The Rev. Paul J Cain
The Feast of Stephen
St. Stephen, Frist Martyr, First Sunday after Christmas, 26 December 2010
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Today has many names on the calendar of the Christian Church. For those counting the Twelve Days of Christmas, today is number two. Enjoy your turtledoves and the partridge in a pear tree. The bulletin gives the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas. Included in the printed Gospel lesson are the verses that talk about Herod killing children, traditionally called, the holy innocents. And today we remember another martyr, the very first Christian to die for his faith, St. Stephen. Many of us are only familiar with this day because of the Christmas carol that mentions it:
Good King Wenceslas look’d out On the Feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about, Deep and crisp and even; Brightly shone the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, Gath’ring winter fuel.
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, Bring me pinelogs hither; Thou and I will see him dine When we bear them thither.” Page and monarch, forth they went, Forth they went together; Through the rude wind’s wild lament And the bitter weather.
In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted; Heat was in the very sod Which the saint had printed; Therefore Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank posessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.
The old Christmas carol deserves a little more detail because it fits so well with this Feast of Stephen. You only heard three of the stanzas. The carol is about a real person, King Wenceslas, born into the royal (Premysl) dynasty of Bohemia located in what is now the Czech Republic. Wenceslas was born around 907 in the castle of Stochov near Prague. The castle is gone now, but there is still an oak tree there that was supposedly planted by Ludmila [his grandmother] when Wenceslas was born. His nannies watered the tree with his bath water, which supposedly made the tree strong. The church Wenceslas attended also exists today.
At first Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother, Ludmila. Then, when he was about 13 years old, his father died. Wenceslas succeeded him as duke. But because he was too young to rule, his mother, Drahomira, became regent. Drahomira was opposed to Christianity and used her new power to persecute followers of the religion. She refused to let Wenceslas see Ludmila because she was afraid they would scheme to overthrow her. Not long after Ratislav's death, Ludmila was murdered at Tetin Castle -- strangled, it is said, at Drahomira's command. After her death, Ludmila was revered as a saint.
But the loss of his grandmother did not stop Wenceslas from seizing power. At the age of 18 he overthrew his mother's regency, just as she had feared, and began to rule for himself. A stern but fair monarch, he stopped the persecution of priests and tamed the rebellious nobility. He was known for his kindness to the poor, as depicted in later verses of the carol. He was especially charitable to children, helping young orphans and slaves.
Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas's attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I. The duke's most deadly enemy proved to be his own brother, Boleslav, who joined the nobles who were plotting his brother's assassination. He invited Wenceslas to a religious festival and then attacked him on his way to mass. As the two were struggling, Boleslav's supporters jumped in and murdered Wenceslas.
"Good King" Wenceslas died on September 20, 929. He was in his early twenties and had ruled Bohemia for five years. Today he is remembered as the patron saint of the Czech Republic. The words to the carol "Good King Wenceslas" were written by John Mason Neale and first published in 1853.
Christians killed for the faith are called martyrs. Wenceslas could be called one. St. Stephen was the very first. You’ll find the scene in the book of Acts.
In Acts 6, Stephen was one the seven of good repute set apart, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, who were appoint to the duty of daily food distribution to the widows. The seven were set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. But when Stephen is stoned to death in chapter 7, it isn’t for being a meal-on-wheels driver—it was for preaching the Word of the Gospel.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. So ends Acts chapter six.
The trial begins promptly in Acts 7. And the high priest said, "Are these things so?" And Stephen said: "Brothers and fathers, hear me…” From this point Stephen preaches about salvation history from God’s call to Abraham to go to the promised land, through the stories of Joseph in Egypt and the Lord’s exodus under Moses, to the people’s unfaithfulness with the golden calf in the wilderness. Stephen uses that comparison to hit the high priest and the council with heavy law.
"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 not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 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." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The account concludes in the first verses of Acts 8. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
And that’s the Biblical account of St. Stephen, he whom we remember this day. We remember him because of all of the martyrs of the Christian faith for two thousand years, he was the first. Lutherans know that you don’t pray to saints, angels, or even to Mary, but we can thank the Lord in prayer for strong Christian witnesses like Stephen.
Witness. Martyr. The two words go together. The Greek word for witness in the New Testament looks just like our English word for martyr. Originally, a “martyr” was one who just told the Good News About Jesus. That is the vocation of every Christian, even during the Christmas vacation. With Stephen’s death, the word began to take on the meaning of witnessing to the point of dying for the faith. A rather dramatic change in meaning!
The two sheep in a liturgical Christian cartoon have it right.
The first sheep says, “Christmas has just passed and already we have this story of death.”
“Yeah—it’s hard, but it fits,” the sheep holding the coffee cup answers. He continues: “Christmas is the fulfillment that follows our anticipation of God’s promise of a Savior. Vocation always follows fulfillment—we are called to bear witness to Jesus even with our whole lives.”
The first sheep still misunderstands: “That doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.”
“Vo-cation,” the other sheep yells. Vocation is living out the Christian life by caring for all of our neighbor’s needs, especially the need for forgiveness in Christ, no matter the cost.
Now we can better understand why Matthew 23:34-39 is the appointed Gospel reading for St. Stephen, Martyr. Jesus says of His own people:
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
And they did, didn’t they? Jesus, The Prophet, was crucified. Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, twice. Stephen was stoned to death. James, the brother of John, would be killed by the king. After his conversion, would be persecuted from town to town, but then, the message spread faster, didn’t it? All these things did come upon that generation. Jesus then lamented the chief city of the Jews:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' "
Jesus was killed just outside of Jerusalem, at the place of the skull, Golgotha. Stephen was stoned after facing the Council. Some Jews embraced Jesus as Messiah. They were gathered together. Others, including the leadership, did not. They would not be gathered unto the Lord. They would see Jesus again on Palm Sunday when the people cried out, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' And then they killed Him. And so their house was left desolate. But Jesus rose to life again to build a new house of living stones. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans. And disciples were made of all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, and going to the ends of the earth. You, too, have heard the Good News!
Good King Wenceslas look’d out On the Feast of Stephen… with Christian compassion for his neighbor in need. The King was living out his Christian belief though Christianity in action. Christmas is the fulfillment that follows our anticipation of God’s promise of a Savior. Vocation always follows fulfillment—we are called to bear witness to Jesus even with our whole lives. Wenceslas lived out his Christian vocation, like Stephen. Unlike Herod, who killed the innocents, unlike the Scribes and the Pharisees, who called for Jesus’ crucifixion, unlike those who jailed Peter and John, who stoned Stephen, persecuted Paul…called for Luther’s death…and still discriminate against Christians, imprison, abuse, and kill them to this day.
You have the same gifts of Word and Sacrament that kept St. Stephen bold in his witness unto death. Regularly make use of these means of grace, able to keep you faithful until death, when you will receive the crown of life. Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.