St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, 26 December 2004
Will Our House Be Desolate?
Did any of you receive a Christmas greeting that went something like this?
These threats to some of the 600,000 Christians in Iraq are all too real. Christians in Iraq are suffering terribly, now that the Americans have brought freedom to that country!
It seems like this is a terrible topic on this, the day after the Celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But this is St. Stephen, the Martyr's Day, on the church calendar. It really doesn't get any better tomorrow with that day being the day for St. John, Apostle and Evangelist who was also possibly martyred. Tuesday is grim with the day dedicated to the Holy Innocents, those babies two years and younger killed by King Herod the Great in Bethlehem, so no one would be a threat to him.
For me, a former missionary to Japan, all this killing of Christians brings me to tears, as I recall the hundreds of thousands of Christians in Japan who were martyred for their faith in the late 1500 and early 1600. (Commemoration date: Feb. 5).
It should be noted that before "Christmas" was celebrated, St. Stephen's Day was on the church calendar and may actually commemorate the day on which he was stoned to death because of his testimony to the message of forgiveness of sins and the reunion of God with men through Jesus.
In the words of Jesus appointed for this day from the record of the life of Jesus by Matthew, one of the followers of Jesus, we hear him tell the religious leaders of his day a startling message. Prophets, wise men, teachers will be sent to them, they will kill some, beat up others, force others to become refugees. As a result of that, all the blood of all those ever killed for the faith will come on them. In other words, they will become responsible for all the killing of all righteous people.
Then, while lamenting over the sad future for the city of Jerusalem, Jesus tells them their house, that is, the temple, will be left desolate. To this very day, there is no temple in Jerusalem. That place is occupied by a mosque dedicated to Islamic beliefs.
This Baby Jesus grows up fast, doesn't he? A Babe yesterday, today a prophet, and then himself, driven outside his city, nailed like a criminal to a cross, to die a death for all mankind, to make them again acceptable to God.
But what is this all about, this Word from Jesus for us, for our days and times? On this St. Stephen's Day?
In this country, the U.S. A., there doesn't seem to be a lot of persecution of Christians. Well, at least not openly. Attacks on moral issues, yes. Attacks on public displays of Judeo Christians themes, such as displays of the Ten Commandments, yes. In the public schools/government arena, "Christmas" is gone and has become a holiday (would you believe, "Holy Day?"), or winter celebration (I hope that doesn't hurt sales in all the store for Winter Solstice celebrations!).
Christians can become frightened, angry, frustrated over all of those events. It appears that although we may have elected a President who will champion Christian moral issues, none of the problems will go away and we will live in a country where increasingly the family of the father and mother of the church living together will become a strange phenomenon.
Just the other day, someone said it was something to be celebrated that this couple had stayed together for 10 years! That doesn't happen too much any more.
Why has this happened in a country that was thought to be so Christian just a few decades ago? Will our "house" be left desolate? Our churches turned into apartments, stores, or torn down because they are no longer used?
What is this day all about anyway?
It just well may be, and I want you to consider this, that our witness to who Jesus is and what he has done for us, has dimmed and gone out. We have not been willing to become martyrs (martyr means to witness) for our faith. Even the message in churches has often become less urgent and more a matter of choice whether we follow Jesus and believe him as the only way, truth and life.
Has it been that our increasing immoral, violent, class conscious, sensual world is caused by our decision to be our masters, our own gods? Have we rejected the prophets, the wise men and teachers Jesus has sent us? Have the gifts and parties, the decorations and lights become the reason for this season?
When it comes right down to us, I suppose each of us must ask ourselves:
Jesus has all kinds of possibilities for people. Some see him as one of many religious leaders. Some see him as the ultra example of love and dedication, giving up his life for a cause. Some really do see him as God become the God/man for us and for our rescue from all that drives God into the shadows and distant horizons of life. These see Jesus as the great Martyr to God's intent for all persons. He wants us to be his again, after we had gone over to the enemy. Jesus gives witness to the heart of God the Creating Father: he will sacrifice his one and only Son for us to able to be a part of God's world again.
What is Jesus to you? Has he given you peace after you have loved this world and the things in it more than God and been desperate for freedom from all our failures of body, mind and spirit? Is Jesus the Way, the Truth and Life for you?
I can't answer for you, but I think I can give you a clue as to where Jesus is on the ladder of your values. The clue is: are you a witness for Jesus?
That is not a question of some kind of moral perfection, being an example of being good and kind always. It is a matter of people looking at your life, hearing your words, getting an insight into your intentions and then knowing: Jesus is important to this person.
We have just celebrated the Festival of the Nativity of our Lord. I suppose you gave and you received gifts. I hope you did. Now tell me, did your love for persons to whom you gave gifts depend on the cost of the gift you gave? Does the love of the person who gave you gifts depend on the value of the gift?
Sometimes it might and then again it doesn't depend on that at all. The small, less than perfect gift of your child to you glows with that child's love. The diamonds from a spouse or to spouse might mean little or nothing because you know how that person really feels about you.
So our witness, our martyrdom to Jesus may be small, but ring with a truth that sounds louder than Big Ben. Our lives as seen by others will reflect St. Stephen and his dying words: Father, forgive them. We will let ourselves be gathered by Jesus into the warmth of his embrace to be sheltered from all true danger to our beings. We will express the truth of Christmas: God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We will do it all for Jesus, to show that he is God before whom we joyfully and humbly bow and whom we joyfully worship.
Without witness there is no possibility of the forces of evil being conquered. By witness we unleash the power of God which can turn evil people into "good" people and preserve our "house" intact, until we say: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
What will you contribute to: the building or the desolation of the only house that is worthwhile preserving? Amen
Walter W. Harms, retired pastor