Fourth Sunday After Trinity July 16, 2000
359, 154, 407, 52
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. These are the Words.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, who said, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,” Dear Fellow Redeemed,
You’ve heard the term “trailblazer”, and you probably know what it means. Thomas Edison was a trailblazer in the field of electrical science; Henry Ford was a trailblazer when it came to the automotive industry. But do you know where the word literally comes from? Among the Europeans who first settled the northeastern portion of this country, “blazing a trail” was a way of marking out a route through the middle of a forest. An explorer would use his hatchet to strike a white mark or a “blaze” on a tree. Each new mark would be visible from the last one, and this enabled the next person to travel that route to easily find his way straight through the wilderness without getting lost. So, the term “trailblazer” refers to someone who has been there first, and who has marked his trail for others to follow after him.
Sometimes, in your life as a Christian, you may get the feeling that you’re lost in the middle of a big forest. You know you’re supposed to be a witness for Christ. But maybe you don’t know quite how to go about it. Or perhaps you’re confused about the hostile reaction your witness sometimes evokes. Or a little frightened by the sacrifice that really witnessing Christ might call for. Well, you’ll be happy to know that you’re not lost! There’s one person, at least, who went down that path before you. His name was Stephen. He was a witness for Jesus—the first one in the New Testament Christian Church to give up his life for Christ—and he left a trail for you and me to follow. Our theme today:
You probably recognized the name of Stephen. Even Sunday school children know that Stephen was the first Christian martyr. It’s interesting that the word martyr comes originally from a Greek word meaning “witness.” It was used in a legal sense of witnesses who were called upon in a courtroom to give evidence. In a general sense it could mean anybody who stood up for what he believed in. And that was Stephen down to the ground!
Stephen was arrested by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. They put him on trial for preaching the Christian faith…and for living the Christian faith. But even with his life on the line, Stephen didn’t back down. He gave a faithful witness to the truth of God’s word. He preached a long sermon to the Jewish council. It’s a good sermon, too—you can read it in the first 53 verses of this chapter. He ended his sermon by confronting them with their greatest sin. He told the Jews flat out that, by crucifying Jesus, they had rejected the very Messiah whom God had sent them. They had murdered the Son of God!
Stephen witnessed the truth about their sin, and he got quite a rise out of his audience. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. Those men hated Stephen for that, and they hated him even more when he looked up toward the heavens and claimed that he could see Jesus standing on the right hand of God! In fact, they were so angry that …they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him.
God’s Word always gets a reaction. Sometimes people react to it with faith and joy, sometimes with bitter hatred. But no one can be neutral. The writer to the Hebrews says, “The word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”—Heb 4:12. As a Christian witness, it’s your job to proclaim God’s powerful Word in your conversation and your behavior. And don’t be surprised if people react to that Word powerfully. Sometimes with powerful anger—even hatred! Remember, you’re not the first one to go down this path—Stephen himself blazed this trail for you lo these many years ago!
Don’t be surprised, either, if living as a witness to Christ requires great sacrifice on your part. Jesus said, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”—Luke 14:33. Nothing, in other words, may be allowed to come between you and your work as Jesus’ disciple. Now, that is going to involve sacrifice. The members of this congregation should be familiar with sacrifice. You have done something that, as far as I know, hasn’t been done by any other CLC mission congregation—you borrowed $200,000 to acquire church property without raising your synod subsidy by a single dime. You knew that covering that additional monthly responsibility would involve sacrifice on the part of every member of this group. And we’re not done yet. We’ve got land and we’ve got a parsonage, and by God’s grace and in His good time, we will add a house of worship to that property. That, too, will involve sacrifice. But let us have courage in the Lord. The path of sacrifice is a familiar path to Christians. Remember, Stephen was here before you! He gave up far more than merely his possessions for the sake of his witness. He sacrificed his life, and in one of the most brutal ways imaginable.
Do you know exactly what “stoning” involved? When the accused was judged guilty of death, they would take him to a place outside the city, where there were plenty of rocks lying around. The two most prominent prosecution witnesses—the ones who had testified against the condemned man—were required to cast the first stones. This rarely killed the victim, so the whole crowd would then join in. And it took a long time. They rained stones upon the victim until he finally collapsed to his knees, as Stephen did, was knocked unconscious, and then finally died. …Is it going to cost you anything to be a Christian? It certainly cost Stephen!
Stephen was truly a trailblazing Christian witness. Step by step he has led us down the trail that a witness for Christ will follow. His story demonstrates to us clearly what intense hatred our witness will provoke. It also demonstrates to us what serious sacrifices our witness will require. The message for us is obvious. If we publicly acknowledge our Christian faith, stand up for the Gospel and witness our Savior, two things will happen: we will be hated for it, and we will be required to sacrifice a great deal for it.
Well, If we were to stop right at this point, you might well conclude that it’s not worth it—that it would be a lot easier simply to avoid the responsibilities of being a witness! But that’s not the conclusion Stephen came to, and from our text, it’s easy to understand why. Because what happened to Stephen shows us THE GLORY THAT AWAITS EACH CHRISTIAN WITNESS.
Our text says, But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God!
My friends, I wish I personally knew more about the scene that appeared to Stephen’s eyes that day. I wish I myself had seen it, so I could do a good job of describing it to you. Better yet, I wish that all of us—at this moment—could look upward and see “…the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” Wouldn’t that be wonderful? If we, like Stephen, could actually look into heaven right now—even for just a moment—what a thrill it would be! There we’d see our Savior on His sapphire throne, and the mansions of the elect that He has prepared for us. With our own eyes we’d see the heavenly banquet feast. We’d see the smiling faces of our departed loved ones, who have gone ahead of us in the Lord; they’d be waiting to welcome us. If our eyes, like Stephen’s, could be filled with the radiant light of heaven—almost close enough to touch—what a privilege that would be! If only we could be granted such a vision, then surely we would have to be the most blessed people on this earth, wouldn’t you agree?
But my friends, has not God granted to us just such a vision? Has He not opened heaven to us? No, not to our physical eyes. The Lord has granted us a view of heaven that is even more sure and reliable than that. In His Holy Word, God shows us all we need to know about heaven, and how to get there. You know, the Apostle Peter once got a glimpse of heaven. When he was with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, he actually saw Christ in all His heavenly glory. He actually saw with his eyes the radiant figures of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, and heard with his ears the voice of the Father speaking from heaven. But Peter tells us that there’s one thing that’s even better than seeing heaven with your own eyes…do you know what it is? It’s having a Bible! Peter says, “And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. We also have the prophetic word made more sure, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”—2 Pet 1:19. If you’re holding in your hands the Holy Scripture—God’s sure Word of prophesy—then heaven has indeed been opened to you!
Through this account in Holy Scripture, Stephen has shown us the glory that awaits each Christian witness. But the rest of the Bible shows you that, too. When, during our liturgy, you confess your sins and receive absolution from the pastor—what is that, but the opening of heaven? When, from this pulpit, you hear the Good News that your sins are freely forgiven for Jesus’ sake—what is that but the gates of Paradise swinging open to you? When, in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, you receive the very body and blood of your Lord Jesus, given and shed for you for the remission of sins…why, you may as well be stepping across the threshold of heaven itself, because you know that’s what Holy Communion entitles you to! Our catechism says, “He who believes these words has what they say and declare, namely, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.” In the Sacrament, our sins flow away in the blood of Christ, and are replaced with the perfect righteousness and holiness that our Savior earned for us. That’s why we can confidently sing, in that favorite old communion hymn,
Who can condemn me now? For surely
The Lord is nigh who justifies.
No hell I fear, and thus securely
With Jesus, I to heaven rise!
Lord, may Thy body and Thy blood
Be for my soul the highest good!
Finally, before we leave the story of this trailblazing witness, I’d like you to notice something—and that’s the way Stephen departs this life. While the rocks are still flying, while this horrifying means of execution is grinding on to its inevitable conclusion…look at this fellow Stephen! You’d think that things would be getting darker and darker for Stephen. That he’d be growing more and more desperate, more and more frightened. But that’s not the case. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Remember, Stephen had looked into heaven. And the closer he came to heaven himself, the more the light of heaven shined through him. I’ve known elderly Christians, especially, whose faces shone with that same light; perhaps you have, too. They are the battle-scarred witnesses for Christ who have fought the good fight, who have felt the hatred, who have made the sacrifices. But if you had the effrontery to ask them whether or not it was all worth it, they’d probably look at you like you’re crazy!—Because the closer you come to the end of your earthly life, the less important do the trials and tribulations of this earth seem. The Apostle Paul, near the end of his life, pondered which was better: to stay on this earth and serve Jesus, or to leave and be with Jesus. When he came right down to it, there was no contest! He said, “For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”—Phil 1:23.
Today, through the eyes of Stephen, we glimpse the glory that awaits each of us Christian witnesses. If we’ll just open our eyes, we’ll see that the light of heaven itself is already streaming down upon us, as it was upon Stephen. Let’s live our lives in that heavenly light. Witnessing the Savior who earned that heaven for us. Being concerned about our fellow Christians, who are our fellow-travelers on the road to heaven. And showing love for those who are still in the darkness of unbelief. God grant that we may follow the trail of Stephen, who was truly a trailblazing Christian witness. AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.