Sunday December 26th 2021
A warm welcome to worship on the first Sunday after Christmas.
Hymn 324 Angels from the realms of glory
Prayer of Approach and Confession
Lord Jesus Christ,
You were born, so that you might die.
You took on our humanity
So that you might experience also our mortality
Only through identifying yourself so totally with us
Could you bridge the gap that separates us from God.
You showed us the way of love,
And you followed it through to the end.
You proclaimed forgiveness,
And you paid the price to make it possible.
In life and death, you testified to the grace of the Father,
And his purpose for all the world.
Help us, as we celebrate again your birth,
Never to forget that this was just the beginning of the story.
As we greet you as the child of Bethlehem,
So let us greet you also as the crucified Saviour
And the risen Lord,
And may we offer you,
This and every day,
our joyful worship,
in grateful praise, through Christ our Lord, who taught us to pray together saying,
Hymn 325 Bethlehem a noble city
Reading: Acts 6: 1-14
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The Arrest of Stephen
8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. 8 1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
Hymn Good King Wenceslas
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
Although it doesn’t appear in the Church of Scotland hymn book, the familiar old Christmas carol about Good King Wenceslas can tell us a lot about the meaning of that world-changing Christmas in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. The carol recalls a legend about St Wenceslas, a medieval ruler of Bohemia, who was particularly remembered for his piety. Right at the beginning we sing that
“Good King Wenceslas looked out
on the Feast of Stephen”
and in those lines the carol reminds us of some important aspects of our Christian story.
But why is it particularly a Christmas carol? And what has the Feast of Stephen got to do with Christmas?
In some Christian denominations most people would probably know the answer to that second question right away, although I suspect it is perhaps less evident to the average member of a Church of Scotland congregation. But in fact the connection with Christmas is that today, December 26th, is actually the Feast of Stephen, or St Stephen’s Day, and its coming immediately after Christmas day is not accidental.
For Christians, Christmas Day focuses our attention with intense clarity on that great scene in the stable at Bethlehem where the Son of God became a human being and dwelt among us. For us and for all humankind this was an event so tremendous that it needs to be singled out and commemorated with complete concentration.
But of course that was only the beginning of the Christian story, because the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was the start of a spiritual transformation that developed, not in the stable, but in the world beyond. The importance of the story that began in Bethlehem is that it did not stay in Bethlehem.
That is where the Feast of Stephen comes to remind us what that movement into the wider world is about. And the old Christmas carol points us clearly in that direction. The very first lines tell us that on St Stephen’s Day good King Wenceslas looked out. He did not stay cosy and warm in his castle recuperating from his Christmas revels; instead he turned his gaze outward to the world beyond his walls, and he did not simply look at it but also ventured out into it, despite the forbidding cold and wind and snow. The King and his long-suffering page go out into the world in a great but challenging act of Christian caring. They leave the comforts of their normal lives to go out into the world to bring food and warmth to the poor man whom they see trying to gather winter fuel in the bleak and barren landscape.
But as they trudge through the snow towards the poor man’s cottage, the page is overcome by the hostile environment:
"Sire, the night is darker
and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how;
I can go no longer."
The King’s answer to this is simple but significant: follow in my footsteps, he says, and you will find that the way has become easier. And so they go on to complete their mission.
In some ways the King’s answer is merely common sense: if you walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before, the path will be easier and clearer. But I think there is more to it than that, because, of course, to follow willingly in another’s footsteps you must have faith that he knows where he’s going. You must believe that he is striving to reach the right goal. And you must be committed to that goal yourself. You must be so dedicated to your mission that, even when the night is darker and the wind blows stronger, you are ready to go forward with confidence and determination.
All that is easier when the path is well-trodden and the goal certain. But what if, like the King’s page in that carol, you are setting out on a path that has never been walked before, a path that is only being opened before you for the first time as you are trying to find your way forward when the world around you is putting every obstacle in your path?
This is a far more daunting prospect and it requires a commitment, a strength of character, and a faith that is beyond the ordinary.
And it is at this point that St Stephen comes into the picture. As one of the very earliest followers of Christ’s way, he faced all the uncertainties and difficulties that striking out on a new path entails. And yet we are told in the Book of Acts that when he was chosen by the Apostles to carry the Christian message out into the world he took up his task with faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit. We are told that he was a man who acted with grace and power and accomplished great things.
Stephen seems to have done this with a strong and outward-looking emphasis on the needs of the wider, Greek-speaking community, a group that tended to be what today we would probably call cosmopolitan and progressive. Stephen’s views on this aroused the hatred of some of the more inward-looking, Hebrew-speaking, people whom we would now probably call traditional or even reactionary . The New Testament does not provide great detail about this antagonism, and there is much debate about it among Biblical scholars, but one thing is made clear--- how it all ended.
And here Stephen has a unique place in the Christian story: his enemies got him in the end and he was martyred for his faith. He was in fact the first Christian martyr, the first person to be put to death for trying to take the message of Jesus out into the world. And that, I think, is why in the Christian calendar St Stephen’s Day comes immediately after Christmas Day itself.
Joining those two days so closely together is a telling reminder that the coming of Jesus into the world was a challenge to all that the world stood for. Jesus challenged the world’s pride and arrogance and condemned its violence and greed and inhumanity. And Christmas linked with St Stephen’s Day is a reminder also that the world is always ready to strike back ruthlessly against those, like Stephen, who try to make the message of Christmas a reality by treading the new path pioneered by Jesus and calling others to walk with them. The fact that Stephen was still ready to go forward as a follower of Jesus, even in the face of death, has inspired Christians ever since to preach the Gospel boldly and to call the world to account, whatever the costs.
Putting Christmas and St Stephen’s Day together in this way highlights the fact that Christmas, the greatest event in history, was nevertheless not an isolated event but was rather the start of a great story that is still unfolding, the story of Christians who refuse to be intimidated by the brutality of the world’s opposition and who resolutely set out to follow where Jesus has led.
Hymn 326 As with gladness, men of old
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession (by Gwen)
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
We behold your glory.
Wonderful Counsellor, your glory burst through the heavens to amaze the shepherds with news of your birth. Bring us to kneel in adoration and worship. May your Church proclaim your salvation from day to day.
Mighty God, you judge with equity and your power stoops to touch our humanity. Inspire the rulers of the nations with this humanity and concern for everyone. Bring harmony and dignity to all peoples.
Everlasting Father, your name is exulted in all generations. Bring the sounds of laughter and rejoicing to our homes. Wrap your children in tenderness and love.
Prince of peace, in your freedom we thrive and flourish. Be with all whose hearts are troubled or distressed. Bless us with your godly hope.
To us a child is born and he brings redemption for all who trust in him. Hear our prayer for all who rest in peace. Gracious God, you hear our cries of delight and agony, especially for those whom we hold up to you now in silence - - - - -
Reach out to all who call on you. Stir up your strength and come to our aid. May your light dawn upon us with joy.
These things we ask in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Hymn 323 The first Nowell
May peace and joy be yours this Christmas time
And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you all, this day and forevermore, Amen
Closing voluntary: Tchaikovsky: The Seasons – December