CONVINCING THE WORLD
In the Gospel we heard today, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. In what I just read, we hear one of the earliest instances after Pentecost of how that came true. This is the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
The scene couldn't have been played any better. See the hosts of wickedness drawing up their phalanx anticipating the shock of contact as the Holy Spirit assails the Prince of this World. He was the one who hardened these peoples' hearts. They thought they were in charge, but they were just pawns in a cosmic power play. Within half an hour the highest council in Israel had been turned into a mob. In terms of today, it would be as if the U. S. Senate ran out of the capitol to lunch Billy Graham. And who was representing the Spirit? The solitary Stephen. He might have defended himself. Instead he used this window of opportunity to preach God's Word to the Jews. He preached the Law first, to convince them of their sins. He was intending to preach the Gospel if they repented, but he never got that chance. Stephen was not wrestling with flesh and blood. The Evil One was extremely active. Stephen saw that they were impenitent, so he kept on preaching the Law to warn them. He tried to show them from their history that they were working against God. But these men were possessed. They stopped their ears and shouted so as to drown out the call to repentance. So pitiful was their condition! They thought they were free men when they were Satan's slaves being whipped into a frenzy. Not only did they reject salvation, but they shouted down the message and murdered the messenger.
Now, you would have thought that they won. But God's Word tells us otherwise. God confirmed Stephen in his trial by showing him a vision. The words that describe it are a bit sketchy, but remember, "Son of Man" means the Messiah. Stephen saw Jesus. Neither was Jesus alone, for Stephen also saw "the glory of God," exactly what Moses claims to have seen in Exodus. Moreover, Jesus was "standing at the right hand of God." Now think back to the words of today's Gospel. Jesus said He would convince the world of righteousness because He was going to the Father. The council could not see the vision. All they heard was the Law because they did not let Stephen get to preaching the Gospel. They could not be convinced of righteousness, because they heard nothing but the Law. They were convinced of sin. How differently the Holy Spirit dealt with Stephen! The Spirit gave him this vision to preach the Gospel in a very direct way. In our Creed we say that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. Here, Stephen sees Him standing up, apparently coming to welcome the martyr, opening His arms to receive him. At the end of the chapter we are told that the council members, who stripped down to their underwear so they could throw the rocks better, left their clothes with a man named Saul. Before long the Holy Spirit would show him another vision, convince him of the righteousness of Jesus, and lead him to become the Apostle Paul. These are two very specific cases of how the Holy Spirit carried out what Jesus had promised concerning Him.
Another promise was that the Prince of this World would be judged. The Spirit will also convince the world of this. We see that in the story of Stephen as well. Look how earnestly the devil tried to stop Stephen's voice. If he had nothing to lose by letting the Gospel be told, we would hear a lot more of it, but the Gospel is Satan's undoing. He doesn't even want the Law to be preached because he wants you to be content in your sins. There is nothing Satan can do to stop the preaching of the Law, because that is written on the human heart. He can, however, harden peoples' hearts so that they never repent. If they are content, if salvation consists of indoor plumbing and a good credit rating, then they will never hear the Gospel in all its sweetness. We need to be made painfully aware of our lack of faith, our anxiety which displeases God, our fear of men, our lukewarm zeal. These are words that convince us of sin. Satan would have us get angry at God's messenger. If we're too wise for that, he will dilute the Law, make us believe we have good excuses for our sins. Sometimes he even quotes the Bible, as he did when he tempted Jesus. He gives you false names for things, for example, you can refer to your pride as "self-respect," or to your envy as "social justice." You can even refer to adulterous lust as "harmless flirtation," or Christen your cowardice as "concern for peace." Satan's silly word games have no place in God's kingdom. The Holy Spirit chips away this whitewash. Hard as it is to hear this, you need to, because the good news is coming, and the worse you feel about yourself, the better that Gospel is going to sound.
After that, the Spirit wants to convince you of righteousness - not your own righteousness, but the real righteousness of Jesus Christ. So He will tell you the story of the Innocent Lamb, who pleased God in every way, and gave Himself up to death. Then He will show you the empty tomb, the risen Lord meeting with His friends, assuring you that death was not the end of Jesus, rather, He not only rose to life but passed through the heavens. He wants you to know that because of Jesus God does not hold your sins against you. Indeed, He stands with open arms waiting to receive you as He did Stephen. The good news you are hearing now is the real sword of the Spirit, cutting through Satan's web of deceit, enlightening your souls from on high to dispel that internal darkness that is born in all of us. The light shows us our sins, but don't turn it off, for it also shows Jesus' forgiveness. The light shows you to be a child of God.
Nor do you need to fear the Archenemy. Of course he is deceitful, vicious, and devious, the Prince of Chaos. He knows there is no blessing for him, so he fights everything good, especially the Gospel. Back in Eden he promised our mother that she would be like God knowing good and evil, but Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to make us more like God. The Prince of this World is judged. The consensus of the people may still favor Satan, as it did in Stephen's time. Each of us might be a solitary voice, but if that voice is right, it will speak the truth. Don't be fooled by appearances! God created us and called us to believe, not to experiment. Learn from this story that when you seem to be loneliest, God is closest; when your sight is downcast, you are close to the kingdom of God; when you are hungry for righteousness, the table is already being set. Yes, when you think you are losing, victory is within reach. For this we have Jesus to thank, who died for us, rose again, and gives us the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross