Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sermon: St. Stephen - 2010

26 December 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Our beautiful imagery of Christmas, of the star, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, and Mary and Joseph with the newborn Christ child is rudely interrupted by today, the Second Day of Christmas, otherwise known as the Feast of St. Stephen.  For the Christian faith has an ugly side to it as well, the side of Satan’s vigorous assault on the Word, and our sinful flesh’s resistance against those who preach that Word of God that has come to us in the flesh to save us.

For from Abel to Zechariah, the blood of the innocent has been shed on earth.  And every prophet who was persecuted and killed for his testimony is a preview of what was to come in Christ, who is the only truly righteous Man. 

And this Satanic attack on the Word does not stop with our Lord’s crucifixion.  No indeed!  For at the cross, the Word of the Lord and the salvation of sinners is only beginning.  The Word spreads out in increasingly bigger concentric circles from Golgotha, throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.  And this good news is bad news for the enemies of the cross.

One of the first of the Lord’s preachers was St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons ordained by the apostles.  And like the apostles, the holy deacon was “full of grace and power” and “doing great wonders and signs among the people.”  He was a preacher of our Lord Jesus Christ, and such preachers inevitably attract hatred.  Some people rose up to dispute with Stephen.  They plotted against him.  They “stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes.”  They “set up false witnesses” against him and trumped up charges of false doctrine against him.  The same people who rejected Jesus and who attempted to gag the preaching of the apostles likewise sought to impede the deacon’s good confession and proclamation.

But like the prophets who came before him, and standing nearly in the shadow of the cross, St. Stephen preached the same message, that of the Lord Jesus Christ, of repentance, and of the offer of forgiveness in His name.  And while this is a grace-filled message of good news, it makes people bitter and angry.  For there is a great irony in the Gospel, dear friends.  For by its very definition, receiving the good news of the forgiveness of sins means admitting that one needs forgiveness.  This means admitting guilt.  To welcome the Gospel is to swallow one’s pride. 

And so when the preacher calls his hearers to repentance, to react with anger is to reject the Gospel.  Our Lord and the apostles were plagued by people who reacted harshly to being called to repentance.  Our sinful flesh resists such invitations to change our ways, and instead of mortifying our own flesh, we prefer to retaliate against the messenger.

St. Stephen did not mince words.  His preaching was not what one would call “winsome.”  Stephen was not preaching in order to be liked, but rather in order that people might repent and be saved.  And this means hearing some things that we would rather not hear, dear friends.

Stephen preached: “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 your fathers not persecute?  And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

One could only imagine the phone calls to the district office if a Missouri Synod pastor were to preach in this manner today. 

St. Stephen was not preaching against his hearers to grind them down, but rather in order that the Word of God might turn their hearts from their stubborn and sinful ways, ways that are destructive to their souls.  For in their stubbornness, they were being manipulated by Satan, and they were not open to hearing the full counsel of God.  And those who will not hear the Law will neither hear the Gospel.  For a Gospel without a Law is no Gospel at all.

St. Stephen was not merely railing in anger, for he was “full of the Holy Spirit.”  He was trying to help those who would kill him.  Like our Lord Jesus Christ, he was martyred for trying to save those who resisted the Holy Spirit.  Stephen’s hearers could have repented and believed, but instead, they “were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.”  Moreover, as he continued preaching, they “stopped their ears” and attached him.  They murdered this deacon and preacher, seeking to silence the Word he spoke by stoning him as he preached.  But the Word that St. Stephen proclaimed cannot be silenced.  For it is God’s Word.  And even as this horrific crime happened, a man named Saul was watching, a man known to us today as St. Paul – the greatest preacher of the saving Word, the foremost evangelist that the Christian world has ever known.

St. Paul would likewise himself be stoned, beaten, rejected, harassed, falsely charged, jailed, and eventually beheaded.  And even then, the preaching of the Word continues and the confession of Christ goes on.

St. Stephen was only the first of thousands upon thousands of Christian martyrs from every walk of life.  Many were preachers of the Word, and many more were hearers of the Word.  Some have been bishops, pastors, and deacons, but most have been lay people.  Christians have been martyred in the arena, at the stake, in concentration camps, and in prison cells.  And yet, every attempt to silence the Word has only resulted in advancing the Gospel’s progress around the world.

Even today, the Gospel continues to make enemies, divide families, drive kings and tyrants into a rage, and bring martyrdom upon preachers and confessors – especially in lands where the faith meets resistance.  But the Gospel does something else, dear friends.  Where the Word of God does its work in convicting people of their sins, in bringing them to confession and repentance, and where the Good News of forgiveness rings out to those who welcome it, the Gospel liberates, brings peace and joy, emboldens and empowers Christian witness, brings warring peoples and feuding families back into harmony, bears dignity to all people, and most importantly, restores our lost communion with God and gives everlasting salvation and life.

The preaching of the Gospel brought St. Stephen grief and resulted in his death.  But it brought St. Stephen something even greater: eternal life, salvation, forgiveness, and the privilege to preach this good news to others, likewise opening the heavens to his listeners – even if at the time they were hostile.  For the preaching of the Word never returns void, and there is always hope that people will repent and be saved.  St. Stephen took this very hope to his grave, a grave that will be opened on the last day.

For St. Stephen died a blessed death.  He was faithful to the end.  And the greatest way for a preacher of the Gospel to die is to die like his Lord Jesus Christ, with the words of Holy Absolution upon his lips.  For even as our Lord prayed “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” St. Stephen trod in the path of the Lord’s cross by praying a similar prayer, even as the painful rocks pelted his dying body, and even as his lifeblood ebbed from his wounds: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Dear friends, do not resist the Holy Spirit.  Don’t allow your pride to stand in the way of repentance.  Confess your sins and embrace the Gospel, the good news of the forgiveness of sins.  Hear the Word of God as has been proclaimed by the prophets, by the apostles, by saints and martyrs, and by humble pastors for thousands of years.  Hear St. Stephen’s call to repentance, and pray that the Lord would never allow your ears to be stopped to the doubled edged sword of God’s mighty and merciful Word.

For the beauty of the Christ child is beheld even in the midst of an ugly world.  It is a short distance from the manger to the cross, from the cattle stall to the prison cell, from the angelic serenade to the catcalls of the mockers.  For Christ came into the world to save sinners, to redeem a dark and ugly world, to become Himself stained by blood but unsullied by sin, and all to save us from ourselves.

Like St. Stephen, we thank our Lord Jesus Christ, and we acknowledge Him as our Savior – especially at this time of Christmas as we ponder His coming in the flesh to save us.  And let us embrace the calls to repentance that come from the Lord’s messengers who likewise share our flesh, even as we glory in the forgiveness of sins and those beautiful words of St. Stephen’s absolution to all of us who carry sin within our fallen flesh and who hear the Word of God proclaimed anew to us today, even as we pray: “Lord, do not hold this sin against us.”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

No comments: