26 December 2012
The Feast of St. Stephen, the Martyr
There are those whom you have hurt, and those whom you have failed to help. Whether you have been the one throwing stones at your neighbor, or quietly standing aside while others stone him.
You are not so complacent about your own body and life; nor are you so patient with those who are throwing things at you. Instead, you are quick to retaliate, and more ready to call down vengeance than forgiveness on those who trespass against you.
To withhold forgiveness from your brother or sister; to view your neighbor as your enemy; to hurt instead of help; to speak words of accusation, and to refrain from speaking words of defense, is to call down the wrath and judgment of God — not only upon your neighbor, but upon yourself. By the measure and criteria with which you judge your neighbor, you shall be measured; you shall be judged; you shall be weighed and found wanting.
The Lord sends His messengers to you, to call you to repentance, to bring you back to Himself in love. For His heart’s desire is to gather you unto Himself, to nestle you under His wings in peace.
It is a gentle life to which He calls you, but His preaching of repentance is not a gentle word to get you there. It is, rather, kill or be killed, because of your sin, your unbelief, and your idolatry. You cannot be wrenched away from your false gods without suffering violence at the deepest level of your life.
Either you are put to death by the preaching of repentance; or you put the preacher to death, either with hostility or apathy, with active persecution or passive rejection. There is no middle ground.
There is a terrible irony in all of this: Unless you die, you cannot live; and if you live as you want, you bring death upon death upon yourself. Either way, you die; but without God, you do not live.
The Lord desires to gather you to Himself and give you life with Himself forever, but in your native unbelief, you are unwilling and unable to come to Him. You’re afraid of His Word, which threatens to undo you, and so you resort to fight or flight.
You retaliate, or you retreat, but you do not repent.
Further and further you fall into death and self-destruction, despair and other great shame and vice, unless the Lord Himself shall call you to life and light and salvation by His Word of the Gospel.
His Gospel is the Word of His Cross. For you come into Life in the presence of God only by the way and the means of His own death — and, in so far as you are His, you share His Cross and suffering! You are not wrong to suppose that He is out to kill you. You must die to live.
Where, then, is there any safety or protection for you anywhere? When you feel safe and secure in the world — when you make your nest in its comforts — you are lost in your own perdition and in grave danger of eternal death. But there is no other house in which you can live, and no place to lay your head, except for the desolate Temple of the Lord and upon the harsh wood of His Cross.
It surely seems as though everything were lost and hopeless!
The Lord has given exceedingly great and precious promises to those who trust in Him, yet He brings these very things to pass through the narrow passage of suffering and death. There is never any life or hope or peace for you here on earth, but that which is under the Cross.
You love the Lord — and people hate you for it.
You serve the Lord — and the world around you either does not care at all and pays you no heed, or else it despises and ridicules your faithful service.
You serve and care for your neighbor — and he takes it for granted, or spits in your face.
You are a child of God. You believe and trust in Him. And you belong to Him. And yet, for that, you are hounded day and night by the lying and murdering devil, who hates you; and there is this warfare raging in your own sinful flesh, a daily battle of temptation. You are prone to sin and vice, on the one hand, and to hopeless despair on the other hand. In desperation, you may even lash out at your neighbor, whether he is friend or foe, gnashing your teeth in fear and anger and frustration.
The gravest trial and temptation of all is that you would attempt to take and seize for yourself what can only be received by grace through faith in the Cross. For only the Lord can give you life, and His life for you is always given by and with the Cross — which threatens to destroy you!
This conundrum is one you cannot escape. Repent of your efforts to fight or to flee. By your own wisdom, reason, and strength, you cannot endure the battle, and you shall not survive it. It is kill or be killed. Either murder and be executed, or be martyred and put to death. You die either way.
But now, beloved of the Lord, lift up your head and behold your Redeemer, the crucified One, who is at hand. He is here with you, even as He is at the right hand of God. He is here to help and defend you — to die and rise with you — and to bring you with Himself to the Father in heaven.
It is true that He is here with His Cross, which is both death and life for you. But you die, then, with Him, so that your resurrection and your life are also with Him, and they are forever.
Everything is determined and defined for you by His Cross. Hear that again: It is His Cross. You cannot understand or celebrate Christmas, nor any of the Christian faith and life at all, apart from that Cross and Crucifixion of the Christ.
Every stone that you have thrown, He has borne in His own flesh and bone, in His own Body. Every sin that you have committed or complied with, He has taken it upon Himself. So also every stone that is thrown at you; every bruise and unkind word; every trespass against you — He has suffered it; He has undergone it. And over all of this, He has prevailed with steadfast love.
He has not faltered. He has not failed. He has done it all willingly, for you and for your neighbor, for your loved one and your enemy, for the pious and faithful, and for the lazy and impious bum.
For all who suffer the curse of sin and death, He has suffered the Cross.
He has suffered the Cross, and by His death He has broken death, because He has paid for every sin with His own life. The sentence has been fully served. The death penalty has been carried out.
Here is the vengeance of the Lord! Here is His revenge for every wrong!
The Judge has thus spoken. The Executioner has been satisfied. His work here is done, and every other punishment has been stayed. You are reprieved. His Resurrection is your emancipation proclamation. It is the Lord’s own Word of Absolution for you and for the world.
You are forgiven, and you are set free to live.
You are free also to forgive those who sin against you, who hate you and hurt you. The Cross of Christ has borne their hate and hurt. It is not only against you, but He has taken it against Himself, and yet He does not hold it against them. He has obtained forgiveness for them and their wrongs by the shedding of His holy and precious Blood. You also: forgive them.
Do not despise the costly gift of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, by refusing to forgive. Pray instead for repentance and faith, for yourself and for your enemies, for your family, friends, and foes alike.
Instead of seeking vengeance — do not hurt or harm your neighbor, neither his body, his home and family, his property and honor, nor anything that is your neighbor’s — but you be put to death by contrition and repentance for your sins. Return to your Baptism, in which you die and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Emerging from those waters, the heavens are opened to you, and you behold the grace and glory of your Savior, the dear Lord Jesus Christ.
Seeing Him in His Gospel, who is at the right hand of the Father, who always lives to intercede for you with His own Blood, know that death cannot harm you. Where Jesus is, there you are, and there you shall be. The sting and death of your sin has been undone and shall be lifted at the last. And those who hurt your body cannot destroy you forever; they cannot rob you of your life.
Here is the throne of God. Here is the gate of heaven. Here are the fruits of His Cross and Passion. Taste and see that He is good, that His mercy endures forever. Ponder His glory: it is forgiveness. It is the gift of life: for you. He does not hold your sins against you, but receives you to Himself in love, in peace and joy, in gentleness and kindness, even as He has granted His Spirit unto you.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen