Where Jesus Is, There is Resistance
Text: Matt. 23:34-39, Acts 6:8—7:2a, 51-60
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This time of year is always a little strange for those of us who have a foot in the seasons of the church year. Culturally, our world is done with Christmas, yet here we are, on only the 2nd day of Christmas, with 10 days of Christmas left. And yes, for those wondering, the 12 days of Christmas begins with Christmas. Christmas songs have stopped playing in stores, but we’re still singing them here. We’re just getting warmed up. The presents are all unwrapped, trash cans are stuffed with wrapping paper, trees are on the curb, but we’re still unveiling and discovering all that Christmas has brought us in the Christ child. During this time as much as any other, perhaps more, we can see the stark difference between life in the Church and life outside of it.
This is the lesson we have today, on the Feast of St. Stephen, the 2nd day of Christmas. The lesson is this: we are different, strangers to the world. Our readings assigned for the day reflect this. Our Old Testament reading is about the murder of the prophet Zechariah—hardly very Christmas-y. We hear Jesus’ words: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Again, not something to be read by the Yuletide fireplace. And, of course, we have the account of St. Stephen being martyred, stoned to death because of his faith during the earliest days of the church in the book of Acts.
It should come as no surprise to us though. Whenever Christ shows up, He is met by resistance. At His birth, Herod was not far behind with the sword, trying to put an end to his rival to the throne. During Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees were never far away, trying to counter what He was teaching, looking for faults in His words and actions. And this morning we have St. Stephen, providing food to the hungry and poor of Jerusalem, but martyred because of the faith he proclaimed as he was doing it. Even today, if we were to announce the true reason for Christmas celebrations a little too loudly, we would be met by resistance. It makes me think of the displays that are always right outside the Christkindlmarket in downtown Chicago. There’s the nativity, but not far away is a large display protesting the nativity, arrogantly and mockingly saying that the real reason for the season is the solstice, and that anything else is a superstition. But wherever Christ is, there His opponents will gather.
So the world prefers to sing “White Christmas” and “A Marshmallow World,” strangely enough, pinning the joy of the season on the meteorology of the northern hemisphere. But sing the songs of the Church too loudly—“Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is” or “What Child Is This”, or talk about the miraculous virgin birth of Christ too much, or send a Christmas card about the birth of Jesus, and you’re labelled a religious weirdo. You’re mocked. You’re looked down on by the world from its arrogant perch. Where Jesus is, where Jesus is talked about, there resistance gathers.
That’s how it went for St. Stephen. When the Apostles were overwhelmed with the everyday tasks of making sure the widows of Jerusalem got their bread, when they were swamped by the administrative tasks of the Church, the Church appointed deacons to help, so that the Apostles could focus on preaching and prayer. “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables,” the Apostles realized, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.” So St. Stephen was among those seven chosen to take care of the poor and hungry. And his acts of charity were loved, even by the unbelieving world. Even today, the world loves charity at Christmas. But when Stephen started talking about Jesus, that’s where the world drew the line. “And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law.’” The world twisted Stephen’s words, lied about him, intentionally misunderstood his beliefs, so that it could make its accusations and attack him. Where Jesus is, there resistance gathers.
This happens even in our hearts. Where Jesus arrives, there’s resistance. The joy of Christ in our hearts is resisted and crowded out by the stress of other activities this season—activities that we really know deep down don’t have to crowd out the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The peace of Christ is resisted by the memory of those things we regret saying or doing, haunting our memory and taking away our peace with God. The Word and songs of the Lord are drowned out by the noise the world. And when we’re confronted with it, we behave no differently than those who were confronted by St. Stephen. “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.” We get angry when we’re confronted with these ways we unintentionally knock Jesus down a peg or two, when we realize that we’re behaving more like the unbelieving world than the body of Christ, when we prioritize anything and everything above the Jesus’ gifts. We get mad and we resist that recognition.
Jesus is always met with resistance, whether it’s in the blood-stained stones that killed the prophet Zechariah, or the rage of Herod, or the anger and violence of those who stoned Stephen. He’s even met with resistance in us. But that’s never mattered to Jesus. It’s never turned Him away. Because that’s who he came to save. He came to save those who fight Him. That’s why He sent prophet after prophet after prophet to rebellious Israel. That’s why He sent Stephen to bloodthirsty Jerusalem. That’s why He Himself comes this Christmas season, and every week, to us, who have also gotten lost in the maze of busyness and confusion. And the message he brings them all, to all who fight Him, the message He brings to us, is this: “Do not hold this sin against them.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “This is my body; this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus doesn’t come only to those on the nice list. He’s no Santa, neglecting the sinful boys and girls of the world. He comes to this world for sinners, for us, for you. And what He brings is not something that passes as soon as the world’s radio stations decide it’s time to go back to top 40 songs, or when the trees are thrown out on the curb. What He gives lasts longer. It lasts the full season of Christmas, which we’re only beginning. It lasts the whole year in His Word read and preached, in His body and blood every week. It lasts our whole lives in Holy Baptism. It lasts for eternity in His resurrection and ours.
So rejoice. The world might be giving up its celebration, but it never really understood the party anyway. The world might think you different and strange. But no matter. We’re surrounded by a great cloud of different and strange witnesses, like Stephen, like all the saints, who have overcome the world by the word of their testimony and the blood of the Lamb. See all that our Lord has come to bring you and know that in Him, no matter what, you are welcomed, secure, living, and loved. He has triumphed over all resistance in order to be with you forever. In the name of Jesus, who is God with us. Amen.