26 December 2018

Abiding with Christ in the Most Holy Place

So much for the white Christmas you were dreaming of.  Not only have we had no real snow to speak of, but the Church has already set aside her white paraments more quickly than the world takes down its winter evergreens.  Within a day of the Lord’s holy Nativity His chancel is stained red with the blood of His martyrs, anticipating the blood-stained banner of His own Holy Cross.

So it is that on this day, the 26th of December, the Second Day of the ChristMass, we remember with sober thanksgiving the Lord’s faithful servant, the deacon St. Stephen, who was martyred for his faith and confession, put to death as a witness to the Gospel of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

As you know, he was one of the seven deacons selected to serve the Hellenistic members of the early Church in Jerusalem.  Perhaps it would be clearer in our circles to describe him as an assistant pastor to the Apostles, chosen and appointed to care for the Greek-speaking parishes of the city.  In any case, St. Stephen was a man well-attested by the Lord and by the entire congregation of the Church.  He was a man of faith and great wisdom, full of the Holy Spirit.  And he did what he was called and ordained to do: He preached the Gospel and administered the Holy Sacraments of Christ.

But the Church remembers St. Stephen on this day, and she gives thanks to God for this faithful servant and holy martyr, not so much for the sake of a job well done “once upon a time,” but for the sake of the Word of Christ which he continues to proclaim by his preaching and example in the record of the Holy Scriptures, such as we have heard this evening from the Acts of the Apostles.

As St. Stephen thus preaches the Law, forcibly and forthrightly — not only then and there, but here and now to you — take it seriously as a warning against your own idolatry and hardness of heart, and heed what he says as a call to repentance and to the new life which is yours in Christ Jesus.

Do not attempt to hide behind your church membership or your good attendance, though belonging to the church and coming to church are certainly appropriate, good and right, and fundamental to the Christian faith and life.  You do not justify or save yourself by such good works, though you do confirm your unbelief and condemn yourself when you excuse and separate yourself from the household and family of God, to which you belong by His grace alone, through faith in His Gospel, notwithstanding any of your own works and efforts (be they good, bad, or otherwise).

Do not claim or cling to even the Holy Sacraments as works of man, as though the mere fact of going through the motions were sufficient to rescue and redeem your life from the judgment.  It is rather in repentance and faith that you receive and benefit from the Holy Sacraments as the works of God and the gifts of His grace, whereby He delivers you from sin, death, and the devil.  And that difference in perspective makes all the difference in this world and the next.  For it is not by any of your own works or any self-righteousness of yours that you are saved, but only by Christ Jesus, the Righteous One, who was crucified for your transgressions and raised for your justification.

Take it to heart, therefore, and trust and believe St. Stephen’s beautiful proclamation of the Gospel, especially in his example of mercy for those who were stoning him to death.  As the Lord Jesus had prayed that His Father would forgive those who nailed Him to the Cross, so does St. Stephen pray that God would not hold the sin of his persecutors against them.  Such a word of grace is wrought by the Word and Spirit of God, conveying the Holy Absolution of Christ to those who are cut to the quick and convicted by the Law.  It is forgiveness for you, also, chief of sinners though you be.

St. Stephen is, himself, an example of one who has received the Lord’s mercy and help, who lives by the fear of the Lord and by faith in His Gospel.  He surely does not preach with such clarity and boldness by any instinctive reason or strength of his own, nor with a detached, clinical objectivity, but as a man who has been called to repentance and faith by the preaching of the Word of Christ.

So did St. Stephen remain steadfast in his faith, and in his confession and preaching of Christ Jesus, even to the point of death.  He laid down his life without bitterness or guile, but with charity in his heart and on his lips for those who persecuted him, because he had already died and risen with the Lord in his Holy Baptism.  By that Sacrament, and by the daily repentance to which that Sacrament called him, he was conformed to the Image of Christ, his crucified and risen Savior.

St. Stephen died in the sure and certain confidence of Christ, animated by the compassion of Christ for those who sinned against him.  And in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, his merciful and great High Priest, he has received the Crown of everlasting Life, which shall never be taken from him.

As the Christian Church has understood and confessed concerning the many other martyrs who followed him, St. Stephen was strengthened and sustained by his Lord Jesus, not only in his faith and life as a disciple and deacon, but in his faithful death.  Not by human might and power, but by the Word and Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, he prevailed in the face of persecution, as he was given to see the Light of the Revelation of the Glory of God in the face of the incarnate Son.

Whether with the eyes of his flesh or simply with the eyes of faith, St. Stephen was given a vision of the Truth which remains forever, though it is normally hidden (for now) under the shadow of the Cross.  He was given to see his risen and ascended Lord, standing at the right hand of God where He ever lives to make intercession for His whole Church of all times and in all places.

The One who was crucified for your sins and raised from the dead as your Righteousness, He has entered into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens, for your Salvation.  There He abides for you in the presence of His God and Father, as your Anchor behind the Veil, even as He lives and abides within His Church on earth in the preaching and ministry of His Holy Gospel, that you might live and abide with God in Him, in His Body, the new and better Temple, now and forever.  His Body is your Home, already now by faith, and so shall it be ever after.

The heavens have been opened to you, as surely as they were opened to St. Stephen, never to be closed again, by the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, by His innocent suffering and death upon the Cross, by the shedding of His Blood, and by His Resurrection from the dead.

Therefore, do not shut your ears to the Law of the Lord as it is preached to you, though it painfully convicts you of your sins and calls you daily to repentance.  To harden your heart to that Word and preaching is also to reject and forego the grace and mercy and forgiveness of the Holy Gospel, which is preached to you in the patience and compassion of your Savior, Jesus Christ.  It is not for the condemnation you deserve, but for the great Salvation of His Gospel, that you are called by the preaching and Baptism of repentance to the Life everlasting which is by faith in Christ alone.

So, then, with St. Stephen receive and find your life entirely in the Lord Jesus Christ; and so boldly carry out your vocations and serve your stations in this body and life on earth, knowing with the certainty of faith that there is nothing anyone can do to rob you of the life that is yours in Him.

To be sure, there are those who may hurt or even kill your mortal body.  Many others are even more likely to hurt your feelings and to make your present circumstances difficult and hard to bear.  The stones that cut into Stephen’s body and spilled his blood, which shattered his bones and bruised his muscles, they were surely not painless or pleasant.  But they did not rob him of his life with God in Christ, which is immortal, imperishable, and glorious, as Christ Himself now reigns in glory forever.  So also are you preserved in safety, peace, and Sabbath rest within the Body of Christ Jesus, no matter what may happen to your poor body here and now.

Indeed, as your mortal body of flesh and blood is fed with His Body and Blood, so shall your body also be raised in glory, no matter how it may be punished and put to death in this brief span of time.

You have this boldness and confidence to live your life and to face your death, not from within yourself, but from the Lord who comforts you and strengthens you with His Word and Spirit in the Gospel.  He does not condemn you but forgives you, because Christ has given Himself for you.  And as God Himself is with you and for you, in this life and for the life to come, there is nothing and no one in heaven or on earth who shall ever be permitted or able to prevail against you.

So it is that Christ the Lord, the Son of God and Mary’s Son — who has entered the Most Holy Place in His crucified and risen Body, and who ever lives to intercede for you with His prayers and with His precious Blood in the presence of His God and Father — He also continues to call and ordain men, like St. Stephen, to care for His Bride, the Church.  These men He endows with His Spirit and His Wisdom, according to their Office, to serve the Tables of His Church on earth with the Word of His Gospel and with His Body and Blood, given and poured out for the many, for the forgiveness of sins in His Name, for the bestowal and preservation of life and salvation with God.

So does He provide all that is needed for body and soul, for Jews and Greeks alike, for widows and orphans in distress, and for all men and women, young and old, married or unmarried, rich and poor without distinction; for deacons and martyrs, pastors and people; and so also for you and for your children, and for your children’s children, from generation to generation, and even forevermore.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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