ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 30, 2013
NEW SIGHTS, NEW WAYS
Acts 7: 54 – 60; Luke 10: 1, 17-20
The legend is told of why the Jewish people do not eat pork. Moses and the Israelites were wandering in circles through the desert for 10 years. They were tired and hungry. They came upon a holy man sitting under a broom tree. Moses approached him and asked, “Could you help us? We’re lost and could really use something to eat.” The man replied, “For you, most fortunate. Have visions, I do.” And he placed his fingers on his temple, closed his eyes and began to hum. Suddenly his eyes popped open and he declared, “Over the dune, across the cactus field, around the big rock, you go. Find a bacon tree, you will.” “A bacon tree?!” exclaimed Moses. “Most certainly” said the man. So Moses led his people to the exact spot the man had directed him. When they arrived there, they were rushed by a small group of very large Philistines, beaten and left to die. Moses dragged his broken, bleeding body back around the rock, through the cacti and over the dune to where the man still sat. “What on earth were you thinking?” Moses asked, “You nearly got us all killed. And there wasn’t any bacon tree!!” The man calmly held his hands to his temple again and said, “Wait, another vision I get… Oops. Sorry, it wasn’t a bacon tree. It was a hambush.”
As we continue to explore the work of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible not to spend some time looking at the methods the Spirit uses to give insight to God’s people. Visions, dreams and messages from God have long been some of the ways in which the Spirit communicates God’s hopes, God’s insights and God’s will. Early in Biblical history we find people like Jacob who had a vision of angels climbing ladders and others like Joseph who had significant dreams and the gift of interpreting dreams. In Numbers God reminded Moses’ brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, shall make myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream.” (12: 6) God went on to remind them that he spoke face to face only to Moses, implying that visions and dreams, although rare at the time, were still the more usual means of communication. In the book of Acts, Peter reminded the crowd at Pentecost of the prophesy of Joel which had come to fulfillment right before their eyes, “And it shall be in those days’, God says, ‘That I will pour forth of my Spirit on Jews and Gentiles; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my bond-slaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of my Spirit and they shall prophesy.” (2:17) Since Pentecost was the beginning of the time when God’s Spirit was poured out on all of the body of Christ, it follows that prophecies, visions and dreams are things we can expect to happen.
I admit that makes me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t welcome the Spirit – I do. And not because I believe these divine manifestations don’t happen – I do. I get a bit anxious however because, like Moses and the bacon tree visionary, I’ve seen people abuse these gifts and create no end of problems and divisions within the church. But that’s nothing new. The Bible is full of people who abuse, refuse and fabricate visions for their own purposes. So maybe a little dis-ease around these signs is a healthy thing. Scripture cautions in several places about the pit-falls that can come when we are open to the Spirit’s messages.
In both the Old and New Testament’s God’s people receive many warnings about false prophets. Some of
these false prophets are people who don’t have a vision or message from God, but make one up and use it to lead God’s people astray. In Jeremiah 23:16f God says, “Don’t listen to the sermons of the prophets. It’s all hot air. Lies, lies, and more lies. They make it all up. Not a word they speak comes from me.” Others distort genuine visions or messages to manipulate God’s people. Paul warned the Ephesians, “Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (Acts 20:30) Still others make false claims about themselves to gain power. Jesus cautioned, “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.” (Matthew 24:5) There isn’t a person alive who is not drawn to believing messages that are flashy and impressive, promise us great things for little investment or tell us what we want to hear. This is the basis of advertisement! Spiritual pride and the desire for power are not things that any of us are immune to. These are also the basis for spiritual abuse. People are spiritually vulnerable. We protect ourselves from false and destructive claims by knowing our scripture, discerning together and guarding our minds and hearts.
Paradoxically, though, another pit fall of visions is the refusal of God’s people to heed them. In Isaiah, God condemns Israel, “For they are a rebellious people, faithless children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see”; and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions… let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” (30: 9f) Sometimes we reject God’s interventions because the message is difficult or because we don’t like the person it comes from or because we’re proud or hard-hearted thinking we have nothing to learn. Some people have no room in their world view for any message that comes in a supernatural way. We need to open our hearts to messages that call us into deeper faithfulness and deeper relationship with Christ.
When messages allude to something in the future, they can become signs of discouragement instead of hope. When Israel was captive in Babylon, there was a popular saying, “The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing” (Ezekiel 12: 22) God makes us many promises and some seem to take a long time to come to fruition. The Israelites waited 400 years in Egypt for God to deliver them. The Church, who thought Jesus would return before the 1st generation of believers died, is still waiting. Because God’s promise isn’t fulfilled immediately doesn’t mean it’s false or empty. God states, “The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision. I the Lord will speak my word, and it will be fulfilled. It will no longer be delayed”. (23 – 25) For God to give us hope through these promises we need to receive them with faith.
But enough of the pitfalls – God gives us these visions, dreams and prophecies for our good and for the benefit of Christ’s Church. How do they help us? In today’s reading from Acts, Stephen had been arrested and dragged before the Sanhedrin accused of trying to destroy the customs and Law of Moses. Stephen spoke at length, confirming their allegations. When he accused the Jews of “forever opposing the Holy Spirit” and “murdering the Righteous One (Jesus)” (Acts 7: 51 & 52) the mob confirmed his allegations with their rage. At that moment, Stephen who was “filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (vs. 55) God gave this sign of grace to Stephen to comfort with the Divine presence and to encourage him in sticking his neck out for the truth. Stephen announced to all present what he had seen which sent the crowd crazy. The people accusing Stephen probably heard blasphemy and criticism. It would have been blasphemy to suggest that Jesus sat at the right hand of God – equal to the Father in every way. It would have also suggested to them that Jesus sat there as their judge. And it would have enraged them to think that Stephen would declare himself a prophet who had received a vision from God. The crowd went insane, dragged Stephen outside the city gate and stoned him to death. As they were stoning him Stephen did two remarkable things. First, he committed his spirit to Christ (vs. 59) demonstrating his faith in Jesus as the Messiah and his willingness to die for it. Secondly, he asked God “do not hold this sin against them.” (vs. 60) He hoped for their redemption. Both those statements echo two of Jesus final words from the cross. God gives his people visions to fill us with hope, to confirm our faith in Jesus as the Son of God and to assure us of his love. The result of a true vision is that we become more like Christ: more centred, more forgiving, more mature, more determined.
Scripture gives us many examples of visions, dreams and messages from the Holy Spirit to the Church. In and of themselves they are very exciting and that’s what makes them dangerous. In Luke’s gospel Jesus had sent the disciples out on a mission trip. They came back bursting with joy. Great things had happened. We can imagine their enthusiastic report, “You should have seen it Lord. Were we ever filled with power! Phillip healed a blind man; Matthew made a woman walk, and Peter, man Peter, there was this girl who we thought was dead and he prayed over her and she was alive.” “That was nothing, James, John and Andrew went over to this leper colony and started healing, then a group of demoniacs came out harassing them, and they commanded them to leave the people and they did!” Jesus responded to this by telling them of a vision he had, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” (vs. 18) This vision had a layered message for the disciples. Jesus was telling them there actions had taken down Satan and destroyed his power just a little more. It also reminded them that Satan fell from heaven because he was too proud, too ruthless and too impressed with himself. He was drunk on his own power. Jesus was warning his disciples how dangerously close they were, in spite of their virtuous actions, to falling from grace. Then he reminded them that he had “given them authority over all the power of the enemy” (vs. 19); like them, Christians today who have visions, dreams and prophetic messages are blessed with extraordinary, Spiritual power. And like them we need to hear Jesus remind us, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”(vs. 20) As the Church of Jesus Christ we are to welcome the Spirit in all its manifestations for the encouraging gifts Spirit brings us; we can do this with confidence if our hearts are set, first and foremost on becoming like Christ in love, humility and dependence on God and if we remember that signs and wonders are not nearly as important as what God has done for us by grace through Jesus Christ.