2 Chronicles 24:20-22
Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, ‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.’ But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord. King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him, but killed his son. As he was dying, he said, ‘May the Lord see and avenge!’
1 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.
3 Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
4 Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.
5 Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 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. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 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.
Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
There is a theme in the readings of people who do not want to hear God’s message when it is not the message they want to hear.
Is that true of us? And do we then want to kill/ silence the messenger? Certainly there have been messages we have not wanted to hear: the climate emergency warnings of Extinction Rebellion and more recently the campaign of Insulate Britain. The UK government is taking increasingly harsh action to prevent such protests being made. In Hong Kong the umbrella movement was suppressed; in Myanmar opponents of the military have been silenced; environmentalists have been killed in the Philippines. Maybe it is always this way when a minority challengers the status quo.
The words in Psalm 31 reflects the situation from the view point of the one who is being martyred. And who finds strength in God.
Persecution and suffering are more prevalent in the Christmas story than we might wish to hear. Mary was likely to have suffered persecution or at least disapprobation, for becoming an unmarried mother. Joseph was likely to have been scorned for marrying such a woman. Zechariah was probably castigated for becoming mute. Both he and Elizabeth may have been frowned upon for naming their son John and not ‘Zechariah’. Herod suffered fear when he heard of a potential new King. The magi had to make an alternative exit. The holy family had to flee for their lives taking up refugee status in Egypt. The young boys of Bethlehem were slaughtered, their families traumatised. Even Simeon’s prophecy in the temple is a mixed message of salvation and suffering.
Even today, Christmas has its mix of suffering. Domestic abuse. Family arguments. Heightened loneliness for some. Depression. And the waste of uneaten food, discarded presents, abandoned pets.
So where is the good news? People are more generous at Christmas time. Giving to charities increases. More effort is made to provide for accommodation for those who are homeless, meals and company for those who are alone, cheer for those in hospitals, and ceasefires where there is fighting. There is the glimmer of hope, a light that can be seen by those walking in darkness. The incarnation means that in Jesus God has experienced viscerally what humanity experiences. Jesus had experienced what Stephen experienced. Stephen was the first Christian martyr and so his feast day is placed next to the feast day that marks the incarnation – the being humanness – of God.
What the prophets, what Stephen, what Jesus himself, all shared was an immense faith, a belief that even when the odds are against you, God is with you. A conviction that they were doing the right thing, that what they believed was worth standing up for, that there was some glimmer of hope. In Stephen’s story we hear how, as he dies, he sees Jesus in glory at the right hand of God. We don’t know whether Zechariah had any comparable experience, but he certainly so strong in his faith that he stood up and faced King Joash and asserted his belief that because Joash had gone against God’s will, he, Joash, would suffer.
That kind of faith, of hope, shared by Stephen and Zechariah, comes from a deep and close relationship with God – and for Stephen a relationship that had an even greater depth through knowing Jesus. The measure of faith and hope comes, I think, in proportion with the depth and closeness of the relationship.
The gospel readings at Christmas tell of the incarnation, of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and of mystery of God who has been with creation from the beginning and yet then becoming one with us in human form. The Word, that was from the beginning, is with us now – is born again in us. The Word is one half of a dialogue in which we can grow closer to God.