St. Stephen, Martyr
Today we continue our celebration of Christmas which has really just begun and it will continue for another ten days--at least in the Church. Today, the Second Day of Christmas, is an interesting day because it has been memorialized twice in song.
If you remember, today is the day, according to the song, when my true Love gave to me “two turtle doves.” As the song--the 12 Days of Christmas--is a catechetical song meant to teach the faith, the two turtle doves are meant to point to the Old and New Testaments.
Today is also memorialized in the carol, Good King Wenceslas. It was he who looked out On the Feast of Stephen When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even. That’s what we are focusing on today--the Feast of St. Stephen.
We find St. Stephen in the book of Acts. It was in the early days of the Church, shortly after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out in full and rich measure on the Church. The Church was growing by leaps and bounds. At that time, the Christians took care of each other, holding all their goods in common and daily distributed food or funds. But this part of the Church’s work became too much for the Apostles, whose main task was to preach the word, teach and pray, as they said [Ac 6.2]: It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. And they added: Therefore, brethren, seek out from you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. And one of those seven men, deacons, was St. Stephen. Although this was a “social ministry” we find out that Stephen, at least, also was telling others about Jesus. He is described in our text as: full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. But he ran afoul among some of the Jews who strongly opposed Stephen’s preaching about Jesus and salvation through faith in Him alone without works of the Jewish law. And as we read in our text: And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Just like they did with Jesus, they dragged in false witnesses against Stephen and so Stephen was arrested and brought before the religious court of the Jews. In his defense speech, St. Stephen traced the OT history of God’s faithfulness and the Jews’ unfaithfulness to Him saying [Ac 7.51 ff.]:
You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.
Those who heard Stephen were blinded by anger that a mob scene/ riot broke out. They rushed Stephen, ran him out of town and stoned him. St. Stephen was the first in a long line of those, continuing on today in full abundant force, who were killed on account of their confession of faith in Jesus. Really, this is what each one of us as Christians is called to and what we promised at the time of our confirmation--to give up everything, even our own lives, rather than to give up faith in Christ.
But isn’t this really a downer in the midst of Christmas? --Hearing about St. Stephen, first martyr for the faith, and the account of his martyrdom. It’s only a “downer” if we hold to some sentimental view of Christmas and don’t see it for what it really is--the coming of our Divine Savior into the world to do battle against the devil and his allies. In light of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, let us continue our meditation on the great mystery and joy that Christmas truly is!
Christmas is all about Jesus’ birth and the great mystery that God became also true man; that the eternal God was born of a virgin in a certain place and time of human history; that the almighty and holy God came into this world of sin and suffered the worst that the devil and his allies could throw at Him--all this so that He could save us from our sin and eternally save us, soul and body, in heaven.
Jesus’ saving work began already at the very first moment of life--at His conception in the womb of Mary 9 months before. There, He cleansed our sinful conception and birth; there for 9 months He developed holy and perfect before making His appearance, being born in that stable in Bethlehem. So, yes, Jesus’ work for our salvation began 9 months before His birth--His living a holy sinless life for us. He went through every stage of human life--beginning with conception-- and now He gives us His perfect holiness. Of course, His holy keeping of God’s law/ His sinlessness continued throughout His life until He laid down His life on the cross as the one perfect holy sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Because we are sinners from the moment of our conception on and daily and often add to that sin, earning and deserving God’s wrath and damnation, we need a new birth, a heavenly birth, a birth from above, as Jesus said [John 3.3]: Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Because Jesus, true God and true man, was born that first Christmas and came to be our Savior--because of Christmas--we can have a spiritual birth, a birth from above. When you see the Baby Jesus in the manger, remember that His coming there made your new birth possible. Now we can have a new life/ be born from above because Jesus came to this earth and was born for us--the Christmas Gospel: There is born for you this day...a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
That new heavenly/ spiritual birth that Jesus made possible for us is the work of the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus came, was born for us, and lived that holy life for us and died on the cross for our sins and won for us the forgiveness of sin, eternal life, peace with God, etc. He sends out His Holy Spirit into the world who, working through the word and sacraments, works faith in Him in our hearts, giving us that new birth and every heavenly and spiritual blessing and also giving us gifts by which we may serve the Lord.
We see that in the life of St. Stephen. By the word, the Holy Spirit came to him and created faith in Jesus in him, washed away His sins, gave him His perfect holiness, gave Him the forgiveness of sins and every heavenly gift and blessing; in short, St. Stephen received a new, spiritual birth. Not only did St. Stephen have that new birth and saving faith, but the Holy Spirit used him in a marvelous way to tell the Good News about Jesus. We read in our text that the Jews were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which [Stephen] spoke. And then later on we read that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. Yes, St. Stephen had the Holy Spirit in rich measure and had received many spiritual gifts from Him: And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people; but, we, dear Christian--each one of us--have also been born from above by the Holy Spirit, we each have the same Holy Spirit as did St. Stephen. Let each of us pray for the boldness and steadfastness like St. Stephen had. Let each of us use the gifts the Lord has given us to serve Him and each other.
Because Jesus was born, not only is our new spiritual birth possible, but also our bodily birth is joyous. We also can see our earthly lives in a new and wonderful way. If there wasn’t that first Christmas, if Jesus had not been born in Bethlehem and come to be our Savior--what our our lives be? --They would be lives of slavery to sin and devil; they would be lives lived under the wrath of God; they would be lives in which we would all end up ultimately eternally in hell. What sort of life is that? It is going from one misery to another greater misery. There could really be no true joy. What joy could our bodily birth bring us? But there’s Christmas. It shows us God’s love for us; it shows His grace and mercy toward us. It shows that for all those who welcome the birth of the Christ Child and look to Him as their Savior from sin, those in whom the Holy Spirit has worked the new birth, that birth from above --that we have a great joy. We know God rightly; we know Him as the one who loves us. And it means that we know our lives are full of meaning and are significant because we are not here floundering on our own; we know that our lives are not random, that all that happens isn’t just pure dumb luck. Instead, we know our lives are in the hand of a gracious loving God who is working all things for our good; that He who loves us is bringing us to Him--and everything, everything that happens, is from His gracious loving hand. Even in the midst of greatest suffering and sorrow, we can have confidence and peace that God is working all things for our spiritual and eternal good. If we ever doubt that, or if we think our lives are meaningless and lack purpose--look at Bethlehem’s manger and there see God’s love for you; there see His coming for you, to be your Savior; there see all these seemingly random acts coming together so beautifully.
Let us also remember St. Stephen in our text: But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen caught a glimpse of heaven. He saw God in His heavenly majesty and glory--the same that the shepherds saw that first Christmas. The fact remains-- no matter how it may look, God is in His glory and He is in control. It was a true grace of God to Stephen that in his darkest moment--humanly speaking--he saw the brightest and clearest revelation of God. Here in this account, the Holy Spirit reveals this truth to us as well. In our times of sorrow and despair, let us recall this scene of St. Stephen’s martyrdom. Let it give us the greatest comfort--God is still God almighty; He is still in His glory and in control; and, in fact, Jesus [is] standing at the right hand of God ready and able to help His dear Christians--and He does in the best way for us.
Because Jesus was born, not only is our new spiritual birth possible, not only is our bodily birth joyous but also our eternal birth is certain. The whole purpose of Christmas was so that God--the Son, the Second Person of the holy Trinity-- could come into this world to be our Savior. Remember, God is not some God way off in the distance unconcerned and not knowing about what is going on here; instead, He is a God who “gets down and dirty” to help and save His creation. He came into this world and truly became one of us--the Christmas miracle: God became also true man. But it doesn’t just stop there--we, dear Christian are united with Jesus, and He is united with us. That’s what baptism does--it unites us with Jesus and His death and resurrection. What happens in the Blessed Sacrament? --Jesus, the true God, comes to us and gives us His very body and blood. He unites with us. That’s how close He is to us and we are to Him.
When it looked like St. Stephen was most alone, He wasn’t: And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” As is each Christian, so St. Stephen was so closely united with Jesus by faith. Here Jesus was standing and ready to receive the soul of His dying Christian and He keeps their souls safe with Him in heaven until on the Last Day He unites soul and body.
Then [Stephen] knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Because Jesus came the first time, born in Bethlehem, to fight and conquer sin, death and devil, St. Stephen and all Christians do not fear death. For us, death leads to life. It is merely a falling asleep. We can never meditate enough on the great mystery and blessing of Jesus’ birth, Christmas. And today we also see the great strength and boldness it gives us to believe and confess Jesus; and the great comfort we have because Jesus was born for us. INJ