December 26th, 2021 In the Name...
After the holidays, a teacher asked her students what they had done on Christmas Day. Some told about opening their presents or seeing visiting relatives. But, one little boy, whose father ran a toy shop, said that after breakfast, his family went down to the shop, looked at the empty shelves, and sang “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
Well, the angels have sung and the shepherds have gone back to their fields. People young and old have met in churches all over the world to hear the story of Mary's son, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. In many households, the kids and grandkids were home for the first time in months, and there were presents, parties and sharing of fond memories.
And this, many would say, is what Christmas should be all about - warm feelings, gathered families, the values of home and hearth. Christmas should comfort us, bring us together in cherished traditions, and evoke the words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us every one."
It is hard, therefore, to imagine a more jarring contrast than the one between the mood set by cozy Christmas comforts and today's Scriptures. But, it is not by accident that this is so. As difficult as they may sound, these are exactly the Scriptures we need to hear most this Christmas week.
They were quite something weren't they? Jeremiah's predictions of doom, Stephen's death, and Jesus lamenting the murders of the prophets. Blood, desolation, killing, disaster. Not quite the X-mas atmos, eh? They are, however, true to life and they remind us of something we may have forgotten while listening to the good old Christmas story. The coming of baby Jesus started a war, or rather, it opened a new front in a very old one, the cosmic war between good and evil, and it landed us right in the middle.
Stephen, whose feast we celebrate today, one of the first deacons, was also the first Christian martyr - the first person killed for the crime of being a Christian. Not quite the sort of "first" any of us might want to achieve, but a distinction all the same. He was quite an amazing fellow, was Stephen. The kinds of things Scripture tells us about him are that he was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," that he was "full of grace and power" and "did great wonders and signs among the people." Even to the council, who put him on trial, Stephen's face, we are told, had a strangely angelic look.
But, it's funny; you know, not everybody is happy to see an angel. Folks who don't want too much Heaven around them aren't likely to welcome its representatives. So, Stephen was killed, not in spite of, but, because of, his holiness. Thus, the vestments we wear today are no longer the cheerful festive white of yesterday. They are red, the colour of blood, and, shrouding the manger scene, we drape a scarlet cloth.
Much is always made in the media at this time of year of the fact that nobody really knows what time of year Jesus was born. Well, that's true, and by the same token, nobody really knows what time of year St. Stephen was martyred, either. It seems bizarre, then, of the church to have juxtaposed these two commemorations until you consider that without people like Stephen, the event of Christmas is meaningless - without people like Stephen, the event of Christmas is meaningless. That is, unless you have witnesses, people who speak up for the life, work, death, and resurrection of the adult Christ, then the baby Jesus is not very relevant.
By the way, the Greek word for "witness" is "marturion" - martyr - and the dates of both Christmas and St. Stephen's Day were set back in the 4th Century. Even then, you see, there was felt the need to make this connection. Because it's possible to go through all the traditional holiday seasonal motions and not be reminded much of Christ.
A commentator noted that if, at a typical Christmas office party, you announced that you had acquaintances connected with prominent crime figures or even terrorists, you'd quickly be the centre of a fascinated, attentive circle of eager listeners. But, if you announced that you believed the words of the Christmas carols and that Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life, you'd just as quickly find yourself alone.
A good thing about living in America is that if you witness for Christ and nobody wants to listen all you'll get is a stony silence and not the stones that Stephen got. But, it is a fact that anywhere, anytime, to speak up for the real Jesus you have to make a few sacrifices and you will be, at the very least, the butt of kidding and condescension.
That's because there are always consequences to momentous decisions and Christian witness is one of the most momentous we can make. Now most consequences of Christian witness are very positive. When we decide to take Jesus seriously and make him the centre of our life we discover meaning and purpose for ourselves; we know the strength and joy which comes from being part of a community of faith which transcends distance, age, race, and even time itself; and we become energized to do good with a power from beyond this world.
But, like Stephen, we also encounter some resistance, some opposition, and not always from others. We can resist ourselves in any number of ways. We get bored, so we stop praying. We feel overcommitted so we so we think of something a pastor or church member did to offend us so we can justify staying home. Let's face it; the first person to whom we need to witness is ourselves.
We've probably all been there at some time or another. That's why we have days like today to think about it. To recognize not just the glory of the Word of God, but, also the cost of letting it speak to and through us, and, having seen both the glory and the cost, to say "yes" again to God.
Christmas draws us to the manger, the beginning, and teaches us to adore the infant Jesus. But, we cannot let our faith stop at the manger any more than we can freeze a baby in time so that it will be always be little and cuddly. Babies grow up. That's how they realize their human potential. And our faith must grow up for us to realize our spiritual potential.
So, if St. Stephen's day jars us a bit, then, good. That's good. Because yesterday's Christ child is now an adult and he invites us to take him seriously, as seriously as Stephen did - no matter what the cost.
In the Name...