Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26th
Acts 6:8 – 7:2a, 51-60 + 2 Chronicles 24:17-22 + Matthew 23:34-39
Merry Christmas, everyone! And a very blessed Feast of St. Stephen to you as well. I know it’s probably a first for most of you, to celebrate this day. It’s a first for me, too. I always thought it was strange to talk about St. Stephen on December 26th, the day after Christmas. I always wondered why I saw it there on my calendar of the church year. What does martyrdom have to do with Christmas? What does red have to do with white?
And then I remembered, lots of blood has been shed over Christmas. The Virgin Mary herself certainly shed her blood in giving birth to her firstborn son. Blood was shed one week after Jesus was born when he was circumcised according to the Law of Moses. And let us not forget all the blood that was shed when King Herod learned that the King of the Jews had been born and ordered the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem. The remembrance of that holocaust is also on the church calendar – the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents – December 28th.
The fact is, Christmas is about love and joy and peace, but Christmas also has consequences, and no one exemplifies that for us better than Stephen. Stephen shows us the consequences of Christmas.
What does a person do who believes that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us? In other words, what does a person do who believes that Christmas is true? For Stephen, it meant devoting himself to the apostles’ teaching in Jerusalem and learning the Holy Scriptures better and better. It meant that his Old Testament Jewish faith made the seamless transition to a New Testament Christian faith as he was led to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah – born of a virgin, just like Isaiah had prophesied.
Stephen, as Acts tells us, was a man full of grace and power, full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. He was one of seven devout men who were chosen to be ministers, deacons in the Jerusalem church, to help with the distribution of food to the believing widows.
Stephen’s vocation was that of a layman; the apostles preached in the assembly of believers, not Stephen. But as Stephen went out and mingled among the people of Jerusalem and in the temple, he was not silent. As a consequence of his faith in the Christ, born in Bethlehem, Stephen spoke publicly to everyone as he had opportunity. He spoke of Christ as the fulfillment of the law. He spoke of faith in Christ as that alone which saves.
But just as Herod persecuted the babies of Bethlehem who dared to be born at Christmas time, the Jews in Jerusalem persecuted Stephen for believing in Christ. They challenged his witness of Christ. “He’s speaking against the temple! He’s speaking against Moses! He’s condemning good works!” People pervert our message the same way today. “Those Lutherans say that a person is saved by faith alone! They’re forbidding good works!” The first part is right, the second part is wrong. We don’t forbid good works. Neither did Stephen. Just look at all the good works Stephen did in the process of preaching salvation by faith alone in Christ! But we do teach, as Stephen taught, that no works are good apart from faith in Christ, and that faith alone – apart from works – is what makes us right with God. Where there is faith in abundance, faith in the Christ of Christmas, there are also fruits of faith in abundance, consequences of Christmas. But the fruits don’t save. Christ saves, through faith alone.
But these Jews would have none of it. They dragged Stephen off to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, and they falsely accused him and questioned him. Now, we didn’t even read most of chapter 7. Stephen retells a long portion of Old Testament history – see how well he knew the Scriptures! – and this theme repeats over and over: God gave our forefathers every gift of grace, but they always ended up persecuting the very prophets who were sent to deliver them. Jesus said the same thing in today’s Gospel: from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah – whose murder you heard about in the First Lesson today. To the blood of Christ himself, murdered on a cross.
As a consequence of Christmas, because Stephen believed that the Word had become flesh, he had to speak up – out of love for God and for his fellow men who were steeped in sin and impenitence and unbelief- You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.
Sometimes – sometimes, when people hear the hard truth about their sin, they repent of it. They realize the horrible crimes they’ve committed and are crushed with sorrow, like the people of Jerusalem to whom Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost. But sometimes – I’d have to say most of the time, the preaching of the law produces anger. “Who do you think you are? How dare you call me a sinner!” Sometimes it produces absolute rage, as it did in the case of the Sanhedrin with Stephen. When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
And then, both to strengthen his servant Stephen and to further enrage the Sanhedrin, Jesus gave Stephen a vision, a vision that assured him: the Son of Man, the Word made flesh, has indeed risen from the dead and is ruling even now at the right hand of God, in the heaven that is prepared to receive you now, Stephen. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid!
And, as a consequence of Christmas, he wasn’t afraid, because the Word had become flesh, our human brother, and had taken Stephen’s sins and ours to the cross and paid for them there and had opened heaven’s doors to all who believe in Him. Even as they dragged Stephen out and began to stone him to death, Stephen prayed two perfect prayers, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
How could they hate Stephen so? How could they think they were serving God by stoning this man to death? That’s one of the consequences of Christmas. “The light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” The message of Christmas – that God has come into the world as man, that man’s works cannot save, that salvation is found in Christ alone – that message stings man’s pride. That message divides people. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the world,” Jesus told his disciples. “Not peace, but a sword.” God sends prophets and teachers and wise men, and the world persecutes and mocks and kills them.
It must be this way, Jesus said. Not by God’s design, but by man’s choice. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. It must be this way, because the majority of the world will always be unwilling to receive the Christ of Christmas. They’ll tolerate a tiny little baby and the story of some shepherds and wise men. But they won’t tolerate it when we claim that that baby is the Almighty God in whom alone is salvation.
So, you see what a momentous event has taken place here today. A tiny baby has been baptized into the Christ of Christmas, and there’s nothing cute about that. There will be consequences for it. Sophia has now been clothed with the white robe of righteousness of Christ. But Sophia has now also been brought into the blood-red war – the war in which the Son of God rides out with the two-edged sword that comes from his mouth, the word of law and gospel, of condemnation and grace. And the world fights back, not with words, but with swords and stones and chains and death. Blood marks the way of the Christian, just as blood marked the way of the Christ.
But see how confidently Stephen faced his death! See what love still flowed from his lips! How could Stephen pray for those who hated him so and who hated his Savior, too? That was a consequence of Christmas. Because Christ was not born to save good men, but the most wicked of men. The Lord Jesus also prayed for those who nailed him to the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And the grace of the Lord Jesus spilled over into Stephen’s heart, praying for the deliverance of his enemies, praying that they might be brought to repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, just as he had been.
Then Stephen fell asleep. What beautiful words the Scriptures now use to describe the death of the saints. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said. “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” If we remain steadfast in the truth of Christmas, if we follow in the footsteps and the witness of Stephen, then as a consequence, death becomes a sleep for us, too.
Don’t be fooled with the rest of the world into believing that Christmas is about snowy white fields and picture postcard manger scenes. Red is mixed with white at Christmas, as blood is mixed with snow. Christmas has consequences, and if you would celebrate Christmas rightly, then you must know the consequences and be prepared for them. Learn from Stephen and imitate his faith! Truly, Stephen shows us the consequences of Christmas with his martyrdom: faith, humble service, love for God and for men, patience, boldness, courage, confidence in the face of death, and mercy in the face of persecution – those are the consequences in the believer. The shedding of blood at the hands of an angry world – that is the very real consequence for the believer. If you believe the Christmas story and live your faith, then you are marked for death.
But, you know what the name “Stephen” means? It’s the Greek word for “crown.” How fitting! “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” That, too, is the consequence of Christmas, and God’s gift to you who believe. A blessed Feast of St. Stephen to you all, and a very Merry Christmas! Amen.