation Fall Redemption. This is the rhythm of life. In all of our lives, we have been created, we fall and then we get picked up again. Creation. Fall. Redemption. And not just in our whole lives, but in every single day – we start out with a good day, we mess it up, we seek redemption. I would guess some of us catch this rhythm several times in the same day. In fact, let’s put that on the screen. Creation. Fall. Redemption. And if you repeat it. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Do you see it? Drawn as a line, like a Faith Map, the rhythm of our spiritual journey becomes the heartbeat of life. Creation. Fall. Redemption.
The reason I bring all of this up, is that today is part three of our sermon series called Origins Stories, where we are reading through the book of Acts. We’ve been reading this book, chapter by chapter, and today we are diving into chapter 7. But as we go along, we see the apostles doing all these incredible things – the early church exploding in size, performing miracles and all this incredible stuff. And sometimes we look at that, and then we look at our lives, we look at our faith journey and it pales in comparison. We think - I’m not like those guys – my journey has valleys, sometimes I have doubts, sometimes I have seasons where I feel like God is so far away, or I even wonder about whether this is all real. Whether this is all worth it. We compare ourselves to the biblical example, and it really messes with our heads. But today I really just want to show you one key fact – every story has a fall. The Old testament patriarchs, the new testament disciples and every single one of our lives – every story has a fall. Let’s take a look.
Now, to understand this chapter we need to remember the introduction we were given last week. We saw this guy Stephen, who was a leader in the early church, helping out with the food distribution. And some folks from a different religious group started spreading rumors about Stephen, in order to get him in trouble. Back in verse 14, they accuse him [read v.14]. And all the church leaders, and all the church people heard “change the customs” and they freak out – because if there’s one cardinal sin in organized religion, it’s changing the customs. So they arrest Stephen, and that’s where we start our chapter. They come to him in verse 1, [read v.1-2a]. This was Stephen’s reply. Sort of a greatest hits of the Old Testament.
The first 8 verses he talks about the story of Abraham – how God came to him and promised, “I will make a great nation out of you.” In fact, in verse 6 there’s this odd part where God warns Abraham – I’m going to make a great nation out of you – but they’re going to be slaves for a while. And when I was reading it, I couldn’t get this picture out of my mind. It was almost like God approached Abraham, and they’re sitting on the front porch outside of time – looking out over the vast history that hasn’t happened yet. And God brings Abraham a cup of coffee, and they sip it together and God tells Abraham, “I promise, I will watch over your family, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Then he moves down to Joseph – and gives an overview of the story of what happened to him. If you don’t remember – Joseph was an incredible man of God, and God was with him every single step of the way, but his story was a roller coaster of mountains and valleys. First he was his Father’s favorite son, then his brothers sell him into slavery. Then he was freed and put in charge of all Egypt, but then there was a famine, but God had helped them prepare for it – so there were supplies. The end of verse 9 it says, [read v.9b-10a]. It doesn’t say that God prevented his troubles, but rather that God was with Joseph every step of the journey.
Then Stephen moves to the next step in history in verses 20 to 36. The end of the story of Joseph, all of Israel is living in Egypt and they are treated like equals, heroes even. But over time, the people of Israel become servants and then slaves to the Egyptian Pharaohs. 400 years go by and Israel has been enslaved. So then the story moves to Moses. Another hero of the faith. Another man of God – who I’m sure had a story that was nothing but steady growth for his entire life. Getting holier and holier every single day. (not quite). Moses started out oppressed – his family was ordered to kill him. His mother saved him, and he was raised by Pharoah’s daughter. Then Moses accidentally kills a man while trying to defend this other guy – and so he flees from home. Years later, God brings Moses back through the burning bush and uses Moses to set the people of Israel free. [use the hand movements] Almost killed as a baby. Saved. Accidentally murders a guy. Burning Bush. Do you notice a trend yet? God was with Moses every step of the journey. Just like Joseph. Just like Abraham.
We get to verse 38, Moses has led the people out of slavery and to the mountain of God. [read v.38]. Moses has now been given the stone tablets with the ten commandments. Instructions from God on how to live – surely from here on out it will be nothing but a steady progression of growth. A perfect life of growing always closer to God every single day. NOPE! Literally in the next verse, [read v.39-40]. They make idols and worship those instead. They abandon worshipping God and so he leads them into exile. Another mountain. Another valley.
So that’s the history lesson, but before Stephen returns to the courtroom – he has one more thing to show us. Verse 44 he starts talking about the tabernacle. If you don’t know, the tabernacle was like a really fancy tent. It was what they used for worship. And so when they were wandering in the wilderness, they would set up this tent and that’s where God dwelled. Then during the reign of King David and his son Solomon – they got to work on the temple. They built this huge temple and THAT’s where God dwelled. But then he brings it home in verse 48. [read v.48-50]. Here’s what I think he was trying to get at – God’s power and presence can handle your mountains and valleys. There’s nothing you can say or do that’s going to make God less God. If you remember, the reason they were freaking out is that Stephen was accused of messing with the temple and the customs and Stephen is trying to show them – temples and customs don’t make God, God. No matter what happens, God is still God – God is still in control and he is still with you every step of the journey.
THEN, Stephen takes a bold step. Remember, he is basically on trial. The church leaders are accusing him and this is his witness statement. And rather than justify himself – he ACCUSES them! [read v.51-53]. Oh, they didn’t like that! The next verses uses one of my favorite phrases. [read v.54]. I just love that visual. Shaking fists – how dare you accuse us of doing something wrong. Grrrr. *shake fists* Now, let me take this and bring it into our lives today. This accusation from Stephen is not just for the church leaders two thousand years ago. This applies to us too. There are moments in each of our lives where we have turned away from God – it says “deliberately disobeyed God’s law.” I’m talking about that moment in life, when we make a mistake – but maybe you made the mistake on purpose – because we wanted to do it. Some of the valleys in life are just a part of life, and some of them are holes we dug for ourselves. The Holy Spirit shows up in our lives, and convicts us – shows us where we went wrong. And in that moment, there’s two choices. You can repent. Come back to God, apologize and accept his grace and his forgiveness – or you can reject that love. Let’s see what the Pharisees do.
Stephen looks up at heaven and says, [read v.56-58]. I just want you to take a second and picture this moment in history. The Jewish leaders put their hands over their ears and began shouting. [put hands over ears] Lalalalala-I can’t hear you-lalalala. You know who else does that? My 5 year old. Literally, the Jewish leaders are responding to accusations and someone pointing out their sin – they are responding like toddlers! Right? This is the progression - if my little guy doesn’t want to hear something – he covers his ears. And then – if you keep talking, usually he will lash out. I don’t like that, and he’ll throw a toy or try to break something. As devastating as this moment is Their sins are laid bare – they have nowhere else to run, and so they lash out. [read v.59-60]. Now we could let this story stay in the past, but I think this is so incredible relatable. We are the Jewish leaders. When it comes to the sin in our lives, we are the toddler lashing out. We can’t handle the truth. But what I want you to realize is that when we look at our sins – the valleys we have dug with out own two hands – there is another option. God has been with us every step of the way. God doesn’t bring our sins to light in order to make us feel bad. God sheds light on our sins – so we can get rid of them! We can take our valleys and give them to Jesus. We can take our sins, and give them to Jesus. Even though we want to cover our ears and scream and lash out – because we cannot handle the truth of our troubles – Jesus is with us every step of the journey. If you will repent of your sins, Jesus’ mercy and grace is just waiting to pull you out of that valley. When we are confronted, like the Jewish leaders were, it is our choice how we respond to the accusations. The grace of Jesus is there, waiting for you to call on his name.
The good news that we find all over every story this chapter covers is that God is with you, every step of the journey. If you’re ever looking at your life and feeling down on yourself – man, why doesn’t MY faith look like the early church? Why doesn’t MY life match up with these awesome stories I see in the bible? I submit to you that if your life has ups and downs, good days and bad days – then your life DOES match up. Your life DOES look like the early church. We tend to romanticize these stories because they happened a long time ago – but the truth is that they struggled just like you and I struggle. Bad days are not a sign of defeat – they are an indication that the story is not quite over yet. Whether your doing great and every day is a mountain top experience – or your barely hanging on, God is with you every step of the journey.
And I want to mention. The fact that God is with us all the time – on the good days and on the bad days – that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. That doesn’t mean that he shrugs while he apathetically watches us ride the roller coaster of life. God rides that roller coaster right next to us. He gets angry when we sin, he delights when we repent. God’s constant presence doesn’t mean he is indifferent – it means that you don’t have to walk this path alone. You are never too far gone to come home to Jesus.
There are two challenges from the text this morning. First – remember your heartbeat. The mountains and valleys we experience in life are not abnormal. They are the rhythm of life on this side of eternity. I hope you can look back at the history of Israel and find comfort in the fact that if God can stay with Israel through all their highs and all their lows – God can do the same for you. Maybe your faith map isn’t this beautiful chart of steady growth, but rather an erratic journey full of mistakes and bumps and bruises – if that’s the case, you’re in very good company. Remember your heartbeat, the rise and fall of every story. God was with Abraham every step of the way. God was with Joseph every step of the way. With Moses. With Stephen. With you. Remember your heartbeat.
The second challenge for us this morning is that when you find sin in your life – don’t cover your ears or shake your fists, but instead repent and trust in Jesus. God has been with you for every single step, and for every single mis-step. There’s a theory in psychology that children invent the concept of lying because they cannot handle the truth. When they are faced with a conflict – “died you break that lamp?” They can’t process the truth – if I tell the truth I’ll get in trouble, if I tell the truth there will be anger, there will be consequences. And so, it’s literally a moment to mark the development of a child’s brain – when they come up with the idea of lying. Even if it’s totally obvious – that doesn’t matter to them, they have to try and avoid the consequences. And even though years have gone by and we’re not little kids anymore – when we are faced with our sins, we have the same reaction. Cover my ears, lash out, run away – anything to avoid facing the truth. But there is a better option. When you find yourself in a hole you dug for yourself. When you are faced with the hard truth that you, in your life, have turned away from God, you have sinned, you have mis-stepped – don’t cover your ears, but instead repent and trust in Jesus. He’s not going to be shocked by your sins – he was right next to you all along, and he’ll still be there for the next step too.
Stephen is most famous for dying as the very first martyr for the faith. The very first Christian to give up his life because loving Jesus was worth changing his entire life. It’s a sad story, you might even say horrifying or terrible. But honestly? Maybe this just came at a weird moment for me – but I found this story to be a relief. A reminder that even in the bible stories we all know and love, even with the big-name heroes of the faith, even then, the journey of faith was not a straight line. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you look back over history, and remember your heartbeat. May draw comfort from those who have gone on before – and that realization that God is with you every step of the journey. And finally, when you find sin in your life, may you have the courage to not cover your ears, not shake your fists, but turn to Jesus and follow him out of the valley. Amen.