There are a lot of dangerous jobs in this world. My first job was at 14-years old and I cleaned carpets at elementary schools for the summer. It wasn’t dangerous other than the hot steam coming from the cleaning machine.
Investigative journalism is a dangerous job. The assignment will take a journalist into war zones and hotbeds to expose a crucial story the world needs to hear about. Often times these journalists are threatened, defamed, beaten, even killed for their stories. Like Marie Colvin an American journalist who for 25 years worked for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. She was one of the world’s leading war correspondents. She reported from war zones on 3 continents over the course of her career. Known for her bravery, she was blinded in one eye by an army rocket in Sri Lanka. She wore a trademark black eye-patch for the rest of her life. She was killed covering the siege of Homs during the Syrian Civil War in 2012.
The Apostle Luke was an investigative journalist of sorts. He followed Jesus for 3-years and wrote about it in the Gospel that bears his name. Then he followed Paul and talked with eyewitness which he reported in the Book of Acts. It was these reports and his connection with Jesus that eventually got him killed.
Acts began with Jesus preparing to ascend to heaven and promising the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came and empowered the Apostles. In Acts 3-4, Peter powerfully proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus and a beggar was miraculously healed. In Acts 5, the church begins to grow and spread despite obstacles.
Acts 6 concluded with Stephen, a glorified busboy (table waiter), accused of flipping the script on Moses and Temple-shaming (Personally, I think he shared how Jesus was greater than Moses and the Temple; 6:14-15). Stephen’s trial was like looking at Jesus’ trial in the mirror.
Today, we come to Acts 7. The chapter is Luke’s record of Stephen’s sermon before the Sanhedrin. It would be like preaching a sermon to 71 biblical scholars. No pressure, right? It was such a good sermon that he devoted an entire chapter to retell it. (And I have the task of giving a sermon on a sermon). Stephen’s sermon was simple, his source material was familiar, but the conclusion was sobering. So let’s hear Stephen’s sermon and may the Holy Spirit give us a radically different response than those who heard it the first time. (Read Acts 7:1-53)
Stephen’s sermon can be summed up two phrases: People will try to contain God, but God will not be contained. And if your God is uncontainable, then people will try to contain you. Or it could be summed in one word: UNCONTAINABLE.
1. People will try to contain God.
There isn’t a person on this planet who hasn’t tried to contain God. You and I seek to contain God to at least three arenas—a place (a location, a land, a nation, a building), a possession (an image, an idol, a memory, an intellect), or a personality (love, goodness, grace, justice, wrath, etc.). all with the hope to explain God in a way that is understandable, definable, attainable, box-able and comfortable.
It doesn’t take long to realize that trying to contain God is like trying to contain the sky. It can’t be done. Although we know this and history tells us this, we still try and retry containing God.
You might know the story of Nike was the goddess of victory. Nike was a goddess before she was a brand. In order to keep Nike, Athens cut her wings to keep her contained and controlled. Israel also had their turn by crafting God into a golden calf.
Stephen’s sermon wasn’t simply a history lesson. It was a lesson on the heart. Stephen got at the heart of every man. As Calvin said, “Our hearts are idol factories.” Stephen said the heart of the Sanhedrin was no different than their fathers (and that you are no different than your fathers). In what ways are you tempted to box up and contain God to a place, a possession or a personality? Think about it. You and I can be very creative.
2. God will not be contained.
You may try to contain God, but he won’t be contained. God doesn’t fit a mold. He cannot be stuffed into a box. He bucks against boxes. Even the Book that describes him best, shares countless stories about his uncontainability.
Do you remember flannel graph? I didn’t grow up going to children’s Sunday School. So let me indulge by sharing Stephen’s sermon as a simple flannel graph lesson making up for my missed childhood.
Stephen’s sermon covered 2,000 years of Jewish history all in the hope to prove that God could not and would not be contained. He used four major stories from the Bible (plus one if you take into account Jesus). It was like going to Sabbath School again for these 71 scholars:
1. Abraham (vs.1-9) — God appeared to Abraham, moved him, and blessed him. This is before there was a temple. Abraham didn’t need a temple to be close to God. God came close to him.
2. Joseph (vs.9-16) — Then God appeared to Joseph in dreams. Although, he was rejected by those closest to him, he became a ‘savior’ for them.
3. Moses (vs.17-43) — God appeared to Moses at the burning bush (again not limited a temple). Moses helped build the tabernacle. He was also rejected as a deliverer. With Moses, Stephen connected the dots for the Jews, “You have rejected Jesus, who was like Moses yet greater than him (and Moses spoke about), and you deny that Jesus has any right to be a ruler and a judge over you.”
4. David & Solomon (vs. 44-50) — God promised David a temple that his son Solomon built. Interestingly, God was the architect and engineer of this Temple. God ordered the supplies and didn’t spar any cost. It would have cost $220B (compared $1B to rebuild Notre Dame). God was worth the Temple, but he was worthy of much more. Solomon knew this and emphasized this in his prayer when dedicating the Temple, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
Stephen’s point was that you can try to contain God’s presence to a tabernacle or temple, but you still reject God and his special messengers. God was present in Jesus and you missed him. God is frisky and wild. He can’t be pinned down. God is unchangeable, unteachable, unlimited, and utterly uncontainable. Let that fill you with wonder and awe.
3. If your God is uncontainable, then people will try to contain you.
Instead of wonder and awe, the Jews filled with rage. The Jews become like rabid wolves chopping down on Stephen. Rather than being convicted by his sermon, they were carnivorous. They gnashed their teeth and sought to give him hell. What was amazing is that Stephen was allowed to even speak a word or that he was given the time to share all of his sermon. It was certainly a grace of God that allowed him to finish it. But after he finished they contained him quickly (Acts 7:54-60).
It is not a coincidentally that Stephen’s story mirrors Jesus’ story. The Jews tried to contain Jesus and killed him, but the grave would not hold him. He burst out three days later in resurrection power. The Jesus story continued to spread through Stephen in a contagious missionary movement that is still spreading today.
Acts 7 ends with Stephen stoned to death. That’s it. That’s all we have right now. (Until we read chapter 8.) As we continue to read through Acts, the fullness of the glory of Stephen’s death will be revealed. But what if all we knew was his death? Can you still feel the weight of glory even without the rest of the story?
What do we learn from Stephen’s speech?
Stephen’s story reminds you to listen. May God give you ears to hear.
Stephen’s story causes you to relish in a God’s uncontainablity. Wonder and awe at him.
Stephen’s story calls attention to the scars you bear for following Jesus. Maybe like Marie Colvin or Stephen you have felt the stones of those trying to contain your God.
Stephen’s story encourages you to turn your gaze from the stones onto Jesus. May you not thrust Jesus aside nor ignore the threat he poses to your arenas of idols. Readily lay down your life for him as he did for you. You may not walk to the martyr’s stake, but you must walk in the Master’s steps.