St Stephen (Acts 6–7; Mt 23)

Photo by Ýlona María Rybka on Unsplash

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“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

᛭ INI ᛭

Good King Wenceslas look out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

This Christmas Carol and our actually celebrating St. Stephen clearly point out that the way the world looks at Christmas and the way the Christian Church celebrates Christmas are radically different. It’s not even close. Completely different universes.

The world has mostly put away the holidays. If not today, then certainly by tomorrow. Very quickly in the rear view mirror. It turns the 12 days of Christmas into a build up to Christmas rather than 12 days that start on Christmas and end January 5th. 12 Days to rejoice in the birth of the Savior. And this carol points us to another way things get all messed up.

The carol continues through the story of King Wenceslas and his servant who go to bless that poor man with food and drink and wood for his fire. The carol concludes “Therefore Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.” Loving your neighbor is the daily gift of Christians. To reorient the purpose Christmas around giving and charity, is to change the whole thing, and celebrating St. Stephen’s Day actually reorients to the true reason for the season.

First, St. Stephen brings into stark clarity the end goal of our Christian faith. The end is eternal life with Christ. Christ who didn’t stay a baby in Bethlehem. It’s the Christ who is true God, who rules over the universe. The same Christ is also true man, who grew up, lived in our place, died, rose, and ascended into heaven. St. Stephen and the Shepherds saw the same Jesus. “The angel and a whole company of the heavenly host” proclaimed and praised the birth of that Jesus to the shepherds, and those same “angels, archangels, [along with] all the company of heaven” now praise that same Jesus with us today.

Second, Jesus came to gather us to Himself. That’s what He promises in Matthew: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” This gathering is also seen throughout the readings that tell us about the infant and young Jesus. The shepherds gather to Him. There’s Simeon, and there’s Anna. There’s the Magi. There’s all the religious leaders around the boy Jesus in the temple.

Jesus gathers Stephen to Himself, too. Not just in faith, but into eternal life. Saul would also be gathered to Him, just like the cloaks gathered around Saul. But as far as Stephen and all of us are concerned: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.” He is able to bring them to Himself, to raise them on the Last Day, “by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.” That power is on display: Jesus is “standing at the right hand of God.”

And this leads us to our third point, and this is by far the greatest gift of our readings today. WHEREVER JESUS GOES HE GOES FOR YOU. He goes to Mary’s womb and the manger for you. He was conceived and born as a real human child to redeem us as His own no matter our age and size. This is the true meaning of Christmas! “For what He has not assumed He has not healed; but what is united to His Divinity is also saved,” as the Theologian Gregory of Nazianzus put it.

He goes to His cross and death for you. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver [from slavery those who were subject to fear of death their whole life,]” as Hebrews 2 puts it. He goes to His grave for you, goes through resurrection for you, and now He lives and reigns FOR YOU, “all authority in heaven and earth His” FOR YOU.

Because WHEREVER JESUS GOES HE GOES FOR YOU, that means wherever He is He is there FOR YOU, for your good. So, where is He? Not just heaven—exactly where He’s promised to be. As it was with the Lord’s word through the angel: “Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” So it is now. The Lord Jesus keeps His promises. He kept His baptismal promise to Stephen, and He keeps it with you, too. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…and behold, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” So it was for Greek Stephen. So it is for you, too. Today and always. You’re baptized, and so the Lord is with you. This is also the promise of His Word, preached, read, and taught, and so He also adds, “Teaching them to cherish all that I have commanded you.”

But that promise is here again today. His “I am with you” promise. His “I would gather you” promise. Here we gather around Him. “I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” And so we see Him as He gathers us around His table to eat and drink the Supper of His body and blood, so that we would have the forgiveness of sins, strength to meet the days of our pilgrimage on earth. Communion with Christ is a foretaste of the eternal banquet. As we enjoy a foretaste, the angels, archangels, and everyone else in heaven—all the company of heaven—gather with us. ”Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We celebrate differently than the world. Keep on celebrating Christmas. Today’s only the second day! St. Stephen’s day. We celebrate with Stephen today. With the Apostle John—His day’s tomorrow. We celebrate with the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem—their day is Tuesday. We celebrate with Jehoiada and Zechariah, with Saul, with Simeon and Anna. With Matthew. With all the company of heaven. Angels and archangels. We celebrate the real reason for the season: WHEREVER JESUS GOES HE GOES FOR YOU.

It’s not about our giving to others, or our giving for Jesus, or our giving to Jesus. It’s all about Jesus giving and going for you. WHEREVER JESUS GOES HE GOES FOR YOU. To womb, to manger, to cross, to grave, to resurrection, to the right hand of God. And now He is exactly where He’s promised to be for you, for your good. From Font to your empty grave, from Sermon to His Supper, from the Holy Bible to Holy Absolution—in many and various Jesus is there for you, for your forgiveness and eternal life, “just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Merry Christmas!

᛭ INI ᛭

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