December 26, 2nd Day of Christmas Stephen martyrdom
Scripture: Acts 7:51-60
51 “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! 52 Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. 53 You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.”
54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”
57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him 58 and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.
In October of 2017 we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One of the things our family did was to watch the movie, Luther, with Joseph Fiennes and Peter Ustinov. (By the way, I would highly recommend it if you haven’t seen that particular version if you can find it.) One of the most powerful lines in the film is when Luther responds to his spiritual mentor who had asked him to back off because what he was doing was splitting the Roman church. In Luther’s words, “Did you not think there would be a heavy cost?” At times, holding to the truth brings harsh conflict.
On this first day after Christmas, the early church marked it with what is known as the Feast of St. Stephen. For those unfamiliar with this tradition, this Scripture may seem like an odd choice. But there is a reason, Stephen was the first adult martyr of the faith. This passage occurs at the end of a powerful message and challenge he gave to the Jewish leaders. He traced their Jewish history from the call of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, to King David. He chided his accusers for resisting the testimony of the Holy Spirit, reminding them of their long history of killing the prophets who predicted the coming of the Messiah. When he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” that pushed his indicters over the edge. When Jesus spoke those same words to Caiaphas in his trial, the response of the Jewish leadership was the same angry explosion (Matt 26:64, Daniel 7:13, Ps 110:1). When Stephen identified Jesus as the divine Son of Man spoken of in the book of Daniel, it was akin to blasphemy, deserving of stoning to death under the law, which they did.
In his dying moments, Stephen prayed words similar to those of Jesus on the cross, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin.” Only months after Pentecost following Christ brought persecution and sorrow as Saul, a consenting witness to the death of Stephen, was to learn. The soul of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was indeed pierced as Simeon had prophesied at Jesus’ dedication forty days after his birth (Lk.2:35). From the beginning, following Jesus was not without cost, then or now.
If we take grasp the significance of God’s coming to earth to bring restoration to a fallen world at the most extreme cost of his Son, why should we think there would be no earthly cost to us to stand against evil? The irony is that while the gift of salvation is free, that gift can bring with it persecution, imprisonment, ostracizing, ridicule, or death. In fact, Jesus told his disciples there would be persecution (Jn.15:20-21). What does this have to do with Christmas? It reminds us of the greater significance of the birth of Jesus.
We may think of martyrdom as something that happened to past believers. Not so. Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world for Christians. One of my IWS students from Nigeria was murdered along with his pregnant wife a few of years ago. Christianity and Judeo-Christian values are under constant attack. Should we be surprised? No. Jesus said such would be the case. Christianity goes against the social and political order of the day.
While we have wonderful feelings of joy about the Christmas season, we dare not forget the wood of the manger is the first step to the wood of the cross to the Carpenter from Nazareth. It’s important to always remember that Christmas and Calvary are part of the same story, just different chapters . . . they are not self-contained, isolated events. Tertullian in the second century is credited with saying, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” There were times when Roman soldiers were so amazed at the Christians facing martyr’s death, that they converted to Christianity on the spot and died as martyrs alongside those they had come to kill. Never under-estimate your witness to those around you.
A few more words about the Feast of St. Stephen. This day is also known as Boxing Day in the British Empire. The idea being it was a day to collect alms for the poor among us in honor of Stephen’s martyrdom. As the story goes . . . In the 10th century Good King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia, risked his life on this day to feed a peasant who was gathering wood on this freezing cold night. The idea carried on with the giving Christmas boxes to the poor and needy, or in our day, small gifts to thank people who serve us throughout the year.
Music: “Good King Wenceslas” Traditional Choir with text
Father of Jesus, cause me to be a mirror of thy grace, to show others the joy of thy service. May my lips be well-tuned cymbals sounding thy praise. Let a halo of heavenly-mindedness sparkle around me and a lamp of kindness sunbeam my path. Teach me the happy art of attending to things temporal with a mind intent on things eternal. Send me forth to have compassion on the ignorant and miserable. Help me to walk as Jesus walked, my only Savior and perfect model, his mind my inward guest, his meekness my covering garb. Let my happy place be amongst the poor in spirit, my delight in the gentle ranks of the meek. Let me always esteem others better than myself, and find in true humility an heirdom to two worlds. —from The Valley of Vision, p.136
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