I called this sermon “World’s Colliding” because I see a collision between our idea that we are in control and the truth that God is in control. I was really struck by the stubbornness of the religious leaders. As I read through the passage, studied, and spent time in prayer, I saw a pattern of control emerging. They thought they had all the answers. They thought God had to work through them on their terms. Their attempts at staying in control are like us creating our own “world” – like blowing a bubble – and then living inside it where we think we reign supreme. What really convicted me was that these were religious people. They believed in God, but in their minds God was just a part of their bubble and they were still in control.
Stephen’s speech is an incredible overview of the Old Testament showing how God is in control, He works according to His ways, He works wherever He wants, and He works through whomever He wants. It is His world and we get to live in it. The fact that Stephen was willing to give this speech knowing it could lead to his death shows he was completely trusting God. He was not consumed by this “bubble world” of our own making.
My main take-away from preaching this sermon is this question: Which world are we really living in? Are we as believers living in our world, of our own making, where we are in complete control or are we living in God’s world for His glory, and under His authority? One huge difference I see between the church in Acts and the church in western culture today is that we seem to have too much invested in this “bubble world”. It seems that the church in Acts was so effective because they were living out the reality of God’s kingdom, not just trying to tell people about it. Their goal wasn’t to point people to the kingdom of God using any technique of this world possible, it was to BE the living example of the kingdom of God according to power of God’s presence and the gospel at work in their lives. Sometimes the techniques undermine the message.
I think we have become too technique driven. We think that if we do MINISTRY A and maybe MINISTRY B then God will bless us with X number of converts or at least Y number of attendees, which should result in Z increase in giving. This is “bubble” thinking. This is us being in charge and expecting God to bless our methods. This was not how Stephen and Philip did ministry. They simply showed up, lived and spoke the gospel in any and every situation. For Stephen, it meant his death. For Philip, it meant the beginning of the Samaritan church and the church in Africa. In our “bubble world” we would say that Philip was effective and Stephen was not, but that’s certainly not what God’s Word is saying. It was because of Stephen’s testimony and then his death that the church moves out of Jerusalem carrying the gospel with them wherever they go.
I used to think that the believers in Jerusalem were not fulfilling Christ’s charge to them in Acts 1:8 to take the gospel to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I was ready to preach this passage according to this understanding, but the more I studied the more I saw the passage differently. I see now that Acts 1:8 wasn’t just a list of goals for the church, it was a road map for how God was going to work in them. Each “stage” in the gospel mission was a preparation for the next. The church needed to spend time in Jerusalem building a firm foundation on God’s Word (the teaching of the Apostles) and learning to live out the gospel as a community of believers. They also needed to see how God worked in various situations. At the beginning of chapter 6 we see that cross-cultural issues were needing to be dealt with and the church (guided by the Holy Spirit) responded brilliantly. This prepared them for the next stage of their mission. I don’t think that what happened to Stephen was God’s way of kicking them in the seat to get them moving, I think it was a sign that God knew they were ready for the next step in their mission because they had learned the lessons they needed to learn in Jerusalem.
This aspect of the passage didn’t really come out in my sermon yesterday – there just wasn’t time and there is always more that could be said about a passage than what can fit in any one sermon. But it has been on my mind a lot over the past few days. It’s easy to look at Acts 7-8 and ask how we might be missing our mission and wonder if God might have to take drastic measures to get us moving. But now I think there is a better way of looking at it. We should ask what God might be preparing us for and whether or not we are learning the lessons He is teaching us. Maybe part of our “bubble” thinking is that we think it is our job to figure out how to get the mission accomplished when the truth is that it is God’s mission and He will accomplish it through us if we are allowing Him to do the work in our lives that He is trying to do. Is it possible that we are so busy trying to accomplish God’s mission that we have missed the importance of being God’s people? Is it also possible that this will be the most effective way of accomplishing the mission?
What “world” are people seeing in our lives, in our churches, in how we do things? Are they seeing the authority of God and absolute dependence and trust in Him? Or are they seeing an unspoken belief that we are in control? I mentioned in the sermon that at the cross the world of God and this bubble world of ours collided. The cross not only shatters the reality of our bubble world, it provides a way out – salvation through Jesus Christ. We see in Revelation 21 that our world will pass away. The bubble will be popped and shown for what it is – nothing. God’s world (His truth, His authority, His glory) will endure for ever and ever. We live in the time of the collision. We must decide if we will accept the reality of His world and the gospel as the bridge and then we must live this out and be witnesses of this “world shaking” truth in everything we do.
Robert Frost said in his poem “The Road Not Taken” – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” This is a very poetic reminder of a much stronger truth expressed in Scripture:
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12)
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).
Edit (10/26/11): listen to this sermon online