August 20, 2006
11th Sunday after Pentecost
"You Can't Fool God: Ananias and Sapphira"
(Acts 4:33 - 5:11)
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
A family from South Carolina went to New York City for their vacation. They told all their friends they were going to attend the Broadway musical, My Fair Lady. Unfortunately, the play was sold out when they tried to get their tickets, and they couldn't get in. They were disappointed, but they were also embarrassed. They didn't want to have to go back home and tell their friends they missed the highlight of their trip. In fact, they were so embarrassed that they decided to make their friends think they had seen the musical. They picked up some discarded tickets from the show, purchased a program, and bought the musical tapes. Back in their motel room, they learned all the songs and reviewed the program. Once home again, they sang and whistled the tunes to all of My Fair Lady's hits, hoping that no one would suspect that they never got to see it. (1)
Some people are so caught up in appearances that they just can't stand the idea that they might look bad. They can't stand the thought of being embarrassed. In reality most people don't ever really pay attention to the things these kind of people think are important.
The healthiest thing for that family to have done was to just laugh about not being able to see the show. But a lot of people don't do the healthy thing, they go through all kinds of contortions to hide their lack of experience or competence. Or to make themselves look better or more important.
That family reminds more of the main characters from our Scripture this morning. Let's look at the story of Ananias and Sapphira found in Acts 4:33-5:11.
 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement").
 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
 But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property;
 with his wife's knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles' feet.
 "Ananias," Peter asked, "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?
 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!"
 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it.
 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.
 Peter said to her, "Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price." And she said, "Yes, that was the price."
 Then Peter said to her, "How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out."
 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
I know this is a rather strange passage to preach from. It sounds like it might fit better in a stewardship sermon and I'll bet it's been used for that plenty. But in the 30 years I've been preaching, I've never preached on this passage. And I've never heard of or known anyone else to preach on this passage. And yet, when I was working on and praying about this series, this passage kept bubbling to the surface. So, what is it God wants us to wrestle with and what is it God wants us to hear.
Michael Phillips in Leadership Magazine makes the point that we need to realize and remember "that God was making a point, not setting a pattern." (2) And I happen to agree with that assessment because this was the only incident like this in the New Testament. In Acts 8 we see Simon the Magician try to purchase the power of the spirit and Peter letting him have it with both barrels of a sermon about getting your heart right with God and not buying God's gifts. Simon fervently repented and was a faithful follower. But nothing else. He didn't get zapped on the spot.
So, what can this family teach us about our relationship with God and our families.
First of all, like the title states, YOU CAN'T FOOL GOD. It just can't be done. But let's look at the Motive behind what Ananias and Sapphira did. How did they get themselves into such a mess? And how can we avoid that kind of mess?
First, a little background. The early church, in order to care for the hundreds of widows and orphans and the displaced who came to follow Christ, began pooling their resources so they could help each other. Life and the necessities of life was sort of like a giant potluck supper. Everybody brings a little bit, those who can bring more, do. and those who only have a little, bring what they can and everyone has plenty. It's all done in a very unselfish family, faith community, sort of way.
That's what every day was like for the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Many of the early Christians were selling everything they had and putting it into the pool so everyone could be cared for. It wasn't mandatory but most people were doing it.
If you remember from our reading, in Acts 4:33-37, we read about Joseph, who sold a field and gave all the money to the Apostles. He was such a faithful and joyous servant that they gave him the nickname of Barnabas, which means "son of encouragement." He must have been a really great guy to get a nickname like that.
And then we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Now, they weren't under any obligation to give anything. It wasn't a rule or a commandment. So, their property was theirs to do with as they wished. What they did was sell a piece of property, to give to the disciples for the needy. They could have given any amount. It was their prerogative.
The trouble was, they saw the response for gift Barnabas gave and envy and jealousy reared their ugly heads. They wanted that same praise and respect. The problem was they sold the property and pretended to give all the money. However, they kept back part of the money for themselves. Now, there was nothing wrong with keeping a portion of their own money.
But they lied about their gift to make themselves look better than they actually were. They were hypocrites. For those whose excuse for not being a part of the church is it's filled with hypocrites, well, we've had them from the very beginning. This couple not only lied about the size of their; they boasted about their gift; they tried to deceive the Apostles and believers. They were selfish and self-serving. Worst of all, they cheated themselves out of the blessing of giving wholeheartedly.
Their punishment was death. It wasn't that they kept some back. It wasn't that they didn't give it all to the community of faith like everyone else, it had to do with the fact that they were so worried about appearance that they concocted a scheme to give a little and make it look like they gave a lot. (3)
Let me remind you that I think " was making a point, not setting a pattern."
A. If truth be told, most of us have gotten caught up in that kind of thing as well. We've all told fish stories. We've all been like the one armed fisherman who caught one this big. We've professed to be something we're not. Maybe we've embellished our resume. Or told a story about something that happened to someone else as our own. Or maybe we've just flat out lied.
And why not? Songs have told us to "Put on a happy face," "Smile and world smiles with you." "Don't worry, be happy." So, we do. We don't want everyone else to see inside us. It might be too painful. They might find out we're not perfect.
I want to share a poem by Cheryl A. Mariano, titled:
In my bedroom drawer, neatly tucked away
What mask to church, will I wear today?
There are four from which I have to choose
But today, I'll wear the one that hides the "Blues."
The "Smiley" mask, I've nearly worn out
It hides so well, my fears and doubts.
The "Spiritual" mask, works like a jewel
It hides me when I've been mean and cruel.
The mask I call my "Ace in the Hole"
Hides me when my heart is cold.
Sometimes, I wish others could see
Right past the mask and into me.
And help me find my way back home
To God's dear arms, from whence I've roamed.
But others seem to do so well
My failures I wouldn't dare to tell.
The question to myself I ask
I wonder if they too, wear a "mask?" (4)
B. The truth is, we've all worn masks to hide what's really going on inside. Sometimes the mask of that "Happy face" hides a life of misery and sin. When we wear that mask, we're not only lying to others, we're lying to God and we're lying to ourselves.
Behind that mask you find people who have gambling problems, alcohol and drug abuse problems. It doesn't have to be cocaine or heroin. It could be pain pills or diet pills. Sometimes the mask hides addiction to pornography. Or infidelity to our spouse. Sometimes it hides abusive behavior, both spousal abuse or child abuse. Sometimes it's compulsive shopping or spending. The list could go on and on.
Whenever we try hide something from our spouses, from our friends, from the family and even from ourselves it's sort of like a small jazz club in New Orleans. In a corner of that club sat an old dilapidated piano. All of the jazz artists complained about this antiquated instrument. It was hard to play, sometimes the keys would stick and no matter how many times is was tuned, it wouldn't stay in tune for very long. The piano players dreaded playing on it. The vocalists dreaded singing with it. And all of the combos that played the club wished that they could bring in their own piano, just like they could a saxophone or a trumpet.
Finally, after years of listening to these jazz musicians complain about his piano, the owner of the club decided to do something about it. He had the piano painted. (5)
C. Whenever we try hide something from our spouses, from our friends, from the family and even from ourselves it sets us up for a giant fall. Which would be more embarrassing? Admitting you have a problem and seeking help? Or having the problem and the fact that you've been trying to hide it and lying about it suddenly being discovered by everyone when you get caught.
The truth is, the one who it matters to the most, God, already knows about the problem. You can't fool God. And when you try, you're only fooling yourself.
The best thing to do is get rid of the guilt. Get rid of the lie. Get rid of the deceit and deception. Get rid of the denial. Get rid of the mask. Admit it to yourself. Admit it to God. Admit it to those who need to know, you'll be surprised how supportive they will be when you seek help.
God wants us to drop our masks and be made whole.
I don't care what kind of guilt you carry. I don't care what kind of problem you have. God wants to help you get rid of them. God wants to remove the weight of that guilt and the burden of that problem. God wants to redeem them. God's in the redemption business.
That's why Christ came. That's why He willingly stretched out His arms on the cross and died. Jesus gave himself up to the cross for our sake. So that the masks we wear can come off and the real healing begin to take place.
I don't care what kind of guilt you carry. I don't care what kind of problem you have. God wants to help. Does that mean you won't have to do some hard work. No. You have to do your part, too. That's part of our Christian Discipline. But the Good News is it will be easier because the burdens you carry won't be there. And the Good News is you don't have to do it alone. God will be there through the redemptive power of His Son Jesus Christ and the presence of Christ Himself in your life through the Holy Spirit. You won't be alone.
A little girl told her mother, "I think Jesus was the only one who ever dared to live his life inside out." (6) That's what God wants for us. God wants us to drop our masks and live our lives inside out like Jesus. But that's only possible through Jesus and the Grace of God.
Norman Vincent Peale told about addressing a Methodist conference in Atlanta, Georgia along with a fine preacher, Bishop Noah Moore, and Pierce Harris, a much-loved local pastor. In his message Peale said that he believed that Jesus Christ could come into a life and change it, no matter how hopeless it seemed.
After the service, when he and the other guest preachers were gathered in the minister's office, they were told that a man wanted to see them. A somewhat disreputable looking man, they were warned, unshaven, unwashed, poorly dressed. When the man did come in, he was reeking of alcohol, but his mind was full of the message he had just heard. "Do you really believe that Jesus can help me?" he asked.
"Without a doubt," Peale replied. Then the man asked if they would pray with him. So the four ordained ministers prayed with the man.
Six months later, Peale said he was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Clearwater, Florida, when he saw a man coming toward him, leading two little girls by the hand. The man was immaculately dressed, and his daughters were exquisite children, attractive and well-behaved. At first Peale said didn't know who the man was, but as he came closer, he recognized the former derelict from Atlanta. There was a smile on his face. He was humming "Amazing Grace" as he held out his hand in greeting. Peale said it was one of the most emotional and unforgettable encounters of his life. (7)
People CAN change. Sometimes it doesn't happen easily. Especially if we try to fool God. But sometimes it happens when our hearts are changed. And we know the one who can change any heart. Like the Call to Worship asked, "Does you billboard match your fine print?" Remember, YOU CAN'T FOOL GOD but God really wants the best for you. God want's you to be whole. God wants your marriage and your family to be whole. God wants to remove the burden of your guilt and wounds of your soul. God wants to help you live from the inside out like Jesus.
But first, you have to drop your mask for God and ask for help.
1. The Pastor's Story File (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990) May 1985
2. Michael E. Phillips in Leadership, Vol. 7, no. 4. Adapted.
3. WordSearch Bible Software, Various Commentaries
4. Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990) April 1990
5. Bible Illustrator for Windows
6. Robert C. Shannon, 1000 Windows, (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1997).
7. DAILY GUIDEPOSTS, 1991, (Carmel, New York: Guideposts, 1990), pp. 128-129.
Barclay, William: Daily Study Bible of the New Testament (WordSearch Bible Software Version)
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Preaching Magazine (Preaching Resources, Jackson, TN)
Circuit Rider, (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, TN)
The Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1953)
The New Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995)
Lights, Camera...Faith by Peter Malone with Rose Pacatte (Daughters of St. Paul, 2002)
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