Be Prepared!

We find ourselves today in the book of Acts. The reading begins at 7:54 and ends at 8:1. At the very heart of the scripture is the uncomfortable topic of death. One of the leaders of the early church, Stephen has died. His death sent a shockwave through the early church because he was so respected. He was the first one outside of the Apostles to perform a miracle. That miracle was important because it demonstrated to the people that God was still with them. Everyone was excited about the miracle except one small, yet powerful, group, the Sanhedrin. They were the Supreme Court of the orthodox faith. Like Jesus and Peter in the past, they had Stephen arrested. His trial does not go well. In the section prior to our reading, we are told he addresses them with little respect. In bold words, he tells them about God’s plan of salvation. Jesus was the final act of love. That was not what they wanted to hear. According to our reading, they reacted to his words in a violent way. In an emotional rage, they drag him out of the city and stone him. It must have been a horrific scene. The light that shined so brightly in the beginning of the day was now extinguished. It is at this moment the text begins to speak to us. There is no other way to say it. Stephen is dead. On the day he was born, his world shed tears of joy. Now, his world was shedding tears of sorrow.

Death is an uncomfortable topic. It shouldn’t be. Just like birth, it comes to each one of us. No one gets out of this world alive. The mortality rate of the world is 100%. Some will leave sooner; some will leave later. However, everyone must leave. Death does not discriminate. It takes the young and the old. It takes the educated and the uneducated. It takes the rich and the poor. It takes every race. Have you ever wondered how long you will live? Have you ever wondered what month you are going to die? Have you ever wondered what day of the week you will die? I never have liked Tuesdays. Have you ever wondered how you are going to die? Will your death be a long-drawn-out affair, spending your final days alone in some institution? Will your death be sudden, like Stephen’s? That is how I would like to go.

This blog is wrapped around three questions about your death. I have the license to ask these questions because part of my job for forty years was to prepare people for eternity. The correct answers to these questions are illustrated in today’s text about Stephen. However, this message is not so much about dying. It is about living life to the fullest! Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said, “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”  This is question number one.

Are you prepared to die socially? In the fourth chapter of Genesis is one of the great stories of the Bible. How well do you remember your family history? Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. They came from the same biological parents but they, personally, were completely different. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. In time, both men sacrificed to God. Cain brought fruit; Abel brought meat. You can call it favoritism, but God preferred Abel’s offering, the meat. (Can you really blame him?) Cain gets his feelings hurt and positions himself to do something ugly. The story ends when Cain kills Abel. This story teaches us a variety of things. One of those things is the value of human relationships. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships with one another. Are all the relationships in your life healthy? Are there any relationships in your life that are near death?

The Bible does not really give us much detail, but it is safe to say Stephen had healthy relationships. Everyone in the church respected him. It is safe to say everyone in his life respected him. Does everyone in your life respect you? How many damaged relationships are in your life? I am not just talking about your siblings. I am talking about everyone, your parents, children, neighbors, and co-workers. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships. Do you have any relationships that need repair? Don’t wait! This is question number one. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? This is question number two.

Are you prepared to die personally? Next month, my wife, Kathryn and I are traveling to western Turkey and Greece. We are traveling alone. We are traveling with a group led by East Ohio Annual Conference Resident Bishop Tracy Malone. In all there are thirty-seven of us. The trip was promoted as The Journeys of Paul. I am so excited. I love to travel, and I need an adventure in my life occasionally. It is a big world and I want to see as much of it as possible. I was sharing my excitement with a friend, and he simply asked, “Why?” He spent the next few minutes telling me in a nice way that I was a fool. He tried to discourage me from going. He ended by saying, “I hope you are happy living in a Turkish prison.” I ended our discussion quickly and walked away frustrated. I have never understood why people do that? Why do so many people discourage others from doing something? I was not inviting him to come. I was telling him I was going. I enjoy traveling and I want to learn more about the Apostle Paul. Have you ever discouraged someone from doing something they wanted to do? Let me ask you this question:

What do you still want to do with your life? I am not just talking about traveling to odd places. I am talking about your passion. Stephen was passionate about Jesus! What are you passionate about? Is there some place in this world you still want to go? Is there some book you would still like to read? Is there some language you would still like to study? When Thomas Jefferson died, he was studying German. Is there someone you would still like to meet? Is there something you still want to build or own? Don’t wait! If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared personally? This is question number three.

Are you prepared to die spiritually? As I write this blog, one of my family members is in the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in the suburbs of Cleveland. His medical situation is complex, so the family as asked many questions. The more questions we asked, the more confused we have become. The more confused we have become, the less hope we have. At one point, the kind of questions changed. They went from medical questions to spiritual questions. People started questioning his salvation. Those are the hardest questions to answer because we are not the judge. We pray that somewhere along the way our family member accepted Jesus, because Jesus is our hope of salvation. Heaven would not be the same without him. The one thing no one can question is Stephen’s salvation. He has a vision of heaven. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared to die personally? Would you be prepared to die spiritually? Let me end with this story.

You do not have to be a Civil War expert to know the name Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-1863). The one-time instructor at the Virginia Military Institute was respected by both friend and foe for his courage during battle. He was once asked about the source of that courage. This was his response:

My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God (knows the) time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter where it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.

It is interesting to note that Jackson died eight days after that quote. He was accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers. That shot caused him to lose his arm, which led to pneumonia. I must ask you:

Are you prepared to die? Stephen woke up that morning and didn’t have a clue he would be gone that night. Maybe that will be our story? Only God knows. That is why you must always be prepared. Are you prepared to die socially? Are all the relationships in your life perfect? Are you ready to die personally? What do you still want to do? Are you ready to die spiritually? Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I hope so. Heaven wouldn’t be the same without you!

False Testimony

We find ourselves today in the sixth chapter of Acts, verses eight through fifteen. The spotlight is shining squarely on the rising star of the early church, Stephen. He is respected by everyone. Prior to our reading, we were told, he was so respected he got to serve on the first committee in the history of the church. (Lucky him!) In our reading for today, his legend continues to grow. He was performing miraculous signs and wonders among the people. That line is significant because he was the first one to perform a miracle besides the apostles. The news of Stephen’s miraculous power spread throughout the land. Everyone must have been excited, except one group, the Sanhedrin. To them, the news of his miraculous power was not welcomed. To them, it meant their Jesus problem continued. They responded to Stephen as they had responded to Jesus and Peter in the past. They had him arrested. Like Jesus and Peter, Stephen did nothing wrong. The Sanhedrin was desperate, so they break the law. Verse 13 says, they found people to offer false testimonies against Stephen. In other words, they found people to lie about Stephen. This is not an isolated case. It is still happening in our time. This is the sad truth.

There are many in our time who hate the church. There are several reasons why. Some have problems with authority figures. Some are spiritually immature. Some are trying to deny the truth, Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Some are mad at the church because of all the scandals. The church is not a perfect institution. We are famous for our self-inflected wounds. Some are mad at God because of the ugliest that exists in our world. There are several reasons why people hate the church, but they all have a single goal. They simply want the church to go away, so they offer false testimony against the church. Today, we will look at two great lies that exist within American society about the church.

This is lie number one: God does not exist. According to the Pew Research group, 7% of the world’s population has accepted this lie. According to Vox, 3% of Americans are atheists. Some high-profile celebrities are in this group. Consider these names with me:

Kevin Bacon

John Depp

Jodie Foster

Ricky Gervais

Stephen Hawking

Angelina Jolie

Bill Maher

Helen Mirren

Brad Pitt

Daniel Radcliffe

Emma Thompson

Ted Turner

Bruce Willis

Have you ever known an atheist? Have you ever known someone who embraced the lie, God does not exist. It is a sociological way of looking at life. Every society needs a god, who regulates behavior of his citizens. He is the ultimate judge. In the end, he punishes the bad and rewards the good. Heaven is nothing more than a carrot to lead the people. It is a cold way of looking at life. That is why atheists do not believe in the existence of God.

This is my rebuttal: Christianity is more than a series of laws. It is more than a moral code. Christianity is about relationships. Christianity fills a void in your soul. Consider these three quotes with me:

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once said, “My heart was restless until I found my rest in God”         

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) once said, “There is within each person a God-shaped vacuum.”

Rudolf Bultman (1884-1976) once said, “Within each one of us is a faint recollection of Eden calling us home.”

Each one of these quotes from various times in history are telling us the same thing. Our lives are incomplete without God. That is what I have experienced in my life.

For thirty years, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That is why the world was shocked when his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), defected in 1967. In 1978, she became a naturalized citizen. The world wanted to know why she left his Russia, hence her family.

She explained why with these words:

“I found it impossible to exist without God in one’s heart. I came to that conclusion myself, without anybody’s help or preaching. That was a great change because since that moment the main dogmas of Communism lost their significance for me. I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia.”

You can ask Svetlana and she will tell you. God not only exists, but God is also one of the major factors in our lives.

This is lie number two: Life is better without religion. Years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. I am still processing that trip because it is a humbling place. I was unprepared for the spiritual tension. There is no other way to say it. God is doing something special in that land. After all, three major world religions have their origin there, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No place illustrates that spiritual tension more than the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a sacred spot to the Jews because the was where the old Hebrew Temple sat. That is where the Holy of Holies sat, where the Jews believed God resided. It is a sacred spot to Christians because Jesus visited that ancient temple. It is a sacred spot to Muslims because the Dome of the Rock now sits on that spot. It is where Muslims say the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Temple Mount is an incredible place. Side by side by side are the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. The spiritual tension is thick.

Within our world today there are many examples of spiritual tension. The lie, life is better without religion, is built on that tension. Our world is getting smaller. Like it or not, improved transportation and communication is bringing us together! If you just look at the news, then you can see their point. How many religious wars can you name? How many religious wars have there been in world history? Religion is a wonderful flag to wave during military conflict, because it unites the people against a common enemy. No wonder some believe life is better without religion.

This is my rebuttal: Real Christianity has nothing to do with politics. Real Christianity has nothing to do with a rules or beliefs. Real Christianity has nothing to do with being right or wrong. However, real Christianity has everything to do with living your life with God. Jesus is the great bridge between mankind and God. Real Christianity is about building a relationship with God. The people embraced Stephen’s miraculous signs and miracles because they wanted a reminder that God was with them. We love to hear about miracles in our time for the same reason. They remind us God has not forgotten us. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not rules. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not politics. Real Christianity deals with relationships, not customs or traditions. I can not imagine living without God.

His name was Ariel Castro (1960-2013). You remember his story. He held three young women hostages in his Cleveland, Ohio home. On the day one of his victims escaped, he was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. In the end, he pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder as part of his plea bargain. For his crimes he was sentenced to life in prison and 1,000 years without the possibility of parole. One month into his imprisonment committed suicide by hanging himself with bedsheets in his prison cell. During his last court appearance, Castro stood before the judge with his eyes closed. It was like he was trying to escape his reality. The judge ordered him to open his eyes and look at victims. Reluctantly, he did, but he never said a word. He didn’t say a word because everyone knew the truth. Ariel Castro was guilty.

It is a challenging time to be a believer. It is like the whole church is on trial. The whole world seems to be against us. Just like in the days of Stephen, many are spreading false testimonies. In other words, they are lying. They are saying God does not exist and life is better without religion. They are lying to discredit us. We can no longer just stand there with our eyes and mouths closed. We must defend ourselves because we have done nothing wrong. We are innocent and we know the truth. It is all about Jesus. The Master said it himself, in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”