Hear the Truth
Lessons Every Child Should Learn & No Adult Should Forget
Sunday, October 13, 2013
When we lived in Western Kentucky, I heard a story about an incident that happened in a church there that I have long remembered. The church had a new minister and as is often the case some people immediately loved him, were excited by his leadership and liked the direction the church was going. At the same time, there were other people in the church who were not quite as fond of their new minister and who were concerned about things that were happening in the church.
One of those individuals, who was not a big fan of his new pastor, continued however, to be faithful in his attendance to church. But, he developed an interesting habit in worship. He would sit on the back row attentively, reverently and quietly. Yet, when the pastor stood up and began to offer his Sunday sermon, the man would take his two index fingers and put them in his ears, signifying his unwillingness to hear anything that was being said.
Now, I suspect that all of us who are here today can quickly see the absurdity in such behavior. Without a doubt, there is nothing mature or grown up about acting in this way. At the same time, I would suggest to all of us that even if we don’t physically stick our fingers in our ears at times, we all have people, situations and ideas to which we quickly turn deaf ears.
What I mean is that there are times for all of us in which we simply have no desire or willingness whatsoever to hear what is being said to us. At times, this is a wise move for there certainly are a number of situations in life where turn a deaf ear is a smart move. But, in all honesty, there are also countless times in our lives where our unwillingness to listen to others, to God or to the wisdom in front of us is a bad thing. Sometimes, the turn of a deaf ear prevents us from hearing valuable truths that would profoundly benefit us.
Last week, we spent time reflecting on the importance of speaking the truth. This morning, I want to challenge us that an equally important trait to teach our children and to remember no matter how old we become is the importance of hearing the truth. At times, there is nothing more difficult that being honest in our speech. At other times, there is nothing more difficult that openly and graciously hearing and responding well to the truth of others.
The story of the early follower of Jesus known as Stephen speaks to this reality in a rich and meaningful way. Stephen was a significant leader in the emerging Christian church as we learn about it in the book of Acts. We first encounter him in the beginning of chapter 6 when he is chosen along with several others to assist the twelve disciples in caring for the poor and their needs through the regular distribution of food to them.
Also early on in chapter 6, we learn too that Stephen was what had become known as a Hellenized Jew. Hellenized Jews had spent the majority of their lives outside of Palestine. This contact with the greater world had allowed them to be heavily influenced by the language, thinking and culture of the Greek world. In the early church and in Jewish culture of Israel as a whole there appears to have been a growing division between those Jews who had always lived in Palestine and these Hellenized Jews who had migrated back to the area from other parts of the world. Again, this division was happening inside and outside the church. It was problematic in both places.
Stephen, as a Hellenistic Jew and follower of Jesus, evidently had ability, he was charismatic, a natural born leader and was someone who exuded strong potential in the early church. As the text says in verse 8, Stephen was “full of grace and power”. Interestingly, though, the Greek term from which we get the English word power is dunamis which is the same term from which comes the English term dynamite. And, this is exactly what Stephen became—a powder keg. For those who loved him and embraced him, his words were helpful, valuable and influential. But, for those Jews in Palestine who were both suspicious of those within their midst who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who were also concerned about those who were overly influenced by the greater world, Stephen as a Hellenized Jew, who loved Jesus was the ultimate double edged sword and polarizing figure. In turn, even though he spoke the truth, many who were his contemporaries refused to hear anything he had to say. In essence they stuck their fingers in their ears and ultimately, the truth of Stephen was so confrontational that they wanted to do was have him killed.
In the reaction to Stephen and the ignored truth that God was seeking to communicate through him, there are at least a couple of powerful lessons for us to embrace as we think about his story and as we do our best today to hear truth in our own lives. Let me briefly call these ideas to our attention.
On the one hand, Stephen’s story reminds all of us that when it comes to seeking the truth, it is important to remember that anyone can be a bearer of truth. What I mean is that when you look at Stephen’s experience, he literally had two strikes against him before him opened his mouth with the greater Jewish population. For one, he was a Jew who had chosen to follow Jesus. Second, he was a Hellenized Jew. In turn, most of his contemporaries were suspicious and disinterested in him and what he had to say even before the first word was spoken. What truth could possible come from him they must have wondered?
Life is much the same for all of us today. Often times, we are unable to hear the truth because we are unwilling to respect or even give a fair shake to the speaker of the truth. We assume that based on what we know about someone, where they come from or due to prior experiences that whatever they say is either not worth hearing or has some ulterior motive behind it. We also sometimes relegate the truth to certain times and places in our lives as if God can only speak through certain experiences or only at a particular hour of the day.
One of the interesting controversies of the early church was related to ministers who later left the church for any number of reasons. In essence, the question was that if the minister who baptized you was flawed in that they proved to be unfaithful to God and the church in some way, was your baptism also flawed and thus did you need to be re-baptized? The ultimate decision was no and the rationale was simple—God’s grace is not dependent on the worthiness or holiness or the messenger or dispenser of grace. God is obviously is much bigger and more powerful than that.
The same holds as we listen for the truth today. God is certainly capable of communicating truth to us, at any time, in any way and through anyone. In turn, when truth is before us, we must have the wisdom to look beyond the speaker of the truth or the life experience through which truth comes our way that we might hear a good word, spoken at the right time to which we desperately need to be attentive.
On the other hand, the Stephen story also reminds us that when it comes to hearing the truth, we need to remember that truth and change often go hand in hand. Without question, one of the reasons that Stephen’s message was so hard to hear is that life was changing for the Jewish people whom he was challenging. Some in their midst were embracing Jesus as the Messiah. Others were adapting to the larger world. Their language was changing from Hebrew to Greek and they were allowing the outside culture to influence their own. The Jewish landscape was evolving before their eyes and they did not like it one bit. In turn, Stephen’s words were a mixture of new truth and new ways which became a fatal potion for much of his audience.
The same is always a possibility for us. So often, the truth we need to hear includes a new way of living or doing things. So often the truth we need to hear, challenges some of the principles that we have built our lives around and it is not easy or fun to heed what is being said to us. In turn, our response is often to tune the truth out, to become defensive and at times angry with those who share the truth with us because we simply don’t want to make the changes connected to the truth being shared. But, in the end, I think we can all agree that if changing our lives is what is required to embrace the truth then in the end it is a good thing. I have no the doubt that years later at least some of those who had Stephen put to death wished desperately that they had not waited so long to embrace in that moment the change in their lives that the truth of his words sought to bring about.
Several of you have complimented me over the last several months for getting my braces off. I wore them for roughly two years in order to realign my teeth and to fix a serious problem with my bite. I must tell you in all honesty thought that my dentist in Atlanta had preached to me for five years about getting braces. In fact, I got to the point where I hated to go see him (no offense to our many fine FBC dentists) because I knew what he was going to say. Without question he was speaking the truth. I had not doubt that I need to do what he suggested. But, I did not want to hear what he had to say because I did not want to make the changes in my life that braces would require.
Let me end by putting a twist on my final statement from last week. Yes, speaking the truth helps us to set others free. But, having the courage to hear the truth—that, that my friends is what sets us free. Amen.