Summary: We will each have a time in our lives where life seems to be closing in. We can turn to Stephen and draw stength and wisdom from how he coped when life closed in around him.
One day a man falls off a cliff, but manages to grab hold of a tree limb on the way down. The man calls out, “Is there anyone up there?” A voice answers back, “I am here. It is I, the Lord. Do you believe in me?” “Yes, Lord I believe, I really believe, but I can’t hold on much longer.” “That’s all right. If you really believe you have nothing to worry about. I’ll save you. Just let go of the branch.” There was a long pause, and the man calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Sooner or later we all go through a time where life seems to be closing in on us. Desperation has set in. Prices are going up and income is going down; responsibilities are increasing and physical strength is waning; friends disappoint and circumstances seem to be weighted against us; the doors of opportunity quietly close and the lights on the horizon go out one by one; war and terrorism make us suspicious and fearful; families are worried and impatient.
In our scripture reading this morning, Stephen’s world is closing in around him. We’re first introduced to Stephen in the sixth chapter of Acts. The disciples were preaching with such strength and fervor that their numbers were increasing daily, but those in Greek society were concerned because the widows were being neglected. In keeping with Hebrew law, widows were provided a daily distribution of food since they had no husband to earn a living and provide food for the household. Complaints were reaching the disciples that because of their continual preaching and teaching the widows were being neglected. The disciples felt as though their calling was to preach the gospel, so they selected seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, and appointed them to the task of caring for the widows. Stephen was among the seven appointed to this task. We often look upon this as the selection and ordination of the first deacons.
No sooner is Stephen appointed to this ministry than he is arrested. The Jews always looked upon themselves as the chosen people; but they had interpreted chosen in the wrong way. They regarded themselves as chosen for special privileges and believing that God had no use for any other nation. At their worst they declared that God created the Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell; at their mildest they believed that some day the Gentiles would become their servants. They never dreamed that they were chosen for service to bring all people into the same relationship with God as they themselves enjoyed.
When this selection of these first deacons was finished, the Jews were infuriated that none of the original seven had a Jewish name. Nicolaos was a Gentile who had accepted the Jewish faith, and Stephen had a vision of a world for Christ. Stephen declared that the world-view according to Christ meant that the Temple must pass away, and that the Law was but a stage so that the gospel and Christianity could be sent out to the whole wide world. In proclaiming this belief, Stephen offended the Jews because he attacked the two institutions they hold most precious: Temple and Law.
He was immediately arrested. False witnesses were brought in to give testimony against Stephen, and when the high priest asks him, “Are these things true?” he launches into a sermon that leaves them “enraged and grinding their teeth." Life is closing in on Stephen.
The account of his being stoned is not on a feel good, warm-fuzzy story, but when we look closely at Stephen’s stoning, there are a few things that still speak to us today. First of all, we notice that when life began to close in around Stephen, the heavens opened up and he saw God.
Has life ever been closing in on you to the point that you screamed and you cried and you shouted so that the heavens might open up? Whether you were screaming for healing for a loved one or deliverance from an uncomfortable situation. I can think of times in my life where I wish the heavens would’ve opened up, but there is nothing we can do to make the heavens open up. Stephen didn’t magically make this happen, in fact, no one else there saw it. They claimed that it was blasphemy, and that it didn’t happen, but what I would like to suggest is that it was because of his faith and belief that Stephen was in a position to experience God in that way.
When life begins to close in around us, it is our faith and our belief that will put us in a position to experience God, and we will each have that experience in a different way. In other words, the heavens will open up, but they will open up differently for each of us. Many times when we’re confronted with a tragedy, we feel like the only way we can experience God is if God gives us what we ask for. In other words, if a loved one isn’t healed, if a disease isn’t taken away, if a new job isn’t found, then the heavens have not opened up. Many times we miss out on the heavens opening up because we believe that they can only be opened in a certain way. When we approach God in this manner, we miss out on how God is going to reveal himself to us. He may not reveal himself through the healing of a loved one, but he may reveal himself through our loved one’s courage and through the devotion and care of friends. I dare say that Stephen wasn’t expecting to experience God in this way.