Text: Acts 7
As I have been considering for nearly a year what message I would share on this occasion, I believe the Lord has directed me to Acts 7: Stephen’s speech before the council, just before his martyrdom. I’ve had the privilege of studying this passage with many of you as we have taken the Acts course together (which starts again tonight by the way).
The Charge Against Stephen:
At the end of chapter 6, we find Stephen, one of the apostles’ helpers in Jerusalem (sometimes referred to as the deacons), is being brought before the Jerusalem council of elders. He had been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus, doing great signs and wonders among the people and countering their arguments by the power of the Spirit. So those who were arguing with him secretly planted false witnesses against him, bringing the charge of blasphemy against him, saying, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God" (6:11). Reading on in Acts 6:12-14: And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." He’s going to tear down the Temple! He was being tried as a terrorist! This is very political – imagine going downtown and starting to preach that Jesus is going to destroy Parliament Hill. They’d lock you up. So there’s a political element here, but there is definitely a spiritual element – the Temple was God’s house. To blaspheme the Temple was to blaspheme God himself. Just who do these Jesus followers think they are?
Acts 7, then, is Stephen’s speech in his defense to the charge of seeking to tear down the Temple. From a worldly perspective, the speech is a complete failure. I mean, Stephen ends up getting stoned at the end of it! Even from a legal standpoint the speech is a mess. I mean the Bible states very clearly that these were false charges dreamed up by his opponents, he was doing nothing of the sort, but instead of pleading innocent and letting his lawyer talk his way out of it, he pleads “guilty as charged” to the astonishment and rage of all there. From a modern Christian perspective even, this speech seems like a failure. Basically Stephen seems to just be aimlessly wandering through the Old Testament for 47 verses, without really making any points. There’s not a easily identifiable outline. It’s not going to be on anyone’s list of favorite passages or memory verse lists.
Yet something about this speech so captivated Luke, the author of Acts, the he records in detail almost everything about it. It is by far the longest sermon in the book of Acts and one of the longest recorded speeches in the Bible. Usually, when Luke records sermons in the book of Acts, he summarizes them. We know Paul could speak all night, yet his sermons are usually condensed into a few short paragraphs. So when the Holy Spirit prods the author of Acts to record this speech in detail we had better try to understand His purpose in doing so. I believe that as we do so, we find here one of the most power messages in the Bible to the church, especially to a church like OCBC as we close the chapter on this church house and set out into the unknown.
The Key: Geography = Theology
The key to understanding the Holy Spirit’s message through Stephen is recognizing that in the books of Luke and Acts, geography is theology. Luke loved geography – he must have been a map geek. His Gospel is arranged geographically, Jesus starting in the gentile regions of Galilee and getting closer and closer to Jerusalem. The book of Acts is structured geographically, the gospel starting in Jerusalem and moving outward into the Gentile regions. The key verse for understanding the structure of the book of Acts is Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Throughout the book of Acts you see the Holy Spirit moving the church precisely through that expansion, making the theological point that God is moving outward into the world. In Acts, Geography is theology.
Understanding that, as you read Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, the geography stands out.
Acts 7:2-3 And Stephen said: "Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.' Abraham was moving in tents.
Acts 7:4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. After his father died in Haran, Abraham moved again, but he did not settle there: Acts 7:5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect – that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others. So Abraham and his children lived in tents, never settling down in the land.
Moving on, we see this family move again: Acts 7:9 "And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him.” And we know the story of how God used Joseph to move Abraham’s descendants down to Egypt, where they again did not live in a land of their own but were foreigners and aliens.
Stephen goes on to tell the story of Moses, who after trying to deliver the people by himself went on his own wilderness wanderings, living in tents in the desert around Midian. After forty years God got a hold of him and led him back to Egypt where it says in Acts 7:35-36 This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?'--this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.
During those forty years in the wilderness, the people lived in tents, not having any place to lay their heads, not owning any property or building any buildings – and God met with them. God in fact, lived in a tent with them! Acts 7:44-45 "Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, For nearly 400 years, God lived in a tent with his people, camped right in the midst of them as they moved from place to place. After they entered the Land, God still lived in a tent. David wanted to build God a house and God changed the subject! David said, I’ll build a house for you and God said, no David, I’ll build up your house *2 Samuel 7.
Finally, in verse 47: “But it was Solomon who built a house for him.” After 46 verses, over 1000 years of history, after all those years of moving with his people, all those years of dwelling in tents, God’s got a house.
YET, YET, Stephen immediately counters, (verse 48) “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands,” Acts 7:49-50 'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?'
God needs no house to dwell in. All creation is his house. God loves to be out among the people. God loves camping. He’d much prefer a tent to a temple. The point of the entire book of Acts and the reason why the Holy Spirit gives this speech of Stephen’s such attention is that God is moving out of the temple and back into tents so that he can seek and save the lost.
Here’s our problem. We prefer temples and deep down, we prefer a God who prefers temples. Tents scare us. Temples suggest stability, tents take risk. But God is with us. Temples imply comfort, tents imply roughing it. But God of all comfort is with us. Face: Temples can be glorious and we who build them share in their glory – hey look what we built! Shame: Tents are dirty. No body saw a tent or even the Tabernacle and said wow – look at that. But this allows God to get the glory. Temples presume that the world will come to us to worship. Tents require us going out into the world. With God’s power and mission. Temples are the box we put God in. Tents are God’s way of sending us out so that we can recognize that God is bigger than our box and Lord of the whole earth.
Our church knows what it means to worship a God who prefers tents to temples. We could tell our own story. 33 years ago, five families started worshipping in the basement of Eskine Presbyterian church at Bronson avenue. (have families stand) Soon after the growing congregation moved to St. Giles church on Bank Street where we stayed for 12 years as guests. (have people stand) In 1988, we moved once again, again not owning our own land, into Fourth Avenue Baptist Church. For 8 years we stayed their praying that someday God would grant us our own home. In 1996 God answered those prayers and we purchased this building. Our first worship service was on February 2, 1997, 12 years ago. For twelve years we have worshipped God in this building. Some of you, this is the only church home you have known.
Two years ago, our church voted to sell our building. This was before we had any idea where God would move us. It took tremendous faith. Like Abraham, we set out on a course without having any idea where we will end up. We still don’t know. I talk to other pastor’s and mention that we sold our building and are moving out. They say, where are you moving to? I say, “We don’t know yet – we’re going to live in tents for a while. We are going to be open to God and go to where we can have a more effective ministry.” You should see the looks I get – they think we’re crazy, but then they speak a little quieter and say, I wish my people would have the faith to take that sort of risk.
And God has been faithful to us. When we set out, we had no idea that the Churchill church would open itself up to us to be our tent. We are seeing that God is going before us and moving with us. It breeds faith so that we continue to look to God as we see what’s next. It is an adventure.
Here is the danger: its hard to live in a tent.
You want to settle. You want the comfort of you own place. Its an inconvenience at times as we are going to share the tent with other groups. It is uncomfortable because it may never feel like home. Yet here is the message of the book of Acts and Stephen speech: if we are ever going to change the world we need to live by the mindset of tents, not temples. My prayer is that even if we find a home, even if we find that place where God is ultimately leading us, that our journey from this moment teaches us once again that God is God of the tent, and not of the temple.
While the most direct application this morning is churchwide, maybe some of you individually are facing situations in which you need a tent mindset. Maybe you’ve recently lost a job or a relationship. Maybe your looking to the future and you don’t see stability. Welcome to the tent. Maybe you’ve been very insular and all your activities have been directed inward and God is calling to reach out to that coworker, friend or neighbor. Here’s a tent for you.
We take our cue from Jesus. John chapter 1 verse 14: And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Do you know that that world dwelt actually is? Tabernacled. He tented. He left his home in glory to seek and save the lost. It was his mission from the father to set up his tent into the world and may we as a church do the same.
One last thing about tents: if your going to be living in a tent, you’ve got to travel light. You can’t take a lot of stuff. Earlier in the service, I hope that you’ve been able to take the time to fill out those two pieces of baggage.