In Jesus Holy Name December 9, 2018
“The Mystery of God”
“The Mystery of God” said Isaiah, “is a bittersweet mystery.” It is for people of all kinds. Those who are bitter against Him for what they consider His lack of concern, and for those who sweetly tell His story. God takes back prodigals. He makes them into loving people again. This is the greatest mystery of all. The mystery of all mysteries that God should care enough about human beings that He Himself would come to the earth He created, offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This is the message of the Bible.
This has been a week filled with emotions, sadness, pride and thanksgiving. This week watched as a family mourned loss of a father. This week the nation remembered and mourned the loss of one of our past presidents, George W. Bush. Dignified military precision. Soldiers, sailors, marines, standing in solemn attention on every step of the Capitol. Smoke filled the air, with every 21 gun salute to a fallen President. The band played “Nearer My God to Thee”. And on every step of the Capitol, not once did the President’s flag draped casket tilt.
During his eulogy President George H. Bush noted this “mystery of God” that saved his father from death two times. Once as a teenager, once when he was alone on a raft in the Pacific…after a bombing run on which his plane was shot down. He was rescued by a submarine. “My father believed that one can serve with integrity and hold true to the important values, faith, and family. He strongly believed that it was important to give back to the community and country in which one lives. He recognized that serving others enriched the giver’s soul. To us, his life was the brightest thousand points of light.” (George H. Bush eulogy speech)
Jon Meacham, biographer, in his eulogy said: “The story, his story & our story would go on by God’s grace. In a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning.” It is one of “those mysteries of God” that brought George W. Bush to the Presidency of America. He loved his country and sought to motivate a nation to seek higher service through a “Thousand Points of Light”.
In his sermon Bishop Curry said: “Through his enduring commitment to
public service and his steadfast devotion to his family, he lived the way of Jesus through a life shaped by faith, hope and, above all, love. Through his unswerving service to our country and to the human community around the globe, he embodied the noblest ideals of his faith and his country.” (President Bush funeral)
And so on this Sunday morning, I am reminded of the words of John the Baptist to the crowds when they asked him: “What shall we do with our lives?” John said: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” I think President George W Bush answered that question. “Be honest in your dealings.” “Tell the truth.” Care for one another. Give a coat. Provide food. Give donations to help the fire victims. $1870.00 (we did). Demonstrate love & imitate Jesus. (Eph 5:1)
For a few days a nation was captivated by the dignity of military honors, reminded of service, a man and his family’s faith in God. It was both a cathartic and emotional experience for those of us who watched from a distance. Maybe we were also thinking about our own loved ones or our own potential eulogy.
The flag draped casket, the hymns, the church service are reminders, death does come to all. The Bible is filled with stories about death. Perhaps none more shocking than the account found in Acts 5:1-11. In the midst of growth and blessing in the early church we encounter a sudden and mysterious death.
It is the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Perhaps the day went something like this: Sunday dawned bright and beautiful in Jerusalem. Throughout the city, merchants began uncovering their wares. Mothers began to feed their children. For most people, that Sunday promised to be just another day.
But for a certain group, Sunday was a special day, they called the Lord’s Day. For them the highlight of the day was the meeting of the church. They didn’t have their own building, just a borrowed room. Believers came, happy, joyful, expectant. They came prepared to sing, pray, rejoice, hear the teachings of Jesus and give. ( From a sermon “Keep on Believing” – Pritchard)
Yes to give. Those early Christians specialized in giving. They not only gave money but clothes, food, tools, and the title deed to property. Sometimes they sold their land and brought money to the church. As the morning sun rose in the sky, the believers made their way to the meeting. Among their number was a man called Ananias. He like the others brought his offering with him. I imagine it went something like this: Peter stood up and said: “Now if anyone has an offering, let him come forward.”
Ananias shuffled up to the front and said, “I had some property outside the city, a beautiful little piece of pasture land. I sold it last week for $300. Here is the money.” With that he took his leather coin bag, turned it upside down, and emptied the contents on the table. The coins tumbled out, clinking together on the hardwood top. He turns to go back to his seat, satisfied with himself and his gift.
Sensing something wrong, Peter speaks to him.
“Stop, Ananias you are a liar. Satan has filled your heart so that you have lied to the Holy Spirit. You have kept back part of the price of the land.” It was true. Ananias had indeed sold the land, but perhaps he sold it for $800, and kept $300 for himself. He and his wife, Sapphira had talked it over and decided that was the best thing to do. After, all, they really needed the money, but they wanted to leave the impression that they had given the full amount.
Ananias turns to say something but his face betrays him. His lip quivers. His face flushes. He opens his mouth but the words won’t come out. Peter speaks again. “Why did you do it.” “Why did you lie to us?” Why did you act like you had given everything when you had only given a part? You didn’t have to lie. You didn’t have to give anything. The money was yours to give or keep. What made you do it? Ananias. You have not lied to men but to God.”
Ananias heard the words. He doesn’t know that he will be dead in a few seconds. He raises his arm to speak, when suddenly he falls to the ground. He is dead before he hits the floor. A dead man in the church service! It had never happened before. A crowd gathers around the crumpled form on the floor. One of men checks the body, the face still flushed with the shame.
Ananias had gotten up in the morning happy and content. He had his wife, his home, and money to spend. He put his clothes on, got his money, and set off for church. When he arrived, he shook hands with the greeters and took his normal seat, three rows from the front. When they sang the Psalms. He sang. When they prayed. He prayed. When the time came for the offering, he was first in line. When he stood up to come forward with his money, he had less than a minute to live.
This story is for insiders, not outsiders.
After the initial shock wore off, Peter motioned for the young men to come forward. “Get him out of here.” They covered up his limp body with a rough woolen blanket. His feet stuck out of the end. They drug the body off as if it were a sack of heavy grain. Through the back door and down the stairs they labored with the body. Slipping, now stumbling, barely managing to make it outside. In the back of the building was a small plot of ground. They laid Ananias down and found a shovel. They dug a shallow grave, heaved the body into it and covered it with a mound of dirt. Their mission accomplished, they turned and left without a backward glance.
The story is not over. It is still bright and hot, now the middle of the afternoon, about three hours later. The shock was so great that word has not spread very far. Sudden death. Now no one wants to leave the building. They stay and talk and wonder about it.
In walks Sapphira. Her name means “beautiful”. They stared at her, thinking that she would be wearing black with tear stained face. But no, she smiles, laughs and greets her friends. Suddenly, it dawns on all of them at once. She doesn’t know. She hasn’t heard.
Before anyone can tell her, she walks up to greet Peter. The apostle looks her straight in the eye and asks one question she doesn’t want to hear. “Did you sell that land for $300?”
She gasps, blinks her eyes, and looks away. A tinge of guilt plays on her conscience, but she manages to look at Peter and say, “Yes, that was the price.” Like her late husband, she turns to go to her seat, but Peter stops her in her tracks. “Why have you agreed together with your husband to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Why have you told this lie? Look, Sapphira, look at the door. Do you see the feet of those young men? Those feet carried your husband out. Now they will carry you.”
For a tiny moment her face looks startled, then she dropped to the floor with
a gasping moan. Pandemonium breaks loose. Women are screaming. Children
crying. People dashing for the exit. Two people dead in one day. It was scarcely 3:00 p.m.
Peter turned and motioned with his arm to the young men. By now accustomed to their grisly task. They take another rough cloth and wrap it around the warm corpse. They carry Sapphira out the door, down the stairs, into the back yard. There they begin to dig another shallow grave. The hot Judean sun burning their backs as they dug in the hard brown clay. Sweat dripped from their foreheads, past their eyes, down their noses and dropped to the ground.
No ceremonies, no prayer, no bible reading. Just roll the body over, pack the dirt and make a small mound above the body. After burying Sapphira next to Ananias, they turned and walked away, hoping that no one else would die in church that day.
Acts 5 tells us what happened when the word spread throughout Jerusalem “Great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.”
That Sunday had dawned bright and clear and hopeful. It is not yet sundown and there are two fresh graves in the churchyard. That’s the story.
Why did they die? What did they do that was so terrible?
Why did God single them out for judgment?
It is easier to answer in the negative.
Beware of sin not repented. The message of John the Baptist rings true. Repent. They did not.
First, they did not die simply because they told a lie. True, they did intentionally lie. They conspired together to deceive people. But it’s not just the fact of the lie. If God routinely killed people for telling lies, then most of us would not make it through another day. The undertakers would become overnight millionaires. Lying is a sin. It is punished by God, but that’s not the whole story here.
Second, they did not die because they held back part of the money. True, they kept some of the money for themselves. But Peter makes it crystal clear that they had every right to do so. When the early Christians gave everything they had, they did it voluntarily. This is not a text to prove the dangers of not giving 100% of our money. If it were, then none of us would survive the offering next Sunday.
There is something much deeper in this story. Something that touches very close to home, something that should make each of us hold our lives up for inspection…. As we did in our liturgy and confession this morning.
When Ananias and Sapphira brought their offering, they gave the
impression that it represented 100% of the purchase price. Anyone watching would have said: “What wonderful Christians, they gave all they had. That’s what they wanted people to think. Apparently they thought God would be fooled too. That was their great sin. A combination of lying, theft from God, seeking personal pride all without a heed to the warning of John the Baptist…. Repent and produce good deeds in keeping with repentance. That is why they died.
The sin of hypocrisy always starts on the inside. A hypocrite on the outside was a hypocrite on the inside first. They tried to fool the church. They tried to fool God. They dropped dead in their tracks for it. There was that moment after Peter’s first question that repentance was an option.
2000 years ago, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, put Himself between death and humanity in an action which had never been done before. Jesus took to Himself the condemnation and destructive force of sin and died so the rest of humanity might be saved, so all who are given faith in Him might live.
It is a wonderful thing to repent and to be washed of your sins in baptism by faith in Jesus Christ your Savior. It is a wonderful thing because you know, from that moment on, Satan is no longer master of your fate and eternal death no longer is controlling your eternal destiny. It is a wonderful thing because, when you are saved by Jesus, your days are brighter. You have peace in your heart which the world can not ignore.
Paul was quite clear. We are saved by God’s grace… and then set free to do good works… produce fruit in keeping with repentance…that God has prepared in advance for us to do. Which brings me back to the “Mystery of God”. Is that why George W Bush was saved from the tossing sea? To do good works for a nation? To encourage a nation to find its’ purpose by every person being one small part of a 1000 points of light…imitating Jesus?
Let’s go back to that church in Jerusalem. Someone may have asked: “Peter is there hope for me?” I am the man who made the crown of thorns and jammed it down on Jesus’ brow. Will he forgive and save me? Peter would have answered…. (John 3:16)
From the back another man calls out “I am the one who struck his face… can I be forgiven and saved?” Peter answers: “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, forgive them and take them to heaven.” Another person shouts out, “How can I be sure?”
Peter would gently say: “You can be sure, because I am sure. You see, Jesus forgave me from trying to talk Him out of coming to Jerusalem and dying. I know because He forgave me for falling asleep when he had asked me to pray. I know because He forgave me for running away the night He was arrested. I know I’m forgiven because, after He rose from the dead, Jesus told me so.” (from a sermon by Rev. Ken Klaas”)