By David Castle, City Church Deacon
This advent my two-year-old, Penny, and I have started a new routine in the wee hours of the morning. Penny says, “Good morning, tree!” I plug in the Christmas tree lights, drop a couple octaves, and declare, “Good morning, Penny!” The tree’s glow lights up her face and for a moment she looks like an angel, completely transfixed. Before the moment’s gone, I regard her as free from the burden of life and unaware of the certainties of pain and death ahead. I wonder what she could be thinking and it dawns on me: just the tree, the object that casts light on her face.
Earlier this fall I was privileged to co-lead a City Group with my wife, Hannah, and our good friends BJ & Elizabeth Legg. Part of leading required us to read very slowly through the book of Acts as we prepared each week to lead discussion. Through that experience I gained a brand-new perspective on the early disciple Stephen. When reading through quickly, it’s easy to attribute to him high esteem and admiration as the first martyr for our faith. Yet, when you read the story in a loop—several times, in fact, over a short period of time—you see a man who, I believe, was not only overlooked by the early church leaders, but who was also, at the time of his death, actively processing the pain of that experience. I believe the story of Stephen can teach us how to experience peace through the security that comes from anchoring our identity in God’s story and in the upside-down nature of how it unfolds.
Acts 6 seems perfectly ordinary in isolation. The early apostles have a problem: Jesus has charged them with the enormous task of preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations (Luke 24:27) but now that they have received the Holy Spirit and no longer have to wait in Jerusalem, there is a growing sense of urgency. However, Jesus’ own example to always make time for the most vulnerable while simultaneously managing a booming ministry quickly becomes overwhelming for his infant church. These problems climax as several widows in the community are neglected and discriminated against. To solve the seemingly conflicting priorities of discipleship, the apostles divide the responsibilities between the disciples, assigning the most qualified to prayer and the ministry of the word and sending the remaining seven to “wait on tables” for the widows. While Chapter 6 seems normal standing alone, it’s absurd in the light of Chapter 7, because as it turns out one of the seven waiters is Stephen, the only person other than Peter and Paul to preach a sermon recorded in its entirety in the book of Acts.
When we read the first part of Acts 6, we might think, “Good, now we have seven disciples tasked with managing this first big distraction. Surely at least one of these other disciples chosen for their skill of ministry will successfully minister the word and reignite the evangelical movement.” But, while the others are successful, (Acts 6:7), the only noteworthy example is Stephen. Some might argue that his example was only noteworthy because he was the first martyred, but I’d argue what’s most compelling about his martyrdom is who wasn’t martyred before him. In other words, how was serving in the kitchen in the first part of chapter 6 such a big task that it was distracting everyone from preaching the word? In the second part of the chapter, when the kitchen has less help and presumably equal demand, one of the overburdened workers is not only successful in the kitchen, but also the most successful at stirring people up with his preaching. That one is, of course, Stephen.
Through Stephen’s sermon in chapter 7 we get a sense of where he found his security and how he was able to “wait” so patiently. The sermon is littered with examples of Old Testament heroes whose time to shine came later than expected or, in some cases, never at all. Abraham starts a family in the twilight of his life. Joseph is exalted among Abraham’s family after experiencing betrayal, enslavement, and prison. Moses is a fugitive in the desert, with forty years between first thinking God is using him to rescue his people (Acts 7:25) and when God comes down to give him the gameplan. David, though elevated from shepherd to king, is told “no” when he asks to build a temple for God. Instead, Solomon, begotten of David’s notorious sin and idleness (that could have been preoccupied with a temple building project), is the one who builds God’s house, and even that work is futile. So, when Stephen, the gifted preacher, is told to wait and not minister we know he had insight into what that calling didn’t mean. He knew what a God ordained calling looked like and that someone like him waiting on widows had God’s signature all over it. It didn’t mean God’s story was on pause while Stephen navigated his detour.
As we wrap up the last week of advent, many of us are weary and heavy-laden, whether it’s last-minute shopping and traffic, the absence of loved ones, or the disappointment of what happened, or didn’t happen, this past year, we acknowledge this season of waiting is filled with more pain than comfort, but there’s good news, because when the Sanhedrin close in on Stephen his face is already lit up like an angel (Acts 6:15). In life, this waiter has found his peace and it isn’t in the commiseration with his heroes and their shared frustrations; his peace is Jesus, who he sees, standing with mission completed at the right hand of the Father (7:56). Stephen knows the life he ought to live has been lived for him, the work is finished, his whole life is a reflection of the light of this truth. So, I pray this Christmas that when we look up, we would see and be transfixed by Jesus, knowing that, while we still wait, the work is finished and we’re free to live life accordingly, reflecting this truth in every circumstance!
Our four-week Advent blog series is designed to correspond with our Advent Devotional, “A New Vision,” which you can pick up at a future service or download the PDF by clicking here.