Stephen: The First Martyr
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Today, as you know very well, is December 26th but what you may not know is today is St. Stephen’s Day. Today is named after the first Christian martyr whose story is told in the sixth chapter of Acts.
A martyr is a person who dies for his or her belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus said that no greater love has this than a person lays down his life for his friends and Jesus himself gave his life on the cross.
Today is a trilogy of three important Christmas dates and stories: December 26th which commemorates St. Stephen and his martyrdom. December 27th which commemorates St. John the Apostle who was martyred on an island called Patmos. December 28th in which we commemorate the little children two years and under who were slaughtered by the evil King Herod. December 28th is called the Feast of the Holy Innocents. So, we have three consecutive days during the Christmas season, December 26th, 27th, and 28th during which we can easily preach on the theme of martyrdom.
It is important to connect both the death and birth of Jesus Christ together. It is important that we don’t separate them. There was a pastor in Jackson, Minnesota who had a wonderful illustration that we cannot separate the birth of Jesus from the death of Jesus. This pastor would take a manger which had been especially made for him by a carpenter. The carpenter had constructed the manger in such a way that the manger could be taken apart and reassembled into the shape of a cross. So, during the children’s sermon, the pastor would start with a wooden manger and by the time the children’s sermon was over, that manger had become a wooden cross. It was a powerful visible image that the cradle transformed into a cross. … We Christians know that we cannot separate the cradle from the cross. We cannot separate the merriment of Christmas from the martyrdom of the cross. We cannot separate December 25th from the rest of the year. The manger and martyrdom always go hand in hand.
So today I would like to briefly tell you the story of St. Stephen. The setting is the city of Jerusalem in about the year 30. The story of St. Stephen is found in the book of Acts, chapters six and seven. Stephen was chosen to be the head of the deacons. He was a very good man and the Bible also says that he was full of both the Holy Spirit and love. The early Christian community chose him to take care of the money. This money was to be used to take care of the widows, orphans and poor people. In every good story and in every normal human situation, a conflict arose, and a conflict arose around St. Stephen. A group of Jews were very jealous of Stephen and they plotted and instigated to have Stephen killed. They made false accusations against Stephen and they brought him to a trial in a Jewish court. Stephen finally stood up and made a long speech in his own defence and that speech goes on and on in chapter six. His speech is so long that it takes more than two pages in our Bible to hear the history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and the other Old Testament heroes. Stephen recited a history of Jewish people being disobedient to God. All of a sudden, in verse fifty-one of chapter seven, it all changes. All of a sudden this long, disarming speech gets nasty and Stephen says: “You stiff necked, inflexible people. You people are hard hearted, and your hearts are not soft to God. You people have wax in your ears, and you don’t hear the words of God. You people, your fathers persecuted the prophets, and now you betrayed and killed the Messiah. You people, you are the ones who killed Jesus.” Well, Stephen’s bluntness made everybody mad when he said, “You people.” He had said, “You Jesus killers. You prophet killers. You worship your religious traditions and interpretations more than God.” Well, to make a very long story short, these Jewish leaders took Stephen outside and threw him into a pit and started to throw stones at him. This was the normal way the Jews executed people: throw that person into a pit and throw rocks until that person was dead. As Stephen was dying, he moaned the words which have been remembered for two thousand years: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These were the same words that Jesus spoke from the cross when Jesus gave that powerful sermon from the cross and forgave his executors. Instead of hatred for his killers, Stephen was like Jesus and prayed for their forgiveness. Anther rock was thrown and then another and soon Stephen’s body was silent and lifeless, and Stephen became the first martyr of the church.
Christian martyrs believe passionately in Jesus Christ. These martyrs believe so deeply that they are willing to die for their faith in Christ and their consequent moral values. These martyrs don’t hide behind the safety of silence; they move from the safe “they” to the personal “you;” they speak God’s Word when and where it is not safe to speak the truth; and they are willing to die for the truth of Jesus Christ.
Martyrs inspire us. Martyrs encourage us. Martyrs lift us up so that we are more committed to Jesus Christ. You see, today is December 26th. But it could be December 27th or December 28th. All these date in the middle of the Christmas season are the same. These dates are all about martyrs, those men and women through the centuries and today who believe in Jesus Christ, who do not remain silent but pay the price for speaking openly. These martyrs remind me that we can never separate the cradle for the cross. The wood of the cradle becomes transformed into the wood of the cross. Even in this festive Christmas season and the beginning of the Jesus Story, we cannot forget the end of the Jesus Story about the cross and crucifixion. Amen.
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