I don't know how you would answer, if asked about King Wenceslas. When and where did he live? - for example. He was, as a matter of fact, the 10th century regent of Bohemia, a good Christian prince, who was murdered by his pagan brother. Afterwards he was considered a martyr and the patron of Bohemia. Later still his Crown was the symbol for Czech independence.
But the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church is then rather deflating. It says this: "the name of the saint has become familiar in England through J.M.Neale's Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas, but its contents are wholly imaginary."
That is a bit like being told Father Christmas is really your mother. However, whether it was fact or fiction that "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen" it is fact and not fiction that today, Boxing Day, is the Feast of Stephen - Stephen's day. I expect that many know even less about Stephen than they know about Wenceslas. And that is sad, because the bible has a great deal to teach us about Stephen. So this morning I want us to focus on Acts 6 and 7 where we read about Stephen.
But today is not only Stephen's day; it is also the last Sunday of the century and the last Sunday of the Millennium. In one sense that means very little. In another sense, it is an excuse for us to look back and to look forward. And we can do that as we think about Stephen. For Stephen was the first Christian martyr - the first of many. Paul Marshall, in his book Their Blood Cries Out, two years ago said that the twentieth century probably saw more persecution of Christians than any previous century. I quote:
"In general we can say that currently, two hundred to two hundred [and] fifty million Christians are persecuted for their faith, and a further four hundred million live under non-trivial restrictions on religious liberty."
Stephen, therefore, will have some lessons for us today and as we look towards the future. I want us to think about Stephen, first, as a DEACON and his call to serve; secondly, as an APOLOGIST and his call to speak; and thirdly, as a MARTYR and his call to sacrifice. So
First, Stephen as a DEACON and his call to serve.
Look at Acts 6.1-4:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.
This is a period of Church Growth. There is decline in many parts of the Church in Europe and Britain. But the Church is meant to grow. Praise God that the attendances at Jesmond Carols by Candlelight this year increased by 17 percent over last year.
But there can be problems with growth. The devil will always try to destroy God's work. As you read the preceding chapters of the Acts of the Apostles you will see that first there was Jewish persecution. The Jewish authorities tried to stamp out the tiny but vigorous early church in the period immediately after Pentecost. The devil had also failed to destroy it by corruption - by financial dishonesty in the case of Ananias and Sapphira and their hypocrisy. He is now trying to destroy the church by internal grumbling. Some were complaining they were not getting fair shares in the allocation of the widows' benefits. The details are not clear. But in any organization there will be rough edges.
This side of heaven nothing will be perfect. There were rough edges in the early church; there are in this church; and there will be in every church. The apostles - the twelve senior leaders - saw the danger. They saw that this problem between the Grecian Jews (probably the Greek speaking Jews) and the Hebraic Jews (probably the Aramaic speaking Jews) - whatever the rights and wrongs - could dangerously absorb their time. They knew that the number-one priority for the health and the life of the church was not social administration - important as that was, but preaching and praying. They knew that a church stands or falls as it is faithful to God's word and as God's word is taught. So that is the supreme responsibility of the senior leadership in any church. They said (6.2):
it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to way on tables.
Isn't neglect of God's word happening in churches up and down this land today? There is too little preaching on Sundays and too little bible study on weekdays. No wonder the devil is having a field day in the West. The church is being left without any defence against false doctrine. That is why there is such confusion.
But the twelve apostles were clear as to their priorities.
However, they were also clear that administration couldn't be ignored. They knew that a Christian fellowship needs administration and an infra-structure. And Stephen was one of the first church administrators. The apostles teach us here the lesson that a growing church needs to increase its staff. New specialist ministries are called for. So they had a process for identifying the right people and they established important criteria - even for this administrative job of dealing with the money and sorting out the pastoral problems of these disaffected widows.The candidates needed to be 'full of the Spirit and wisdom' (v 3).
How important 'wisdom' is - practical wisdom. It is not a matter so much of an academic understanding of facts as of understanding people. But more important, these administrators and pastoral workers needed to be spiritual people, strong in their own faith. Some churches or christian organizations have people simply for their secular skills and they can be disasters. Either they are not full of the Spirit and are clueless in their spiritual judgment, or they are spiritual people but lack wisdom in spite of their technical expertise.
Well, Stephen fitted the bill; he was 'full of faith' (verse 5), and presumably a man of great wisdom. What did Stephen do? We don't know in detail. But as with all ministry he was called to "serve". That is why some have called these seven people who "waited [or literally, served] on tables" the first "deacons" (a word meaning 'service'). And what is serving? It is putting other's interests before your own. It is seeking to meet their needs, not yours. Isn't that what we all need to pray for as we enter a new millennium - for a new spirit of service in ourselves and in the church at large. And service is to do with motive not just action. Remember the "hired hands" in John chapter 10. Jesus talks about the "Good Shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10.11). And then verses 12-13:
The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
Oh! yes. The hired hand feeds the sheep. But when the crunch comes, he is not there. Why? Because all he does at the end of the day is not for the sheep, but for himself and for his own satisfactions. How important it is to be involved in God's work nor for your own sake and your own satisfactions but for the sake of the sheep. Stephen, it seems, was like that. And what was the result of these new arrangements? Answer: further growth. Look at verse 7 of Acts 6:
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
So Stephen as deacon and his call to serve.
Secondly, Stephen as an APOLOGIST or his call to speak.
The early church was not just facing internal problems with people grumbling and complaining. There were also external problems. And they came from the religious establishment. And they still can. This week on the BBC's Today programme, I heard male clergy, in effect, denying the virginal conception of Jesus and a female clergyman from Durham diocese saying, in effect, that it would be a good thing to stop using the word Christmas so as not to offend other faiths. Nor is it just false ideas that confuse. There is direct action.
Ian Garrett, our student co-ordinator was prevented from preaching at the Durham University carol service this year in Durham Cathedral. The students wanted him as he had been effective in the University Mission as a missioner. But the diocesan authorities would not allow him to preach. Look at Acts 6.9-10:
Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)--Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
Notice that while the twelve apostles were not to get distracted by administration, Stephen, an administrator and pastoral worker who cared for the widows, could preach and teach. What was the issue? Look at Acts 6.13-14:
They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
They were making the issue the temple ('this holy place'), on the one hand, and God's word to and through Moses, on the other hand. It is not clear what Stephen had actually taught, but we have got his answer to the false accusations. It seems that this is the perennial problem of excessive ritualism and a trust in buildings or the externals of the faith. In Jeremiah's day the people were defying God's word, being immoral, following false prophets but saying, "we've got the temple and the religious cult. We go at special times so all will be well.' It was probably the same with some in Stephen's day. It is often the same today. But what did Jeremiah say:
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" (7.4).
Church buildings and sacraments are of no value if your heart isn't right with God. As Billy Graham used to say, "you may live in a garage, but that doesn't make you an automobile." You may go to church and take communion and be baptised, but if your heart is not changed and your will is not submissive to God's will, you are still under judgment. Salvation comes, as Christmas teaches us, only through Christ the one who was born the Saviour, and only by faith in him. Buildings and rituals have a secondary value but it is only secondary. Who needs to learn that lesson this Christmas, for the first time if necessary?
Stephen had to teach that God is not bound by, or identified with, buildings. That was Stephen's message. That is what chapter 7 verses 2 - 53 is all about. You can read it when you get home. Stephen is arguing that the God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place. He appeared to Abraham in Mesopatamia (v 3). He was with Joseph in Egypt (v 9). He was with Moses at the burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai (v 30). And Solomon who eventually built the temple said this (1 Ki 8:27):
"But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!"
So much for the temple. But also there was the issue of the law and Moses. We know from the Gospels that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were adding all sorts of their own traditions and claiming Mosaic blessing. There were rules, for example, about washing your hands. And Jesus and his disciples said, 'nonsense' - or words to that effect. And the Pharisees added to the command to honour your father and mother in such away that their sophistry enabled people to ignore their mother and father. So Jesus said: "you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matt 15.6).
Jesus wanted to get back to the real meaning of God's word. He rejected these traditions - not God's word or God's law but these additions. And Stephen was, no doubt, teaching as Jesus had taught. He was then wrongly accused of rejecting God's law. Are you ever falsely accused for seeking to be faithful to God's word? You are in good company. Stephen was falsely accused. And if you are in that sort of situation you will often find that truth is irrelevant. People have closed minds. So when you reasonably argue your corner, like Stephen did, and no one can "stand up against" you (6.10), the opposition will, often, then use underhanded means as they did with Stephen, (Acts 6.12-13):
they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.
There was dishonesty and then violence. But never reply in kind. Like Stephen witness to the truth and trust God. It is amazing how the Holy Spirit can use what you say. Time as gone. Stephen, as a deacon and serving; Stephen as an apologist and speaking up for Christ.
Thirdly, Stephen as a MARTYR and his call to sacrifice.
Those verses on Stephen's stoning that we had as our Epistle/NT reading (Acts 7.51-60) speak for themselves. Life may get harder in the next Millennium.
This past week the ITC (the Independent Television Commission) has imposed a £20,000 fine on the Christian Channel, here in Gateshead. Why? Because they screened an advert for a religious rally in London with a charismatic evangelist. It showed social problems and suggested they were caused by a lack of Christian standards in society. The advert might have been unwise. But this ITC censorship of Christian views is sinister, especially when offensively obscene and blasphemous material is now nightly fare on TV and allowed by the ITC. Among other things the ITC objected to this advert describing homosexuality as "an abomination" (but that is simply the word used in the Authorized Version of the bible). The ITC also objected to comments about the weakness of some spiritual leaders and critical references to "alternative religious practices" and to rationalist, atheist and humanist beliefs and philosophies. You may have strong reservations about this charismatic evangelist. But for the ITC to judge the claim that homosexual sex is grossly immoral is "offensive to public feeling" or not "respecting human dignity" (I am quoting from their Press Release) is frightening, as is their censure of critical references to other beliefs.
Are you ready to make sacrifices for Christ? In a progressively anti-Christian culture we all will have to make more sacrifices. The easiest will be sacrifices of time and money. The hardest often will be the sacrifice of a reputation. You will become labelled. Did Stephen bother about being labelled as anti-Moses when he most certainly wasn't. No! Who, if the Lord doesn't first return, would you prefer to be remembered as being like, in the year 2999 - someone like Stephen, or some like the false witnesses?
I must conclude.
This is a sad episode in the history of the church - the death of Stephen. But in the providence of God it was a key part in the evangelization of the world. Look at Acts 8 verse 1:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
The day of Stephen's death was the day of the beginning of the great mission to the Gentiles and the evangelization of the world. It is often only with hindsight that you can see the value and importance of bad experiences. Who is going through a tough time this morning? If you trust God remember
that in all things [even those bad experiences] God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom 8.28).