Sunday, December 26, 2004

Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
2 Chronicles 24:17-22
Psalm 17:1-9, 16
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
Matthew 23:34-39


First Sunday of Christmas
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

“And they stoned Stephen, calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

Psalm 148 seems a most appropriate song of praise to the God of heavens and earth who sent the most special gift we celebrate on December 25. The psalm calls all of creation to praise the Creator. “Let them praise the name of Jehovah; for his name alone is exalted; His glory is above the earth and the heavens. And he hath lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye Jehovah.”

Sometimes the language of the Old Testament can be confusing to us. What does it mean that God has lifted up the horn of His people? It is a reference to the altar of burnt offering that was made for the tabernacle by Moses. On the corners of the altar were projections that looked like horns that symbolized help and refuge. They also symbolized the atoning power of the altar. This horn that God has lifted is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Just as someone could grasp on to the horns of the altar for refuge from their enemies, so too do we grasp on to Jesus for salvation from our enemies. He is also the source of our atonement.

It seems so odd to have the rest of today’s scriptures so close to our celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. The birth of a baby is such a joyous time. Christmas is filled with happiness, love and hope. It is a time of giving and sharing, of spending time with family and friends. Most of all, it is a time for worshipping God in praise and thanksgiving for the great and wonderful gift of His Son.

Yet, the scriptures for this day, whether we are looking at the First Sunday of Christmas or the festival for St. Stephen the Martyr, point to the death of Christ. Even from the beginning of His life He was threatened. The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday of Christmas tells of the escape to Egypt. The magi never reported their find to Herod, so he killed all the children in Bethlehem. Joseph took His family far from their homeland until the time was right, and then they went to Nazareth to live.

How can we move so quickly from birth to death? We do because it is necessary for us to realize the whole purpose of Jesus’ birth was to die on the cross. It is easy for us to get stuck in the manger, to see Jesus only as that tiny baby and the gift of His life. It is easy to read the stories in the scriptures about His ministry and accept only that He was a good teacher and miracle worker. It is easy to set aside the cross and believe in Jesus only as a model for our godly life.

But from the beginning, the prophecies pointed to Jesus as being far more. He was to be the horn of salvation, the refuge for God’s people, the atoning sacrifice which would finally overcome sin and death to give us true life. The writer of Hebrews explains it for us, “Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same; that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Christ came in flesh to overcome death and fulfill the prophecies such as that which is written in Isaiah, “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.”

On the surface, the story of Stephen does not seem very much like the story of a man who was saved. After all, he was the first martyr for faith in Christ, died of stoning in the earliest days of the Church. Yet, in his story we can see the difference between life in the old covenant and life in the new.

The Old Testament lesson for the Feast of St. Stephen tells the story of Zechariah son of Jehoiada. Jehoiada was a priest of Israel who helped to crown the rightful king of Israel, Joash, during a time of difficulty. While Jehoiada lived, Joash reigned righteously. Together they rebuilt the temple of God. When Jehoiada died, Joash turned to the false gods. Prophets were sent to warn Joash of his sin but they were killed. Finally, God’s spirit came upon Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada. “…and he stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of Jehovah, so that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken Jehovah, he hath also forsaken you.” No one likes the message a prophet brings, particularly when that message talks of failure. They did not want to know that God had forsaken them. They stoned him. Even though Zechariah’s father had done great kindnesses for Joash, the king approved of the murder.

As he lay dying, Zechariah exclaimed, “Jehovah look upon it, and require it.” He called to God to avenge for his death. It is a rather typical response that human beings make when we are persecuted. We cry out to God for vengeance and for His protection. We do not want God to repay our suffering, as if somehow that will make it worthwhile or meaningful. Even in today’s psalm David cries out to God with a sense of righteousness, as if our goodness gives God a reason to protect us from all harm. Show thy marvellous lovingkindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them that take refuge in thee From those that rise up against them. Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me under the shadow of thy wings, from the wicked that oppress me, My deadly enemies, that compass me about.”

Yet, we see in today’s stories that the faithful do not always get saved in the flesh. Zechariah died at the hands of his enemies while doing God’s work. So, too, did Stephen suffer. Yet, Stephen did not cry out for vengeance. He cried out for forgiveness. That is the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. Israel faced the wrath of God when they turned from the God of their fathers. Jesus took the wrath of God for us so that we might know His forgiveness and his grace. He became the horn to which we can run and grasp for refuge.

The salvation we gain in Christ is not a saving hand from the world, however. The Gospel message we bear is no more accepted by the world than that which Zechariah took to Israel. They do not want to hear that they have turned from God or that their sin will come back upon them. They do not want to know that they are in need of salvation. Certainly those who heard Stephen speak did not want to take responsibility for the death of Jesus. It is harder for the people of today’s world to accept that Jesus died for their sin, especially since most people consider themselves good enough, or at least better than others. Tell a non-Christian that they killed Jesus and they will scoff at the idea. How could someone who lives in twenty-first century America have anything to do with the death of Jesus Christ?

Yet, our sin put Jesus on the cross. Our separation from God is the very reason that He was sent to be born in that stable in Bethlehem, to risk life in this dangerous world and to be the atoning sacrifice that would finally overcome death and the grave. Will we still die? Of course we will. We may even die at the hands of our enemies like Zechariah and Stephen. Yet, in Christ we can face death with the hope of eternal life. This hope gives us to the grace to pray not for vengeance against our enemies but rather for forgiveness. We can face the possibility of suffering with the knowledge that God has indeed heard our cry and saved us.

He sent us the horn of our salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ. Though we still are in the season of Christmas, remembering the birth of Jesus and the hope of all He brought, we can’t forget that the purpose of that birth was first and foremost death. Jesus lived an amazing life. He walked in the world with power and authority, granting healing and forgiveness for all those who believed. He lived as a model for us today, so that we might follow and live the godly life. Yet, all of this is pointless without the cross. For on that cross He set us free from all that has us bound in this world so that we can be all that we were created to be. We can’t walk holy without forgiveness. We can’t live godly without grace.

“And they stoned Stephen, calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Now we are called to live as Stephen, speaking the words of the Gospel into the lives of our enemies, telling the story of Christ no matter what suffering we may face. This might seem difficult in this day when many would like to remove Christ from Christmas. Despite the persecution we face, we are called to tell the story of God’s love and sacrifice to the world, crying out to God to forgive them.

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