Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is not easy to preach on Christmas Eve, and I’ll confess it is just as hard to preach on the day after Christmas. On Christmas Eve you struggle with challenges of the toddlers anxiously tugging at their parents’ arms. “Daddy, has the preacher finished yet?” I heard one father sigh and whisper, “Yep, he’s finished, but he hasn’t stopped talking.” There was the youngster who was impatiently waiting to tell his grandma that he had a part to play in the Christmas Program. And when she finally had the opportunity to ask, “What part?” he answered, “I was one of the three wise guys!” And there are always the usual critics on Christmas Eve. As Mark Twain once chided. “He charged nothing for his preaching. And it was worth it.”
The day after Christmas, however, offers its own challenges. Most often, you simply wonder whether anyone will be in church at all. As a missionary family in Lithuania, 20 years ago, our little family began the worship with just the four of us and the organist sitting in the organ loft. Ten minutes into the worship service, a curious tourist walked into the church. We were so excited about another worshiper, that I ran down, welcomed him, grabbed him by the arm and led him to the organ lofts, and then started the worship service all over again. The poor fellow didn’t know what hit him.
But there is another challenge as well. What should the theme of the sermon be? The Twelve Day of Christmas offer a host of possibilities from triumph through tragedy. Now, that may seem odd to you. The Christmas story of peace and good will announced at Jesus’ birth should be joyous, and yet the second day of Christmas, December 26th is traditionally remembered as the Feast of St. Stephen the Deacon, the first martyr of the church. It is the feast day we remember in the Christmas carol- “Good King Wenceslas.”
The Bohemian king, Wenceslas I, like St. Stephen the Deacon dedicated himself to serving the poor. On the Feast of St. Stephen, Wenceslas, who was actually only a duke, was braving the harsh, winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant who came into this royal courtyard. During the journey to the poor man’s home, the king’s page, who was accompanying him, was about to give up the struggle, but he was able to follow him Wenceslas by walking in the king’s footprints, step by step, through the deep snow. It is a wonderful metaphor for Christian discipleship. Tragically, Good Wenceslas was killed for his sense of Christian charity.
Often, the feast days of the saints were marked by the dates of their death or their martyrdom, but for St. Stephen the Deacon it was the day his relics were transferred within Jerusalem to the church of Hagia Sion in 415. Surprisingly, for an often, overlooked saint and martyr, there is more recorded in scripture concerning St. Stephen, than there is written for most of Jesus’ 12 disciples. The 7th chapter of the Acts of Apostles is almost completely dedicated to Stephen.
Stephen, whose names means crown, was easily identifiable in Biblical times by his Greek name, and therein lies the tension. There were two groups of Jews living in Jerusalem. There were the Hellenistic or Greek Jews who may have been born outside of Palestine, spoke Greek, and had adopted many of the Greek customs, and then there were the Hebraic Jews, those who were most likely born in Palestine, spoke mainly Aramaic, and were culturally Hebrews. There were always tensions between the two groups. People from both traditions were becoming Christian in equal numbers. As the church grew, however, it was discovered that the widows from the Hellenistic Jewish community were not being looked after as well as the widows of Hebraic Jewish community. There was blatant discrimination. When the matter was brought to the Apostles, they realized two things –one that the situation was not right, and two, that they were being pulled away from their primary task of proclaiming Jesus Christ as crucified and raised from the dead. To deal with the needs of the widows and the poor, they invited the church to select seven men who would be appointed as deacons. These men would look after the administration of the care of the poor, while the Apostles would devote themselves to the proclamation of the gospel.
Stephen had an advantage over the other deacons. He was also a great orator. This, however, created tension in the Hellenistic Jewish community. Stephen’s critics began to spread falsehoods concerning his teaching, and they raised charges of blasphemy against him. He was brought to the Sanhedrin, the highest legal council in Israel, to defend his words. In an extended sermon before the Council, he charged the leaders themselves with crucifying Jesus. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” The leaders were so outraged by this affront, that they rushed upon Stephen, and drove him outside the city to stone him for blasphemy. Stephen looked up to heaven and seeing Christ prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then while they were stoning him, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold their sin against them.” Thus, Stephen became the church’s first martyr which means witness. His death that day had a massive impact on the church. It launched a brutal persecution, and all the Christian community, except for the apostles, fled the city of Jerusalem.
Now, you may be wondering: So why is all this talk of martyrdom and death so important to the Twelve Days of Christmas? Think of St Stephen today, or the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem whom are remembered later in the week- those children who were killed by Herod in his pursuit of the Christ child. Doesn’t this diminish the song of the angels and the excitement of the shepherds?
What these witnesses do show and teach us is that Christian faith not just a pious worship of a baby born in Bethlehem. The story of Christ’s birth was not the romantic picture we imagine. There was no place for him. Christ entered a cruel world to save it. For God, so loved this world, that he sent his only-begotten son to do that work. He could have sent a messenger, or a holy writing, but instead he sent Jesus. That is the heart of the Christmas story. The Christian faith, you see, is not merely a nice set of moral beliefs, beautiful music and cherished traditions. The Christian faith is a life to be lived out – a life of service to others and to Christ. And it is not only a way of life, but it a way of death – a death that will be fulfilled in the new life with Jesus that awaits us in heaven.
My friends, this is our Christmas hope. It is a faith that inspires us to be witnesses to others- in our words and in our deeds. May the examples of St. Stephen and Good King Wenceslas inspire us this Christmas to live our lives not for ourselves, but for Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.