26. December 2010
St. Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr
2 Chronicles 24:17-22; Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60; Matthew 23:34-39
“Martyred for His Witness”
+ IN NOMINE JESU +
Some evidence suggests that the dating of the feast of St. Stephen, which commemorates his martyrdom predates the appointing of December 25 as Christmas. St. Stephen is perhaps the older festival. Perhaps that might explain why such a striking contrast is made in our Christmas commemoration, with a birth remembered just yesterday and today a death. Nothing like a stoning to dampen the Christmas spirits, eh?
Of course, our Lord’s own death is in the subtext to every Christian’s celebration of the blessed nativity. The baby born in a manger is only of value to Mary and Joseph unless he will die for the sins of the whole world. Perhaps the hearts of the shepherds might be warmed at the thought of another baby born into the world. But that’s about it. Without his death, resurrection, and ascension in view, the child of Mary is nearly nobody.
For all the world is concerned, he’s just another illegitimate child born into a broken family. Mary is nobody, her lineage relatively unknown. Pious tradition names her parents Anne and Joachim. All we know is she is Elizabeth’s cousin.
On the other hand, Joseph has a name for himself. He’s of the house and lineage of David. But that’s not much credential for the baby, for he was conceived of the Holy Spirit. He has no contributing DNA from the seed line of David.
The baby is from some back alley town of Nazareth in Galilee. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Not even his birth in Bethlehem, the city of David counts for anything, instead merely an inadvertent result of Caeser’s census.
The net result is that Jesus is born to nobody, with no noble bloodline, and from nowhere. He’d be nobody if it weren’t for the angel’s proclamation, the shepherd’s visit, and the gifts of the Magi. These three tell us of the real Jesus, our savior. “For unto you this day is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Isaiah foretold a shepherd who would shepherd the shepherds. The Magi’s gifts identify him as king and prepare him for death.
That’s the baby who matters. The child who was born to die. The lamb delivered unto the high altar for the atonement of the sins of the whole world. Christmas for the Christian is bittersweet. Bitter because our Lord’s own son was born in flesh that all sinful flesh may die. Sweet because in death and resurrection of the child of God, all flesh is restored, sins are forgiven, new obedience is given, and the hope of everlasting life is instilled.
St. Stephen’s feast on December 26 is not so odd if this is our view of Christmas. St. Stephen lived in the gift of Christmas. He found his hope in the baby born to die. Stephen was a man of faith, full of grace and power. This faith boldly trusted in our Lord and His gifts. His trust entered the world in Bethlehem, won victory on Easter morning, and distributes the fruit of the resurrection by the Spirit in the Christian church. His faith stood up to slander and libel of the synagogues. Even the guile of the people, the elders, and the scribes did not cause him to doubt the benefit of His Lord.
In such opposition, we see the benefit of the Christmas gift. We see the great faith our Lord has given to men. His faith prompts a bold confession of faith to pour fourth from his mouth. St. Stephen says, “Brothers and fathers, hear me.” He boldly preached to those who should have known better.
Our lectionary truncated the sermon. Its quite amazing. Stephen, a mere deacon, delivered the full severity of the Law to those who accused him. He schools them, quite literally, in their own history. He preaches their history from Abraham, continuing through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and finally finishing with David and Solomon. At every turn, the nation turned from God, rejecting the patriarch and prophet. Yet, the Lord did not forget them, saving them from famine and disaster, all the while promising a savior.
Why did they desire to stone him? Our lectionary left that part. He accused them of being just like their fathers, rejecting God and turning to idolatry. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resisting the Holy Spirit.” They are a people of unbelief, just like their ancestors. Just as their fathers killed the prophets who announced the coming of Jesus, so they murdered the Savior himself.
Its a hard message. No one wants to have that kind of guilt laid upon them. That’s probably why so many stay home from the penitential services during Lent. They don’t want to hear that they killed Jesus. That’s ancient history. Blame it on Jews or Romans but not on me.
Too bad our sin is why our Lord suffered. That’s the truth. We abandon the law delivered by angels and do not keep it. Our transgression wounded our Lord. He suffered for our law breaking. Our penalty for the sin of the world is death. That’s no Christmas message.
Yet, it is. Christ is born in Bethlehem to die for us. He is delivered unto death that we might be delivered from death to life. There is no greater gift than this, that our savior lay down his life for his friends. Sad but true. Sad but good.
Its a hard pill to swallow. It keeps many from the church. No one wants to hear that they are “poor, miserable sinners.” No one wants to hear about their hatred of the Righteous One. No one wants to be blamed for crucifying their Lord. Some will hear this message and leave in a huff. Some will scowl fierce and badmouth the pastor and the congregation. Some will become vehement opposition to Christians and the Gospel.
They want a cheap plastic Jesus, a mere icon of good tidings. They don’t want a living, breathing savior who came to die for them. Just like that council, when they hear these things, they will be enraged, and they will grind their teeth at us. Don’t tell me I’m a no good, rotten, low-life. Tell me how I’ve been a good boy and girl and deserve whatever Santa has on his sleigh.
Yet, the angel of God can say no such thing. He can only preach what the Lord has given him. St. Stephen boldly preached the Law, with full strength severity. Where faith is present, the Law is received. Faith says, “Yes, Lord, you’re absolutely right. I have rejected you, your messengers, and the holy will. I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed. I deserve nothing by punishment.” Rather than grind our teeth, we cry tears of sorrow and fall to our knees, pleading for forgiveness.
Yet sometimes, our bold proclamation of our Father’s will causes others to rise up in hatred. We tell them that Jesus isn’t just a baby like us, he’s the baby who died for us. They grind back, “You can’t say that. I don’t need a savior.” Yes, you do, and something fierce. You daily reject God and his commandments. You daily need forgiveness for all your sin.
That’s the kind of conversation that’s bound to tee off friend or foe alike. I don’t know if it would get you murdered. Probably not here. But even worse than murder is to be strung up before the court of public opinion. Imagine having your reputation, your livelihood, and your family flogged by public opinion until all that’s left is despair. That’s very possible for the good confession.
From St. Stephen, we learn that painful humiliation or even death for the faith is a real possibility. Yet, do not fear. Look up to heaven. Look with Spirit-filled eyes of faith and behold the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Your crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord stands by the Father. No one else can judge you but the Righteous One. Human opinion holds no sway before the Christ.
Faith in Christ’s own sacrifice is the only thing that matters. Faith that trusts that our Lord is merciful and gracious. He has sent in the flesh his only begotten Son to die for you. You have no fear of this life, of the devil, or even of death. Death has no sting. Mockery has no pain. The devil has no authority.
When your foes assail you, pray like Stephen. Say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” When others seek to ruin your life because of Jesus, smile and take it. Even death, be it by stones or sickness, has been changed from sorrow to life. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Fear the Lord, for you lack nothing in Him. Trust his commands, strive to keep them, and confess. Our Lord is merciful and gracious. We need to look no further than the baby born to die to know that God will forgive us. Amen.
+ SOLI DEO GLORIA +