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.

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