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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
The Martyrs and St. Stephen

First Sunday After Christmas   Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60, Matthew 23:34-39  
(Also can be used and adapted to Easter 5A, Acts 7:55-60)

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 my hometown of 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 defense 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.

Today, I would like a make a few observations about martyrs.

Martyrs die because of their love and faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Today, martyrs are getting bad press because of the martyrs of the fanatical Muslim terrorists that bombed the Twin Towers and claim to be martyrs for their faith. There is an enormous difference between a crazed terrorist and a true martyr. A crazed terrorist kills other people; a true martyr dies so that others might live. A false martyr takes the lives of others and kills innocent people. A true martyr is just the opposite of a false martyr: a true martyr dies because they offer themselves as a living and loving sacrifice for Jesus Christ in order that others might live.

Martyrs for the Christ have always been part of our Christian heritage. The cradle is always connected to the cross. Christ is born in us so that we are willing to die that others might live.

 The Greek word for martyr is the word “martyrea” from which we get our word, “witness.” Martyr is the same Greek word for witness. The Bible says, “You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth.” That is, you are to be my martyrs in Jerusalem, Judea and the ends of the earth. A witness is a person who speaks for his or her faith in such a way that the person may be killed for expressing their faith.

A few things about martyrs.

First, martyrs don’t keep their faith private. Martyrs are people who “don’t know better” but they open their mouths and often at the wrong times. They refuse to keep their mouths shut, and therefore they get into trouble. Martyrs get killed, not for their convictions, but for expressing their convictions. There are all kinds of people who have beliefs in Christ and beliefs in Christian values and they never get hurt at all. The key is to keep your mouth shut and you won’t get hurt. Keep your mouth shut and nobody will bother you.  But as soon as you open your mouth about Christ and the Christian faith, that is when you will start becoming a martyr. It is the same Greek word for both witnesses and martyrs and both have a lot in common: both open their mouths for Jesus Christ. So Stephen had this problem, as did all martyrs, of not keeping their mouth shut and keeping silent about their Christian convictions.

There is a story about a famous martyr in the ancient Christian faith. His name was Ignatius who was killed by the Emperor Hadrian in the year 107 CE. The Emperor Hadrian insisted that Ignatius bow and pray to his gods who helped him win a battle for Rome. The Bishop Ignatius refused and instead opened his mouth and defied Hadrian.

Ignatius spoke: “What you call gods are no better than devils. There is only one God, the true God who created heaven and earth and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” As all good prophets do, Ignatius didn’t keep his mouth shut and was killed for publicly speaking the truth about God and Christ. Ignatius got in trouble, not because he had religious convictions but because he expressed clearly and forcefully those convictions, not to the believing church but to the Emperor Hadrian.

The same theme continues in our world today. You don’t get in trouble for being silent; you get in trouble when you speak the truth publicly. Not so long ago, I again read a book by Jacobo Timmerman who was a Jewish man. He lived in Argentina from 1976-79 and the Argentina military junta was killing many people. Jacobo Timmerman was a Jew and he opened his mouth and wrote a book, entitled, ‘PRISONER WITHOUT A NAME, CELL WITHOUT A NUMBER. In this book, he vowed that he would never again be silent about evil in his world, and because he was not silent about evil in the Argentina government, the military took him and persecuted him and put electrodes into his fingers.  He made a vow: never to be silent about his faith and values again. … In other words, if you don’t want to be a good witness, just keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut, be a good Christian, and don’t tell anyone what you see and feel and don’t worry, nobody will step on your toes.

Recall the old Soviet Union for a moment. The good Lutherans living up in northern Russian kept their mouths shut and got along with the Soviet dictators. The Russian Orthodox Church burned their incense and lit their candles and wore their golden chasubles, kept their mouths shut about the Soviet dictators, and the Soviet government left them alone. These groups were an aging nuisance for the Soviets. But not the Jehovah Witnesses and the Baptists in the Soviet Empire. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baptists refused to register their churches with the government and were outspoken critics of the Soviet Union. When you speak out against the government, you awaken that government’s anger and power and punishment. Play it safe. Keep your mouth shut and you will never be a martyr.

That was true in South Africa, especially in the early days of people rising up against the racist policies of apartheid. Steve Bilko was a young medical student was very critical of the South African government and its position on apartheid and separation. I love the title of his book, “I SAY WHAT I LIKE.” When you say what you like to a hostile and powerful government, you get killed and Bilko got killed. He was another martyr in the long history of martyrs in the Christian faith.

We need to mention Bishop Romero of El Salvador. He could have been a nice, plain, Roman Catholic Bishop and kept his mouth shut about atrocities committed by the ruling military junta. If he would have had any brains, he just would have kept his mouth shut and nobody would have bothered him at all. But he would get in the pulpit and criticize the government in front of everyone in the church. One Sunday morning, when the Cathedral was full and he was celebrating the Mass, a shot rang out and splattered the body and blood of the Archbishop so his body and blood joined the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on the altar. He could have been a good Catholic and remained silent. Nothing much happens to you if you remain silent. But a witness and a martyr is a person who is willing to speak out against the injustices of the world because of Jesus Christ.

Of course, we need to recall Pope John Paul of Vatican fame who spoke out against the Soviet injustices against Poland. And so we read the biographies of his life and we hear the fascinating story of how the government of Bulgaria arranged for his assassination along with the influence of the KGB and Andropov who was president of the KGB at that time. And so Pope John Paul was almost killed for speaking out against Soviet policies against Poland and his health never recovered after that assassination attempt. Nobody would have shot at him if he would have kept his mouth shut about the injustices that he saw.

So the first characteristic about Christian martyrs from centuries past and today is that they opened their mouths and spoke the truth about Christ and the social injustices that surrounded them.

The second characteristic of martyrs on this martyr’s Sunday is that they are willing to switch from the third person to the second person. From the “they” to the “you.” In Acts 7, Stephen’s speech is really boring and it goes on and one and one about Jewish history and their heroes of history until chapter seven, verse fifty one and he changes suddenly and says, “YOU!” You stiff necked people. You hard hearted people. You people with wax in your ears. You people who betrayed Jesus. You people who killed Jesus. You people who worship your religious traditions. You Jesus killers. You.” The word, “you,” is a very powerful word and it changes everything.

Do you remember another great “you” story of the Bible? It is the story of King David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. King David was up on his balcony and looked down at the neighboring veranda and saw a gorgeous woman there. He lusted after Bathsheba passionately. He arranged for her to come to him and he made love with her. Bathsheba got pregnant. So what did King David do? He arranged for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, a military man, to be sent into battle so Uriah would be killed on the front lines of attack. But the prophet Nathan saw through King David’s schemes. The prophet Nathan came to King David and told the king a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep. King David said, “The rich man should be killed.” And Nathan said to the King: YOU ARE THE MAN. Wow. What an indictment against the king. You. Nathan had the guts to use the word, “You.” He spoke the word, “you,” directly into King David’s face.

That’s what all prophets do. They have the guts to move from the safety of the third person, they, to the second person, you. They point their fingers and say, “You…are the guilty one.”

The same was true of Martin Luther King Jr. He had the guts to stand up in Alabama and Georgia and talk about visible and invisible racism and its ugly heads. You could go to the North or to the lovely north in Seattle and say the same things and people would say, “”How progressive. How insightful. How moral.” But soon as the prophet says, YOU. You are the guilty one. The speech then changes from progressive thought into attack on our character. Prophets attack our sinful character and its slimy side.

A third characteristic of a martyr is not only what they say but when and where they say it. For example, back in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era, if I declared that I was a Christian, I could be killed for it. If I said the same thing in the United States, nobody would be bothered at all. It is not just what you say but when and where you say it that makes for martyrdom. If you talk about Christ and social justice in church among believing friends, nobody gets too upset about it. But in certain situations and certain epochs of history, you can get killed for saying the same words.

A martyr is not a person who checks the wind of public opinion. A martyr is not a person who checks the percentage of people who are for a nuclear freeze and then determines what he or she will say. They don’t say to themselves, “I will check the wind of public opinion and then I will make my pronouncement.” It is not only what is said that is important but when and where it is said. That person has the guts to go against culture. That person has the guts to go against public opinion.

A fourth characteristic of a martyr is that they are willing to die. They don’t want to die, but they are willing to die for Jesus Christ that others might live in justice and freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t want to die, but he decided that Hitler was an insanely cruel man who plotted to conquer the whole world and force his dictatorial Aryan policies around the globe. Hitler needed to be stopped. Bonhoeffer was arranging for Hitler’s assassination, and Bonhoeffer was discovered and martyred. He was killed and a martyr is willing to die for justice, freedom and Christ.

The same was true of Sir Thomas More. Do you remember the story of King Henry the VIII who wanted to get rid of his wife and marry another? As I recall, Martin Luther did not really condemn the English king for his infidelity, but Sir Thomas More did. There is a fabulous and famous play entitled, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, in which Sir Thomas More directly and publicly confronts King Henry the VIII for his marital infidelity and his government corruption. Sir Thomas More was killed for that. Martyrs are.

One of the most inspiring martyrs I have known through the media is Jean Donovan. How I love her story. There was a TV special about her entitled, THE ROSE OF DECEMBER. She was a lay person, a Roman Catholic missionary from England.  She was a larger, strong boned woman, in her mid-twenties. She was drawn to the orphans of El Salvador when that country was a mess. She went down to El Salvador and gave her life to the orphans there, living in one particular orphanage. She went back home to England for a wedding and all of her friends said to her, “Stay here Jean. Stay here because if you go back you will be killed.” She had to go back to El Salvador, to her orphans. She did. She got off the plane, into a van, drove outside of town and her vehicle was ambushed by renegade soldiers. She was raped, killed and her body thrown into a grave. Jean Marie Donovan was another one of thousands of martyrs for Jesus Christ.

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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