The Angels Have Sung…, St. Stephen – 1996
December 26, 1996
The angels have sung, the shepherds have gathered. People young and old met in churches all over the world on Christmas Eve to hear again the touching story of Mary’s firstborn Son, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. In many households, the kids were home for the first time in months. Maybe even the grandchildren came to the service. And back at the house there might have been mulled cider, presents, the star on top of the tree.
This, many would say, is what Christianity should be all about: warm feelings, gathered families, the values of home and hearth. Christianity should comfort us, bring us together in cherished traditions. “God bless us every one.”
It is no wonder that people who want Christianity to be like that are so rarely in church on St. Stephen’s Day. It is hard to imagine a more jarring contrast than the one between the mood set by cozy Christmas comforts and the mood set by today’s Scriptures. Unless it is perhaps the contrast between that “Christmasy” mood and the readings for tomorrow, the commemoration of King Herod’s mass slaughter of Israel’s innocent babies.
But it is not by accident that the Church invites us to set aside time to observe occasions like these just now. These readings were not chosen for us because someone failed to pay attention to the season of comfort and joy. As difficult as they may sound, we need to hear these Scriptures this week.
Jeremiah tries to bring the Word of the Lord to the religious leaders of his day, and they respond with rage.
Stephen serves God with grace and power, and is stoned to death on a trumped-up charge.
Jesus, as his own crucifixion draws near, laments the fate of those who are too hard-hearted to receive God’s messengers.
Listen even to the language of the readings: Blood, desolation, killing, disaster. Yes, the Book of Common Prayer is perfectly aware that all this is anything but “Christmasy.”
It is, however, true to life. And it reflects something we might miss if we only listened to Christmas stories: the very real conflict introduced into human lives by the coming of the Word of God.
Stephen, one of the first Christian vocational deacons, was also the first Christian martyr. He was not executed for being obnoxious or criminal. 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 had a strangely angelic look.
But you know, not everyone reacts to angels positively. If we don’t want heaven around, we’re not likely to welcome its inhabitants. They killed Stephen not just in spite of, but because of his holiness. After all, if we’re trying to push God away, the things that remind us of God have got to go too.
Now, these days, you could almost go through all the Christmas motions without being reminded much of God. So let’s not ask ourselves about Christmas; let’s look at other places in our lives. What do we do when the Word of God turns up with something we don’t want to hear? There are so many ways to resist, and they don’t all require picking up stones like Stephen’s accusers did.
How do we push the Word of God away? We put off dealing with the issue, we stop praying, we focus on something we think the Church did wrong so we can stay home. We hold on to the status quo. All of this is resistance, and most of us have been there in our life with God at some time or another.
After all, if you are following Jesus, you must know what it is to experience opposition. There are always consequences to that momentous a decision. Now many of the things that happen when you decide to take Jesus seriously are, indeed, very positive: you find new meaning in life, you discover a community that crosses boundaries of age and race and gender, you are energized by the power of the Spirit.
But some of the consequences of being a follower of Christ are not at all pleasant. Now, if you live in America, you may never be martyred like Stephen — although believers are not so secure in that guarantee in some other parts of our world. But you will have to make sacrifices, you will have to set limits, and you will be kidded or condescended to.
You will find, as did the Biblical people in our readings today, that when people bear witness to the Word of God, a reaction comes.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft has written: “If you confess at a fashionable cocktail party that you are plotting to overthrow the government, or that you are a PLO terrorist, …or that you molest porcupines or bite bats’ heads off, you will soon attract a buzzing, fascinated, sympathetic circle of listeners. But if you confess that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, you will find yourself suddenly alone, with a distinct chill in the air.” (“Fundamentals of the Faith,” 1988, page 74).
Don’t you think the same thing will happen if you confess that you really believe the Christmas carols? If you start serving others for Christ as Stephen did? If you join the prophet Jeremiah in speaking out against the established order? If you let into your heart God’s yearning to gather all people into one, so clear in Jesus’ lament from today’s Gospel?
If you do those things, there will be consequences. The Church knows this, and gives us days like today to think about it. To recognize not just the glory of the Word of God, but the cost of letting it speak. And, having seen both that glory and that cost, to say yes again to God and God’s Word.
Thank God we have Christmas, to draw us to the manger and teach 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 always be cute and harmless.
So if St. Stephen’s Day jars us a little bit, that’s OK. Because yesterday’s Christ child, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and cradled in his mother’s arms, is now an adult. He is not cute, and he is definitely not harmless. He invites us today to take him as seriously as Stephen did — no matter what the consequences. Amen.
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