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Triumph

Acts  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  33:24
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Tragically Awkward

My first words to Karen as we chatted online. “How old are your kids?”
I am thinking “I’m a Dad, you’re a Mom, here’s a common experience...”
She is thinking, do I need to call the police?
At the end of our second date, I am thinking “I will be a gentleman and walk her to her car… but I’m not going to kiss her on the second date.” And in my mind, I execute it smoothly and perfectly.
Karen’s version goes more like this. When I entered the 10 foot perimeter of the car, my whole body went rigid, I stood up straight and said “Welp… good night.” And stayed planted right there until she left.
Tragic.
On our third date, when she kept going on about how great her younger brother is I asked “well, is he single?” She was not amused.
Tragic.
I am so thankful that somehow, miraculously, wonder of wonders, somehow it all worked.
Looking back I can see it. In the middle of some of those awkward moments I couldn’t see it. In the worst of those, Karen certainly couldn’t see it :D.

Book

The Tragedy
Acts 7:54–60 ESV
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
We see the glory of this… they saw the danger, the fear, the persecution the apostles had escaped again and again in standing up to authority, here was the final proof that they weren’t going to be safe, that it wasn’t going to be smooth and easy.
Stephen was just like them, and when he dared to speak boldly… he got killed! Savagely, shamefully, brutally killed.
How old was Stephen? We don’t know, but I picture him in the prime of his life. A leader among men, maybe near in age to me even? Church tradition, the official record of the saints has him at 29 years old.
I’m sure he had a family. Maybe married with kids, maybe not yet if he was 29. Certainly he had a mother… as so many do. And certainly he was well loved and well respected.
Can’t you imagine the long and fruitful ministry he could have had. This guy was amazing: full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, full of faith, full of grace. Whatever it was, this guy was full of it! ;)
His death was an absolute tragedy.
And a new figure has jumped into the scene. The enemy has a face, persecution has a name. Right there at the very first.
Acts 7:58 ESV
Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
“Here… let me hold that coat for you.” I don’t think he is dodging culpability but emphasizing his enthusiasm, his zeal in the killing.
Acts 8:1 ESV
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
What was their reaction? They scattered. They fled for the hills, fled for their lives. Everybody RUN!
10,000, 10s of thousands. A huge mega church where everything was going SO well, scattered to the winds. Dissolved.
Acts 8:2–3 ESV
Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
We see what a tragedy Stephen’s death is seen as… but they are barely given time to mourn. Picture the Gestappo coming, door to door, house to house, are you hiding any Jesus people?
RAVAGING the church.
DRAGGING off men and women.
This is surely the end of the church.
Acts 8:4 ESV
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Wait… what?
Scattered. That implies fear, doesn’t it.
diaspora. With a capital D it refers to the Jews scattered a bit under Assyrian rule and then very purposefully under the Babylonian rule.
Scattering very much has this negative connotation, under duress, under fear.
BUT (I love this), the root of the word has another meaning. Scattering or sowing seed.
And what is happening here. Yes, the people are scattered out every which direction. But not to perish, not to fizzle out, not to cool off and die like scattered coals.
Instead… they are seeds scattered to grow wherever they land.
We get to zoom in and see what that looks like with another of the deacons. No accident, I think. If anyone had opportunity to see themselves in Stephen’s shoes, it was Philip!
Acts 8:5–8 ESV
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
But this tragedy sent the gospel out to the four winds, turning a nice cozy bonfire in Jerusalem into a wildfire spreading across Asia and Africa (to start).
And where they went they brought the gospel. Proclaiming Christ. And now Philip is preaching boldly, casting out demons, healing the paralyzed and the lame.
And there was “much joy” in that city. As a result of Philip’s being there. And why was he there. A good Jew doesn’t go to Samaria and certainly doesn’t interact with the Samaritans. And up until a few days ago, all the Jesus-people were holed up together in Jerusalem with no plans to leave.
Was it still a tragedy? Yes. Nothing makes that not a tragedy.
And yet, now with the perspective a couple decades, Luke can see God use even this.

Serotinous Cones

(Lodgepole pine here in Colorado).
Pine trees with serotinous cones. They are thick, hard cones glued shut with a strong resin. They can hang on the tree for years, long after the seeds are already matured. Only when a fire sweeps through, melts the resin, do the cones open up, releasing seeds to then be scatterd by wind and gravity.
God transforms tragedy into triumph.
The execution of Stephen scatters the church out of Jerusalem and begins the spread of the gospel to Samaria, Judea and the ends of the earth. Stephen’s death was a brutal and savage tragedy… but God transforms tragedy into triumph.
It may not be painless. It may not be quick. But God can use it for His glory and (even) for your good.

From Joseph to Jesus

He is an expert at this. He has always done this.
Joseph, who Stephen just preached about, reflecting to his brothers over them being the WORST older brothers ever, he could now see
Genesis 50:20 ESV
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
In Jesus.
“Our Lord died an apparent failure, discredited by the leaders of established religion, rejected by society, and forsaken by his friends. It took the resurrection to demonstrate how gloriously Christ had triumphed and how tragically the world had failed.” - A. W. Tozer
Paul (Saul) who was there that day holding the coats, egging on the men throwing rocks at Stephen, approving of everything they did. How did Luke know that Saul was there? Saul told him. And that man, the murderer of Stephen who eventually got to see what Stephen’s words at his death meant. He would later say:
Romans 8:28 ESV
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
It doesn’t say that all things are good. The death of Stephen, a man full of promise and power, in the prime of his life. A man respected and well loved, serving God faithfully and boldly. It isn’t good that he was murdered by a mob.
It is gross and tragic and truly awful.
“all things work” is something called the “Divine Passive.” God is “actively” working all things, causing all things to work together (as New American Standard says).
And yet God takes even the gross, even the tragic, and in the crucible of His wisdom and love, he transforms it for our good. For the good of those who love God.
And that last piece is critical. For someone who doesn’t love God, they might have trouble seeing the spreading of His word as any kind of “good” coming out of the death of Stephen. That’s the same story that got Stephen killed in the first place, it isn’t good that more people are telling it.
But for those who love God, there is no greater good than His name being made famous. For those who are “called according to His purpose” there is no greater glory than His glory.

God transforms Tragedy into Triumph

Now I want to be so careful here. Did anyone come to Stephen’s family, maybe his widow, the day after he was wrongfully and savagely murdered and say “God will use this too for good.”
No. Not helpful. They mourned and needed to mourn. They, the church at large, were afraid… and that was part of it too!
And so, if you are in the midst of that kind of grief or tragedy now, the message here is not a shallow “everything will be fine” or “cheer up, good things will come.”
We have all seen how harmful and hurtful words like that can be to someone walking through the valley.
You don’t have to turn that tragedy into triumph. You can mourn for the tragedy, mourn for the Stephens, make “great lamentation!” Jesus weeping at the graveside of his friend even knowing that resurrection was coming.
You don’t have to fix it.
You just love God and sit in the sure confidence that He is working even this for His glory and for your good.
And those who have lived this time and time again carry that joy with them right through the worst of tragedies. Knowing from experience that God is going to be in even this.
Even in the worst of circumstances we can rest in that sure, quiet, deep-down confidence: this too He is working for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
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