Saturday, December 26, 2015

Sermon for St. Stephen's

The past few weeks, just in conversation, I’ve been asking people if they know the old Carol, “Old Good King Wenceslas”. It’s one of those songs that people know the rough tune to, that they have heard before, but have no clue what the words are. I’m the same way; I really only know the first two lines. Good King Wenceslas looked out/ on the feast of Stephen.” On the feast of Stephen, today, December 26th. It at first seems strange to suddenly go from Christmas to such a sad story as Stephen’s, the first Christian Martyr. However, it makes sense. We have just celebrated the feast of the Nativity, the birth of Christ. But this birth doesn’t happen in a vacuum; Christmas has an impact and an effect on our lives. From Stephen, we can see what that is.

First, on account of Christ, we are all called to service. Let me read from just before our epistle text. Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit This is how we meet this Stephen, this is the first time he shows up. And what is he? Oh, a man full of faith, a man who has the Holy Spirit. What clearer sign is there that the events of Christmas have impacted Stephen than this? Christ Jesus comes down and takes on human flesh, and what do we see? Stephen now filled with faith and the Holy Spirit. This is the result of Christmas and Christ’s life, that Stephen knows who God is, that Stephen believes in the Salvation won for Him by Christ Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit now dwells in him.

On account of this, Stephen is called into service. Stephen is asked, “for the good of your fellow believers in Christ, please do this. See that everyone is cared for fairly and kindly.” The faith that Stephen has is put into action. Faith isn’t just some dead possession, it’s not something that we keep on a bookshelf and dust off every now and then. It is true life, it is love - and life and love with God always involves action. Think of it this way. I’m sure many of the kids here this morning got new toys yesterday, and well, probably quite a few of us adults got new toys as well. So, are these toys just kept in the box, oh, look, I have a toy, how nice? No, they are played with, they are used. That’s the way it is with faith and love. We aren’t supposed to just keep them wrapped up, but rather we are to exercise our faith and love in the service of others. Which is easier said than done, isn’t it? We humans are the masters of the excuse, of dodging and shifting responsibility. When it comes to service of others, all too often our gut instinct is to avoid, to grumble, to wonder why someone else isn’t doing this, isn’t helping out, why am I the one stuck with this. There are times when our faith is an inconvenience to our schedule, and we’d rather just stick it in the closet with that gift our aunt gave us 7 years ago rather than actually use it. This is the temptation we are to avoid and beat down. As Christians we must remember that we are always going to be called into service, called to show love to our neighbor, to reflect back the love that we have received from Christ onto our neighbor. This is something that Stephen does, and it is something which we ought to emulate.

Stephen also demonstrates another aspect of the Christian life. On account of Christ Jesus, we are called to Confess. In our text today we see Stephen getting in trouble because he speaks plainly and clearly the Word of God. Stephen has been preaching and performing miracles, but the powers that be are upset, and so he is taken before the Jewish rulers and called to account. And what does Stephen do? Does he start playing the great game of cover my backside? Oh, this is all a misunderstanding, there’s no big deal, just let me go. Things are getting a little tense, a little hot in here, I had better stop what I’m doing, drop it, and just roll away? No, that’s not what Stephen does. We skip most of what Luke records for us in Acts 7, but we get the end of it. Stephen preaches, Stephen rips back and calls a spade and spade, giving them a good double barrel blast of the law. And they kill him for it. They drag Stephen out, they pick up rocks, and beat him to death.

So, was Stephen foolish? Was he unwise? No. Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. As Christians, as those who know who God is, who have tasted His Salvation, we are called to proclaim, to speak out the truth of God. Now, by this I’m not telling you all to get your sandwich boards and stand out on on Court Street in Kankakee and start screaming at passer-bys in cars. But when you are questioned, when you are asked, “Who is this Jesus”, when one comes and denies your Lord, your duty is to confess Christ, whatever the consequences.

If that isn’t a tough row to hoe I don’t know what is. Few things are more scary, more terrifying than speaking. Think in your own life apart from religion specifically. How many of you have things that you would like to tell someone but are afraid to? Someone is doing something wrong that hurts them, but. . . you just can’t say it, because you might upset them. Someone could use some advice, you have a recommendation. . .but what if they take it the wrong way. All too often we don’t speak when we ought to. Instead of showing love and care and service, instead of helping out, we say nothing. Or worse than saying nothing, we talk and complain about how things are and gossip to anyone and everyone except the person we ought to talk to. We have that fear of someone becoming upset with us, and that fear runs and rules our lives, not the love that we have from Christ.

Fear of speaking comes in even with good things. Who here hasn’t felt their knees turn to jelly when you want to say something sweet and romantic to someone? I’d wager that there are some guys here who have been married quite a while who still ho and hum before they work up the courage to tell their wives that they love them. Why then, should we be surprised when we have to confront fear when speaking the most wonderful words ever, speaking of Christ Jesus our Lord? Being bold in your faith can be hard, it can be frightening. There can and will be negative consequences in this life. If you doubt that, look at the prophets, look at the Apostles, look at Stephen, look at the cross itself. Nonetheless we are called to Confess, to speak boldly about Christ and Him Crucified when the opportunity presents itself.

So how? So far this morning we have talked about many demands, much law. I, a poor miserable sinner, am called to service which I grumble about and do not do, I am called to confess Christ, and man, there are times where I just back down and run away. What now? Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! What now is this. We remember that the Christian faith is not primarily about what we do, but rather it revolves around what Christ Jesus has done for you. Dear friends, the Christ child does not remain idle, Jesus doesn’t just keep a low profile. Rather, He grows and suffers and dies and rises again. Why? So that He might call you to His side, that He might send His Holy Spirit to call you by the Gospel and Enlighten you by His gifts. At any and all times, we are to look to this, to remember this fact. That God Himself calls us to be with Him. This is what Stephen sees as he lie dying, as the life is pounded out of him. Christ Jesus His Lord calling to Him, giving more and more forgiveness, bringing more and more Salvation. Which is why Stephen thinks to cry out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Of course, because He sees Jesus, Jesus who is all about forgiveness. When Stephen sees Him, Jesus isn't up in heaven playing canasta with the prophets, He there ruling at the Right Hand of God, dispensing forgiveness, calling His servant Home.

God constantly calls us as well. We are called by His Word to hear again and receive again the forgiveness of our sin. He calls us to the Altar, to His Supper, to receive His Body and Blood for the strengthening of our faith. When we are burdened, when we see our lack, which is great indeed, we are called to look at Christ and see His love and Salvation, which is beyond anything else in the world. By His Word God constantly strengthens us and refreshes us when the world batters us down. Here in His house He gives us the gifts we need so that we can go out into the world and live the lives of service, the lives of confession that He calls us to. Here Christ Jesus fills us again with faith by forgiveness, by preaching, by His supper, so that we are kept strong and firm, so that we are picked up whenever we stumble. Here in His House, we are gathered by Christ, just like a mother hen gathers her chicks, and under His protective wings we receive all that we need to grow in faith towards Him and in fervent love towards one another. Here in His house the Christ Child is at work for us, forgiving us and leading us.

And so, dear friends, on this December night, we see who God is, who this Babe of Bethlehem is. He is the God who calls us to service, the God who calls us to confess him, but more than that, Jesus is the God who constantly calls us to be with Him, to come to Him, and to receive His blessings. God grant that in this coming year, we receive His blessings and forgiveness often and richly, so that we would be stirred up to works of love on earth, even until Christ Jesus our Lord in mercy and love calls us unto life everlasting. In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Newborn King. + Amen

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