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.

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