St. Stephen—Martyr, 2021

This time of year, if I ask you to tell me about Jesus, you might sing any one of a number of Christmas carols, and tell me a lot about Jesus.

But St. Stephen doesn’t come up.

I would say it’s quite normal to coast from Christmas Day into the new year without observing what there is to observe.

We’ve been taught to separate—rather than to connect—the manger and the cross, for example.

So, today, let us remember St. Stephen.

Today, let us celebrate the Christmas story knowing that a later chapter includes the Cross—and all those Christians who pick up theirs to follow Jesus.

Stephen’s sermon begins this way: “Brothers and fathers, hear me…” (Acts 7:1), which is a fine way to start.

The way we heard it today, he continues, saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).

And we’re not used to being talked to like that, even when it’s true.

You’ll note, though, that there were several verses that we did not read—verses three through fifty.

Verses three through fifty include the entire Old Testament story of salvation, from Abraham, when the promise was given, through Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Egypt, the Red Sea and the wilderness, the golden calf, all the way to David and Solomon (cf. Acts 7:3-50).

Then—Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, 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 announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One [Jesus Christ], whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).

What was true throughout the Old Testament was true for Stephen—and it’s true for us—many exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship the creation rather than the Creator (cf. Romans 1:25).

Prophets and pastors alike break our idols, call us to repentance, and point us to Christ.

The hopeful expectation of Advent—and the joy of Christmas—lead, today, to a sobering reminder of Jesus’ words: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

For this He was born.

Jesus says, “I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you kill and crucify, and some you flog in synagogues and persecute from town to town. And on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered…O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How I would have gathered you together as a hen gathers her brood, but you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate” (cf. Matthew 23:34-35, 37-38).

Today, let us remember St. Stephen.

Today, let us celebrate the Christmas story that continues on to cross and empty tomb.

But make no mistake—we may use today to remember St. Stephen, but today is still about the work of Christ.

When Stephen preaches, he preaches the work of Christ, the Old Testament story of salvation.

The accusations against Stephen come from false witnesses claiming he said “that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy [the temple] and will change the customs that Moses delivered” (Acts 6:14-15).

The high priest asks, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1).

And Stephen answers: Abraham and the patriarchs lived by faith in the promise of God, without the temple.

It’s Solomon who finally builds the temple, “yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says” (Acts 7:48).

When Stephen preaches, he preaches the work of Christ, which is the grace of God.

It’s as if he says, “The temple’s not as important as you think it is” which is just as much a scandal now as it was then—we like our temple, our home team.

But Stephen also confesses Jesus to be the prophet foretold by Moses.

Stephen doesn’t reject Moses.

He points out that all the prophets were rejected by Israel—at least at times.

Abraham was a stranger in Canaan.

The patriarchs were enslaved in Egypt.

Moses was rejected by the people.

“[Moses] supposed his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25).

“This Moses, whom they rejected” (Acts 7:35) “said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. To him you shall listen” (Acts 7:37; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15).

This Moses was one whom “our fathers refused to obey” (Acts 7:39).

And there’s the connection.

That’s the way the promised prophet, Jesus Christ, would be like Moses.

He would be rejected.

It’s as if Stephen says to the high priest, “Yes—these things are so. Jesus will destroy the temple, change our customs, break our idols, and teach us to fear the Lord and call upon His name.

“And even more offensive, the Lord’s Christ came to you, and you knew Him not. You betrayed Him. And you murdered Him.”

That’s Stephen’s answer.

And “when [the Jews] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).

For this—they think—Stephen must die.

So he’s cast out of the city—to be stoned.

“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56).

We confess in the Creed that, after the ascension, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

But Stephen sees Him standing.

The Lord stands as one who works, as one who helps, saves, comforts, and defends Stephen and all who fear the Lord and call upon His name.

Let this be your comfort when the Hallmark part of Christmas loses its appeal.

Let this be your comfort when you’re tired of naming reindeer, tired of decking halls, tired of the silent or not-so-silent judgment of others.

When the silent night of Christmas has turned into the chaotic hellscape of “Just go to bed,” the Lord stands to help.

To help His martyrs and to help you.

Whenever you’re persecuted for the sake of Christ, if now or not yet, you’re not alone.

The highest priest has promised to be with you always, even to the end of the age.

At his death, Stephen sees Jesus the Christ as priest, standing, interceding, from the throne of the heavenly temple.

His dying words proclaim, again, the work of Christ—the forgiveness of sins.

As Christ died for our sins saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 22:34)—just so, Stephen carries his cross saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

And he fell asleep.

Even with his dying words, Stephen confessed the work of Jesus—who was born to be the true and promised prophet—who would be rejected by His nation—betrayed and murdered—and yet depart with words of forgiveness.

For this He was born.

For you he died.

And so, Stephen—who points us to Christ—belongs with Christmas.

And at Christmas—with Stephen—we behold the Lord in glory and sing with the angels: “Glory be to God on high: and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (cf. Luke 2:14).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

St. Stephen (December 26), 2021
Mt. 23:34-39; 2 Chron. 24:17-22; Acts 6:8–7:2a, 51-60
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

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