Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


St Stephen
December 27, 2010, 9:54 am
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Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 26th December 2010

I suppose the one thing most of us know about the Feast of Stephen is that it was on this day that Good King Wenceslas looked out. Otherwise, it seems rather strange that on the day after we celebrate the Birth of Jesus we commemorate the violent death of a young disciple of Jesus thirty or forty years later.

Can we make a connection? In the first reading, we heard how Stephen was a powerful and influential preacher in Jerusalem, convincing the people that Jesus (who had been crucified there only a few years before) was in fact the Messiah, the Saviour sent by God to rescue his people, the King appointed by God to rule the whole world. This is what we believe: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God.”

The Baby lying in the manger is the God of the whole world, the Word of God, the Message of God to us all. God is with us. God is on our side.

Two thousand years ago, just as today, that message is not welcome to everyone. If Jesus is the true King, then the earthly powers that now exist, the established order that runs the world as it is, must give way to him. That is not a message the powers-that-be relish. Clever people tried to argue with Stephen, but they could not get the better of him. St Luke tells us that this was because of the Wisdom and the Spirit that was in him.

Two interesting words- Wisdom and Spirit. Jesus Christ himself is called by St Paul “the Wisdom of God,” and the Spirit is the Gift that Jesus promised to his followers. Stephen was not just a clever man, arguing with human cleverness. People recognised in his words a Divine Truth, in perfect harmony with all that they had already heard in the ancient Scriptures. In his words they recognised the Word of God, and that Word was Jesus.

Also, they recognised a certain Spirit in him. Stephen spoke not in a spirit of antagonism, trying to put other people down. There was fire, certainly, and zeal: but it was a fire of real love, for God and for his fellow-men, a zeal to build up the Kingdom of God, not to destroy anything except what was in opposition to that Kingdom. The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is Love itself.

Great preachers have a vision, which they want others to share. “I have a dream!” said Martin Luther King, another great preacher and martyr. St Stephen could see heaven thrown open, not closed and barred against us. He could see the welcoming figure of Jesus, in the glory of God, who had opened the door and was beckoning us all inside.

In the old English Hymnal there was an eighteenth century Christmas hymn, “Let sighing cease and woe.” It includes the lines, “Heaven’s gate is opening wide, and lo! The long expected Word.” But that gate is the door of the stable at Bethlehem. “We enter- at the door what marvel meets the eye? A crib, a mother pale and poor, a child of poverty.” The hymn-writer asks, “Art thou the eternal Son, the eternal Father’s ray, whose little hand, thou infant one, doth lift the world alway?” The world cannot believe this, it does not want to believe this, it rejects those who preach this message. Stephen was brutally killed for preaching it. Our Lord himself, in the Gospel, warned that it would be so.

We are called to be people of faith: to see in the weakness of a helpless baby the power that sustains the world, and the love which saves it, and in the same power and love to take that message even to those who do not want to hear it.

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