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Saint Stephen – Matthew 23:34-39

by pastorjuhl ~ December 23rd, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit

It might be off-putting to come to Divine Service 24 hours after celebrating Christmas to see red paraments and to sing hymns honoring martyrs. The highs of yesterday’s Holy Gospel about the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the highs of two days ago hearing the angel appear to Joseph are a faint echo in our minds. Today we hear the cries of Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, and Stephen the deacon as they are murdered in broad daylight. 24 hours after Christmas, we celebrate the shedding of blood for the sake of the Good News of great joy given to shepherds.

Many prophets and apostles gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus mentions two in Matthew chapter 23: Abel and Zechariah. The latter you heard in the Old Testament reading. The former you know from Genesis chapter four. Abel was murdered out of envy and jealousy. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and did not look favorably on his brother Cain’s sacrifice. Cain took revenge on God and Abel by killing his brother.

Saint Stephen was martyred because He dared preach God’s Word purely to those who wanted to hear another gospel. The same thing goes on today as now and then we hear of pastors preaching the pure Gospel being shown the door because they preach rather than entertain. Rather than open their ears to hear God’s Word, Christians put their hands over their ears and look for stones when confronted with Divine Truth.

What’s worse is when the church backs away from the means of grace and looks for another means to keep the customer satisfied. Blessed Charles Porterfield Krauth was a 19th century Lutheran theologian. His book “The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology” is a stellar defense of orthodox Lutheran doctrine and practice. Pastor Krauth saw what was happening among Lutherans in America and was worried. Here is a quote from Pastor Krauth that is eerily prophetic:

The Lutheran Church can never have real moral dignity, real self-respect, a real claim on the reverence and loyalty of  her children, while she allows the fear of denominations around her, or the desire of their approval in any respect to shape her principles or control her actions. It is a fatal thing to ask, not, “What is right? What is consistent?” but “What will be thought of us? How will our neighbors of the different communions regard this or that course?” Better to die than to prolong a miserable life by such a compromise of all that gives life its value.

A church that does not stand for something will fall for everything. Practically every controversy in the Christian Church points to one main cause: a failure to conform teaching and life to God’s Word. Standing behind that problem is the cause of all trouble in the Church and the world: sin. Christian congregations are so afraid of public relations nightmares that they forget what it means to confess the Truth of the Word of God and not be afraid.

When we speak boldly before the world concerning the hope that is in us, we are witnesses…martyrs. Unlike Saint Stephen, we are not necessarily stoned to death for our confession. Nevertheless, we are witnesses to what Jesus Christ does for us to save us from sin and death. Jesus is born an infant priest. Jesus is born to enter the Most Holy Place once for all in order that sins may be forgiven. Jesus is not born in order that you may cover Him in tinsel and make Him a Precious Moments sort of Savior. Jesus is born to take on the old evil foe who means deadly woe for you and me. Jesus takes on flesh to gather His chicks under His wings and protect them in preaching and the Sacraments until He returns to judge the living and the dead. This is our witness and it is true.

There is an ancient saying concerning our Lord and Saint Stephen: “Yesterday Christ was born into the world, so that today Stephen would be born in heaven.” If the Christ Child had not been born, the entire world would be lost. Stephen’s sleep in death and entrance through the open heaven to the glory of God in eternal life shows us well what great usefulness and goodness we have from the incarnation and birth of the Child Jesus. Jesus is born according to the flesh to save you from being lost to sin and Satan. Jesus does not charge you with your sin.

Saint Stephen’s last words were Lord, do not charge them with this sin. Not exactly what you would expect from a martyr whose death cries out for vengeance. Stephen’s words echo those of Jesus, Who said on the cross, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. As Jesus was ready to forgive, so was Stephen, and so are we. When the time comes that we may have to suffer for the sake of the pure milk of God’s Holy Word, we pray our persecutors would repent and believe the Gospel. Do you recall the name of the man whose feet those who stoned Stephen laid their cloaks? Saul. If repentance and forgiveness is given to a creep like Saul, also known as Saint Paul, it can happen to anyone.

Honoring Saint Stephen is actually honoring Jesus Christ. Our Lord allowed Stephen to witness the hope of forgiveness and life to those whose ears itched for another gospel. As Stephen was a witness, we are also witnesses of Jesus Christ; the Babe of Bethlehem Who grows up to witness the Father’s love for His lost creation. As Christmas carols and chorales echo in our ears, there is a twinge of Lent and Holy Week too. Jesus is born to die. Stephen is born to die. We daily echo our baptism when we die to sin and live in righteousness with Stephen, Jesus, and our Father in heaven.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit

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