December 26, 2019 A+D
St. Matthew 23:34-39 (Acts 6:8-7:2, 7:51-60)
In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just a day after Christmas and already we’re snapped back to the ugliness of this world. The angel choirs are out of sight, the shepherds returned home—never to be heard from again, the wisemen returned to their country by another way for fear of Herod, and we are left wondering what’s next? Although we are not really wondering, because we have the Bible. We know what’s next. We know this baby born in the humblest of means is going to grow up in poverty and go off to have no place to lay his head. He is going to preach the truth and be rejected and contradicted at every turn. He is going to be accused by lies and hatred. He is going to be beaten with whips and nailed to a cross. Yes, thirty-three years after his humble birth, the thought of angels, shepherds, and wisemen are a distant memory.
What’s more—his legacy, his followers—his disciples were told that they can expect much of the same. “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). That’s why it’s not schizophrenic for the Church to celebrate the first Martyr the day after Christmas. In fact, it lends the proper gravity to Christ’s birth lest we be swept up with Christmas nostalgia. In case you missed the underlying message on Christmas eve and Christmas day, Christ was born to die. He wanted it that way. His mission was to rescue mankind and that necessitated death. He had to be rejected by sinful men.
With his birth, heaven came down to earth, but this king had to put all things under His feet, especially the final enemy—death. “The shepherds saw the divine majesty hidden in the humble appearance of a baby in a manger, today we see the majesty of Christ hidden in the murder of St. Stephen—the protomartyr—the example of all God’s people who proclaim Christ in suffering and martyrdom.”[i] The details of St. Stephen’s death, as we have them recorded in Acts, run parallel in several facts to Christ’s death. He is arrested by the Sanhedrin because his teaching about the Christ is indisputable. While explaining the Old Testament prophecies, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as pointing forward to Jesus—fulfilling the Law and the Prophets—they accused him of preaching against Moses. He was convicted on lies and false witnesses. And as stones were raining down on him outside the city, and he was about to die, his mercy on his murderers mirrors the words of Christ, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” Then, when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And while Christmas seems as far away from someone being murdered with stones as you can get, here is the connection in ecstatic beauty. As St. Stephen was dying, God granted him a glimpse into heaven and he saw the glory of God, and Jesus (the man) standing at the right hand. And by this we understand that Christmas is not far away at all. For God came in the flesh, born a man, to redeem flesh and stand at God’s right hand, as a man, as our incarnate advocate for ever. After redeeming mankind in His sacrifice and resurrection, He ascended into heaven to stand at God’s right hand to prepare a place for us, and to speak good things about us to the Father. From the right hand, He opens heaven to us. This is the culmination of all that the prophets foretold. It’s the culmination of all of history.[ii]
We now live in this redeemed reality. We are the beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice. With Jesus’ ascension and St. Stephen’s martyrdom, we are reminded that this world is not all that there is. Jesus has put death under His feet and death has lost its sting. St. Stephen, presumably the first disciple to be murdered after Pentecost was not afraid of dying. He welcomed it knowing that heaven was open to all who believe.
The birth of our Lord in the flesh changes the entire way we now perceive the death of His saints. Jesus took on flesh precisely so that He could convert death to life, lamenting to rejoicing, suffering to deliverance, sickness to health, pain to relief, and misery to happiness. This happens because of the death of Jesus, and we see it through the death of St. Stephen, and the death of your loved ones.
Now, as you know too well, this doesn’t happen magically, but miraculously. It’s not immediate, but gradual. It does not happen according to our fallen reason, but in God’s good time and only according to His will. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. It’s painful for us now. If we were God, we wouldn’t make the same choices when it comes to our family and the suffering of our loved ones. But that’s that rub. We are not God. He knows better than we do. He knows things we don’t. He knows WHEN suffering is good for someone. He knows HOW suffering is good for someone. And He knows HOW MUCH suffering is good. So, don’t get frustrated with God, or be discouraged. Let not your hearts be troubled. Don’t lose heart because you feel loneliness or sadness, or pain, now. In fact, look to St. Stephen. He rejoiced in the day of his pain and suffering, his transformation. Now is the time when we all are being transformed into the image of God, from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3.18). The final transformation will be earthly death. And it only comes through suffering. God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen fit to allow us to suffer this. Let it be so according to His Word. Oh Father help us endure.
This transformation does not always look pleasant; and, in fact, it can be frightening and almost always painful. Because our faith is weak, and we are not always confident that Our Lord will come through, left to our self, we would sink in doubt in our day of testing. Some even convince themselves that His conversion of us is not worth the effort of sacrificing themselves and their loved-ones together with their self-centered desires and goals, and they look to be free of this suffering. But not so with the disciples of Christ. Not so for who understand the birth of Christ as a necessary enfleshment for the Redeemer to march to the cross. Not so for those who see in St. Stephen’s murder a blessed end with a good confession.
Who wouldn’t call the wrongful death of St. Stephen evil? St. Stephen, that’s who. Who wouldn’t call the death of your loved one ill-timed and too early? Your loved one, that’s who. They now enjoy Christmas and Easters as we will when we join them. Don’t look to your senses. Listen to the Word of God. St. Stephen welcomed his death as one who knew it was a blessing to suffer and die and be transformed by it. So if there’s any fear, or sadness, or loneliness in you at this time of your transformation, know that there’s nothing in this world that can separate you from the good will of your heavenly Father. There is nothing that your Father in heaven can not and will not use for your good, no matter how painful it is now.
God is with us. He is your Emmanuel. In Him, you can endure. Because of Him, you are more than conquerors. Let us now join St. Stephen, our loved ones, and the whole company of heaven in this paschal feast.
Glory to God in the Highest! Amen.
[i] Petersen, Sermon Notes.