Thoughts of Christmas, Faith, and a Martyr’s Death

by Pastor Edwin Lehmann on December 26, 2021 in

Second Christmas Day – The Feast of St. Stephen                                                   Dec. 26, 2021
Text: Acts 6:8-7:60    traditional                                                       21:2293
Theme: Thoughts of Christmas, Faith, and a Martyr’s Death

If I ask you. “What is today, December 26th?”, how would you answer? Some would probably say, “It’s the day after Christmas.” And it is. But others might call it Second Christmas Day. When I was very young, I remember going to church on December 26th, even when it didn’t fall on Sunday, like today. But long before that the church celebrated December 26th as the Festival of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. You have heard of it in a Christmas song, although you probably made no connection with it.
The song that connects to this day begins, “Good King Wenceslas looked down on the Feast of Stephen. When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” At first the words don’t sound very religious. But if you look at them more carefully, you might see the connection between the song and the day’s observance in the Church.
St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, has been celebrated for centuries within the Church. Some say this festival may be older than the observance of the nativity itself. It began not so much in connection with Jesus’ birth as much as to counteract the intrusion of paganism and its unbelieving customs on the early Christian church. “Stand firm in the faith, like Stephen did!” the church encouraged right after Christmas. “Walk in the footsteps of Christ who was born for you, even should it cost you your life on earth.” For centuries that was the Church’s focus on December 26.
Today we still celebrate Jesus’ birth and the joy that is ours now that the Savior has come. But on this Second Christmas Day we will also commemorate the Feast of Stephen and the eternal hope that is ours at Jesus’ birth. Here is where you find the true Christmas faith and what it means for those who are faithful unto death. Thoughts of Christmas, Faith, and a Martyr’s Death.

I. A True Christmas Faith Prompts a Joyous Confession.
“Stephen, full of grace and power” – what a fine description of a Christian! It’s a description that every child of God would thrill to hear read behind his or her name for it means that the good news of Jesus’ birth has deeply affected them. To begin with, Stephen was just an ordinary man, not a hero at all, one whom the Holy Spirit used to show what God’s grace and mighty power can do.
Stephen wanted to give something to God in return for the wonderful love God had given him. And so he gave to God the only gift he had – himself. “Take my life and let it be yours. Use me as you wish,” he told God. “It may be a poor return for what You have given me in the Savior, but it is all that I have to give. And I give it all to you.” God received Stephen’s gift, and the Holy Spirit so filled his life that he became, one might say, a demonstration of what God can do with an ordinary person.
The spark of faith in Christ turned into a great fire that set his whole life ablaze. He was not one of Jesus’ 12 close apostles, but the power of the Holy Spirit within Stephen prompted a joyous confession of his faith before others. People listened to what Stephen said about the Savior. It so alarmed the Jewish authorities that they wanted to put a stop to his preaching. “We thought we had put an end to this nonsense when we crucified Jesus,” they said. “But no! Here it is again. We must take stern measures to stop it.” So, they arrested Stephen. But they could not stand against the wisdom and power with which the Holy Spirit filled him.
Fearlessly, boldly, joyfully he confessed his faith in the Christ who had been born in Bethlehem. But the authorities bribed witnesses to lie about him. “This man,” they said, “has threatened to tear down our temple and destroy our Jewish faith.” “Are these things true?” the high priest asked. When they all turned to look at Stephen to hear his answer, they gasped in amazement. He was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his face looked like that of a shining angel. Yet, in spite of the wondrous signs and words from God that they saw and heard in Stephen as he told them about their rejection of the Christ-child, they were enraged. They plugged their ears, dragged him out of the city, and threw great rocks at him until he fell at their feet.
On this 26th day of December, what should be our thoughts of Christmas, faith, and a martyr? Can we not see in Stephen the glorious effect of faith in the Baby lying in the manger? When the grace of the new-born Christ fills the heart, it can’t be confined, but a joyous confession bursts forth, even in the face of death.
A similar thing happened to the shepherds of Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born. After seeing the new-born Christ, they told everyone the things which they had heard and seen. Stephen followed their example, even though death stared him in the face.
Like Stephen, the shepherds, and all the saint of old, as we cling in faith to Christ who was born for our salvation, we shall be willing and ready to joyfully confess Him, even should it cost us our lives. We shall proclaim, “For me God became a man to give me forgiveness and eternal life. Enemies may try to take from me all that I hold dear in this world, but they can never touch or remove the Christmas joy that is in my heart. Christ is mine forever!”

II. A True Christmas Faith Sees Heaven Opened.
As the crowd’s anger burned hotly against him, Stephen looked up to heaven. “Look!” he said. “I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
What a wonder. Was any man ever granted a glimpse of heaven while he still lived on earth? Who is there who can tell us what heaven is like because he has actually seen it with his own eyes? No mortal ever saw this before – not Peter, not John the Baptist, not Isaiah, not Moses, not even Abraham. And none has seen it since. But Stephen was permitted to see it all while he was still on earth.
And what did he see in heaven? He saw his beloved Savior, standing in all His heavenly glory to welcome the homecoming of His faithful servant. His faith did not waver, for he had seen with his own eyes who was waiting for him.
Of what benefit is this to us, that this martyr had such a wonderful experience? Should we conclude that because he saw it and we haven’t that he was better than we? Does heaven open itself only to some but is closed to other witnesses to Christ? Is the Savior nearer to him but far from us? No! What Stephen saw here is given to all the faithful, just not in such a visible way.
We, too, see the glory of God’s Son, our Christ, in the mirror of His Holy Word and in the Sacraments. There He opens heaven for us, gives us the blessings of salvation, and promises never to close it to those who believe in Him. The one who receives this Christ in faith, that one sees heaven opened and the glorified Savior at God’s right hand – not yet with the eyes in his head, but with the eyes of his heart he sees His Savior. Our Savior is ever ready to help, encourage, strengthen, and receive each believer to Himself. Truly, in God’s Word and the Sacraments, faith sees heaven opened in Christ. That is a true Christmas faith.

III. A True Christmas Faith Conquers Death and Enters Heaven.
Stephen’s persecutors surrounded him like wild beasts. They hurled stone after stone upon him, but his courage did not forsake him. He didn’t plead for mercy – not for himself. Standing erect, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The Lord in whom he believed was still the Rock on which he would stand. And with Christ at his side, fearlessly, joyously he faced death.
He faced death head-on, without fear. There was no request that the Lord Jesus deliver him from the hands of his enemies. There was no desperate plea that the Lord Jesus preserve him from dying. There was no whining over it being a terrible way to go. There was only the confident prayer that the Lord Jesus receive him at the moment he passed this life. There was no concern for himself. But there was concern for the souls of his murderers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And after that prayer of concern for the eternal welfare of others, he fell asleep in the Lord.
Notice that the Scriptures make a point of not saying that Stephen died or was killed. Rather they say, “He fell asleep.” The mighty Savior in whom Stephen put his trust transformed death into a sleep for His faithful ones. Stephen fell asleep to this life, but he awakened to the angels carrying his soul home above. There heavenly choirs welcomed him as the Lord gave him the crown of life.
That crown awaits all who believe. All the faithful will one day see God and their Savior face to face. Why? Because such faith is rooted in the true meaning of Christmas that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned…and whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.”
This is the faith that overcomes the world. This is the true Christmas faith. Jesus, who was born into this world of sin, is my Savior until death. Such a faith conquers death and enters heaven. For this we pray on this Second Christmas Day, on the Feast of St. Stephen. God grant it to us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Second Christmas Day – The Feast of St. Stephen            December 26, 2021

        Welcome in the name of our Savior. We are happy to have you worshipping with us today as we carry the blessings of Christmas into the days that remain in our present year and in the new year that lies ahead. These days shine with the blessings of salvation which God bestows upon us in the Christ-Child.

        One who experienced these blessings of faith was St. Stephen. He became the first Christian martyr. The story of his cruel death (Acts 6-7) seems utterly out of harmony with the spirit of joy that prevails at Christmas. But it only appears that way at first glance.

        In Stephen’s story we do not see a lowly Child lying in a manger, as the world likes to see Him. But we see the Savior standing where He should be at the right hand of God in glory.   We do not see angels coming down from heaven as at the nativity. But we see heaven open, and the hand of God extended to bring up a faithful one into the Paradise Christ won for His people.

        On this Second Christmas Day, the Feast of St. Stephen, we consider the eternal significance of Christ’s holy birth and the blessings that flow to those who follow Him in undying faith.

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(Our worship this morning is a song service and follows the general liturgical outline of the

Common Service. Appropriate hymns of the season will be utilized in its different parts.)

The Preparation for Worship

Introduction to Today’s Service

The Entrance Hymn: “Come, Your Hearts and Voices Raising”                                   42

The Invocation

Congr: (sing) Amen.

The Confession of Sins:                                                                               st.1,2        34

All:                  Now sing we, now rejoice, Now raise to heav’n our voice;

He from whom joy streameth Poor in a manger lies;

Not so brightly beameth The sun in yonder skies.

Thou my Savior art! Thou my Savior art!

Come from on high to me; I cannot rise to Thee.

                        Cheer my wearied spirit, O pure and holy Child;

                        Through Thy grace and merit, Blest Jesus, Lord most mild,

                        Draw me unto thee! Draw me unto Thee!                                

 The Absolution and Gloria in Excelsis (all):                                            st.2,3,8,15   38

All:       To you this night is born a child Of Mary, chosen virgin mild;

This little child of lowly birth Shall be the joy of all the earth.

This is the Christ, our God most high, Who hears your sad and bitter cry;

He will Himself your Savior be From all your sins to set you free.

Welcome to earth, O noble Guest, Through whom the sinful world is blest!

            You came to share my misery That You might share Your joy with me.

            Glory to God in highest heaven, Who unto us His Son has given!

            While angels sing with pious mirth A glad new year to all the earth,

Prayer of the Day

The Ministry of the Word

The Lesson: John 1:1-18 On that first Christmas Day, God hid His glory under the flesh and blood of His Son, called the Word. The Child was God and man in one person, exactly what we needed to deliver us from the darkness of sin, death, and unbelief into the light of salvation. In “the Word made flesh” the God whose glory is impossible to see is seen. The God who cannot be known is known.

The Hymn: “A Great and Mighty Wonder”                                                                     36

Meditation: Thoughts of Christmas, Faith, and a Martyr’s Death                  

The Lesson: Acts 6:8-7:60

The Hymn: “To Shepherds as They Watched by Night”                                st.1-4        53

Part I: A true Christmas faith prompts a joyous confession.

The Hymn: “Go Tell It on the Mountain”                                                                      57

Part II: A true Christmas faith sees heaven opened.

The Hymn: “Let All Together Praise Our God”                                                               41

Part III: A true Christmas faith conquers death and is taken to heaven.

The Hymn: “Away in a Manger”                                                                                       68

Our Response to the Word

The Offerings

The Prayers and The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord Blesses Us On Our Way

The Benediction

The Closing Hymn: “Let Us All with Gladsome Voice”                                                64

Silent Prayer

Join us this coming Friday at 7 pm for a New Year’s Eve Service with Holy Communion.

The Lesson for the Second Christmas Day

The Gospel Lesson: John 1:1-18 – Christ, The Word, Becomes Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him everything was made, and without him not one thing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. 5The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6There was a man, sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as an eyewitness to testify about the light so that everyone would believe through him. 8He was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.

9The real light that shines on everyone was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not recognize him. 11He came to what was his own, yet his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who did receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. 13They were born, not of blood, or of the desire of the flesh, or of a husband’s will, but born of God.

14The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen his glory, the glory he has as the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15John testified about him. He cried out, “This was the one I spoke about when I said, ‘The one coming after me outranks me because he existed before me.’” 16For out of his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is close to the Father’s side, has made him known.

The Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage Version® (EHV®) copyright © 2019 The Wartburg Project.

Pastor Edwin Lehmann

Preacher: Pastor Edwin Lehmann