St. Stephen was content and at peace, even as he was being put to death, because he had fixed his hope on the living God. He wasn’t searching for the meaning of life, because it had already been made known to him by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. He wasn’t confused about his place and purpose in the world, because he knew himself to be a child of God in Christ. And he wasn’t nervous or afraid about tomorrow or the next day, because he lived by the grace of his Father.
That explains the striking contrast that we find in the story of Stephen: On the one hand, his fierce and forthright preaching of the Law, and on the other hand, his gracious prayer of forgiveness for those to whom he preached as they were stoning him to death. He demonstrates the bold courage that characterizes the martyrs of our Lord Jesus, but also the charity and compassion of Christ. He has the strong confidence and passionate conviction, not of harsh anger, but of faith in the Gospel.
In particular, Stephen knew and trusted that he had a dwelling place with God, because God had made His dwelling place with Stephen in Christ Jesus. The holy martyr knew that he would be with Christ, with the Father in heaven, because the same Lord Jesus Christ was with him in his suffering and death. He knew that heaven was his home, and that heaven had been fully opened to him by the Cross and Resurrection of the incarnate Son of God.
The Lord has just as surely done the same for you, as well. He has become flesh for you. He has given Himself for you, even unto death. He has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven for you, also. And yet, He also remains with you here in His Church on earth, in His own flesh and blood, with His Word and Holy Spirit. Behold, the Tabernacle of God is with you here.
What Moses was shown and what he saw on the Mountain was a Type of that incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ, and the tabernacle that Moses made by God’s direction was according to that holy pattern. It served the people of God in the wilderness as a means of grace, a proclamation of the Gospel, because it pointed to what has now been accomplished and fulfilled in the Son of Mary.
He is the new and better Joshua, who brings God’s people out of the wilderness into the good land that He has promised, defeating all their enemies before them. And He is the new and better David — the Son of David who is greater than Solomon — the true King of Peace, and holy Wisdom — whose own Body is raised and established as the true Temple of God. That is to say, not a house for God to live in, as though He were otherwise homeless, but a House in which you live with God.
In Him, by your Baptism into Him, His God and Father is your God and Father. You bear His own Name and Holy Spirit, because you are born of Him, and you have your life in Him, and you are a member of His family. Your house and home are with Him, safe and secure, now and forever.
For Christ Jesus, the beloved Son, has become your Brother in the flesh and your Savior from sin, death, the devil, and hell. He is your merciful and great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. His sacrificial death is your Atonement and Redemption. His Resurrection from the dead is your reconciliation and your righteousness with God. And His Ascension to the Right Hand of the Father is your own happy homecoming, your peaceful resting place, and your salvation forever.
That is why you can be strong and courageous, like St. Stephen, in doing your job and saying forthrightly what is good and right and true, even when it is painfully difficult, woefully unpopular, and poorly received. You fear the Lord, because He alone is your true God and Father, but you need not be afraid of any mortal man. No one can rob you of your life with God in Christ.
Along with such courage and confidence, you are also able to be compassionate, kind, and patient, even when you deal with hurtful and unpleasant people. To be sure, your kind compassion may require the preaching of the Law and the call to repentance, according to your office and vocation. But such a preaching of repentance — as when the Lord persisted in sending the Prophets to His people of old, and in the case of St. Stephen — is neither vindictive nor mean-spirited, but aims at warning the neighbor of danger and calling him back to the Lord.
So, too, when you must warn your neighbor, do so in love — truly to rescue him from danger and lead him to life with yourself — and neither out of anger, defensiveness, fear, or vengeance.
After all, you know that you are safe. Your life is secure. You need not guard yourself so fiercely. God has opened His heaven to you in Christ Jesus, as fully and freely as He did for St. Stephen. Indeed, through your Holy Baptism you have already died with Christ and entered into life with God in Him. That is how sure and certain your life and your eternal future are and ever shall be.
Dear child of God, you know that for Jesus’ sake your true Father in heaven loves you; that He is pleased with you and delights in you, regardless of what anyone else may think or say or do. And you know that all of this is solely by His grace and mercy; that He is compassionate, kind, and patient with you — long-suffering, slow to anger, and full of nothing but steadfast love for you.
Therefore, as Christ has given Himself for you and given you His own life by the Gospel, and as He has become your Righteousness and your Salvation, so is He your Strength and your Song — your confidence and courage, on the one hand; your charity and compassion, on the other hand.
So it is that you become like Him. Which is also to become like St. Stephen, who was recreated in the Image of God, after the pattern of Christ Jesus, in his own Holy Baptism.
Therefore, you also live, you suffer, and you die, as Stephen did — like Christ — by grace through faith in the Gospel. That is the only power and poise that you will ever need. And it is yours!
You have the tabernacle of the testimony here in the wilderness, that is to say, the preaching of the Gospel. That is the true wisdom and eloquence of the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, calling you daily to repentance, unto faith, through the forgiveness of all your sins. It cleanses you and clothes you with the Blood of the Lamb; as in your Holy Baptism, so also in the Holy Communion.
The saints who have gone before you, especially the holy martyrs like St. Stephen, are another kind of “tabernacle of the testimony,” because they have lived in their own flesh and followed by faith the same pattern they were shown in Christ Jesus. And you, in turn, follow the same pattern as a living testimony to your neighbor, so that your neighbor may then see the Son of Man in you.
Be Thou faithful unto death, and He will give you the crown of life. That was His sure and certain promise to St. Stephen (whose name means “crown”), and His promise to you is no less sure and certain. Indeed, it is already a “bird in the hand,” because your dear Lord Jesus Christ, the very King of heaven, has already crowned you with His own royalty and righteousness by the Gospel. He has crowned you with Himself and with His Glory, having made of you His royal Bride, His Queen. And as He spoke by the Prophet Isaiah, you are a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord.
You are another Stephen, by virtue of your Baptism into the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And as He did for that holy Stephen, for whom we give thanks and praise to God this day, so does He also bring you through the waters of your Baptism into the heaven He has opened to you by His own Baptism. He will bring you through death and the grave into the life everlasting, as even now He brings you through the great tribulation into His own Resurrection and Ascension.
Already you live with Him in God, by grace through faith in His Gospel, because God tabernacles here with you in Him, that is, in His flesh and blood and in His Word of forgiveness. For that dear Lord Jesus binds together in Himself, forever, both God and Man, both heaven and earth.
Here at His Altar — and so also from this Altar into the world in your calling and station, even through the wilderness — you live before the throne of God; you live and abide in His Temple.
Your sins are all forgiven. Forgive those, also, who trespass against you. For you are righteous and holy before God and precious in His sight for the sake of Jesus Christ. As He has risen from the dead, and lives and reigns forever at the Right Hand of His God and Father, so shall you not die, but live. Does He not feed you with His Body and pour out His Blood for you to drink? Yes, He does. He sees to it that neither His Word nor His Table are neglected in this place. Therefore, you lack nothing, nor shall you ever lack for what you need. Your sure and certain hope for life and salvation are here for you in the forgiveness of your sins and in the Meat and Drink of Christ.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.