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God Has Opened His Gift to Us

Acts 6:8—7:2a,51-60

Pastor Mark Schlamann

St. Stephen, Martyr
Our Savior/Redeemer  
Pettibone/Woodworth, ND

Sun, Dec 26, 2004
First Sunday after Christmas


The Feast of Christmas has past; yet we are still in the season and in the Time of Christmas. But if you listen to your radio today or anytime this week, you will not hear a single song having to do with Christmas. The reality is that now is the appropriate time to hear and sing the Christmas hymns and carols we love, for the season of Advent has past; the time to prepare our hearts to celebrate the Savior's birth has come and gone. That celebration took place yesterday. It would be proper to listen to those Christmas songs now, throughout this season of Christmas, and all the way through the Epiphany season, for we celebrate the Word becoming flesh and his being revealed to the nations, as we recall the visit of the Magi. I mention this at this time because there are two Christmas songs that come to my mind and mention this day on the calendar. One is "The Twelve Days of Christmas," in which we recall that "on the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree." The other is "Good King Wenceslas," who "looked out on the Feast of Stephen." Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, the first person after the Church was born on that first Pentecost to die on account of his faith in Jesus Christ. But why, when we just celebrated Christmas yesterday, would we spend a day being depressed over someone of the Church who was killed? Having celebrated the birth of the Savior, we celebrate the death of His saints, particularly the first who perished of the sake of the Gospel. Today is not a day of mourning but a day of celebrating, for we thank God for the ministry He gave Stephen, for the Word He gave him to confess even to the point of being stoned to death for it. Who is this Stephen, and why is his martyrdom so important for us today, and why should we thank God for him?

Stephen was a deacon in the early Church. As a deacon, he was to assist the Apostles in the ministry. The Twelve were no longer able to both conduct Word and Sacrament ministry and run the Church's charity endeavors. The Lord called them to Word and Sacrament ministry, and, alas, the Church's charity work was beginning to suffer; the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. The Twelve called all of the disciples together, for the number of followers of Christ, "the Way," had grown dramatically. The Apostles were concerned about the charity work the Church was doing; so they asked the disciples to pick seven men to assist them in overseeing the daily distribution for them, while the Apostles themselves would continue to devote themselves to prayer and preaching. Stephen was one of the seven chosen to assist the Apostles; he was one of the first seven deacons of the Church. This tradition continues today in some congregations, as they have deacons in place to assist the pastor in his ministry, assisting in a variety of ways at the pastor's direction. Stephen was passionate about his Lord, "full of faith and power, [and] did great wonders and signs among the people" (6:8). He was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. His work and his speaking angered those who refused to believe in Jesus Christ. They sought to silence him by charging him with blasphemy, of speaking words against Moses and God, against the temple and the law. They were still clinging to the law of Moses, including all of the ceremonial laws. They violated God's moral Law by falsely accusing Stephen. They said, "This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us" (6:13-14). They were twisting the facts to suit their evil purposes, for Stephen spoke only what the Apostles gave him to speak, that which they themselves received from the Lord. Stephen was speaking not of the Synagogue of the Freedmen but of the temple of Jesus' body, which was destroyed, but raised again on the third day. Stephen recounted the history of the Jews through Scripture and how they despised the Word of God. He summarized what is now the Old Testament. Stephen then compared the Jews of old to the Jews of his day, calling them stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears. They may have heard the Word of God, but they did not receive it, for they also would have received the prophetsand the Lord Himself. They knew the truth, and the truth had made them mad. They could not handle the truth. They also could not bear the gift God had brought Stephen: the gift of heaven being opened to him and his seeing the Lord sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. They, in their intense anger and hatred, cast him out of the city and stoned him to death. Consenting to Stephen's death was a young man named Saul, the same Saul who persecuted the Church mercilessly, the same Saul whom the Lord would later convert on the road to Damascus, the same Saul we would know better as St. Paul.

What Stephen received prior to his death was a gift, for he saw heaven opened, and he saw the Lord, who would call him to Himself. Yesterday we opened several presents, some of which we may return. In our text, the Lord opened heaven to Stephen, that he may go to the Father once he had fallen asleep in the faith, once he had died. Stephen suffered at the hands of stiff-necked people, those refusing to hear the Word of the Lord. Today Christians suffer for the sake of the Gospel, even at this time of the year. Even now Christians have been attacked for wanting to celebrate Christmas; even our saying "Merry Christmas" is considered offensive. Sacred Christmas music is not allowed to be sung in many public schools. School principals all across our land have canceled Christmas parties altogether or have renamed them as "winter festival" parties, or something like that. Christians today are being accused today of wanting to keep Christ in Christmas! Worse yet, we are accused of wanting to hijack Christmas, a festival borne of the Christian tradition in the first place! Christmas is not a generic holiday; it is a festival at which Christians celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who came in the flesh to bear our sins and be our Savior. The pagans had set aside December 25 as the date for worshiping their sun god. The early Church decided to celebrate the birth of the Son of God on this same day, even though we do not know for sure exactly when Jesus was born. It matters not when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Even if we were to set aside February 2, the heathen in this country would accuse us of trying to hijack Groundhog Day. They want to kill Christmas. The heathen want to deny you of your rightful celebration of the birth of the Savior. They want you to be as bitter and empty as they are. They want to deprive you of the hope that you have. Those who seek to remove Christ from the Christ-Mass are simply evil and children of the devil. Their day of judgment will one day come, as they will see heaven opened and the Son of Man casting them and their followers into hell.

Our day of judgment will one day come, too, as we will see heaven opened and the Son of Man descending to gather us to Himself in heaven. He will gather the faithful to be with Him, even as He took Stephen to Himself. The Lord will gather all who have been faithful to Him, even unto death, back to be with Him, singing His praises at the eternal Feast, singing the praises of Him who died and rose again on high. By faith we will be in heaven with St. Stephen, gathered around the heavenly banquet table, for heaven has been opened unto us on account of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are comparisons and contrasts we can make between the deaths of St. Stephen and the Lord. Prior to his being stoned to death, Stephen saw heaven opened to him, having seen the Lord at the right hand of the heavenly Father. At His crucifixion, heaven was closed to Jesus, for He had been forsaken by His Father for our sake, and darkness covered the earth. Just prior to his death, Stephen "knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not charge them with this sin.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (7:60). The first word our Lord said from the cross was "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Lk. 23:34). Saint Luke also tells us in our text that "they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'"(7:59). As our Lord's last word from the cross, "Jesuscried out with a loud voice, [and] He said, 'Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.' Having said this, He breathed His last" (Lk. 23:46). The Lord opened heaven to Stephen, who was about to die for his faith. The Father opened the tomb to show that death had no hold on His Son. The Lord now opens heaven to us, as He comes to us today in His Word. His Holy Spirit opens our minds to understand the Scriptures, which find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Yesterday we opened the temporal gifts that were under the Christmas tree. Today our Lord opens the eternal gifts to us, gifts that have come from the Tree of Life, our Lord Jesus Christ. Yesterday we celebrated the newborn King of kings. Today we celebrate the resurrected Lord of life, who "by His glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life" (Common Preface). Today we celebrate the life and the Word He gave to St. Stephen. Today we celebrate the new life our Lord has given us in Holy Baptism, for in this Sacrament our Lord has opened heaven to us and given us His gifts of the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, and He has wrapped us in His righteousness. Thanks be to God! Hallelujah! Amen.

"Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen" (Rev. 7:12).


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