St. Stephen, deacon and martyr: December 26, 2004.
Psalm 17:1-9, 15 (NRSV)
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
Psalm 17 leads the way as the prayer that comes from one who stands before God, free from deceit. Commentators on this psalm agree that only such a person can hope to receive an answer to their prayer of deliverance from enemies. This supplicant must be honest and true, avoiding pretentiousness as he or she asks for delivery. One final characteristic of this faithful one is that he or she is confident that God rescues those who trust in God.
Prophets are clearly ones who fit the characteristics outlined in Psalm 17. All of the lessons carry our imagination in this direction. 2 Chronicles tells us that God seeks prophets. God appoints people who will carry the song of God's faithfulness to people who stubbornly refuse to hear. The warning for the people is clearly announced. The people have abandoned bet yhwh, the house of the Lord. The lesson from Chronicles can prepare the way for Christians to read into this passage the subtle warning about abandoning the member of another house, bet lehem (Bethlehem).
Acts recalls for the hearer the specifics of the martyrdom of Stephen. The story can stand alone, as an example of the reaction and response that people have toward those who carry the Word to the nations, but the celebration is Stephen, the deacon as well as the martyr.
Seen as a deacon of Christ, Stephen serves to focus the reading from Matthew in the concrete and particular pages of history. Stephen heard the song of the Word as repeated by the apostles in Jerusalem. Acts tells us that Stephen then sang that song with faithfulness to the crowds gathered. The song of the Word Incarnate that Stephen sings harkens back to Chronicles, reminding the hearers and warning them of their destructive behaviors.
Matthew gives us the content of the action of God to send deacons and prophets and the response of the people to this new song in their midst. Challenging to the preacher, Matthew 23 is a part of the fifth and final discourse in the Gospel. At odds with the joyous celebration of Christmas, the major theme of this literary unit is judgment. Combined with the story of the stoning of Stephen, this pericope can lead the preacher into a diatribe against those who kill the prophets of God and Christ in every age. Ultimately it can lead the preacher to the false belief that he or she can name in today's world those groups which have abandoned bet yhwh, the house of God.
Reversing the warning is a powerful maneuver to remain focused on the story of God's new song. God's new song is now being sung through history in the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. While Matthew 23 foreshadows the death and resurrection, the listener knows the entire story. The hearer receives the warning that when the people abandon the house of the Lord, the Lord can choose to abandon the people. Without God there is only desolation and death. Life can be found only within the house of God, singing the song of God.
Clearly these lessons offer a challenge for the Sunday following Christmas Day. The Prayer of the Day can give assistance in carrying forth the theme of singing a new song. Those who sing the new song of the Incarnate Lord and remain in the house of the Lord learn through this song. The Prayer of the Day says that the believer will learn love for the enemy and forgiveness for those who could/would render harm to the innocent.
Singing God's song, repeating the words, learning the melody, and adding the harmony of our personal experience is hard work. It does not come naturally to humans. This week the congregation can join the song leader in "When Long before Time" (WOV #799). Stanza 3 speaks to the experience of Stephen: "Though down through the ages the Song disappeared, its harmonies broken and almost unheard." We sing the reminder that we would rather sing our own song. We prefer the words that give honor and praise to our own accomplishments and diminish the influence of others on our lives.
As the preacher faces the Sunday immediately following Christmas Day, this year seems particularly fatiguing. How can one move from the joy of Christmas Day to the horror of the martyrdom of Stephen within twenty-four hours? On top of this challenge to the already fatigued preacher, many congregations designate this Sunday as the opportunity for returning college students to share their reflections in worship.
The first step is to recall that Christmas is not as much a season as it is a transition between the preparation time of Advent and the call to the church in Epiphany. As a transition there is a demand placed upon the speaker (pastor or student) to raise up the power of this time of transition. The Commemoration of Stephen shows us the tension and danger of transitional times.
Students--college, seminary, even high school seniors--have an intimate understanding of times of transition. As has happened many times in our household, as our daughters crossed one of these thresholds, they experienced the fear and the joy of the time. There was the fear of separation. They leave behind possessions, friends, family pets, and sometimes the strong reminders that can come only from loving parents. But fear does not dominate these transitions.
Great excitement and joy wells up within us as we learn a new song of God's work in the creation. Students can reflect upon the joy that they have found in experiencing God's presence in dorm life, athletic fields, science labs, or music practice rooms. Stanza 5 of the hymn raises our voices to the level of joy: the Song has returned once again, and we can sing with "one heart and one voice."
Celebrating the life of Stephen and his powerful singing of God's song can set the tone for all on this Sunday after Christmas. Pastors, students, and lay leaders can share their own stories of the joys and fears that come with this time of transition. With simple planning, this is an opportunity to share our fears and joys as we learn to sing God's new song. ES
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2004|
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