sermon

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

 

Of Crows and Cardinals

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18

To the world, the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

I like cake very much, particularly yellow cake with chocolate frosting. My wife knows this, and being an excellent baker and cook, she sometimes makes yellow cakes with chocolate frosting from scratch for me, a loving and time-consuming act in a Duncan Hines culture.

They usually do not last long. But shortly after she made the most recent one, I caught that nasty stomach virus that has been going around. With my first and second child out of the house and my third child very sick with a cold, half the cake went stale before being eaten.

When I recovered, I found the remaining cake in its container. Not wanting it to be completely wasted, I carved the chocolate icing off the top, crumbled the cake, and scattered it in the front yard, where I could watch the birds eat it from the parsonage’s front window as I worked.

This was Thursday, Jan. 30, the last of the bitterly cold days we’ve experienced in Northeast Tennessee. I figured the birds would be quite hungry for yellow cake at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Hey, I usually am. And as I scattered it about, I even heard a rising, collective twitter from the trees at the edge of the yard.

I went back inside and sat down before the window. This is when I began to learn the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

About 30 minutes after I put the cake out, two enormous crows landed in a large maple tree overhanging the winter treat. These two will have it all eaten in five minutes, I thought. And they certainly seemed to study what was on the ground, cawing and turning their heads.

I suppose crows have reason to be suspicious of anything unusual. In Tennessee, people can hunt unlimited numbers of them for sport from June through February, despite the fact that no one wants to eat crow. I’ve seen shotgunners do this, using electronic calls to draw them in like black clouds and then drop them like rain. You’re not being paranoid if people really are trying to kill you.

But hey—this was cake, in the midst of the hungry season! Surely the crows would find life in the midst of death. But they did not, overthinking the situation. After a few minutes, they cawed again and flew away. I wondered if their cries meant “foolishness, foolishness” in crow talk.

Other birds remained in the surrounding trees; I couldn’t see them, but their little chirps continued. Finally, two brave female cardinals ventured forth.

The first one out hopped around the edge of the crumbs, looking but not touching. She chirped loudly, in what I suppose is excitement for a cardinal. But she would not dive in. She finally flew from my view. I supposed the cake must have been too different for her, too.

The second one was bolder. She began pecking at the tiny crumbs, and you could see her excitement build. She would stop and chirp loudly, and then return to eating. Once, she briefly flew up in the tree, chirped again, and then went back to the ground, eating some more. She had found what she needed, and not only that, I’m convinced she was trying to tell the others, “Look what I’ve found! Come and have some!” No one joined her, however.

Finally, she grabbed a thumb-sized chunk in her beak and carried it off, again out of my sight. I wondered if she shared it.

I could hear birds chattering through the rest of the afternoon, but to my surprise, the cake remained. As the sun set and the landscape once again hardened into a deep freeze, the crumbs were still there. The scene made me sad.

A postscript, though: When I looked out just after sunrise the next day, the cake was all gone, replaced by dozens of tiny footprints in the snow. The suburb’s undesirables—racoons—had come during the coldest, most desperate hours and found what they could not have expected to receive.

I thought of Gentiles taking up what most good Jews had rejected; I thought of the drunk, the drug addict, or the prostitute accepting what a thinking, affluent person might deem a risk or a waste of time.

The message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow. Christ has been broken for us, and in that breaking we have the opportunity to find joy and eternal life. It is a strange message, one now scattered all across the landscape. And it does look foolish to those who are used to the ways of a sinful world.

The message of the cross is a joy to be consumed, however. It also is a message to be carried to others. And be you a crow, songbird or racoon, it is for you.

Four Parts of Worship: The Word

This sermon is out of order.

By that, I mean it was delivered in the wrong place in Cassidy UMC’s worship service, if we were to follow the ancient pattern of worship. Like a lot of churches in the southeastern United States, our reading of the day’s Bible verses and the preaching rooted in those verses began in the latter third of the service. It was followed by a brief invitation to respond and a short benediction to send the people on their way.

In a gathering-word-celebration-sending forth pattern, Bible readings, preaching and other means of declaring God’s word occur a lot earlier. It happened and can still happen that way for a very good reason: When a direct, guaranteed encounter with God occurs early in worship, the rest of worship happens in a highly focused way.

Use of God’s written word to reveal God’s truth goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church, when the words we translate as “scripture” or “word of God” were references to the Jewish Bible, the writings we now group under the Old Testament.

Consider these references from letters that later became part of the Christian Bible:

2 Timothy 3:14-17: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews 4:12-13: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

James 1:21-22: “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

In these verses, we see God’s word as living and powerful, something that flows through the pages of a Bible and into a reader. Open it, use it, and you’ll find yourself equipped in new ways. God’s word will dissect you, exposing what is of God and not of God. It will even implant itself in your soul, bringing you face-to-face with salvation through Jesus Christ.

This last idea also brings us to a deeper understanding of what is being revealed by the Bible as a whole. It is the story of what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

Up to this point, we’ve been talking about God’s word, God’s truth as revealed through the pens of people he has inspired. But there also is God’s Word, written with a capital, and we begin to explore the idea that the truth-filled, eternal, creative aspect of God is what took on flesh and walked among us as Jesus.

Here is God’s word revealing the Word. John 1:1-5: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

So, back to the four parts of worship. God is before us in the word. If we’ve come as believers to worship God and to experience God, what better way to do so than to explore what is written in the Bible every week, using those words as the guiding principle and core of worship?

And when we have heard what God has to say, we know that eternal life is ours. Of course we celebrate! More on that next week.

 

Show and Tell

It’s the end of the Pentecost story that intrigues me. Any preacher would like to see 3,000 give their lives to Christ following a sermon.

What led to that astonishing response remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see a model for evangelism so simple a kindergartener should be able to grasp it.

God led the way, of course, and God still leads the way today. Pentecost began with Jesus’ followers waiting and praying, just as Jesus had told them to do before he ascended into heaven. God arrived as the Holy Spirit in wind and something that looked like flame, and the earliest church members received a power they did not have before. Specifically, they were able to declare Jesus as Lord and Savior and be understood regardless of the audience’s language.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Maybe, just maybe, this Pentecost model I think I see is simple enough to undo some of that fear.

The model in the Pentecost story is as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

First, God showed the early church in tangible ways the Holy Spirit was with them. Wind and fire. Supernatural gifts. How could they doubt?

In their excitement, they showed others what they could do; they demonstrated the changes in their lives.

That should be easy enough for us to do today. Our faith should make us different in ways people can spot. We should show more love, grace and forgiveness than we would without Christ in our lives. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

If we don’t have much to show—if we’re not different than before our conversion—we need to re-examine our relationship with God. Maybe ideas like love, forgiveness and grace really haven’t sunk in.

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by your actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what you have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw; some will always sneer. Peter just used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.
Show and tell. Try it. You might be surprised who watches and listens.