A sermon for Christmas 1
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147
and Acts 6 & 7
When it appeared the time between writing a Christmas sermon, and the 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon was rapidly collapsing, I thought I’d just borrow the core from a previous year’s sermon. It turns out I haven’t preached the 1st Sunday after Christmas very much. Most often, I had taken the week after Christmas off, as we visited one family or another. Okay, I’ll borrow the core of a previous St Stephen’s sermon. There was one, and you have heard it. So, here we are.
Once again, after reading, and prayerful cogitation, not to be confused with a nap, the divine muse offered an idea. Acts refers to Stephen as full of grace and power (Acts 6:5). The prologue to John describes a man sent from God, who is not the light but testifies to the light (John 1:6). And to those who receive and believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God (John 1:12). And a bit later: we have received grace upon grace, … grace and truth (John 1:16, 17). A life, known for an eloquent defense of the Gospel, grace, and power, resonates with John’s description of one who testifies to the light being full of grace and truth. Stephen’s life resonates with John.
You know something of Stephen; at least that his last name “is not Spielberg or King” (Johnson). You know there was a dispute in the early church about the fair distribution of food and that Stephen is among the seven chosen to resolve the problem. You know Stephen is martyred. You may not know why.
In addition to waiting tables, Stephen is a powerful preacher, healer, etc. He gets into a conflict with a Synagogue of Freedmen; Jews who have returned from Roman slavery in the dispersed Jewish community. They are unable to overcome his teaching and preaching, about how to be faithful toward God (Gavenat and Petersen). They didn’t like it, so they charge him with blasphemy and drag him before the council. Sound familiar?
In defending himself, Stephen recites a salvation history, not unlike what we hear in the Great Easter Vigil (Ryan). He talks about the promise God makes Abraham and the covenant that follows. He covers Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. Then moves on to Moses, and the gift freedom given the Hebrews. And then their rebellion, including the whole golden calf incident; and drawing from Amos, a lesser known offense, of worshiping Moloch and Remphan (Amos 5:25-27) (Copeland Acts 7). He finishes with a history of the Tabernacles, the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem; concluding that God does not dwell in anything made of human hands. And having gone this far in disturbing his accusers, he charges them of behaving like their Jewish forefathers, in resisting the Holy Spirit, and killing prophets. Horrifically enraged, the Freedmen drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death. In the process, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, offers his life to Jesus, and asks forgiveness for his persecutors. Sound familiar? By the way, he is loving buried by devout men lamenting his death (Acts 8:2).
There is a strong similarity between Stephen’s life described in Acts, and Jesus’ life described in the Gospels. But what I’m curious about is the similarity with John the Baptist as a witness to the light. Both are exemplary disciples, whose lives we tend to put up on a pedestal, as far beyond what we might accomplish. This line between the extraordinary and ordinary is not helpful; and in truth, it runs against our lives as incarnate people, as baptized people (Johnson). Gavenat and Petersen note we cannot serve the word and not serve at table. The grace that enables Stephen’s eloquence inspires his table service, feeding the widows of his community.
Living a life, that follows Jesus is a generally accepted model, even if often shunned as impossible. And while our lives may not match Jesus’ in the dozen or so points that Stephen’s may, we can, in our own way, be servant leaders, we can, within our own calling, be full of the Sprit, we can, within our own gifts, show signs, and wonders. By the way ‘wonders’ is not about the miraculous, or supernatural, it’s about the depth of care we demonstrate in doing something for another who is in a difficult circumstance. And even if we don’t perceive an ability to do much, we can change our behavior for the better in the parlance of Stephen’s story, we can stop throwing stones. As hard as it is to confess, we throw stones more frequently than we think. More often than not we throw stones that are words of hate, words of disapproval, or words of judgment (Ryan).
In these remaining ten days of Christmas, I pray we take the time to prayerfully discern: how we are incarnate, how we live in the Divine Light, how we receive grace and truth, and how we share them in: healing the broken hearted, binding wounds, lifting the lowly, providing refuge, or serving at the table of the other. May the incarnate light shine through our lives, on the lives of family, friends ~ and Freedmen.
Copeland, Mark. Bible Study Guides. n.d. <http://executableoutlines>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Johnson, Edwin. “Confusing The Sacred & The Profane, Christmas 1(C) – 2015.” 27 12 2015. Sermons that Work.
Ryan, Linda. Speaking to the Soul: Why Wenceslaus went out that day…. 27 12 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.