May 13, 2018

Seriously, Why Keep Trying?

7th Sunday of Easter
First Lesson:  Acts 7:54-60

Second Lesson:  Hebrews 7:23-27

Gospel Lesson:  John 17:11-19

Sermon Text:  Acts 7:54-60

Moms, I’m sure this has never happened to you. Imagine your kids aren’t always super appreciative of what you do for them. Imagine a world where they don’t thank you for the little things like clean clothes, rides, and a meal each night, do a lot of asking but very little thanking, and often take you for granted.  What a crazy world that would be, right?   Sadly, that all too often is the exact world in which you live, moms. And when this happens day after day, it takes a toll. I bet every mom has asked herself this question often in the last year: “Why do I keep trying?”  Maybe it comes after a thankless week, one with 800 requests, or one when complaints were many. In a stressed, frustrated moment, you asked, “Why keep trying?”

And I bet I know what answer eventually came to your brain: “Because they need me, and because I love them.”  Sure, they may not always be thankful, but where’d they be without you? They’d head off to school not dressed for the weather with a Gogurt and Pringles, or miss practice, or get an F on a test. They need you, and despite their issues, you love them and want what is best for them. That’s why you plug away.  And speaking on kids and dads everywhere, we say thank you.

Why mention that? Substitute “Christian” for “mom”. Is there a difference?  People not showing much respect. Not being appreciative. Not realizing the ways we serve them. Ripping us, mocking us, and trying to push anything contrary to our beliefs. That’s our world. In general, Christians are not respected.  Some groups actively seek to make sure no Christians serve in government.  Our children are being taught anything but what God’s Word says.  And in a time when everyone is anti-bullying, the world has no problem bullying Christians, belittling them, and branding them mean, unloving, and hateful.

Isn’t it easy to think like a mom after a bad week?  “Why should I even try living and serving others?  I get no thanks. In fact, I get heat for it. I’m told not to talk about my faith and accept everything contrary to what I believe. Why show love?  Why strive to live out my faith? Why serve “them” when they are very vocal about not wanting to be served?”  Every felt that way, that you aren’t doing any good, and it’d be easier to pack it in and quit? But is that the right thing to do?

Keeping that in mind, turn to our lesson from Acts.  We only heard the tail end of the account. Stephen was a bold witness about Jesus and his love, and he was put on trial for his faith. When he speaks, he doesn’t mince words.  He recounts how prophets from God in the past were ignored. He talks about how people had strayed from God and his Word.  Then he drops a bombshell and tells them nothing has changed. Jesus came from God as the Savior, and, he says, you guys killed him.  Stephen’s words could not have been stronger or more forceful.  And it certainly wasn’t easy to say these things.

So why did he do this?  Because he loved these guys.  Jesus died and rose for them as well.  He wanted them to see their sins and repent.  He wanted them to also be a part of God’s family and enjoy the peace, hope, and confidence that comes from true faith. Just as a mom corrects a child for his or her good, so Stephen did the same with this group. 

Did they see this as an act of love and thank him for the message he shared? No. They were furious he pointed an accusing finger, gnashing teeth in bitter anger. But Stephen didn’t stop. God grants him a vision before he dies. Once more he’s witnessing Jesus to them. But they hate him so much they cover their ears and scream like toddlers, wanting nothing to do with him or his message. Finally, overcome with rage, they drag him out to stone him to death.  And with his final breath, does he curse them? No. He prays God would be merciful and forgive them, much like Jesus on the cross. Then he died.

Not only was he not appreciated or thanked, he was hated with the most bitter hatred possible for living up to his Christian calling, for speaking the truth in love, and for sharing Jesus with them.  What would it have been easy for him to do when he saw he was getting nowhere? Shut his mouth. Tell them what they wanted to hear so he could go free. Capitulated.  But he didn’t. Why not? He loved them.  The love of Christ was flowing through him as he spoke.  And he knew they needed to hear this.  Sadly, none took the message to heart, at least not on that day.  But love does act because of what the outcome will be.  Love acts because something is the right thing to do.  He was hated.  He was mocked.  He was ignored. Certainly he received no thanks.  But he kept striving to the very end, because they need him, and because he loved them.

I can’t draw a direct parallel, at least for us in this country, to what Stephen went through.  But do know that there are millions – yes, millions – around the world who face what Stephen faced every day.  Last fall guest presenters shared info on the Bachana ministry to help spread the Gospel in Pakistani. The guy heading this up is a doctor. In a film clip, he said he knows he’ll eventually be killed for his faith. But what does he keep doing?  Showing love to all as he practices medicine, and showing love to all as he boldly witnesses to Christ. For this he is disregarded, mocked, and hated. But he keeps going.  Why?  Because he loves his fellow Pakistanis, and because they need to hear the message of grace that he shares.

We don’t have to face that sort of persecution, but there are similarities. Those of you my age, think back 25 years. Christians were viewed in a relatively positive light.  At the least, people on every form of media did not mock them for what they believed.  Sure, there were some naysayers, but for the most part, Christians were viewed mostly with high regard. 

O how that has changed in the last quarter century.  Some seek to drive religion out of every institution outside of the home – government, schools, libraries, etc.  Christians are labeled as anti-science morons.  They are considered backwards. They are treated like they are mentally insufficient since they believe in the quaint notion of an all-powerful God. This isn’t just happening a few places. It’s everywhere.  Whatever paper or site you get your news from, notice the slant, the bias.  Read the comments people put down after any story about religion. Notice how Christian characters are portrayed on TV. Listen to comedians and late night talk guys. More each day, pot shot after pot shot is taken against us, against people of faith.

And make it more personal.  Maybe your work has forbidden you to bring a Bible for on your desk or in the break room.  I hear about that more and more each year.  Maybe your school has gone beyond the Constitution and banned symbols that they have no right to ban.  I hear about that as well.  Maybe your group of friends/coworkers wants you to tone down the religious talk because you might offend someone.  That’s another common one people share with me.  If you haven’t faced any of this, it is coming.  There is a tidal wave on the way that is OK with absolutely anything people want to do as long as it has nothing to do with faith and the Bible. I could go on and on with example after example, but I think you get the point.

And what is the easy way to react to all this? To get mad. “I’m trying to live my faith and help others, but everywhere I turn I am treated like an idiot.” To get frustrated. “Can’t people see I only want what is best for them?  That atheist using God’s name in every way except the right way – I even want him to come to faith.  What is wrong with him?”  And probably the easiest thing to do is shut it all down.  “Why serve others?  Why show love?  I am getting nothing but grief in return.  I seem to be having no impact, and the more I open my mouth, the more I am ridiculed.”  There are many more possible responses, but that last one sums it up.  “If I am going to in a way face what Stephen faced for living out my faith, why keep doing it?

There is a line from the Lord of the Rings movie “The Two Towers.”  Bad guys are attacking the good guys, and their king says this: “What can men do against such reckless hate?”  Understand that what we are facing is hatred in its most crass form.  The sinful heart does not want to hear about sin and the need for a Savior.  The sinful heart wants a pass so it can do whatever it wants, and when anyone or anything gets in the way, hatred is the natural result.

And that just makes the question more important.  “Why keep trying?”  The answer is simple.  We keep at it for the same reasons Stephen, and so many who faced such negativity in the past did. 1) We’re called to love all people.  Jesus did not just say to love those who are like us. That’s easy. True love, his love, is meant to be shown to all. What is true love?  It’s always doing what is best for others. Sometimes that means picking up those who fall, literally or figuratively. Or it means being there with a kind word or hug.  And sometimes that means sharing a truth they don’t want to hear – the message of sin/grace. Love doesn’t weigh the consequences and then act if it is safe to do so. Love knows what is best and does it.

2) That love is what this world filled with hatred needs.  This is my guess, but I think the reason so many who are against religion are so bitter, angry, and discontent is because they know they are missing something.  They know there is a huge hole in their hearts that can’t be filled by anything in this life.  Or think back to the block game your kids played with – the circle like thing that was red on one side and blue on the other.  There were yellow blocks of different shapes, and the kid had to fit the right shape in the right hole.  In each human heart, there is an empty space in the shape of a cross.  Only one thing fits in it.  Only one thing will fill it.  It is the cross of our Savior and everything that cross represents.

That is why we keep plugging away.  That is why we look at Stephen and say, “Lord, give me such a faith.”  No, the world doesn’t want to hear it.  We know this because coming into this world we didn’t want to hear it.  We didn’t want to think about that empty hole in our hearts.  But God knew what we needed and he acted, didn’t he?  Somehow, someway, he shared with us the message of a Savior from sin.  And that message took root.  Inside our cold, dead, hate-filled hearts a stirring began.  The need became obvious – the need for a Savior.  The solution became just as obvious – Jesus is that Savior.  None of this is what we wanted.  Our sinful hearts wanted to reject this.  So why did God keep pressing?  It’s the same answers again.  Because he loves us.  Because we needed to know this.

If that is how God treated us, doesn’t that give us insight in how we treat others?  I know the objections we face (and they will only get worse in the future) are many.  I know it is uncomfortable to be the sore thumb, the one not going with society, the one who actually takes a stand on what God’s Word says.  But I pray God keeps building us up in faith that we don’t think about the consequences of continuing to live and serve and speak as Christians, but we instead think about the consequences for others if we shut up, if we give in, and if we fail to speak the truth in love.

I pray God gives us that faith and I am confident he will do so.  I doubt Stephen went to court that day thinking he’d make a bold defense of his faith and forfeit his life.  But God gave him the faith he needed when he needed it to do what needed to be done. To the end, the Lord was with him. The same is/will be true for us. We have our Lord’s word on that.

Will we receive thanks for doing this, for living in love and living out our faith? Maybe. Not always. Maybe not at all.  Will it be tempting to throw in the towel, respond in anger, or things like that?  Maybe.  Sometimes.  Maybe a lot.  But knowing our Lord’s love for us, knowing the forgiveness, peace, hope, and confidence we enjoy because of that love, may God make each of us Stephen every day.  To a world of hate, we preach God’s unconditional love.  For a lost world, we shine the light of truth.  A thankless job?  In this life?  Possibly.  But with hearts of faith and love we keep at it, leaving the results in God’s hand, until that time comes when he welcomes us home with these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Amen.