Sermon from February 17: What Stephen Saw

What Stephen Saw
Ash Wednesday; February 17, 2021
Acts 7:51-60

Today’s New Testament reading in the Year of the Bible is the story of our first martyr, Stephen the Deacon. Yesterday we read that Stephen was falsely accused of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of promoting the abandonment of all their Jewish traditions. Chapter seven is mostly a speech by Stephen, after he was arrested and placed before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest asked him if the things people were accusing him of were true. How would you reply if someone accused you falsely and you were asked, “Are these things so?” I would probably deny it and try to get across the truth about myself. Stephen replied by talking about Jewish history.

He reminded them of Abraham, of Joseph and his brothers, and then he got to Moses. When he told the story of Moses, he made the point that the Lord had appointed Moses, but the people rejected him. Moses led the people; the people rebelled against him. Moses said God would raise up another prophet like him, but the people didn’t listen. Moses constructed a tent for the worship of God, but Solomon built a temple. Yet the Lord God made the heavens and the earth, and doesn’t live in a temple. So Stephen carefully built the case that the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t nearly so important as the priests thought and that God’s people were in the habit of rejecting and opposing whoever God sent to them to lead them.

Which brings us to our reading this evening. Stephen was accused of several things, but he did not respond to those accusations. Instead he accused the Sanhedrin of neglecting their duty to the word of God: the Lord God had sent the Prophet Moses promised – Jesus, whom Stephen calls “the Righteous One” – and they had Jesus put to death.

That isn’t what set them off. Stephen’s words about their unfaithfulness must have stung, but what enraged them to the point of killing him was his vision. He saw Jesus standing by the throne of God. That was more than they could take; they killed him.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask why they killed him. Well, looked at rationally, solely as a legal matter, stoning to death is the prescribed punishment for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:13-23). When Jesus was in front of the Sanhedrin – only several months, probably, before Stephen was before the same group – Jesus said that the day would come when they would see him at the right hand of God, and for saying that he was convicted of blasphemy (Mark 14:62-64). Now Stephen claims to see what Jesus foretold, and so he too is guilty of blasphemy. And so they stoned him to death.

But no, they didn’t start stoning him after a careful, judicial process and a soberly delivered verdict. They shouted, covered their ears to protect them from what Stephen had to say, and dragged him out of the city to stone him to death. This isn’t punishment for a crime; this is pure rage. This is rage that overruns the Capitol building in hopes of hanging the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. This is rage that screams insults and lets fists fly. These wise, sober spiritual leaders were filled with rage at what Stephen saw.

If Stephen truly saw what he claimed to see – the Son of Man at the right hand of God – then these wise, sober religious leaders were wrong. They were dead wrong when they ordered the death of Jesus. They didn’t simply get rid of an upstart troublemaker; they betrayed and murdered the Righteous One. So the solution? Kill the one who says we were wrong.

I have two hopes for you and me this evening as we begin our Lent together. One of them is that we will be wiser than the members of the Sanhedrin. It is all too common and ordinary to shout down or even kill the one who points out that we may have done wrong. We’re seeing it here in Nebraska: Senator Sasse says that President Trump did wrong; therefore Senator Sasse must be punished. You may have done that to a friend or family member. Someone tells you that you were wrong about something, and so you cut them out of your life. When someone points the finger, as Stephen pointed the finger at the Sanhedrin, they may be pointing out something we need to pay attention to. That’s what Christians do during Lent; we try to pay attention to those shadowy corners of our lives. We try to be wise. So my hope is that during this Lent if something comes to your attention or to mine from our reading of Scripture, from the news, from talking with a friend or family member, that we will not cover our ears and shout and stone to death – even figuratively – the one who points it out. Let’s keep our ears open

My other hope is that we will keep our eyes open to the possibility of seeing what Stephen saw: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Perhaps you too will have such a vision. More likely you will see the glory of Jesus as you read the Bible. Or perhaps you will see him in preaching, or in a song, or even get a hint of him in the sunrise as dawn continues to creep earlier in the day. We are beginning our pilgrimage of Lent, which will take us to an upper room for supper and the Cross of our redemption and the empty tomb from which bursts our new life. Stephen saw this, even though his accusers tried to shout him down. I pray you and I will see this too.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska