What Happens When The Heavens Open!
Text: Acts 7:55-56
St. Stephen, Martyr
Perhaps the readings you heard this morning seemed a little odd. Not very "Christmas-y" at all. It likely wasn't what you expected when you came here today. It is not that Christmas is over and we have moved on to bigger and better things. Far be it! December 26th is the Minor Festival of St. Stephen, Martyr. The commemoration of one of the first Christian martyrs on the day after Christmas is a good antidote for the sentimentality that often finds its way into the Church.
This day stands as a vivid reminder of how the Advent of Jesus - how the Birth of the Christ - how the Life of the Incarnate Son of God causes strife and creates divisions. Jesus Himself declared, I have not come to bring peace, but division (Luke 12:51). Whenever truth and error meet face to face, those supporting error work vehemently to destroy the truth. Error cannot refute truth, only be refuted by it. The only recourse the lie has in the face of the truth is to attempt to destroy the truth.
Acts 6-8 details Stephen's witness to the truth and his subsequent martyrdom. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons chosen to serve the Christian Church in Jerusalem, was zealous for the faith once delivered to the disciples. This put him in direct conflict with the religious authorities of Judaism. Following Stephen's unwavering declaration of the truth, he makes an announcement, a proclamation that causes the enemies of God to condemn him, cast him out of the city and stone him to death. Based upon Acts 7:55-56, please listen to what Stephen said under the theme of ... What Happens When The Heavens Open!
One thing is for sure, whenever the heavens open, you can be certain that, despite all that is taking place on this earth, the Lord God stands ready to deliver His people. Stephen had just finished explaining the history of Abraham and the children of Abraham. From the time of Abram to that moment when these religious leaders of Israel had betrayed and murdered the Righteous One -- the Promised Messiah -- Jesus the Christ of God. These enemies of God and persecutors of the true Israel gnash their teeth at this disciple. Then the heavens opened ...
... and the Lord God renders judgment on unbelief while, at the same time, standing forth to deliver His people. And this was by no means the first time it had happened either. For example, in the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:11-12). In the midst of the judgment resulting in a watery grave for the fallen ones, the Lord God saved and preserved His message and His Church for people like Stephen and you. He always had; He always will. It is His promise and He sends His messengers to proclaim it to the world.
So also, in the dark hours of a certain Judean night, there were shepherds watching over their flocks by night when an angel announces the Birth of the Saviour in the City of David and heaven opened again. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." Heaven opened and King of creation makes His Divine entrance, and here in Bethlehem is the Redeemer Who, while asleep on the hay, still stands forth to deliver His people. In a land of death, the Lord God saved and preserved His message and His Church for people like Stephen and you. He always had; He always will. It is His promise and the Holy Spirit comes forth to bear witness to Jesus and the Father declares the pleasure that He had in His Only-Begotten Son.
Thus, in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon Him like a Dove; and a Voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10-11). Behold your Saviour, dear people, He sanctifies the waters of baptism so that wherever it is used in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, there the inheritance of heaven is bestowed. There the Lord Jesus stands at the Right Hand of God calling people like Stephen and you, His own.
So, in the dark hours of a certain Judean day, the Good Shepherd, suspended from an accursed tree, watches over His flock below and declares a petition on behalf of all, especially for those who are responsible for His crucifixion, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And suddenly, in order for heaven to be opened for people like Stephen and you, heaven is closed to Emmanuel and He is forsaken by God and man. And with the substitutionary atonement completed and then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit!" And having said this He breathed His last (Luke 23:36). Here has the salvation of the world been wrought, indeed for all, but also and especially for people like Stephen and you.
Yet, heaven opened once again. In the darks hours of after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Fear not; for I know that you seek Jesus Who was crucified. He is not here; for He has risen, as He said" (Matthew 28:1-6). Jesus' Resurrection means hope for people like Stephen and you.
And we are still not done with the story, for heaven opened once more. Forty days later, after Jesus had spoken to His disciples, He was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the Right Hand of God (Mark 16:19). Oh what gracious Good News! He Who is Law-Giver and the Burden-Bearer ... He who is the Defense Attorney and the Judge ... He is the Atoning Sacrifice for not only the sins of the whole world, but also for the sins of people like Stephen and you.
But heaven opens again, dearly beloved, and again and again and again ... week after week as we come into His Presence, enter the Holy of Holies and partake of the Manna from above and the Cup of Blessing. Each time we participate in the Body and Blood of our Risen Redeemer, we join the angels and archangels and the entire company of heaven as we laud and magnify His glorious Name evermore praising Him and singing, "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest!" Here is Good News, that whether you live or whether you die, you belong to the Lord. You may live your life knowing that He Who was crucified has opened heaven's gates for you.
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:55-60).
This account of Stephen's awful martyrdom might initially cause us to lose the festive atmosphere of the Christmas season. The brutal stoning is apt to cast all joy out of us. However this is not really the situation if we stop and think about what has taken place. While it is true that the Saviour is not in the manger, look at the Word. Behold, we see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the Right Hand of God. The Word made flesh and dwelling among us, is now also the Risen and Ascended Lord of all. This Good News, and faith which believes such Word of God gave Stephen the courage to confess Christ joyfully even when facing death. This Good News, and faith which believes such Word of God enabled the faithful man to suffer willingly a violent death because of his confession.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a White Horse! He Who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a Name inscribed which no one knows but Himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in Blood, and the Name by which He is called is The Word of God (Revelation 19:11-13).