Free for Preachers: Sermon Maker

Summary: Stephen is an example of living and dying (1) without fear, (2) without bitterness, (3) focused on Christ, (4)immersed in scripture.

They say that two things are inevitable: death and taxes.

The task of an accountant is to minimize the taxes people pay.

I read somewhere that the task of a pastor is to prepare people for a good death.

Of course, this statement might be overly simplistic theologically. It might be overly narrow in a practical sense. It might be just plain wrong.

Three objections jump to mind immediately.

One… This claim is symptomatic of a pie-in-the sky mentality that dismisses the day-to-day realities of life in favor of the hope of heaven some day. Being a Christian is more than fire insurance for when you die. Being a Christian is about following Jesus here in this life and experiencing the joy of his salvation while we’re still walking and talking and growing.

Two…This claim reflects a remarkably narrow view of the pastoral vocation. What about teaching people the scriptures? What about walking with people through suffering and pointing them to Christ’s healing? What about discipling people? What about preparing people to live life to the full in the grace and power of God?

Three…This claim is downright morbid—more suited to a time when pastors were always stern, wore black frock coats, and looked like undertakers.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I sure remember the quote. “The task of a pastor is to prepare people for a good death.”

This claim has rested at the edge of my consciousness for years, refusing to let go and nudging me to think through its implications. This claim might not be wrong after all. This claim just might be the most succinct, and at the same time complete, description of the pastoral vocation ever penned.

It just might be that the one who is most equipped to live the Christian life to the full is the one who is most prepared for a good death.

It just might be that the one who is most equipped to live the Christian life to the full is the one who is most prepared for a good death.

If that’s true, then it just might be that preparing people for a good death—in the grace and power of God—is precisely the same thing as equipping people to live a full life—in the grace and power of God.

Chapters 6 and 7 of the Book of Acts tell the story of Stephen. Stephen has the distinction of being the first Christian martyr—the first follower of Jesus to be killed for his faith.

This is a story of a good death. Not because Stephen was a martyr—the cause of death isn’t the issue. This is the story of a good death. Not because Stephen was a martyr, but because Stephen was prepared.

About Stephen’s life we don’t know a lot of detail. We know that he was a Helenistic Jew—that is, he spoke Greek better than he spoke Aramaic; he was comfortable in the predominant culture of the Romans and Greeks; and he was nevertheless Jewish (like all the earliest Christians). We know that he was one of the seven men chosen to assist the twelve with leadership responsibilities, specifically the daily distribution of food to the widows in the growing Christian community in Jerusalem. We know he had a powerful ministry in Jerusalem, and that he did “great signs and miraculous wonders among the people.”

We don’t know exactly when Stephen became a Christian. Since Jesus’ ministry was mostly in the countryside of Judea among Aramaic-speaking Jews, Stephen probably came to faith in the risen Jesus sometime after Pentecost. He might have been one of the 3000 who were baptized on the day of Pentecost. In any case, Stephen wasn’t a follower of Jesus for very long, at least not on this earth.

In Acts 6:5, Stephen is described as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” In verse 8, this is emphasized again: “Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power…” Every indication is that Stephen’s life, as a follower of Jesus, though not long, was very full.

Every indication is that Stephen’s death, as a follower of Jesus, was a good one.

Every indication is that Stephen’s story has a lot to say about the characteristics of good death and full life.

Every indication is that I’m going to talk about four of those characteristics in this sermon.

One… As a follower of Jesus, Stephen faced death without fear.

Not without conflict. Not without persecution. Not without suffering. Not without grief. Not without trouble. Not without pain. Not without a lot of things that most of us would just as soon do without.

But without fear.

By the grace and power of God, Stephen’s ministry gained a lot of attention in the community. He had to know that trouble was coming. His opponents were outspoken in their criticism of him and his ministry. Public debates were a common occurrence. Stephen won all the debates, but that just made his opponents even more angry.

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