A sermon by Rev. Ronald F. Marshall, proclaimed to his flock at First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, December 26, 2010.
"And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56).
Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church – who died because he spoke out for Christ (Acts 7:51-53). But “what a difference a day makes” – as Dinah Washington sang on her Grammy award winning record back in 1959! For this transition from Christmas day to today – the second day in the twelve days of Christmas – is anything but smooth! For we have gone from singing, “Repeat the sounding joy,” to killing (Acts 7:57-58). So what’s up? Why this “most glaring contrast” between these two days of Christmas [Kaj Munk, Four Sermons (1944) p. 20]?
Now it is precisely because we heard yesterday those heavenly, angelic words, “Peace on earth!” (Luke 2:8), that we wonder why, all of a sudden, St. Stephen is being stoned to death by an angry mob. Have we missed something? The Christmas decorations are still up – but to no avail, for this wretched brutality still befalls us!
Well, in fact, the sad truth is that we have missed something. And what we’ve failed to consider sufficiently is that our Lord didn’t come to bring peace on earth right away (Luke 12:51)! For on earth, for now, we must instead endure tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22). But that doesn’t mean that we won’t have a peace of mind which the world cannot give (John 14:27). All it means is that we’ll be the “off-scourging” of the world because we follow Christ (1 Corinthians 4:13). So having a peace of mind rooted in knowing to whom we belong, and the blessedness that awaits us when we die (Philippians 4:4-7) – that will not and cannot keep us from running the risk of being tortured, mocked, imprisoned, wandering over deserts and mountains, living in dens and caves, and even being “sawn in two” or stoned to death (Hebrews 11:35-38).
Slogging in the Bog
Now that being said, how in the world can we live with the threats in these tribulations? How can we, as Martin Luther said – who is our most eminent teacher [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576] – how can we put up with this “vexation of life,” a life which is so “horribly wretched, difficult, and troubled” (Luther’s Works 8:114)? In his Large Catechism (1529) he even goes on to say that when we do follow Christ, we will never “have peace” – even though God “faithfully provides for our daily existence” (BC pp. 429, 431). And if we eke out some worldly peace anyway, that can only be because we – as Luther’s relentless logic again has it – have abandoned Christ [LW 13:415; 51:112; 52:117-119; Luther’s House Postils, 3 vol. ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:163] – by avoiding the “hard knots” intrinsic to Christianity (LW 21:62; 23:402), like self-denial, eternal damnation and the uniqueness of Christ. So Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – who thought preachers could do no better than read aloud Luther’s sermons every Sunday in church rather than writing their own [Journals & Papers, 7 vols, trans. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, 3:3496] – he felt that we were left, because of this tribulation, to “slog along as if in a bog” (JP 3:6503), finding our help from God, as Luther said, “in the midst of opposites” (LW 4:232). Lord have mercy!
Because of this trouble, Luther believed that “there is no life… on earth more wretched than that of a Christian” (LW 28:106) – and the stoning of St. Stephen underscores that most emphatically. And Kierkegaard, for one, took Luther’s insight to heart. For he argued that it would be a bad “slogan” for the Christian life, to think that if you are loving and kind, then “it will go well with you in this world” (JP 3:3527; Hebrews 10:34)! So by including St. Stephen’s stoning at the start of the season of Christmas, the point is made that the birth of Christ means “that the natural man should die,” and that, to die in this way means, “to be born” (JP 1:568).
Abounding in Adversity
To be able to rejoice in this redefined birth of the Savior, we will have to follow the wisdom of God. But if we do, as Kierkegaard warned, we will run the risk of “fanaticism” (JP 3:2379). Even so, Luther is fearless and says that the Biblical message holds that the Christian “knows how to rejoice in sadness and to mourn in happiness” (LW 25:347; Psalm 90:15). For the true Christian is “uplifted in adversity, because he trusts in God” and is “downcast in prosperity, because he fears God” (LW 27:403)! Kierkegaard called this strange flip-flop an “inverted dialectic” (JP 4:4680).
But it is just this inverted dialectic that gives us the calm to face any situation in life and to learn to be “content,” as was the Apostle Paul when he suffered adversity (Philippians 4:10). So the secret to enduring tribulation is in this very inversion or flip-flop – whereby adversity becomes a blessing, or as Luther said, we learn by it to be uplifted in adversity – following Romans 5:3. By so doing, Kierkegaard notes, Luther doesn’t put us to sleep spiritually but instead preaches us “farther out” (JP 3:2462) – out on a limb, if you will – beyond a mere “human cause,” whereby we are busy about only “finite matters” (JP 3:2570). Moving out into a realm where, if one were stoned to death for the truth, it wouldn’t be the end of what matters most, but it’s beginning. For when the world shuts its doors on us, “heaven opens up” (JP 4:4508). That’s why we are to rejoice in our adversity and not collapse under it – being only “struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:12).
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed…. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory,… [for] we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
This is what St. Stephen knew! No wonder, then, that when the thief on the cross cried out to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? [Then] save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39), it fell on deaf, albeit divine, ears. And that was because “in Christianity everything is aimed at eternity – therefore a lifetime of suffering, therefore no help in this life, no victory in this life” (JP 3:3098). Or as Jesus said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28)! So Kierkegaard writes that if this earthly tribulation and anguish is lost, then we might as well “lock the churches and convert them into dance halls,” because that higher divine cause of spiritual renewal and salvation will have been lost, for it is what prepares us for that eternal weight of glory (JP 3:2461). To guard against this, Kierkegaard says that the human skull is the most fitting object for “prolonged mediation” on the meaning of Christian living, because it symbolizes “that to love God is: to die, to die to the world, the most agonizing of all agonies” (JP 3:2455).
Therefore we will surely need help if we are ever going to turn our anxieties and tribulations into blessings, like St. Stephen did. Somehow we’ll need to know that God is “swift to help,” even if everything is to be rendered futile, is to be blown away like a fantasy, even if nothing, nothing whatever, is to be achieved and the suffering is the one and only actuality, even if the unremitting sacrifice of a long life is to become meaningless like shadowboxing in the air… (Kierkegaard’s Writings 5:334).
We cannot come by such knowledge intellectually. But we are told in no uncertain terms that God has “delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), that we might go “through life to life” (KW 15:217)! And these words are good-as-gold, for in them we hear, Kierkegaard would say, the very “voice of God” (KW 21:39), and not some human interpretation (1 Thessalonians 2:13) of an old, disputed text. All of this happens through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus whereby he cancels what’s against us (Colossians 1:14).
This sterling sacrifice, Kierkegaard notes, reveals that “Christianity is the divine combat of divine passion with itself” (JP 1:532). For the very blood shed in the sacrifice of the Son of God, saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9)! In that salvation we are shocked by the internal combat of God “recoiling” within (Hosea 11:8). But in this sacrifice is life. And so when St. Stephen is stoned to death, he sees the heavens open, with Christ standing – not sitting as usual – to welcome him (Acts 7:56) because “dangers threaten” (JP 1:300). In death, then, Christ “strangles” death for us, so that our death – strangely – is in him and not in us (LW 42:105)! Therefore our reward comes after we die (Luke 14:14). So we are to struggle to remain faithful unto death, that we might then receive “the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10), since Jesus refuses to magically turn “mortal life into worldly delight” (KW 15:233). And to remain faithful to this promise, receive the Lord’s Supper today, for it’s “new strength and refreshment” (BC p. 449).
And then, in thanksgiving for our salvation (Colossians 2:7), may we also “walk as children of light,” holding on to what’s “good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8-9)! So be angelic under attack, as St. Stephen was (Acts 6:15). Don’t seek suffering (LW 30:110), but don’t flee from it either (LW 35:56). And pray for your enemies, after you rebuke them, as St. Stephen did, and so show that love is “like a nut with a hard shell and a sweet kernel” [Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols (1988), ed. J. N. Lenker, 6:208]. Amen.