Matthew 23:34-39; Acts 6:8 – 7:2a, 51-60; 2 Chronicles 24:17-22
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Church in Her wisdom has chosen the three days following the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, Christmas, to commemorate three martyrs for the Lord: St. Stephen, Saint John, and the Holy Innocents. On the heels of perhaps the second-most joyous day of the Church Year after the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Sunday, with hymns and carols still in the air and upon our lips, with lively evergreens and cheery poinsettias decking our halls and walls and rooms, we are caused this morning to focus upon blood, sacrifice, and death.
The greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that He brings was, sadly, not received by all. Still today, many reject Him and refuse to believe. It was because of their belief in the Son of God made man and their confession of their faith before men that the martyrs died. Indeed, martyrs still die today for this same confession of faith.
St. Stephen was a young and vital man and one of the first seven deacons appointed to help the Apostle’s in their ministry. St. John was one of Christ’s first disciples and an Apostle as well as the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, three letters to the Church, and the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Though John lived to be quite old and likely died of natural causes, he spent considerable time in exile for his faith and confession, a different kind of martyrdom. Then there are the Holy Innocents. These were the Jewish boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity, two years of age and younger, that were massacred by Herod in his brutal attempt to destroy the prophesied Messiah that the Magi had traveled to see. These infant boys were martyred for no other reason than hatred and jealousy of Jesus. Thus, we see in the martyrdoms of these three how the entire life of faith in Christ, from infancy through adulthood into elderliness, is marked by the cross and hostility from the world and unbelievers. The Name of Jesus continues to be a Name that is spoken against.
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. The history of God’s people is a history of rejection, hatred, and persecution by the world and unbelievers. This is what Stephen recounted before the council. His speech spanned the history of Israel from the days of Abraham. He told how God’s chosen witnesses were always misunderstood, always outcasts. Abraham was forced to leave his family and country, only to live for a promise he never saw fulfilled. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers. Moses was rejected by the people he was chosen to deliver out of bondage. Jesus met the same destiny!
That is the way God works in the world, for now. God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. God’s strength and power are made perfect in weakness. Ironically, those words were written by a man who looked on approvingly as St. Stephen was being stoned to death.
Jesus was born to bring the joy and peace of reconciliation with God into the world. This is the light that He brings into a world of darkness, sin, and death. But, so many refuse to have their eyes opened by the Word made flesh. These choose to remain in darkness, though the light was given to them as well. In St. Stephen we have an example of one whose eyes had been opened by the Light of the Word, Jesus Christ. In the midst of persecution, and even as the stones began to fly, Stephen trusted, believed in his heart, and confessed with his mouth what he saw with his eyes, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was no hallucinogenic vision, but the very reality of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus accomplished. Heaven is opened to all mankind through Jesus Christ. Jesus is near and He stands at the right hand of God as the guarantor of life beyond death. The glory of Jesus in heaven is strength for all His witnesses on earth, His martyrs. Though now we see through the mirrors of the divine Word and the Holy Sacraments, then we shall see face to face.
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. Jesus Himself said that those He sends in His Name, even you, will be persecuted, flogged, stoned, crucified, and killed. But Jesus promises you, even as the name Stephen means, a crown of life, saying, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
The incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ means that you are never alone. The one who has assumed your flesh, who has suffered and died and defeated death reigns victorious and glorious for you. This vision is right before your eyes, especially when you need His strength to persevere. Because of your faith and confession, the world and men desire to harm you; at times, you will be tempted to do others harm. Yesterday Christ was born in the world, so that today Stephen, and you, would be born in heaven. Heaven is opened and Jesus stands at the right hand of God. In this assurance and peace you can face martyrdom with the face of an angel and you can release those who sin against you. And when your eyelids close in death, it will be as falling asleep.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.