Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: Sermon for Christmas Day

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:14). The angels sang those words that night, more than two thousand years ago – the first Christmas, when our Savior was born. Merry Christmas – a Savior is born, and he is Christ the Lord! Glory to God!

You know, the Bible is constantly talking about God's 'glory' – hundreds of times throughout the Bible, it talks about God's 'glory.' But what does that mean? What is 'glory'? In the Old Testament, the word they use for 'glory' basically means 'heaviness.' For something to have 'glory' means it's got real weight. It has importance. It has significance. It has value. It has gravity. It has a pull on us. What we glorify is what's important to us, what's central in our lives, what we're attracted to and impressed by. For God to have glory means that he's at the center of it all – everything revolves around him, everything is defined in terms of him. He's the top priority in everything.

The Bible also describes God's glory as shining, as being bright, as being like light. 'Glory' is beautiful. Glory is appealing, impressive, attractive. Kings have glory, in all their royal finery and fancy crowns. Nations have glory, in all their wealth and production. Temples have glory, in all their architectural marvels and gold and jewels. Angels have glory, in all their heavenly brightness like stars in the sky. But their glory is relative; it isn't central; it doesn't have the same rightful pull that God does. God has real glory, absolute beauty, absolute brightness. When God is central, when everything revolves around him and finds its rightful place, things nearby become clear, transfigured, brought to life.

The Bible talks a lot about God's glory and its brightness. Moses and the Israelites saw it in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and the burning presence that settled on Mount Sinai and then moved into the tabernacle (Exodus 16:10; 24:16; 40:34). The prophets looked forward to a day when that same glory would fill the entire world, drench the air and land and sea, suffuse every atom with God's obvious brightness and power (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 2:14). But the prophet Ezekiel actually described a vision. As God touched him, there in his land of exile, Ezekiel saw:

...a stormy wind come out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, something like gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came four living creatures. … And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. And over the expanse of their heads, there was the likeness of a throne, looking like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was the likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what looked like his waist, I saw what looked like gleaming metal, looking like fire enclosed all around. And downward from what looked like his waist, I saw what looked like the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that's in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. (Ezekiel 1:4-5, 13-14, 26-28).

That's bright! That's undeniable! And some day, that presence would fill the temple. Some day, that presence will fill the earth. Just as it once was in Eden. In Eden, God was central. In Eden, everything was in place around him, in living and vital relationship with him. And around God, there's life eternal; around God, there's perfect peace; around God, there's refreshment and joy and wonder, the riches of love and the fulfillment of every longing.

For some brief moment of time, in the infancy of our history, we tasted that – because we, and all things, gave God absolute glory. In fact, in some ancient Jewish writings, the reason the innocent Adam and Eve don't realize they're naked – the reason they can be unashamed – is because their bodies glowed in reflection of God's glory.

But then came a tempting serpent, whose envy rejected our place in orbit around God's glory. And that foul creature slithered through the garden, confronted the woman and the man beside her, suggested a different order, a different center of gravity. Why revolve around God? Why let him be our center? Why not glimpse a world we ourselves design, dictate, and decide? The know-how, the authority, is at our fingertips, hanging from a branch. We, too, can be important. We can be central to ourselves. Just take one bite – and so we do. And so we lose sight of God's glory. We trade his brightness for shame and fig leaves.

And ever since we were locked out of Eden for our own protection, our path to the tree of life blocked by cherubim with flaming sword, the human problem has been what the psalmist described: “They exchanged their glory,” the glory of God in their midst, “for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Or like Paul said: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. … They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Romans 1:22-25). And that's a big problem, because God tells us, “My glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8) – God is absolutely central; that's the way the world is meant to be. But our world came unglued from its orbit, and the result was decay and death. And all our history is the story of how we've constructed our own little worlds to glorify things other than God.

The question of human history, the question of our lives, has always been: What's at the center? What's most central to you? What defines you and everything around you? What's most impressive to you, most valuable to you, most beautiful to you? What is it that attracts you and is the ultimate organizing principle of your life? Adam and Eve were tainted, poisoned, when they made it themselves. We often follow their lead. Maybe we build our lives around money – define ourselves in terms of what we have or what we can get or what we wish we could get. Maybe we build our lives around the work we do – define ourselves as an occupation.

Maybe we build our lives around power – define ourselves in how much we wield or want. Maybe we build our lives around pleasure – devote ourselves to savoring it, jumping from one experience to the next, whether wholesome or unwholesome. Maybe we build our lives around safety and security – define ourselves as potential victims, devote ourselves to staying comfortable and protected by whatever means necessary.

Maybe we build our lives around a hobby – some pursuit that dominates our time and energy, something we most enjoy, be it hunting, fishing, racing, reading, knitting, or anything else. Maybe we build our lives around a cause, like politics – we define ourselves by our views, by our commitment, we see everything in light of that cause, we give it our heart and soul.

Maybe we build our lives around a relationship – we define ourselves by some other person. It could be some celebrity to whom we're devoted, or a leader, or a mentor. Or it could be a parent, a spouse, a child – someone who becomes the be-all and end-all to our lives, the practical reason for our being (which proves especially damaging when we're separated from them by distance or death). Or maybe we build our lives around some notion of our identity – some definition of ourselves by race, by nation, by desire, by experience, by condition of health or wealth, by profession or confession. Maybe we build our lives around morality, or even religion – but ultimately, it all comes down to us dictating the center.

When we imagine God owes us, or that we can earn his favor, or that we set the terms for our relationship with him, or that we decide what's fair or what he should do, we've placed ourselves at the center and given ourselves the glory. That's the human story. And it's not a happy story. Like the prophet says: “Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings darkness, before your feet stumble on the twilight mountains, and while you look for light he turns it into gloom and makes it deep darkness” (Jeremiah 13:16). Isn't that a picture of our world? We read the news, or we look at our own lives, and we see the traces of tragedy.

We're looking for light. We're trying to build a safe world where we won't get hurt, where we can enjoy ourselves and what we love. But we're unanchored from the real source of light and warmth. We're free-floating in space, and nothing we come across has enough gravity to give us real stability. Everything falls into gloom. And we so often don't know where to turn, and our feet stumble.

And because we don't know where to turn or what to do, because we aren't all revolving around the same God, because we don't share the same vision, we pull apart or crash into each other. We have disharmony with heaven, and we have disharmony on earth. We see it at the Tower of Babel. We see it in our power struggles. We see it in war. We see it in disease. We see it in death. And we even see it in the mundane moments of our lives. If only there were a way out of the darkness. If only there were the possibility of peace on earth.

And that's why Christmas is so important. Because long ago, it was foretold: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:1-2). And the same prophet then explains that the only way this can happen is for a certain Child to be born, a certain Son to be given, the one who rules as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). The dawn of God's glory – that's what we're here to celebrate this morning.

Out in the midnight fields, the shepherds were people like any of us. Their lives revolved around simple things. Maybe they were all about the sheep. Maybe they were all about the pay, meager though it was. Maybe they were all about the families they had back home in town. Maybe they were all about longing for a better life. But that night, something changed. Suddenly, someone was standing there with them, right in their midst, an angel of the Lord.

And what's more, “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9b). The only other time that word gets used, 'shone around,' it's when Paul talks about what happened on the Damascus Road. Brilliant, life-changing, heart-converting light – the exposure of everything, the unveiling of truth, the beauty of God himself – comes crashing into their lives. They see the brightness Ezekiel saw. The fields all around them are suddenly swarming with the holy flame that lit Mount Sinai, the dense and radiant cloud that packed the tabernacle.

Their natural response was to “fear a great fear” (Luke 2:9c). How could they not? The center of gravity had suddenly shifted. Their world had lurched from one end to the other. Everything they were all about – it suddenly paled, blanched, grew dim. What they once thought was beautiful and bright, now they saw it was just a shadow. What they once thought was central and important, now they knew it was peripheral and mundane. Nothing matters as much as what's suddenly all around them. And that can be very frightening, to suddenly find your world unfamiliar, to be confronted by something bigger and grander than your safe little world.

But the angel tells them that there's another response. The opposite of fearing is seeing – seeing that this is the way the world is meant to be, this is how the world is meant to look. This bigger, grander, brighter glory is where we were meant to live. It's our long-lost hope and home. We were always meant to have God at the center, to have everything defined in relation to him, to share by grace in his life and light and love, to be wrapped up in his presence and in harmony with all things. If the shepherds can see that, then there's nothing to fear.

And what the angel says next is pretty incredible. He literally says: “I evangelize you.” Have you thought much about that – how the angel is an evangelist? And what an evangelist! But that is what evangelism is all about. It's no wonder some people are scared of being evangelized, or find it distasteful – at first, the shepherds did. The angel confronted them with something profoundly disconcerting, discombobulating. But yet the message was good news. The angel's gospel was a cause for great joy, to be set free to see and experience the world in a new way, to live a new life available to all people, the kind of life that comes from God being at the center (Luke 2:10).

And the angel tells them that the good news that sets them free is that, right there in Bethlehem, new life has entered the human scene, in the form of a little baby: the long-awaited Messiah, the Lord, the true King of Glory. He's a Savior, someone who will rescue them from all their fears, from all their sins, from the smallness and coldness and darkness of their little worlds, and from everything they used to glorify, everything that drew them in and entranced them – even themselves. He's a Savior from their obsessions, from the weight of their grief and sorrow and anxiety and lostness, from the distraction of their pleasures and comforts, from all their religious and political opinions, from their pride and envy and fear, from the idol-factory in their restless hearts. The Messiah, the Lord, the Savior is born – for them... and for us – to be our King of Glory (Luke 2:11).

The shepherds are left to wonder how they could ever approach him, how they could ever encounter him, how they could approach the King of Glory. They're just shepherds. They're poor. They're unclean. They have no status, no credentials, nothing that should give them access to the Messiah. In the social order of things, they're as far away from the Messiah as you could get – or so they think. But the angel tells them that when they find him, he won't be in some palace. He won't be in a great castle. There won't be bouncers. No security patrol. There's no dress code. They'll find him in a simple peasant house, surrounded by a family's livestock. And he'll be dressed like one of their own kids (Luke 2:12).

The glory of God came to earth, wrapped in human flesh and blood, and more than that, wrapped in our poverty, our simplicity, our weakness. The eternal Word, older than Adam, older than atoms, was spoken in infant coos amidst our smells and messes, our dirt and grime, our sweat and tears. He stepped into our frailty, our humble estate, into our nakedness and shame, to cure us. He would show us what a truly God-centered and God-immersed human life looks like – one that's entirely about the glory of God, one that defines everything in relation to God, one that's entranced by God's beauty and centered on God's gravity and filled with God's life. And by his life, by his rule, by his obedience and faith even to the point of the cross, this Word-made-flesh would make it possible for us to be God-centered and God-immersed, too. He would save us from ourselves and all our lesser glories. And he comes to us where our deepest darkness and gloom is.

That's what the angel told the shepherds. And then in a flash, the angel was joined by hundreds or thousands, the army choir of heaven, as if the stars in the sky had all crashed to earth (Luke 2:13). And in the glow of the glory of God, these bright stars of the night all sang in unison, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:14). What a song! What a summary! That, right there, is what it's all about. From the top down to the bottom, God's glory is ultimate, absolute. In the highest place, to the highest degree, God is what it's all about.

What is most central? God! What is most important? God! What has the most weight and significance? God! What is most true? God! What is most beautiful and bright? God! What defines the lives of the heavenly host? God! What defines the lives of all creatures here below? God! In whom do we live and move and have our being? God! Where does our faith rightly anchor, what fulfills our hopes, where do we find love and belonging, where's our true treasure and our solid strength and our comfort and consolation? God!

And in a world that recognizes that and tastes that and experiences that, a world of those whom God esteems for so esteeming him, there and only there, then and only then, is there peace on earth – a wholeness, a completion, a unity and harmony that turns back the clock on the curse and lowers the sword of fire. Here alone is good news, here alone is great joy, here alone is peace on earth – in a new world that glorifies God. A world that, on that chilly night over two thousand years ago, poked into our world in the little town of Bethlehem.

And so the shepherds go. They ask around town for where the village midwife has been. They find the house – a simple peasant house, just a couple rooms. And they go in, and there through the door, with the ox and sheep and donkey, they meet a carpenter and his sweaty wife and a little newborn, all swaddled and resting in a feed trough (Luke 2:15-16). There they found the Child whose pudgy fingers made the angels, whose little feet once thundered in heaven's sanctuary, whose mewling voice wrote the song the angels sang, and behind whose tender little eyelids lived a saving Light on which even angel eyes dare not gaze.

And after sharing the good news with Joseph and Mary and all those in the house and around town, the shepherds went back to the fields (Luke 2:17-19). But not back to life as usual. No, they returned, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). And I'd like to think they went forth singing the angels' song: “Glory to God in the highest!” They didn't keep it to themselves. They didn't go back to life as usual. They were forever changed. Their lives from that day forward were more and more about God. They'd seen his glory, seen his beauty, seen that he's at the center of it all – and through the hope that this Baby in Bethlehem brought them, they let God reorganize their lives they way they were meant to be.

What this Child, this Baby, this Life means is that we're invited to enter a world of glory. We're summoned, we gain access, to a bright new creation with God truly at the center, where redemption through Jesus Christ and power through the Holy Spirit set us free to glorify God, like the shepherds did. If you believe in Jesus, if you follow him, you've already got a toe in the door. The new world has begun – already. But the world isn't all new – not yet. We see that, whether we like the looks of it or not. The world around us, even the world in us, is still groaning for the glory of God in us to be revealed when the risen, ascended, exalted Jesus comes back to heal, to comfort, to resurrect, to rule.

Meanwhile, we have a choice. We have a toe in the door, at the very least. As we wait for Jesus to bring the kingdom's fullness, will you take another step? Does your life look like the angels' song? Is it centered around the God of glory, who made himself known to us in Jesus Christ? Is that what defines you, what motivates and inspires and captivates you? Do you receive his free favor, his grace? Do you share the good news of great joy, and do you live out, as best as you can, peace on earth?

This Christmas, you have that choice. Maybe you're realizing that, for you, you don't actually have a toe in the door yet. You're realizing that you haven't believed after all, that you don't trust Jesus, that God is nowhere near your center. If that's where you find yourself, don't miss out on the great joy. Come find me after the service, or talk to your neighbor in the pew who does believe. Turn from lesser things; don't miss out on the glory of God.

Or maybe you believe in Jesus but you realize that, in practice, God isn't the one you're glorifying most. You give him some glory, but not in the highest – your life isn't centered around him, motivated by him, captivated by him. Maybe even this day, for you, isn't centered around him and what he's done in Christ and in Christ's people, the church. If that's where you find yourself, there's a deeper joy and comfort to be found. Be like the shepherds – go to where Jesus is, behold him, adore him, find healing and hope in him, spend time with him, and take him with you in your heart and your life wherever you go. If you aren't sure how to do that, how to find deeper joy in a God-centered life, again, come find me after the service, or talk with one of the many mature believers around you this morning.

Or maybe you do give God the glory, your life is centered around him, but you realize now that you've forgotten good news is meant to be shared. If that's where you find yourself, don't keep it to yourself. It's for all people, not just you. The angel told good news. Then the shepherds told good news. Now it's your turn. And this is the time of year when people are most ready to hear it. Don't waste that time. Go tell it on the mountain, if you have to; go tell it in the valley; but above all, go tell it and live it. May all we say and do be for the praise and glory of our glorious God, who sent us his Son, a Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord, born this day for us. In him, God has blessed us, every one. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Serve Jesus Like Santa: The Rescue

Yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. We've learned a lot about him during this year's Advent season. We heard how he was born in Patara on Turkey's southern coast in the late third century; how his wealthy Christian father and mother died, leaving behind a young man named Nikolaos. We heard how he tossed bags of gold through a poor man's window to secure dowries for his daughters and protect their souls. Generosity where it counts – that's what serving Jesus looks like.

And then we heard how the pastors had a vision, how Nikolaos was chosen and ordained as bishop of Myra. We heard about the persecutions under Diocletian and Galerius, and how St. Nikolaos was targeted, imprisoned, persecuted, tortured. We heard how he refused to compromise his faith, how he kept his courage and spread it to all his flock. Contagious courage in the face of threats – that's what serving Jesus looks like.

And then we heard how Constantine became emperor, how he honored the church, how he called the bishops together in Nicaea in the year 325 to settle the arguments that threatened unity. We heard how Nikolaos stood strong against the dumb ideas of Arius, who tried to put distance between Jesus and God. We heard how Nikolaos diligently won people back to the truth, because Nikolaos knew his Bible, he knew Jesus, and was patient and gentle to set his colleagues straight. Knowing and sharing the truth with all gentleness and respect – that's what serving Jesus looks like.

And now six years have passed. Six years since Nikolaos trekked north to Nicaea, six years since he met hundreds of fellow bishops, six years since he walked back to Myra, only to find that Constantine had made Lycia its own province. Myra was its capital city. And Nikolaos was its archbishop. That sure kept him busy. And then, one day, the winds die down across the Mediterranean. And a pack of ships, coming down from the new imperial capital of Constantinople, had no choice but to divert from their mission and wait for better winds at Andriake, a port three miles from Myra. These ships carried soldiers bound for Phrygia, to put down a revolt. But they can't do that if the winds aren't right. So there's little choice but to wait a day or two here at Andriake.

Well, the troops can't stay cooped up on the ships. They need shore leave. Their commanders give them permission to go look for food and something to do. So out they go, fanning through the streets of Andriake, meaning no one any harm. But a group of local hooligans sees them. They get an idea. They put on uniforms like the soldiers wear. And then they go around town, stealing and taking what they want, looting and pilfering as they please. They're caught, of course, but the townspeople are outraged. How dare some Roman soldiers do this? And so a riot breaks out in the town square, and the actual soldiers are in a bit of a pickle.

The riot is so loud, in fact, that the people's yells can be heard all the way in Myra. Even at the church. And there, Archbishop Nikolaos, his beard white in his late sixties, catches the sound in his ear. He wastes no time, but walks the three miles to Andriake. The rioters grow quiet at the sight of him. The soldiers and their commanders salute him. And as he questions them, they spill the beans on their mission. He stills the crowd, softly urges peace on them. Nikolaos invites the commanders back to Myra, to eat and drink and be refreshed at the parsonage. And so, with a stern warning to the citizens of Andriake to break up the crowd and settle down, the commanders get ready to go.

Just then, a pair of panting men run, winded, into the square. They'd come from Myra with an urgent message. “Nikolaos, sir! No one in Myra could find you! Oh, sir, if only you'd been there! If only you'd been in the city, you could have stopped it! At the governor's orders, Judge Datianus has arrested three men, innocent of any crime. And they've been handed over to death! Oh, sir, Your Holiness, sir, they're going to be beheaded, and all of Myra is upset and doesn't know what to do!”

With the commanders in tow, Nikolaos promptly rushed back uphill to Myra, as quickly as he could. And roving to and fro through the great city, he finally found what he was looking for, at the city gate on the opposite side. A crowd had gathered around to watch, out of morbid curiosity. There knelt the three men, chained, bound, their faces hooded with linen. Over them loomed their executioner, sword firmly in hand, lofted into the air. The men on the ground had no reason to think this was anything but their final seconds of life on earth.

But they heard Nikolaos cry out, “Halt!” They heard the speedy patter of his approaching footsteps. And then they heard a clang and clatter. Nikolaos had marched straight for the executioner and stretched out his hand, grabbed the sword from him and threw it on the ground. Nikolaos had come between the killer and his prey; there was no execution unless Nikolaos was to join them.

The executioner backed away. He unchained the three men, released them from their bonds. And with them and the three commanders, Nikolaos turned his face toward the city. If this went all the way to the top, well, so would he. Nikolaos marched to the praetorium, the great palace where the governor of Lycia lived, a man named Eustathius. It isn't like the two weren't familiar with each other – the highest civil authority and the highest religious authority in the city.

Once Nikolaos had barged in, he made his way through the palace until he found Eustathius. The governor greeted him honorably – but Nikolaos wouldn't have any of it. The soft-spoken saint had some strong words for him, fearlessly berated the governor. “You blasphemous spiller of innocent blood! How dare you greet me when caught in the midst of so many wicked deeds! Oh, I won't keep this quiet. Your sins are uncovered. You will not get away with this. At once I'll write a letter to the Emperor Constantine, telling him what kind of governor you've really proved to be, how you administer the princely prefecture he appointed you to.”

Breaking out beads of sweat, Governor Eustathius fell to his knees, begging, “Good sir, please, please, don't be angry with me. It wasn't me, I promise! It was Eudoxius and Simonides, my heads of state!”

Nikolaos spurned his lies, refused to let him pass the buck. “It wasn't Eudoxius and Simonides who did this. No, I'll tell you the real culprit: silver and gold.” And he might well have added, if he felt so inclined: “Have you not heard the word of God? You shall not pervert justice! You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

Nikolaos had already heard that the governor had been bribed over two hundred pounds of silver to see this execution through. Confronted with the fact, in tears and humility, the governor confessed. He swore he'd drop all charges against the innocent men. And he begged Archbishop Nikolaos not to turn him in. The commanders urged Nikolaos to forgive the governor, to show mercy on him. And so Nikolaos pardoned him, embraced him, restored him to justice. Governor Eustathius had learned his lesson.

That's how St. Nikolaos serves Jesus. Nikolaos was, if nothing else, a student of the Scriptures. And so he read there about a God “who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry,” a God who “sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 146:6-7). And Nikolaos read the prophecies about Jesus, how Jesus was someone about whom the Father said, “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7).

Nikolaos read that and thought, “I want to be like him!” That's who Jesus is to Nikolaos: light and sight and liberty. Jesus was born to intervene in our execution – not the execution of the innocent, but even the execution of the guilty – by taking our guilt on himself, by submitting to the executioner in our place. Jesus was born to break the wheels of human injustice, to interrupt the sorry cycle of our violence and inhumanity. Jesus was born to shine a light on all the shadowy machinations of an unjust world. Jesus was born to rescue us from our sad and sinful prison and set us free. And Nikolaos asked himself, “How can I be more like that?”

How does Santa Claus serve Jesus Christ? By standing against injustice. Nikolaos had never heard of the silly modern idea that 'religion' and 'politics' don't mix. Jesus is Lord over all, even over Governor Eustathius, and will be the judge of what Eustathius or Constantine or any other governing authority decides to do. How could Nikolaos not speak up as a witness?

Nor had Nikolaos caught wind of our goofy fake-evangelical notion that saving souls for the hereafter somehow doesn't include saving or bettering lives in the here-and-now. The only gospel Nikolaos knew was the gospel of God's kingdom – a kingdom of salvation, justice, and mercy. And in the name of that kingdom, Archbishop Nikolaos spoke truth to Eustathius' power, no less than any Old Testament prophet ever did or ever would have.

And this wasn't a one-off, a fluke, an abnormality. This was Nikolaos' way of life. His life of holiness was one of social holiness. He pursued justice and mercy everywhere, at all times, while preaching the word of God unto salvation. His earliest biography tells us about “his care and protection toward the oppressed and destitute,” and “his boldness and severity toward those who were eager to kill the innocent in civil lawsuits.” It tells us that Nikolaos oversaw the doling out of grain and other food to everyone, that he “abundantly provided to those who were in dire straits according to their needs, showing himself to be a father to orphans and a champion to widows and a courageous comforter to the poor among the people,” and that “he so relentlessly convicted those who wanted to harm the innocent, that the tyrants didn't endure the assault of his just and reasonable rebuke, but, trembling with fear, they immediately bowed to his will.”

Indeed, the earliest report we have of his life, even older than his biography, tells us that when the commanders accomplished their mission and went back to Constantinople, they found themselves in a position not so unlike the three innocent men of Myra. Thanks to some more well-placed bribes, they were charged with a conspiracy against the emperor, and were going to be put to death themselves. But God allowed Nikolaos to appear to both Emperor Constantine and his consul Flavius Ablabius in their dreams, to warn them strongly that if they didn't do justice, Nikolaos would bear witness against them before “the heavenly and immortal King Christ,” the highest authority there is. And while we probably won't be appearing in anyone's dreams, we have the same access in prayer to “the heavenly, immortal King Christ” as Nikolaos did.

Now, I wish it were true that the three men on the chopping block that day were the only ones in human history who had ever been at risk like that. But there were others. There were others even during the earthly life of the Archbishop Nikolaos, up until the very day – the sixth of December, 343 – when the saint traded earth's dimness for heaven's brightness – or, as his biography puts it, “after anointing everyone with his sweet-smelling and all-holy life and episcopate, he left his mortal life and went to his eternal rest, rejoicing with choruses of angels.” And since that time, injustice has continued – and those who love and serve and follow Jesus have continued to speak out against it.

Lately, I've been reading a book called Against All Hope. It's the memoir of a man named Armando Valladares. He used to live in Cuba. He saw the now-dead Fidel Castro rise to power in the late 1950s. And because he wouldn't put a Communist sign on his desk at the post office where he worked, he was put in a horrid prison for twenty-two years. The stories he tells, the way he and other people around him were treated... It really turns my stomach to read it. Valladares knows what injustice looks like. But he also knows what it looks like for God to invade those broken, unjust places. He tells the story of a pastor imprisoned alongside him, a man who never stopped encouraging him, who never ceased preaching forgiveness and love even for the guards who beat them daily, who stepped in to help workers who fell behind, and who when beaten with machetes would lift his hands to heaven and cry out, “Father, forgive them!” This “Brother of the Faith” made it out of prison, but his release came by martyrdom and his immediate destination was heaven. That pastor was a man a lot like St. Nikolaos.

And in the days when Nikolaos walked the earth in flesh and blood like us, when he went to Nicaea for the council, he must have met a man named Cyrus, newly appointed the bishop of a city called Beroea in the province of Syria Prima. Cyrus came and went, but his city stretched on through the ages. These days, it goes by a different name: Aleppo. And if you've been paying attention to the news at all, you know that the people of Aleppo have been caught in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War. Just this past week, there have been reports of mass executions of innocent civilians – people no different from the three men of Myra whom Nikolaos spared from the sword.

And although a ceasefire has just taken effect and this morning evacuations are underway from Aleppo and the nearby villages, there are thousands of families and orphaned children on the streets and in the rubble – freezing, starving, and scared. And conditions aren't much better in the poverty of the crowded camps. On the streets of Aleppo, amid all the families just trying to stay safe somehow, a Middle Eastern couple named Yusuf and Miryam with their little baby boy, all on the run from the killer tyrant Herod, might blend right in.

Friends, the church's mission has not changed since the days when St. Nikolaos' boots walked the earth beneath our feet. The church has never stopped being called to speak God's truth to earthly power. The church has never stopped being sent on a quest for justice and mercy here and now, just like the church has never stopped being called to proclaim the justice and mercy of God on display in Christ crucified and risen for our salvation.

The church can't ignore injustice in Aleppo, because the same Jesus whose parents fled as refugees from Herod as a baby does not ignore injustice in Aleppo, or anywhere else, for that matter. And I'm thankful that he's sent humanitarian groups like the Preemptive Love Coalition, who are on the ground in Aleppo right now, right this very day and hour, imitating God in “giving food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:7). Look them up – almost each and every one of us has it within our power to literally save lives there today, of people made in the image of the God we're here this morning to worship. We may not be on the ground, but we can be like Nikolaos and help.

We can also speak and stand against injustice here. Not neglecting the greatest weapon in our arsenal, which is prayer and the word of God, we can be alert for injustice, for situations where our neighbors in the world, in America, in Pennsylvania, or even here in our own community are endangered or treated unjustly. We can write letters to the governing authorities – and in America, the governing authorities are us, the citizens of the republic. You see those letters in the daily paper all the time. We can write letters to the elected officials who wield power on behalf of the governing authorities – on behalf of me and you. We can comfort and support our neighbors faced with the hazards of underemployment, with illness and grief, with the slow-grinding wheels of bureaucratic nonsense, with crime and punishment. We can feed the hungry, be a companion to orphans and widows, be a lifeline to prisoners, refugees, homeless veterans, and the poor. We not only can; we must. That's what the church being the church looks like. It's what it means to serve Jesus like Santa Claus did.

We're only a week away from Christmas now. We're finishing out this season of Advent. And in Advent, we remember how the people of Israel waited for hundreds and hundreds of years for the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah was the justice bringer. He was the one through whom God would “bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt those of humble estate,” would “fill the hungry with good things” and work justice (Luke 1:52-53). In Advent, we remember those long dreary nights of tearful expectation, waiting for the day when a great light would shine on those in darkness, and the rod of the oppressor would be broken, when the Child would be born, when the Son would be given, and “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:2-7). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2).

But in Advent, we're also acutely aware that we're still waiting. Not for the Messiah to be born, but for him to return, to finally make that justice complete, to break the rod of all oppressors. And so we wait. And so we pray. And so we announce the good news, the gospel, of the justice of God, and we live it out in our own lives, as imitators of Jesus Christ.

As Christmas gets close, let's ask ourselves: What can we do to be be more like St. Nikolaos as he imitates Jesus? How can we be more generous, more humble, more courageous, more devoted to knowing and sharing the truth, more outspoken for justice for all? What can we do, in our own lives and as a church together, to serve Jesus the way he did? How we answer that, whether we dare to answer that, decides what kind of people and what kind of church we aim to be. With serious prayer, study, and deliberation, may we answer it well. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Serve Jesus Like Santa: The Council

Yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. I've never visited the place he called home. But hundreds of miles from his home and mine, I've walked the roads he once walked, gazed across the waters he'd seen, breathed the air he breathed. Oh yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. And over these past two weeks, we've been learning his story. We heard how he was born in Patara on Turkey's south coast in the third century. We heard how he was raised to believe in Christ, and how he followed through. We heard how his parents died, leaving him their wealth. We heard how young Nikolaos tossed bags of gold through the poor man's window so his daughters could wed – because generosity targeted to the needs of the poor, to glorify Christ and Christ alone, is how to serve Jesus like Santa Claus did. 

And then we heard how, a decade later, the bishop of Myra died – how one pastor heard a voice, saying to make the next man into the church bishop – how Nikolaos was the man in the prophecy, God's choice to lead in Myra. We heard how the persecutions raged under Diocletian and Galerius, how they hounded the church and her leaders, how Nikolaos spent years in prison and under house arrest, tormented and tortured for his faith. His courage under pressure, his refusal to compromise, is how to serve Jesus like Santa Claus did. And we heard, at last, a happy ending: how Diocletian and Galerius passed from the scene; how Licinius lost the empire's civil war; how all power came to the hands of one man, Constantine, who'd seen the sign of the cross in the sky and learned to love Christ's people.

Thanks to Constantine, there was finally peace and stability in the Roman Empire. In the church, though? Not so much. A lot of arguments and disagreements we'd been suppressing now had to come out into the open and work themselves out. There were three big ones, and our hero Nikolaos no doubt was familiar with them all. The first, believe it or not, was an argument over when Easter was. Today, that sounds a bit silly. I mean, Easter is Easter! But it wasn't so simple. If Easter is the anniversary of Jesus' death, which was more important – that it fall on the same date, or that it always be a Sunday? And then, should we use the Jewish calendar for it like Jesus did, or the Roman one? The first question was settled; the second one wasn't yet. But could we really have different churches thinking Easter is different days, when Easter is about the thing that most unites us?

And then there was a second argument, an even more important one. Nikolaos maybe took a special interest in this one. The church had just survived several bouts of persecution. Diocletian had ordered the scriptures to be burned, and he targeted pastors and ordered them to make pagan sacrifice to save themselves from prison or death.

Some stayed strong, like Nikolaos did. But other Christians didn't. Even some pastors didn't. Some gave in under pressure – backed away from the church, made the sacrifice, lapsed in their faith. Others went even further, handing over Bibles – and because they 'handed them over,' they got a new nickname: “the ones who hand over,” the traditores, from which we get the word “traitors.”

But the days of persecution were over now. Some of the lapsed believers wanted back in – they wanted to make up for what they'd done, they wanted to repent and come back in. The same was true for pastors, even a few of the 'traitors.' Can they be forgiven? Is there a way for them to get back to where they were, or not?

Traditionally, the answer was yes – that had always been the way bishops handled those who buckled under pressure during seasons of persecution and then repented. But this time, an Egyptian bishop named Meletius said no – he resented those who took the easy way out. So he refused to believe they could ever be forgiven, refused to share communion and fellowship with even the most repentant of them – and the result split the church Jesus had died to make one.

That was bad news. But there was a third argument brewing, and it was more explosive than the other two put together. Nikolaos knew all about it. In the famed city of Alexandria, where Alexander was bishop, there lived a popular preacher named Arius. He pastored the church built over the spot where the Gospel-writer Mark had been killed centuries before. Arius was a sharp-minded guy. He went to the best schools and thought he knew his stuff. And one day, he heard Bishop Alexander say something about God that Arius didn't think was quite right. So Arius, like any good theological know-it-all, decided to correct his bishop and say, “Uh, actually, it's like this...”

Unfortunately, Arius was the one who had it wrong. When he read his Bible, he saw that it called Jesus the “only-begotten Son.” And Arius couldn't see a difference between being begotten and being created. They seemed so similar. In Arius' mind, the thing that made God be God was that, deep down in his essence, at the heart of who and what God is, he's unbegotten – unrelated to any source in any way. 'Unbegotten' is God's essence, the way God is at his core, by definition. So if the Son is 'begotten,' that must be the Son's essence. 

Arius couldn't stand to think that the ultimate God had really been personally involved in taking on human flesh and blood, in suffering and dying for us. There had to be a gap between God and Jesus somehow. And Arius said it was because God was unbegotten and Jesus was begotten. But he reasoned that Jesus, the Son of God, had a beginning. He was somehow older than time, but still “not eternal.” And before that beginning, there was no Son of God. Arius believed that Jesus was a “perfect creation of God,” who had been “created by the will of God” out of nothing – unlike God, and just like all of us.

Arius was dead wrong. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). What John writes makes it clear: the Word was eternally with the Father, and what God the Father eternally is, deep down in his essence, the same is true of the Word. The Word isn't a created thing; he's the Maker of all created things. Arius and his friends disagreed. Sometimes they said that Jesus may be the Word of God, but he isn't that Word, the eternal Word. And sometimes they admitted that Jesus is 'god,' sort of – he's a divine being – but they couldn't admit that he's the true God, with a capital 'G.'

What Paul writes makes it just as clear. By Jesus, “all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). Jesus isn't a created thing; he's beyond all things, before all things. The power that holds reality together is in him. His constant touch is the force that binds quarks into protons and neutrons, and then and electrons into atoms, and atoms into molecules. In him we live and move and have our being. And “in him all the fullness of Godhood was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Everything that makes God 'God,' you'll find it in Jesus. No created thing could hold the fullness of God – but the Baby in Bethlehem's manger does, for the sake of bringing us back to him.

Arius started the argument, but he wasn't alone. Some of his old classmates sided with him – and a few of them had become bishops. He found other pastors who agreed with his thinking, and soon enough they were tricking other bishops into writing them letters of recommendation. Arius was a persuasive fellow. He started winning people over. And he had another gift: he knew how to write catchy songs. He set his ideas to music, and soon every Tom, Dick, and Harry was humming them. 

Bishop Alexander tried to stop Arius – tried to hold a trial, got little groups of pastors and bishops together to make clear that Arius was teaching something dangerous and new. But this was getting too big to contain.

Those three arguments threatened to tear the church apart. And that was the last thing the new emperor wanted. He didn't care which side won out, but it wasn't good for the empire to have the Christians fighting. And so he did something that had never been done before. Bishops were used to meeting with other local bishops; but he would invite everybody. Just months after Constantine took power, there was Nikolaos, bishop of Myra, just barely starting work on rebuilding his city's main church. And now a letter comes to him – a letter the emperor sent to all the bishops, asking them to come to Constantine's palace in a lakeside city called Nicaea.

Nikolaos is no longer a young man. He's in his mid- to late fifties. And the trip is not a short one. But he went. Nikolaos went north, over four hundred miles, to Nicaea, to the imperial palace there. I've never been to Patara or Myra, but I visited Nicaea seven years ago. Most of the palace ruins are underwater now, but not back then. All the bishops across the empire and beyond had been invited. And on the day the council met for the first time, Nikolaos found himself surrounded by over three hundred of his colleagues, each with some local pastors in tow. They came from Egypt, from north Africa, from Italy, England, Spain, the lands of the Goths, from Mesopotamia, Persia, India – never before in history had so many top church leaders gathered in one place. 

There they sat alongside Nikolaos on the benches – men whose names he'd heard but never met. Over there was Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, successor to Jesus' brother James. In that corner sat Eustathius of Antioch. And there sat Vitus and Vincentius, representing the absent Roman bishop Sylvester. Here at one end was Jacob of Nisibis, a noted wise man and miracle-worker from the east. There at the other end, Paphnutius of Thebes, disciple of the great monk Antony. Paphnutius was one-eyed and crippled, thanks to the torture he received just years ago. Maybe near him was Paul, bishop of Neocaesarea, whose burned and mutilated hands no longer worked – again, marks of having stood strong in the time of trial. Many, maybe most, of the bishops bore similar wounds. And then, there sat Bishop Alexander, and at his side a tiny, dark-skinned deacon, twenty-seven years old, with a bright mind and a bright future. He'd go on to be one of history's most influential Christian thinkers, but for now, he was just Athanasius, ghostwriter of Alexander's theology letters.

I remember the first time I ever attended National Conference. The idea of being surrounded by so many pastor colleagues was really exciting. I'd never had that before, being with so many. Nikolaos must have felt the same sort of excitement that day, as the Spanish bishop Hosios, president of the council, stood up and got the ball rolling. And then Emperor Constantine entered – there he was in person, wrapped in luxurious purple robes with a gold crown on his head, kissing bishops' scars and pleading with them to overcome their differences and chart a way forward for the church.

And then the debate began. Most of the bishops weren't clearly decided at first. A lot of them had a hard time following the argument. (Believe it or not, when pastors around here get together for lunch, they don't talk about theology or ministry half as much as they do about football.) The debate seemed so abstract, maybe even irrelevant. 'Essence' this, 'substance' that – these weren't trained philosophers, most of them, listening to that. Start talking like that around pastors today, and you'll still see plenty of eyes glaze over or glance at the clock. It was no different then. “Why does it matter? What's the practical pay-out of all this? Can't we just leave it to the nerds and be done with it?” That's what some bishops were thinking when the council started. Maybe you know the feeling. Even I do, sometimes – and I'm one of the nerds!

But Nikolaos – Nikolaos didn't think it was all abstract. He didn't think it was irrelevant. He wasn't undecided. He knew from the start where he stood. And it was not with Arius. Nikolaos' parents had raised him to worship the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And Arius' ideas threw a wrench in all that.

If Arius is right, then Jesus had a beginning. He's got a totally different essence than the Father does. And if that's true, then the difference between Jesus and his Father is way bigger than we can imagine. If Arius is right, then Jesus can't be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Anything created can change. If Arius is right, then how can we be sure Jesus won't change on us someday? Where's the security in what Arius teaches?

And if Arius is right, then Jesus is less 'god,' less 'divine,' than God is. But if that's true, if they aren't the same essence, if they aren't even the same kind of being – if God is as different from Jesus as the Creator from the creation – then Jesus can't reveal God to us. Jesus can't tell us that if we've seen him, we've seen the Father (John 14:9). Even Arius himself admitted that, if he was right, then it's impossible for even Jesus to understand God.

And then, if Arius is right that Jesus isn't the true God, Jesus shouldn't be worshipped, because worshipping any created thing is idolatry. And right there, out goes centuries of Christian prayer and worship, all the way back to what the apostles did in Jesus' own presence. What's more, if Arius is right and Jesus and the Father aren't one God (cf. John 10:30), then the Gospel of John's case for unity falls apart, because Christians don't have to be one people: being one as they are one ain't so demanding (cf. John 17:11).

And if that weren't bad enough, if Arius is right, and Jesus doesn't share the essence of the Father, then being joined to Jesus – being the branches of his vine, the members of his body – does not join us to God. And that makes all the difference, because salvation is God's life being shared with us. If Jesus doesn't link us to the Father's life, doesn't bring us into an eternal communion, then John was wrong to promise that “in him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4) – because if Arius is right, then God's life wasn't in him, and it didn't enlighten us. If Arius is right, our salvation is left incomplete; we haven't been brought near after all. That matters.

Nikolaos saw, maybe more clearly than most people who ever lived, that Arius just could not be right. The Bible showed it, the witness of the Church showed it, the Christian life showed it. Jesus is worthy of our prayer and worship – that's just what Christians do. Jesus does reveal God to us – we know that, we experience it. He's our perfect window into God – and as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), he has to share God's essence. What the Father is deep down, the same has to hold true for Jesus. Jesus was never created out of nothing, like the universe was; he's the uncreated Creator, like the Father. Jesus never had a beginning; when the beginning began, Jesus was the Word that was already there – and that matters! Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” – all the way back to eternity past. Jesus is the Word who was with the Father, the Word who eternally was God, but now in history made flesh to pitch his tent in our camp (John 1:14). He's our real Emmanuel – he's literally “God-with-us.” 
That's what Nikolaos knew. And after a month where hundreds of bishops rubbed shoulders with him at Nicaea, you could count on one hand those who remained unconvinced of what Nikolaos and others already knew. So the council made a statement. They rejected anybody who said that Jesus came from nothing or once didn't exist. They rejected anybody who said Jesus was a creation, or changeable, or of some different essence than God. They confessed belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things seen and unseen; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten of the essence of the Father – God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made – of one essence with the Father, through whom all things came to be...”

They're familiar words. In some churches, they're recited every Sunday, and hopefully also believed. Some of our favorite Christmas hymns point us back to them. In the end, they won the day. But during Nikolaos' days on earth, the controversy didn't end. Even today, Arius' dumb ideas still have a few followers, like Christadelphians and Jehovah's Witnesses and probably a lot of well-meaning churchgoers who just haven't thought their faith through like Nikolaos did. Arius and the couple bishops who still agreed with him were kicked out of the church and banished. And no one could deny that Nikolaos was a defender of what the church taught.

There's a legend that, during the council, Nikolaos heard Arius teaching his blasphemies, and so Jolly Old St. Nick took a break from being quite so jolly and just walked up and smacked Arius in the face. That's probably a later legend. That just ain't St. Nick's style. But what is his style is more like what Paul wrote to Timothy:

The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil... (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

That's more Nikolaos' style. And in the years after the council, when he wasn't busy overseeing the demolition of Myra's pagan temples, he was reaching out to the bishops who'd been hoodwinked by Arius. He was hearing them out, gently explaining to them what the Bible really said, showing them how it made a difference in his life. And thanks to Nikolaos, one of Arius' pet bishops actually did repent and come back to the church and to the real Jesus, the consubstantial Son of God.

Nikolaos knew that Jesus is important. Nikolaos knew that what he believed about Jesus was important. And he knew that what his neighbors believed about Jesus was important. It makes or breaks salvation. Is Jesus who the church announces him to be – as really our Emmanuel; as the eternal Word made flesh in history; as the Son begotten without beginning, who shares the Father's essence and reveals God to us; as the unchanging Savior who pours God's life into us and makes us something new? Or is he something else, something less, like Arius thought? What do you think? What do you believe? Which Jesus have you known?

This Christmas season, don't settle for a counterfeit. Don't be content to misunderstand Jesus. Don't be satisfied to leave all that 'theology stuff' to the nerds. It matters. It really matters – for you, for your next-door neighbor, for everyone. Be a student of the Word. Understand what God wants you to know about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Be a teacher of the Word. Gently help your neighbors, in your pew or on your block, to see the big brightness of the real Jesus – like St. Nikolaos did. The light still shines in the darkness, and all the darkness of Arius' dumb ideas or any other false teaching has not overcome it. May we see and share the light, too, the same as St. Nikolaos did, and so serve Jesus like Santa. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Serve Jesus Like Santa: The Jail

Yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. But before he was born, the empire was falling apart at the seams. Roman power nearly collapsed in the crisis of the third century. In just fifty years, several dozen men were proclaimed as emperor, and plenty of others tried for the position. Most got power through assassination and lost it the same way. It was total chaos. Inflation of the money was spinning out of control – it just couldn't buy what it used to. Foreigners were invading all the time, and even briefly conquering large sections of the empire. 

It was a bad time to be a Roman citizen, in other words. And that's the world into which Nikolaos was born – full of instability. But things changed when Nikolaos was a young man. And that end of the chaos, that return to order, was owed to one leader above all others: a Roman commander-turned-emperor named Diocletian.

In the 280s and 290s, Diocletian gradually formed what was called the Tetrarchy: four rulers for the empire. He would take the east. His old army buddy Maximian would take the west. Diocletian would be assisted by his son-in-law Galerius, while Maximian would work with his own son-in-law Flavius Constantius. Each had their own capital. They worked out a smooth, orderly system for transferring power, hoping to put an end to the constant bloodshed. They resisted invaders, they stopped run-away inflation, they kept the peace. To many in Roman circles, they were heroes.

But not all was well, at least not where the church was concerned. Diocletian was a traditionalist. He wanted to bring Rome back to her gods. He wanted to see a revival of that old-time religion. He surrounded himself with pagan advisors, people who openly mocked Christianity and thought only idiots and bigots could believe such nonsense. Not an encouraging sign – especially not as they stood on the verge of yet another war with Persia.

That was where things stood, that was the situation, in the closing years of the third century. That was the lay of the land when, in the city of Myra on the southern coast of Turkey, the long-serving bishop died. In those days, a bishop was the head pastor of the city, with plenty of years of experience in the ministry. They were expected to live simply, devoting themselves to praying, reading, and preaching; they were responsible for caring for the church, distributing charity to the needy, baptizing and teaching new believers. It was not a task for just anyone at all. 

And so the bishop's death created a problem. The pastors in Myra, and the bishops from the other towns all around, gathered in Myra's church to try to decide how to replace him, how to elect a new bishop. Not many wanted the job anyway – not when being a bishop put a target on your back. Local authorities loved harassing bishops. And whoever took the job needed to be strong and wise enough to handle the worst of the worst.

So the bishops and local pastors gathered in Myra and began to talk. And they began to pray. They prayed, and they prayed, and they prayed. And they had no idea what to do, so they prayed some more. And that's when it happened. One of the bishops from a nearby city heard a voice. Maybe it whispered quietly to his heart; maybe it boomed actual sound in his ears. But either way, he thought he heard it. And this is what it said: “Go to the house of God at night. Stand at the entrance. Whoever comes to enter the church quietly before anyone else, take this man and appoint him bishop.” 

Of all the ways to pick a bishop, that seemed crazy! And then the voice added an addendum: “His name will be... Nikolaos.” The bishops and pastors murmured among themselves when the visionary shared what he'd heard. They didn't know anybody with that unusual name, most probably. It seemed a silly thing to do, to wait quietly in the dark near the church. But they gave the go ahead.

Meanwhile, thirty miles west in Patara, last week we left St. Nikolaos at the end of his teen years. Losing his wealthy parents, he'd resolved to use his massive inheritance to serve the poorest of the poor. We remembered how he gave serious thought, how he planned, how he gave anonymously to the father of three daughters in the middle of the night by tossing bags of gold through the window so the girls could marry. Nikolaos was scrupulous and determined. That was over a decade ago. Since then, he's kept it up, this anonymous generosity.

And then he catches word that the bishop of Myra died. Nikolaos figures it can't hurt to go pay his respects at the church where the late bishop served God's people. So off he goes, into the lush and fertile land with its trees and flowers and vines. He arrived in Myra later than he would have liked. The sun had scarcely dawned when he reached the church building and went to the door. It was the morning after the vision, and soon young Nikolaos, scarcely thirty years old, felt a tap on his shoulder. And he turned, and he saw a bishop, who asked him his name. And in all humility and sincerity came the reply: “Sir, I am Nikolaos, a sinner and a servant of Your Excellency.”

Imagine the bishop's delight – the vision was true! Impossible though it had seemed, it was true! He invited the unsuspecting Nikolaos into the building, where the other pastors and bishops were waiting. Eyes must have bulged, jaws dropped open, when the visionary introduced the young man as Nikolaos – the one they'd been waiting for. 

And as a small crowd of believers began to arrive, they celebrated and rejoiced and thanked God for sending them a new bishop – which came as no small surprise to Nikolaos, who was none too keen on the notion. It took some convincing, but with enough pressure they got Nikolaos into the bishop's chair – and they ordained him as the new bishop of Myra. Surrounded by experienced pastors, some of whom had been in ministry as long as he'd been alive – and now he, with no experience but love and service, was their leader. Talk about an intimidating job! But like I mentioned last week: Santa Claus is a pastor.

A few years passed. Nikolaos ministered to the believers in Myra, doing his best to fill his predecessor's shoes in spite of his own youth and inexperience. Meanwhile, Diocletian and Galerius waged war against Persia. In the end, Galerius reached their capital city and took the royal family hostage. The Persian king Narseh had no choice but to make peace on the Romans' terms. Freshly victorious, the Roman leaders regrouped and decided it was time to find out who'd been to blame for all the decades and decades of chaos in the Roman dominion. Why had their gods abandoned them to anarchy?

So, with their court and soldiers all around, Diocletian and Galerius made animal sacrifices and hired pagan professionals to look through the entrails and try to read messages from the gods. The usual pagan practice. But the fortune-telling ritual didn't work. The lead diviner was frustrated – he couldn't make heads or tails of it – and he pointed the finger squarely at some Christian soldiers who looked none too thrilled to be there. They'd been making the sign of the cross to ward off evil spirits – and that, said the diviner, had thwarted and sabotaged the ritual. Everything was all the Christians' fault, he cried!

So Diocletian kicked all Christians out of his court. He kicked all Christians out of his army. He thought that was enough. Galerius didn't. Diocletian was a traditionalist, but Galerius was a zealot, the son of a pagan priestess named Romula who hated Christians for avoiding her idol feasts. Galerius wanted the Christians suppressed, even exterminated. So the two bickered about it for years, until finally they sent a messenger to the oracle of Apollo at Didyma, to ask which of them was right. The message came back: “Oracle out of service, on account of the righteous in the land.” Those meddling Christians again, they figured. Diocletian conceded the argument to Galerius – and in the year 303, the persecution began.

That summer, Diocletian got impatient and gave a new order to start arresting pastors. And the order was carried out with such gusto that some prisons had no room for regular criminals, because they were too full of Christian leaders. One of the first ones to go was the new bishop of Myra: Nikolaos. Being a bishop really did mean having a target on your back. And so it was that Santa Claus was sent to prison. 

He'd spend much of the next twenty years in and out of jail, in and out of house arrest. Other neighboring bishops were put to death. But not Nikolaos. He lived. But he was tortured, though. That's a difficult image: Santa Claus in prison, Santa Claus facing torture, maybe beaten and burned and branded and blinded in one eye. That is not the way we like to imagine Santa Claus, as a jailbird, as a torture victim. But it's the truth.

As the wave of persecution spread, church buildings were torn down, copies of scripture were burned, believers hid as best as they could. When Nikolaos was out of prison, he still preached whenever he could. And when he was under house arrest, people didn't wait for him to be released and come to them. No, they came to visit him. And when they did, he encouraged them to stay strong, to muster up the courage of faith, to persevere, to be patient and trust God, to make a name for themselves as people of peace even in the hardest and darkest times.

And even when Nikolaos was free, he stayed in Myra. He could have run back to Patara, or crept away into the countryside – assumed a new identity, led a life on the lam. Or he could have given in. He could have offered just a pinch of incense to the pagan gods, proved he was no threat, that he was tolerant of the basic faith commitments of Rome – but that would have meant compromising. Nikolaos was no coward, and he was no compromiser. Nikolaos was a Christ-follower.

See, none of this took Nikolaos by surprise. He'd grown up listening to scripture being read. He knew what Paul wrote: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12). He knew what Peter wrote: “Even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed; have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). Nikolaos had no other expectations. To him, serving Jesus meant the prospect of persecution. It meant being disliked, made fun of, excluded. It meant being tormented, tortured, jailed, even killed. He grew up visiting the martyrs' graves. Why would he expect any less?

On Christmas, we don't like to think about that. Christmas is all about the angels' message of peace on earth, good will toward men, right? That's what this Babe in the manger is all about. We like that sentimental picture. We love our nativity scenes with all the animals and the shepherds and the wise men, all staring at the baby and living in harmony, not a care in the world. We love nativity scenes. That's the picture of Bethlehem we like. Not Herod's soldiers butchering infant innocents. Not Joseph and Mary sneaking out in the night to escape. Not Jesus, all grown up, telling us he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34). Not a sword held by his followers, but a sword held against them.

But maybe we here this morning, though, aren't persecuted the way Nikolaos was. No matter how the national atmosphere swings, we live in Lancaster County. Telling your neighbor you're a Christian here usually gets the same answer back. Whether the person is actually a disciple or not, it's culturally normal to say you're a Christian – less so these days than in decades past, but it's still the case in Lancaster County. There's scarcely a risk of awkwardness, let alone broken relationships or fear of prison, in claiming to be a follower of Jesus – and not even in actually living like it.

So we can't really relate to what Nikolaos is going through here. But we can relate to suffering. A sin-infected world, and the demonic powers behind it, can imprison us in intolerable circumstances. It can torment and persecute us with disease, with social disharmony, with financial insecurity, with failing bodies and failing minds. It can stoke our anger, grief, bitterness, and loneliness, and tempt us toward sins of cowardice and compromise. We can relate to that suffering. I can relate. I know you can, too.

The question isn't whether we suffer. It's not whether we grieve. It's not whether we hurt. That's all a given. This year has proved that to all of us. I don't have to rehearse it to you. You know how you've suffered. You know what you're grieving. You know where you're hurting. The question isn't whether we suffer, grieve, or hurt. The real question is how we handle it.

That's an especially sobering thought this time of year. Suffering makes it harder to celebrate Christmas, because we've made Christmas something it isn't. We've stripped it of its gritty realism. We've made it sentimental. We've made it about family, about friendship, about abstract principles of love and kindness, about domestic happiness and cheer around the fireplace. Those things are good, but they aren't what Christmas is about. Christmas is about how God injected his living Light into a sin-darkened world, so that he could share our suffering and guide us through persecution into peace.

Christmas is about a hope that holds good even when the night is cold and the sheep are freezing, even when the night is long and the shepherds are sick, even when the wise men get lost and lose sight of the star, even when Bethlehem isn't safe and the children die – yes, even then, Christmas is Christmas. Maybe especially then, Christmas is Christmas. St. Nikolaos knew that. Do we? St. Nikolaos was brave, patient, peaceful, strong, committed, courageous. Are we? St. Nikolaos had a hope that all the darkness couldn't extinguish. Do we?

In the end, things looked up for Nikolaos. After eight years of persecution, it had obviously not succeeded. No matter how hard they attacked the church, it couldn't be broken. And Galerius was seriously ill and in great pain from it – either gangrene or cancer. So Galerius gave up – he himself canceled the persecution order and proclaimed a new policy of tolerance. He asked all the Christians to pray for him, but he died just a week later. He was only a few years older than Nikolaos.

The next years saw the unraveling of the Tetrarchy, and the retired Diocletian's suicide. Other Roman leaders went to war, and when the dust settled, there were just two co-emperors: Galerius' childhood friend Licinius in the west, and, in the east, the son of Constantius, a man named Constantine. Together, Constantine and Licinius not only repeated the policy of tolerance, but they ordered stolen property to be given back to the Christians. Most shocking of all, though, Constantine had some visions of his own – and he, Emperor of Rome, wanted to follow this Christ.

Nikolaos was plenty happy to hear that. All along, he had honored Christ the Lord as holy in his heart (1 Peter 3:15). Nikolaos was right to be patient. He was right to have served Jesus, not just through generosity to the poor, but through perseverance in the face of suffering. Nikolaos knew that it wouldn't last forever – and even if he'd been killed, he would rather go through that than turn his back on Jesus. Santa Claus was right to be patient.

And so are we. Because whatever sufferings we may face, in the end, things will look up, whether in this world or the next. We may be imprisoned in our circumstances now. But a new King will set us free. 

We may be tormented with disease, despair, destitution, death now. But a new King will heal us, provide for us, and raise us up. 

We may be tempted toward cowardice or compromise. But a new King will reward our faithful resolve to turn always to him and never away from him. 

That new King has already been born to us – to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds and the wise men, to Nikolaos and to you and to me – and he's coming again. As we wait for things to look up, all the way up to heaven's glory, may we ever share in Nikolaos' patience and courage. May we learn to serve Jesus like he did. Amen.