Preached December 26, 2010
St. Matthew 23:34–39
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
A blessed Christmass to each of you as we celebrate the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in His first coming as a Babe in the manger at Bethlehem some 2000 years ago! Today is the Feast of Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, the first martyr of the Church after Pentecost.
Our Gospel lesson today begins with these two verses: Matthew 23:34-35 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. This is Matthew, the Jewish writer writing to a Jewish audience, so he wants to be sure to draw on their prior knowledge of the Old Testament. He can expect his readers to be thoroughly familiar with all of the Old Testament, in particular with the historical books, 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st and 2nd Chronicles, the books that recorded the history of the Jewish nation during its period as an independent nation. They would also certainly be familiar with the Torah, the five books of Moses. When Jesus makes this sweeping accusation against the people regarding the killing of God’s messenngers, we immediately think of what is to happen to Jesus Himself. He refers back to the blood of righteous Able who was slain by his brother Cain in the very earliest days of man upon the earth. The second reference, to Zechariah, comes from near the end of the recorded history of the Jewish nation: 2 Chronicles 24:19-21 Yet he sent prophets to them, to bring them again unto the LORD; and they testified against them: but they would not give ear. And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you. And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the LORD. This is the destruction of the Lord’s messenger that Jesus was speaking about, but St. Matthew has had a lapse of memory in identifying the particular man Zechariah, giving him the wrong parent. The important point is that from the beginning of time until the end of the history of the nation the Israel, it was the same story repeated over and over; the Lord sent His messengers and the people rose up against them and put them to death.
We cannot help but be reminded of the story in St. Matthew 21 wherein a man creates a vineyard and lets it out to others to tend for him. When it is time to collect his rents, he sends some of his servants to make the collection, but the tenants beat the servants and treat them very badly. Then the owner of the vineyard says that he will send his son because he is sure that the tenants will respect his son. The tenants promptly decide that if they simply kill the son, they will probably get the vineyard for themselves, so they murder the son.
Of course, all of these stories point primarily to Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Son that the Owner of the vineyard sends, who instead of being well received is murdered. But these stories also point to other true servants of Christ as well, those who follow directly in His footsteps. As we celebrate the coming of Christ among us, it is appropriate that we also celebrate those who have truly committed their lives to Christ in the ultimate witness, martyrdom. The very word martyr means to witness to the extent of dying for one’s faith. It is a test that is never to be sought out, but if it comes to us, we pray that we will be strong enough to meet it.
In the early New Testament period in Jerusalem, apparently the Church was growing rapidly and the Apostles were finding themselves overwhelmed with administrative details. For this reason, the Apostles say Acts 6:3-5 Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: These men were the first Deacons in the Church, and their responsibilities were much the same as those of a Deacon today. In particular, they worked among the people, and they preached the Gospel. One of these original seven Deacons was especially effective, Acts 6:8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. We may infer that Stephen was able to cure people’s illnesses, to speak in tongues, and most importantly of all, to bring the message of Christ to people in such a way that they would believe. Stephen was getting the job done!
The Jews used against Stephen the old, reliable false charge “We heard him speaking against Moses and against God.” You really have to wonder how many times they can use that and not begin to suspect that it is false? Stephen gave a beautiful defense which ends right before our Epistle lesson, Acts 7:51-54 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. It is very clear that he has hit a nerve, he has pinned the tail right on the donkey. The are completely convicted, but not willing to change from their evil ways. They are simply intent on doing it again, on killing Stephen.
As our Epistle lesson opens, it seems that we may have moved from a trial situation probably to the scene an outdoor lynching. We have this beautiful statement from Stephen as he is about to die a violent death and he looks directly into Heaven, Acts 7:56 And (Stephen) said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. This is the vision of a true servant of Jesus Christ as he stands at the point of death by stoning because he continues to talk about Jesus Christ! He does not even see the angry crowd; he sees only the glory of Jesus Christ and the Father in Heaven.
This statement from Stephen drives the crowd to even more of a frenzy because they cannot bear the truth to which Stephen is a faithful witness. They shout and stop up their ears because they do not want to hear the truth — when we think about it, nothing has really changed in our day, has it?
As Stephen finally dies, he calls out to the Lord not to charge this evil to those who murder him. This is a most remarkable act of forgiveness from one who is being stoned to forgive those who are doing this terrible evil even at the time it is happening. Acts 7:60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Notice it says, he fell asleep. He was given a peaceful death, despite the terrible wickedness of the way in which it came about. He was able to forgive everyone against whom he had any cause for complaint, and then knowing full well exactly where he was going, he fell asleep. Who could possibly ask for anything more than that?
We should notice that even in his death, Stephen was a powerful witness that influenced the future direction of the Christian Church. Acts 7:58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. This Saul is the same Saul who would later see Jesus on the road to Damascus and eventually become Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. We may rest assured that the witness of Stephen was a powerful step in the conversion of Saul, the persecutor of the Church to Paul the Apostle.
Few of us are called to actual martyrdom, and that is a fortunate thing because it takes a special sort of psychological make up to be able to sustain a person all the way through such trials as that. The way our world is evolving today suggest that there will be increasing calls for martyrs, simply because of the breakdown of the restraints of civilization that we are witnessing. If we are called, let us pray most earnestly for the strength to carry our witness faithfully to the end, to the martyr’s crown of glory. For those not called to be fulfledged martyrs, we should remember that there are many things we do here on earth where we are given the opportunity to suffer for the truth or to take the easy way out. We should never hesitate to take the opportunity to suffer for the truth, and in so doing that we may look more and more to Heaven for our support. When we do this, however, it is important that we learn to do it in love and blessing our persecutors, following the example of St. Stephen, the first martyr.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.