Monday, December 27, 2021

I have seen my salvation. . .

Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr, and the First Sunday after Christmas, preached on Sunday, December 26, 2021.

On this day we recall how our Lord was presented in the Temple and Blessed Mary purified AND we remember St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, who was killed giving witness to Jesus.  Their stories may seem very dissimilar but their hope is the same.  They both saw Jesus and that was all they needed to see.  They were ready for whatever the future was because they had seen Jesus.  In faith they clung to God’s Word and promise and nothing else mattered.  Oh, how I wish I could say that I had the same kind of faith they did!

Although Scripture is not explicit in telling us this, we presume that Simeon was old.  In fact, we think of Simeon as a man very near the end of his life.  He had gone to the Temple day after day with the promise of the Lord that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And day after day he went home without having seen Him.  Until this day.  He was shown God’s salvation and Israel’s consolation and he saw it in the face of a 40 day old baby.  Sort of implied in the Gospel is that Simeon died soon thereafter.  But death was not his end.  He had seen the Lord’s Christ and even in the face of this baby boy Simeon saw that death could not contain him or steal his joy or silence his voice.  In Christ he lives.

Stephen was a man full of grace and power.  He had been chosen by the apostles to be a deacon, to serve tables but not only that.  The Lord worked through him mightily if only briefly.  His preaching and works drew undo attention to Stephen and the enemies of the Lord marked him as someone to be silenced.  Like Jesus, false witnesses laid charges against him.  Like Jesus, his face shown like the face of an angel.  Like Jesus, the verdict rendered against Stephen and his preaching was death.  We presume that Stephen was not old but quite probably fairly young.  He was filled with the urgency and brashness of youth.  He did not shy away even when his enemies stood in judgment over him.  He called them out with no uncertain words.  Stiff-necked, uncircumcised, resisters of the Spirit, persecutors of the prophets, and murderers of Jesus.  Stephen died but Stephen now lives.

We might think of Simeon’s story as a nice end.  He realized his dream and was ready for death.  But Stephen’s story was not nice.  He was too young to die and had a bright future that was killed with him.  In reality, their story is the same.  Both of them were ready for whatever happened because they had seen Jesus.  Simeon staring into the face of a baby in the arms of Mary and Joseph.  
Stephen with a vision of heaven opened wide, the glory of God, and the face of Jesus at His right hand.  The end of a long life of waiting and the end of a short life just beginning found a common consolation in the face of Jesus.  Both rejoice that in death they saw life and they saw it in the face of Jesus.  They died without fear.

My friends, it may seem awkward and unkind to speak of death so close to Christmas and its joyous holiday traditions.  But it is not.  Death is always near.  Whether you are old and have lived a long life or you are young and your life has barely begun.  Death is no respecter of persons.  The wages of sin is death.  It is that plain, that simple, and that brutal.  Death does play according to the rules.  It does not wait until we are ready for it nor does death come when we no longer want to live.  Like every enemy, death hides in the shadows of life until it springs forth and claims us.  It is for death that Christ has come to manger and temple and cross.  It is for the sin that has brought death’s curse on us that Christ has come.

To a people who live under the shadow of death and wait for its surprise entrance, there is only one comfort, one consolation, and one means to ready ourselves for its coming.  That is to see Jesus.  To see Jesus where God has promised Jesus will be.  To peer not into the flesh of a 40 day old infant but into the water that has become our womb, our path from death to life in Christ.  To look not with heavenly vision up there somewhere but to the heaven on earth that God has given by setting up among us in the presence of all our enemies the Table of the Lord.  To hear not simply with earthly ears but with the ears of faith the voice of our Good Shepherd calling to us His sheep by His Word.  That is the gift of Christmas.  Not a momentary reprieve from the hard things of life but the vision of Jesus to look at when the worst of life slaps across our faces.

The old Simeon and the young Stephen and every one of us – wherever we are on the spectrum of age and mortality – we are all ready for death because of Christ.  After years of fear, of separation, of threat, of death too near, of hope stretched thin by trouble and trial, we are not without consolation and we are not without hope. St. Paul gives voice to this in Philippians 1: “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  And Hosea the prophet:  ““I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plague! O Grave, I will be your destruction!”  That is what we see in the face of Christ.  The end of sin, the end of death, the beginning of righteousness, and the beginning of everlasting life.

After we come to Holy Communion but before we head back to homes and the routines of our lives, we sing Simeon’s song.  Having now eaten the Body of our Lord and drunk His Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, we see the promise of the future, the foretaste of the eternal feast to come.  Some of us are nearer that feast than others but together we meet death by looking into the face of Jesus.  We are ready.  We cower no more in fear nor do we tremble in uncertainty because the most certain thing of all is Christ for us and Christ in us.   

Like Simeon and Stephen, we will die.  And until we die, we will live.  And whether we life or die, Christ will be magnified in our bodies.  For us, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  That is the gift of Christmas – to see Jesus and in Jesus to see our future.  To see Jesus and to see Jesus so clearly that nothing else matters.  To see Jesus and to be ready and prepared for life and all that it can thrust upon us and for death and all that it takes from us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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