St. Stephen, Protomartyr
Acts 6:8-7:60, Matthew 23:34-39
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our celebrations of Christmas are always full of disappointments: the turkey was dry, the dress doesn’t fit, somebody was missing because of divorce, death, sickness, stubbornness, or old grudges, the gifts we received were lackluster or the ones to whom we gave gifts accidently gave away their disappointment in what we had given. It should not be this way, but no matter how hard we try we can never make Christmas perfect. We can’t live up to Hallmark and Martha Stewart ideals. Our lives are messy and complicated. And that tends to make today not only a return to the doldrum and mundane workaday world but often one of high depression.
Those few pilgrims who come to church this day might be tempted to think that the Church Herself has given in to that depressing spirit. But She has not. In fact, in the martyrdom of St. Stephen, we find a very real and satisfying answer to our disappointing lives: they will not last forever.
Our problems, without exception, are caused by sin, either our own or those of others, but always sin. So also that first Christmas was less than ideal. Because of sin, not Jesus’ sin, but Mary’s and Joseph’s, the innkeeper’s and ours, it was less than perfect. Mary was most certainly not happy about laying her Baby into a dirty animal feed trough out-of-doors. But His rejection by men and His suffering had already begun. Sin would do its worst to Him. It would drive Him out of Bethlehem, make Him a refugee, and claim those other boys in His place. It would tempt Him, hurt Him, take away those He loved, cause friends to betray Him, and finally it would murder Him on a cross outside of Jerusalem. But that’s it.
And that is why He came. Sin would kill Him. He who knew no sin became a Sinner, guilty for sins He did not commit, in our place, as our stand-in, our substitute. As a Sinner, because of that damning guilt, He died. But that’s it! There is no more. Sin has done its worst and placed God into the grave, but then, it was spent. There is no more. Sin is done. Death is dead. Jesus is alive, back from the dead, out of the grave, victorious over Satan who can harm us none. God is alive as a Man. As a Man, as one of us, He has ascended into heaven, paved the way for those who believe and trust in Him.
And thus Stephen stands before that hateful, violent mob without fear. What can they do to him? They can’t kill him. God is on his side, has given His life for his, has promised him eternal glory in the Father’s presence. If it is time, if his suffering witness is complete, then God will bring him home, but not a moment before. Stephen sees clearly through the dross. The Lord has lovingly disciplined him so that he would not mistake this fallen creation, success, popularity, or an abundance of things, for what God actually desires to give to him. Stephen’s expectations about this life are therefore realistic. They come from the Scriptures. He knows that men always resist the Holy Spirit and do evil. But God is still good and still loves men, and the sacrifice of His Son on the cross is enough to forgive even scheming, diabolical murderers. Again and again men reject Him. Again and again, He reaches out to them with grace, forgiveness, peace.
And do not miss the profound effect of Stephen’s dying prayer: Saul is no longer at odds with Stephen. They are brothers in heaven, fellow martyrs of Christ, who have come to their reward. Stephen’s prayer was answered. Paul was saved by grace. God is good. Dry turkey, missing batteries, and family squabbles still hurt. So do stones. But they will not last. They will not hurt forever. Your time, too, will come. And there are no disappointments in your true home. Jesus was born, died, and rose that He would bring you there. Here is an answer to our disappointments and strength for the day.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana