ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY ANGLICAN CHURCH
+PETER F. HANSEN SERMON FOR ST. STEPHEN’S DAY, DECEMBER 26, 2021
“Stephen, 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.”
CAN YOU remember a moment when God showed Himself to you? What was the incident; how did you know it was He? Where did it happen? Was it a vision? was it a voice? Or a miracle? Did you somehow just know? When did God reveal Himself? how did that make you feel? Did you sense the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Why do you think He did that? How often have you sensed Him since?
We enter Stephen’s life almost at its end. He was chosen by the Apostles. Peter was frustrated by the high demands of the new church. Some claimed he and the other Apostles were neglecting Greek-speaking widows. Peter saw 3,000 people come to Christ on one single day, and that number grew every week. It was a logistical nightmare to even hold meetings. Their success had come to the attention of Temple and government officials, who were now seeking ways to stop this renegade bunch of “Galileans”.
Peter called a council and said the Apostles’ job was to preach and lead, not tend to every issue and supply the needs of a few. Others should be appointed to visited the sick and hungry, people dispossessed by their families who now considered them dead. Seven men were chosen as deacons; all spoke Greek, all had lived abroad, and could relate well to foreign-born members of “the Way”. Stephen, among them, from that day distinguished himself, bringing many to Christ. A firebrand, a passionate speaker, and a thorn in the side of the rulers. Miracles were attributed to him, and crowds formed wherever he went.
At one engagement, he was arrested and brought before the tribunal that convicted Jesus, that admonished Peter and John after healing a lame beggar. The high priest and Sanhedrin now faced this young fanatic. They brought their accusations, then asked him to speak for himself. Stephen regarded his audience, and spoke as he would before a crowd in the streets. “Men, brothers, fathers, hear me...” He told the whole Jewish national story. He got their attention, confirmed faith in their Jewish beliefs, gave credence to them all: then he led them to the cross. “But your hearts are hard and ears shut to me; you’re always fighting the Holy Spirit—as your fathers did, so now you do also. Which of the prophets was not cruelly attacked by your fathers? they put to death anyone who gave news of the coming Righteous One; the One you gave up and put to death; You, who were given the law by angels, and YOU have never kept it.” Acts 7:51-53 This sudden rebuke snapped the elders out of their reverie, and their anger boiled over.
This angelic young man looked skyward and saw his vision. What Stephen saw at that moment made the rest of his brief life more remarkable. Filled with God’s Spirit, he saw the roof of the Sanhedrin open out and heaven displayed above him, with the brilliant light of God’s approval. And there was Jesus, seated at the Father’s right hand. It transfixed Stephen. He told the priests, who’d never seen any vision themselves, “I see heaven open, and the Son of man at the right hand of God!” v 56 This sealed his fate. The proceedings at an end, they raged at him, picked him off his feet and carried him to a pit. There these fine leaders of Israel took rocks and hurled them at his head. His last words were, “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 said this, he fell asleep.” Id. The vision prepared Stephen for heaven, and led him to pray forgiveness for his executioners.
When did you first become aware of God? Obviously, Stephen knew God from experience. This was not his first vision, God had touched him, moved him, spoken to him and through him. His beatific vision was extraordinary. Now remember your own experience.
My father had a waking vision of Jesus in his younger life. I’ve known other people with the same blessing. I was convinced of God’s reality while freezing in an open fishing dinghy at dawn on Lake Mead one morning at the age of seven. Wind cut across that huge expanse, setting up a chop and the little motorboat kicked spray and soaked us all. I wasn’t dress warm enough, and it occurred to me to pray that God, if he heard my silent request, would stop the wind. The wind ceased at the next second, turning a hundred square miles of Lake Mead into a sheet of glass. God is real. You know it and so do I.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,”Prov 29:18 said Solomon. A population without the knowledge of God is doomed. People see visions, examples of God’s power, or hear Him. It happens, whether it’s a burning bush, or a ladder running with angels, or a still small voice, or a fiery chariot, or a pillar of cloud, or a sapphire throne and four winged creatures with eyes and faces. Visions of heaven’s throne room may be rare, but He does show Himself in many ways, doesn’t He?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the vacuum of authority that left people aimless and hopeless, the emancipated Russians called people of faith to come over and teach them morals and religious truth, to their children, to everyone. In 1994, two Americans answered this call, and they taught Jesus in public schools, prisons, businesses, fire and police departments and one large orphanage where a hundred children, abandoned by destitute mothers and fathers, heard the story of Jesus.
Nearing Christmas, these ambassadors told of Christ’s nativity. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem and found no room in the inn. Jesus was born and placed in a manger: a familiar story to us all. To these orphans, it was the first time they had ever heard of the wonder of God’s Son having been born on earth.
The staff then gave each child a little cardboard, a yellow napkin, a scrap of white flannel, some tan-colored felt, and instructions to make a manger of their own. Each orphan tore the napkins into straw, folded the cardboard into little manger-boxes, and placed a felt baby, wrapped in a flannel blanket, snugly inside. One American reported, “All went well until I got to the table where little Misha sat. He was about 6 years old and had finished his project. I looked at the little boy’s manger, but was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger. I called a translator to ask the boy why there were two babies. Crossing his arms in front of him and staring at his manger, the child began to repeat the story of the baby Jesus very seriously.
“For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related it accurately – until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger. Misha had made up his own ending, ‘And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay.
“‘I told him I have no mama and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So, I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?’
“And Jesus told the little Russian, ‘If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’ So, I got into the manger, and Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him—for always.”
Little Misha’s eyes cascaded with tears and he laid his head on the table and sobbed, his little shoulders shaking. He was overcome—with joy. In his six years, he had so valued warmth, but never had he found anyone who would not abandon or abuse him, but would stay with him for always. A Russian Christian Story, Will Fish
Saint Stephen saw Jesus seated at the Right Hand of God on high. Little Misha saw Jesus lying in a manger, and speaking comfort to his heart. I had the wind over Lake Mead stop at my silent prayer. I wonder what your story is and how God touched you and made you to know: “I am here. I love you. I have always known you. You are mine. You can cry. You can laugh as well. It’s alright now. I’ll never leave you or reject you. Stay with Me. I’m with you—for always.”
At the stoning of Stephen, another young man, who’d also come from Greek lands like Stephen, who was also zealous, brilliant, and faith-driven, stood by, holding the cloaks for the Sanhedrin judge-executioners as they hurled stones to kill the first Christian martyr. Saul approved of it. But his moment was not far off, a few months or years, and this young man would breathe his hatred of these heretics, lead an arrest team to Damascus to bring Christians back in chains. But he was confronted by the glory of God, and heard the voice of One, saying, “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting. Why do you so oppose Me? I have a different life for you to lead. I am calling you, Saul, to be an ambassador for me to the Gentiles.”
What Stephen saw, and what Paul saw, you see too. It’s like stars during the daytime. We know they are there. Look up. Oh, the blue sky obscures the vision during the day. But the stars are there anyway. God is there anyway. God is speaking anyway. God is real anyway.
So now, how did He first show Himself to you?
And how is He showing Himself to you right now?