Twas the Change After Christmas
Here we are the day after Christmas. The presents are opened; the turkey just bones; the holiday spirit which engulfed the world is gone. What Word from God do think we need to hear today? The Christmas Gospel one more time? Do you want to hear of the quaking shepherds, singing angels, pondering Mary? How about hearing of a brutal stoning instead? How about hearing of St. Stephen and how stones were thrown at him till they crushed the life right out of him? How about hearing shouts of hatred and screams of pain rather than cattle lowing and Mary humming a lullaby?
What a terrible place to spend the day after Christmas! Yet this is where the ancient Church wanted to spend it. Spending the day after Christmas at the scene of the death of St. Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith seems funny to us, but the ancient Church placed this event the day after Christmas on purpose. After she was finally delivered from persecution and was able to establish a calendar of holy days, she didn't want to forget the thousands who had earlier died for the faith. So not only did the ancient Church remember St. Stephen the day after Christmas, but tomorrow St. John who suffered in exile is remembered and on the 28th the innocent babies slaughtered at Bethlehem are.
In the midst of Her joy over birth of Jesus, the Church wanted to remember that joy in Jesus meant suffering in this life, so for 3 successive days after Christmas She remembered those who suffered for Jesus. We don't want to forget either that suffering goes with Christianity in this life. But if we're really going to face and accept the suffering in this life that comes as a result of our joy being in Jesus, we're going to have change.
We're going to have to become truth tellers. We're going to have to tell the truth to a world that doesn't want to hear it, just the way Stephen did. The world around Stephen didn't want to hear the truth about how to be saved. They believed they could be saved by keeping God's laws and serving Him the best way they knew how. But Stephen told them the truth. There is no salvation in being good or trying hard or doing your best. There is salvation only in Jesus, the very Jesus they had betrayed and murdered!
We are to speak the truth that clearly, that boldly to our world. We are to attack the lies of our world even as Stephen attacked the lies of his. We're to attack such lies as; "If it feels good, it's okay to do it." "All religions are the same." "All churches really teach the same thing." "A strong belief can't be a wrong belief." "Sins of thought aren't really sins at all." "You can defend your sins and still be forgiven for them." These are just some of the lies that our world, the people we know and love, live with daily. And we are to speak up. We aren't to hide our light under bushels of excuses. We are to let it shine and not let Satan blow it out with his sophisticated reasoning. We aren't to downplay the truth or apologize for it. We are to do what Stephen did; we're to speak the truth and even die for it if necessary.
And quit trying to excuse yourself with, "Stephen was different than me, better than me, more holier than me." No, he wasn't. Stephen, like you, was well aware that it would be better not to speak the truth. When the Jews "arose and disputed with him," Stephen knew what he was saying wasn't popular. When the elders and scribes dragged him before the Jewish Supreme Court, he knew that his speaking was getting him into serious trouble. When they brought false witnesses against him, Stephen knew that they were determined to silence him at any cost. Even when he could see that his words enraged them, even after they had dragged him outside the city to stone him, still Stephen kept speaking.
We don't. Even though nobody grabs hold of us and drags us away as Stephen was, still we don't speak. Even though nobody stands ready to haul us before a council of judges, still we're silent. Stephen spoke the truth right up till the end, till he died for it. We don't speak it even though nothing like death threatens us. Who's going to drag you away and stone you? But still we don't speak. We're embarrassed; we're outnumbered; or we use that tired old excuse: "I don't know enough." You sure know more than the person spouting the lie. But not only don't you speak, you sometimes give the impression you agree with the lie.
If we are ever going to speak up like Stephen, we are going to have to be changed, not modified but changed, not trained but changed, not motivated but changed. Where does it come from that a person is willing to be stoned rather than stop speaking the truth? But not only this, and not even mainly this: but where on earth does it come, could it come from that a person can be wrongly murdered and with his last words speak words of forgiveness? What a Christ-like thing to do, forgive the enemies hurting you so wrongly and badly! This is what Jesus did from the cross. "Forgive them for they know not what they do," He said. You can't teach, train, or motivate someone to freely forgive the one who has wronged them so horribly. A change of this order takes nothing less than a miracle.
You know what your real problem is? You think you can do what Stephen did either by practice or training. It doesn't take a miracle in your mind. You couldn't be more wrong. How can we let go of big sins against us when we won't let go of little ones? How can we forgive those who hate us when we believe we are justified in hating those who don't like us? How can we forgive the unforgivable when we believe we are only to forgive those who say they are sorry?
It will take a miracle to do this. Because Stephen's God is your God and the God who made Stephen confess the truth and forgive the unforgivable has given this miracle to you too. What but a miracle could've enabled Stephen to speak the truth? Courage, strength, or boldness in him? Was it because Stephen tried hard, did his best, or concentrated? How could this be? Stephen spoke against people having any strength in divine matters. The only reason Stephen could speak the truth and forgive his enemies was because God gave him the grace and power to do these things. God gave him a miracle.
And what about us? Hasn't God given us grace and power? John 1 says, "Of the fullness of Jesus we have all received grace upon grace." Not one of us is one bit behind Stephen when it comes to grace. Through the Christ of Christmas we have received grace after grace after grace. And in Him we have received power. Paul says in Roman 1 that the Gospel is the power of God. Christmas is all Gospel. You don't do a thing. God wraps up His only beloved Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary and on Christmas Day He presents Him to you. That's what Isaiah says, "For unto us a Child is born, unto us, a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulders." We have the power of the One who runs the whole government on our side.
Stephen's God has changed us. Focus on Stephen's God the way Stephen did. Stephen saw the heavens open and His Savior on the right hand of God reigning and ruling. The sight of what was really going on in heaven gave Stephen the courage to speak the truth even unto death. Yesterday, we celebrated, God opening heaven again and giving His own Son. We've seen what Stephen saw. We've seen heaven open and God sending us not just the Life and the Way but also the Truth. Seeing heaven opened, seeing what truly goes on in heaven and that God gives us the Truth in Jesus gives us courage to speak this Truth.
But that's not enough. We must not only see that along with Stephen we have the Truth in Jesus in what He says and in what He does, but we must also see through heaven's open doors that God reaches out of heaven in Jesus to claim us, to save us, to completely take over our lives. This is why Stephen's face glowed like an angel. This is why Stephen was able to do what only Christ Jesus could do - forgive those who were killing him. It wasn't Stephen who spoke the truth in the face of certain death; it was Jesus. It wasn't Stephen who forgave his murderers; it was Jesus.
Friends, it is absolutely supernatural, above and beyond what natural man or woman is capable of doing, to die for your faith. It is just as supernatural, just as much of a miracle to live for your faith speaking it's Truth. Human determination, motivation, or education can't beat back the fear of speaking the truth. Human willpower can't empower anyone to die for the truth of their faith. Human resolution can't enable anyone to forgive someone who harmed them. You who keep looking into your heart, head, or will for the forgiveness to forgive that person who harmed you so badly as a child, at work, or in friendship, are looking in the wrong place. It will never be there.
You err if you think what Stephen did was a heroic exercise of human will power on behalf of religious truth or heroic human love in service of religious truth. You err if you think all Jesus did was sit on the sidelines and cheer him on. No, it wasn't Stephen who did these things; it was Jesus. And it is not you who will do these things; it can only be Jesus.
Christmas is the assurance that Jesus will do these things for you. Like we sing in "O Little Town of Bethlehem," what happens at Christmas is that Jesus comes to cast out our sins, to enter in, and to be born in us again. Christmas is not about us changing ourselves because Jesus is born. It's about Jesus changing us by being born in us with an overabundance of truth and forgiveness. Merry Christmas - Happy St. Stephen's Day. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Stephen, First Martyr (12-26-04) Acts 6: 8-10; 7: 54-60