Saturday, December 26, 2020

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: A Christmas Sermon

Glory to God in the highest!” The song rolled, in melodic streams, through the air on every side 'round shaken shepherds one cold night in fields that had suddenly become the breach between earth and heaven. What does that mean – 'glory'? The Bible always seems to be talking about 'glory.' In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word here more literally suggests 'heaviness.' For something to have 'glory' means that it's got real heft, real weight, real importance and significance. It has value. It has gravity. It has a pull on us. What we glorify is what we consider significant and weighty in our lives. We glorify what we orbit, what we're attracted to and impressed by. So for God to have glory means that he's objectively at the center of it all. Everything revolves around God. Everything is defined in terms of God. God is the top priority in everything. Therefore, God has glory.

The Bible also describes God's glory as shining, as being bright. Glory is beautiful. Glory is appealing, glory is impressive, glory is attractive. Kings have glory, and they show it off with their royal finery and fancy crowns. Those things, expressions of their social importance, themselves become glory. Nations have glory, in all their wealth and production. Temples have glory, in their architectural marvels and expensive materials. Angels have glory, in their heavenly brightness like the stars that dot the night sky. But the glory of all these things is relative, not 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 God and finds its rightful place in his system, then things nearby become clear, they're transfigured, they're brought to life.

And so the Bible goes often to that theme: God's glory and how bright it is. Moses and the Israelites saw God's glory in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and then in the burning presence that settled atop Mt. Sinai, and finally in the brightness that invaded the tabernacle (Exodus 16:10; 24:16; 40:34). The prophets waited for a day when that same glory would fill the whole world, drench air and land and sea, suffuse every proton and electron and neutron with God's obvious brightness and power (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 2:14). The prophet Ezekiel had a vision. Remember what Ezekiel saw? When God found him in the 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. … 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 1:4-28)!

Can you imagine seeing that, like Ezekiel saw that? To actually come face-to-likeness with God's glory? Some day, that glory-presence would fill the temple. Some day, that glory-presence will fill the earth, just as it once did in the Garden of Eden. In the garden, God was central. In the garden, everything was in place around God, in living relationship with God. And around God, there is life eternal. Around God, there is perfect peace, and refreshment and joy and wonder, and the riches of love, and the fulfillment of every longing.

Yes, for some brief moment of time, in the infancy of our history, we tasted that – because we, and all things in the earthly creation, gave God absolute glory. In fact, in some ancient writings, the reason why Adam and Eve, are innocently oblivious they're naked is because their bodies had robes of light, reflections of God's very own glory for his earthly images to wear around as part of our very existence.

Then came a tempter with a hissing envy. That foul creature slithered in, confronted the woman and the man beside her, suggested a different center of gravity. Why revolve around God? Why let God be our center? Why not glimpse a world we ourselves could design, dictate, and decide? The know-how and power would be at our fingertips, hanging from this tree. We too can be important. We can be the center of our own stories. Just take one bite, this serpent says. And we do. And we lose sight of God's glory. We trade his shine for shame.

The fig leaves our fingers weave give place to the skins of God's mercy. Still, we get locked out of the garden, for our own protection, lest we succeed too fully in ruining our destiny. Our path to the tree of life is blocked by cherubim, living creatures with a flaming sword. The human problem ever since has been as the psalmist called it: “They exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Paul weeps: “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's blessed forever” (Romans 1:22-25). And that's a big problem. God himself shouts, “My glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8). God does not consent to our orbiting a double-star. All gravity must be his, all beauty must mirror him. The world was meant to center on God. But our world came unglued from its orbit, and the result has been decay and death. All our history is the tragedy of how we've constructed our petty little worlds to glorify everything we can find but the one true and living God.

For this question has always been the great contest of human history: What defines everything else? What is at the center? What's most impressive and valuable to you, what's most beautiful to you, what is the ultimate organizing principle of life for you? Adam and Eve were tainted, poisoned, when they made themselves their own organizing principle. And we often follow their lead, in one way or another.

Perhaps we build our lives around money – we define ourselves in terms of what we have, or what we can get, or what we wish we could get. Or maybe we build our lives around the work we do – we define ourselves as an occupation before all else. Or maybe we build our lives around power – we define ourselves by how much we wield or want. Maybe we build our lives around pleasure – we devote ourselves to savoring it, jumping from one experience to the next, be it wholesome or unwholesome. Maybe we build our lives around safety and security – we define ourselves as potential victims, we devote ourselves to staying protected whatever the cost. Maybe we build our lives around a hobby – some pursuit that dominates our time and energy, like hunting or fishing, like running or racing, like conversing or consuming. Maybe we build our lives around a cause, be it political or otherwise – we define ourselves by our views, by our commitment; we see everything in light of that one lens, we give it our heart and soul. Maybe we build our lives around a relationship – we define ourselves by a celebrity, or by a mentor or hero, or by a parent or spouse or child, making them the practical reason for our being. Maybe we build our lives around some notion of our identity – we define ourselves in terms of race or of nation, in terms of desire or experience, by condition of health or wealth, by profession or confession. But in the end, it always comes down to us dictating where the center will be, glorifying that center by our volition.

Whenever we imagine that God owes us, or that we set the terms for our relationship with him, or that we say what's fair or what he should do, we've begun to reconstruct the center, we've given ourselves the glory. That's the human story, and you can look out your window many days and realize that it isn't a terribly happy story. It gives us holocausts and bombings, gives us malice and greed, gives us lunacy and heresy; it addicts us to what can only birth misery. Like the prophet Jeremiah said, “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). Can you think of many better lines to summarize 2020?

See, 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've long since come un-anchored 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, nor does anything else radiate enough warmth and light to sustain us for a lifetime, let alone eternity. Everything we find falls into gloom. Everywhere we venture is a path on the twilight mountains. We don't know where to turn. No wonder our feet so frequently stumble.

And because we don't know where to turn or what to do, because we aren't all revolving around the same trusty center, because we don't share the same God and the same vision, we pull apart or crash into each other. Our orbits are erratic and conflicting. We have disharmony with heaven and disharmony with earth. We've seen this at the Tower of Babel. We see it in our war and our wrestling. We see it in disease and in death. And we see it in the mundane moments of our lives. What we need is a light in the darkness, and the hope of peace on earth!

And that's why Christmas has proven so important. Long ago, 'twas foretold through the prophet Isaiah: “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 9:2). And the same prophet then explains that the only way this will happen is at the birth of a certain Child, a sacred Son given to all humanity, the One who will rule as Prince of Peace, who will be an Everlasting Father to the wayward sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, the One who will give us wonderful counsel, the One who will fill all things as Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6). The dawn of God's glory on a frozen-over earth lost in space – this we celebrate this morning!

Out in those midnight fields, those shepherds were people not so different than any of us (Luke 2:8). Their lives revolved, in practice, around simple and ordinary things. One was all invested in the sheep, morning, noon, and night. Another was in it for the pay, meager though it was. One more was all about the family waiting for him back home in town. Still another was all about dreams of a different life. Perhaps one was sneezing and coughing in the fields, fighting off an infection. But that night, something changed. Another figure joined them – no human born of earth, but a dweller of the far sky above the stars, sent as a messenger: an angel of the Lord.

What's more, Luke tells us, “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9b). The only other time in the Bible we hear that verb, it's when Paul remembers the Damascus Road where the same glory 'shone around' him and changed his life. So this is brilliant light, this is heart-converting light. This light of glory unveils all truth, this light of glory exposes everything, this light of glory is the beauty of the Most High, and it comes cascading and crashing into their mud-bound lives. On every side, the shepherds see the same brightness Ezekiel saw. The fields outside Bethlehem are suddenly swarming with the dense flame that lit Mount Sinai. The dense radiance that packed the tabernacle like a cloud is pressing their skin. Each hair on their heads is lit by the sacred glow.

Their natural response was to “fear a great fear” (Luke 2:9c). How could they not? The center of gravity had abruptly shifted in the night. Their world had lurched from one end to the other. Everything they were all about – it suddenly dimmed, paled, blanched. All they once deemed beautiful and bright was nothing but shadow; all they once thought central and important was peripheral and mundane. Their universe had vomited its innards to the outside, and what once was beyond the cosmos had broken through the skin into the heart of all things. It can be mighty frightening, to suddenly find your life unfamiliar, to be confronted by something bigger and grander than your safe little world. So they feared a great fear.

But this angel – and I wonder if he bore the flaming sword that warded our parents from the garden – he tells these scared-stiff shepherds there's another response. The opposite of fearing is seeing – seeing, that is, that this is in fact the way the world is meant to be and look. This brighter brilliance, this grander glory, is where we all were meant to live. This is our long-lost hope and home. We were always to have God at the center, to define everything in relation to God, to share by grace in his light and life and love, to be wrapped up in him and in harmony with all things. It's only through sin's inverting presence that we've acclimated to the alien atmosphere of dead chaos. If the shepherds can see the rightness of this glory, no more shall they fear their great fear.

So the angel reorients them. And then he says a more profound word by far. Our English Bibles explain that the angel brings good tidings. Literally, this messenger from beyond the sky declares, “I evangelize you!” Can you imagine that – how this angel is an evangelist? Yet this is what evangelism is all about. No wonder many in our world are terrified to be evangelized, no wonder they find it so distasteful and upsetting and loathsome to themselves. So did the shepherds! This angel confronted them with something profoundly discombobulating. And yet the message was good news, a report meant to bless them with hope and immense joy. They would be set free to see and know the world a new way, to begin living a new life available to all people – the kind that comes only from being re-anchored to God at the center (Luke 2:10).

This cosmic herald then explains that the good news that sets them free is that, right there in Bethlehem, in that very town they're outside, new life has entered the human scene, in the form of a tiny baby, a few pounds of skin and muscle and blood and bone. This is the long-awaited Messiah, the true King of glory. He's a Savior to rescue them from all their fears and faults, from all their sins and wrongs, from all the smallness and coldness and darkness and deadness of their little worlds. This Savior will rescue them from the avaricious clutches of everything they used to glorify, everything that once drew them in and entranced them – even from themselves. He's a Savior from their obsessions, a Savior from the weight of their grief and sorrow and anxiety and lostness, from the distractions of their comforts and consolations, from their broken political and religious and customary opinions, from their pride and their envy, from the idol-factory churning away in their restless, godless hearts. The Messiah, the Lord, the Savior has been born for them, born for us, to be our King of Glory (Luke 2:11)!

Hearing this, those shepherds are left – though only for a moment – to wonder how they could ever approach a King of Glory. They're just shepherds, after all. They're poor. They're unclean. They're nobodies. They've got no status, no credentials, no passport of access to the Messiah son of David, much less to the Child of Prophecy. In the social order of the world, they're as far away from a Messiah as you could get – or so they think. But the cosmic herald, the angel, tells them that they won't find him in some palace, not in a great castle. There will be no bouncers, no security patrol, no dress code, no social distance. They'll find him in a simple peasant house, surrounded by a family's livestock, and he'll be dressed no differently than the shepherds' own kids (Luke 2:12).

The glory of God had come to earth, wrapped in swaddling clothes, wrapped in our flesh and blood, wrapped in our poverty and simplicity and weakness and frailty. The eternal Word, older than Adam, older than atoms, was spoken in infant coos and gurgles amidst our smells and messes, our dirt and grime, our sweat and tears. The Word of God entered our humble estate, our nakedness and shame, into the likeness of sinful flesh, to cure us. He would illustrate what a truly God-centered and God-immersed human life would look like – because he'd live one. He'd live a human life entirely about the glory of God, a life defining all things in relation to God, a life entranced by God's beauty and anchored by 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'd save us from ourselves and all our lesser glories. And he meets us, not atop a golden spire, but in the gloomy valley and the twilight mountain where deep darkness rules.

So the angel told the shepherds. And then, in a flash, the angel was joined by hundreds, by thousands, by the grand army choir of heaven, as if every star in the sky had suddenly collided with earth's atmosphere in their grandeur (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! From top to bottom, God's glory is ultimate and absolute. In the highest place, to the highest degree, God is what it's all about. What's most central, most important, most significant, most true, most beautiful and bright? God! God defines the lives of the heavenly host, God defines all creatures here below. In God we live, in God we move, in God we have our being. In God does our faith rightly anchor, in God is our hope fulfilled, in God do we find love and belonging, in God is true treasure and solid strength and consoling comfort. God is the glory of all glory.

And in a world that recognizes that, tastes that, experiences that – a world filled with those whom God esteems for so esteeming him – there and only there, then and only then, is there peace on earth. In a world re-centered rightly, there's a wholeness, a completion, a unity and harmony that can turn back the clock on the curse and can lower the sword of flame. Here alone is good news, here alone is great joy, here alone is peace on earth – in a new God-glorifying world, a world that poked its face into ours one chilly night in the little town of Bethlehem.

The angels hide. The light fades from eyes, but not from hearts. The shepherds go. They ask where the village midwife has been. They find a house. And through the door, with ox and sheep and donkey, they meet a burly carpenter and his glowing lady and a tender newborn, swaddled, resting in the manger (Luke 2:15-16). Strong and silent Joseph welcomed them in. Mary thoughtfully introduced them to her Son. In that feed trough, the shepherds saw the Child whose pudgy little fingers had made the earth, whose little feet had once thundered in heaven's inner sanctum, whose cries inspired the angels' tune, and behind whose thin eyelids lived the saving Light into which even seraphim, cherubim, thrones, and dominions dare not gaze lest they be consumed.

Those shepherds relayed their good news to Joseph. They told their joys to the Virgin who bore God. They said it to all those in the house. They shouted it in the streets of the town. Then they made their way, stunned and giddy, back to the fields, the same fields where they'd been tending their flocks before (Luke 2:17-19). But they could not go back to life as it once was. They returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). And I'd like to think they kept singing the angels' song: “Glory to God in the highest!” The song they'd heard, they did not keep to themselves. They were forever changed. They had seen glory, they had beheld beauty, they had met the true center of it all. And through the hope that this Bethlehem Baby brought, they surrendered their lives to God's gravity. Their lives, I pray, became more what they were meant to be.

The hands of this Baby beckon us to enter a world of glory. We're summoned to a bright new creation with God at the heart, where redemption in Christ and power in the Spirit set us free to glorify God as the shepherds did. If you follow Jesus King of Glory, you've already got a toe in the door. The new world has broken in, but we see that much remains old. Much has not yet fallen into Christ's resurrection, has not yet been brought to life in the life he now has forever. The world around us, even the world in us, yet groans for the glory of God in us to be revealed when Jesus returns to heal, to comfort, to resurrect, to rule.

And so you have a choice. Will you sing the angels' song? Will you sing it with your voice? Will you sing it with your heartbeat? Will you sing it with your hands and feet? Will God define you, motivate you, inspire you, captivate you? Do you walk where his favor will find you? Do you share good news? Do you cheer for great joy? Do you live out, best you can, peace on earth?

Maybe this Christmas season, you realize you haven't really trusted Jesus, that God hasn't been your center. Do not miss out on great joy! Turn from lesser things. Don't miss out on the glory of God. Or maybe you realize that you've been giving God some glory, just not in the highest. If that's you, there's a deeper joy and comfort to be found. Be like the shepherds. Go to where Jesus is. Behold him and hold him. Adore him. Find healing in him, find hope in him, spend time with him. Take him with you in your heart and your life wherever you go. Or maybe you do give God the glory, but you've forgotten how good news is meant to be shared. Angels told good news. Shepherds told good news. Now it's your turn. Go tell it on the mountain. Go tell it in the valley. Just tell it. Just taste it. Just live it. May all we say or do be for the praise of our glorious God, who sent us his Son, a Savior. In him, God has blessed us – every one. Glory to God in the highest! Amen, and amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Santa to the Rescue: Advent Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church, there is a Santa Claus. And during this year's Advent season, we've taken the opportunity to learn a lot more about the real story behind the legend. Three weeks ago, we first met Nicholas, a boy born in Patara on Turkey's southwest tip around the year 270. We heard how his wealthy parents died, leaving him with the family wealth; and Jesus inspired him to anonymously toss gold through a poor family's window to secure dowries for three daughters and protect their souls. Then we heard how Nicholas was summoned by the voice of heaven to be ordained a bishop for Myra, just before Emperors Diocletian and Galerius launched a ferocious persecution, in which Nicholas was targeted, jailed, and tortured – and yet kept his faith and his courage in the face of opposition. Then we heard how Constantine rose as emperor, honored the church, and called bishops to meet in Nicaea to settle many questions. We heard that Nicholas was there, and how he stood up for the truth of who and what Jesus is: the uncreated Creator, who – being of the same essence as the Father – can connect us with the Father's divine life and will never turn away. When that truth was attacked, Nicholas defended it.

Leaving the scene of the council, Nicholas made his way back to Myra. And the Myra to which he returned was an exciting place. For perhaps just before the council, Constantine had made the decision to split the province of Lycia et Pamphylia in two. Lycia would now be its own province, and Myra was its capital. As the bishop of a provincial capital, then, Nicholas wasn't just a bishop; he was a metropolitan, an archbishop. And that would certainly be plenty to keep Nicholas busy!

Six years went by for Archbishop Nicholas, and the other bishops in Lycian cities, and the people. And one day, the winds died down across the Mediterranean. There was a group of ships sailing from the new capital city of the empire, Constantinople, which Constantine had founded and named for himself. Those ships were carrying soldiers bound for Phrygia, to quell a revolt there. But the winds weren't favorable. The ships had very little choice but to divert from their mission and harbor at Andriake, a port near Myra, to await better winds. Imagine you're one of the soldiers on those ships. You'd be itching for some shore leave, wouldn't you?

So they were. And their three commanders – Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis – gave them permission to go look for food and entertainment. Out went the soldiers, fanning through the streets of Andriake. These were disciplined soldiers, in the service of this vast empire. They meant no one any harm. But a group of local hooligans saw them. The hooligans got an idea. They found uniforms that mimicked the look of a Roman soldier. And then the hooligans went through the town, looting and pilfering as they pleased. Naturally, they got caught. But to the townspeople of Andriake, it sure looked like Roman soldiers were busting up the town. And a riot broke out in the town square. Which put the actual Roman soldiers in a bit of a pickle.

Somehow, with the countryside naturally quiet, the yells of the riot could be heard all the way at the cathedral in Myra. And that's where Archbishop Nicholas was. In his late sixties, his beard had turned gray or white, but his ears worked quite fine still. They picked up the sound of trouble in the distance. And he wasted no time. In a moment of crisis, Nicholas would act. He set out and marched three miles to Andriake. And when he made his appearance, the rioters grew quiet at the sight of the dignified and determined archbishop. The soldiers and their commanders saluted him. He questioned the commanders, stilled the crowd, gave a speech. To the locals of Andriake, he warned them to end the riot and go home. To the weary commanders, he invited them to go with him to Myra – since they had a day or so – and be his guests at supper. That sounded mighty good to them.

Just then, a pair of men ran, winded and panting, into the town square of Andriake. They'd come freshly from Myra with an urgent message. “Nicholas, sir! No one in Myra could find you! Oh, sir, if only you had been there! If only you'd been in the city, you could have stopped it!” Stopped what? “The governor, sir. He ordered the arrest of three men, innocent of a crime, who've been handed over to death. Oh, Your Holiness, sir, they'll be beheaded! Everyone in Myra is upset, we don't know what to do!”

With the commanders in tow, Nicholas promptly rushed back uphill to Myra, as quickly as he could. He found the place of execution. A crowd had gathered around to watch, in 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 in that moment, they heard Archbishop Nicholas cry out, “Halt!” They heard the speedy patter of his approaching footsteps. And then they heard a clang and clatter. Nicholas had marched straight for the executioner and stretched out his hand, grabbed the sword from his grasp, and hurled it to the ground. Nicholas had come between the killer and his prey; there was no execution unless Nicholas was to join them. He had come to personally interfere with the official business of the state. What would the executioner do?

The executioner backed away, that's what he did. He unchained the three men, released them from their bonds. And with them and the three commanders, Nicholas turned his face back toward the city. If this went all the way to the top, well, so would he. Nicholas marched to the praetorium, the great palace where the governor of Lycia lived, a man named Eustathius. Nicholas barged in, and Eustathius greeted him honorably – but Nicholas wouldn't have any of it. The soft-spoken saint 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 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 in beads of sweat, Governor Eustathius fell to his knees, begging, “Good sir, please, please, don't be angry with me. It wasn't my fault, I promise!” He blamed others.

But someone had already let slip the secret: that, for whatever political or social reason, the governor had been bribed with a small fortune to see this wrongful execution through. So Nicholas refused to let the governor pass the buck. “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). 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 Nicholas not to turn him in. The military commanders, likewise, urged Nicholas to forgive the governor, to show mercy on him. And so Nicholas pardoned him, embraced him, made him just. Governor Eustathius had learned his lesson.

What had been going through Nicholas' mind? Well, all life long, he was a student of the scriptures, a man of the church, a lover of Jesus Christ. And when he unfurled the sacred scrolls, he read there about a God “who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 146:6-7). He also read where God had said to his consubstantial Son, “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). And that's the Jesus St. Nicholas had come to know: light and sight and liberty. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem with a life mission to fulfill: a mission to intervene in our execution. He'd take our guilt on himself, he'd face the executioner, and his perfect innocence would break the wheels of human injustice and interrupt the sorry cycle of our cruelty. 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 to set us free. And Nicholas gratefully basked in Jesus' justice. He simply asked himself, “I want to be more like Jesus! How can I be light and sight and liberty in him?”

See, Nicholas had never heard of the silly modern notion that 'religion' and 'politics' are categories that are never supposed to mix. 'Separation of church and state' is a phrase he was blessed never to hear. He knew that the very Jesus whose body on earth is the Church is also the Jesus who is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And that same Jesus, therefore, will be the judge of whatever Eustathius or Constantine or any other governing authority decides to do. Political authorities then have an obligation to serve the church in its mission to restore and shepherd souls and to cleanse the world of injustice and violence. Where there's justice and mercy, Jesus is pleased; where justice and mercy are lacking, Jesus is displeased.

And St. Nicholas was called to bear the name of that Lord Jesus, to be the voice of that Lord Jesus. The gospel Nicholas knew was the good news of salvation, justice, and mercy, poured out through Jesus Christ and in the grasp of Jesus Christ and under the throne of Jesus Christ. And so the church he led, and our church now, had a mission to speak, live, and work for peace, justice, mercy, and grace in the world; to disciple the principalities and powers as well as the prisoners and the poor and all the people. And so in the name of the one Lord Jesus, Archbishop Nicholas spoke truth to the governor's power, no less than any Old Testament prophet had or would.

And this wasn't a one-off. This was Nicholas' way of life. We're told also of “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 Nicholas 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 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 and court intrigue, they were charged with a conspiracy against the emperor, and were going to be put to death themselves. But the commander Nepotianus, crying in his jail cell, prayed to the “Lord God of holy Nicholas” – he prayed that, just as God used Nicholas to save those three men who'd been falsely accused in Myra, so he'd use Nicholas again, somehow, even though he was so far away.

That very night, both the Emperor Constantine and his prefect Flavius Ablabius, who'd been bribed to kill these commanders, in a dream or a vision. And Nicholas warned them strongly that if they didn't do justice, Nicholas would bear witness against them before “the heavenly and immortal King Christ,” the highest authority there is. As an archbishop and a man of God, St. Nicholas was confident that he had a hotline to the King of Kings, and he'd warn any earthly power that he wouldn't hesitate to get Jesus on the line. Constantine listened. Smart. The commanders were acquitted, journeying slowly back to Myra. Once there, they thanked Archbishop Nicholas and brought him some gifts for the church that the emperor had sent with them: candlesticks and a communion plate and a Bible, all gold with jewels. And the commanders gave glory to God in the public square, celebrating what he'd done through Nicholas. And, gathering the poor of Myra, they gave away to them piles of clothing and gold and silver, in grateful joy. One good turn deserves another, after all, doesn't it?

So the story goes. Well, the years went by. Archbishop Nicholas continued living in just the way we've heard. When famine came and devastated the region, he managed to supply wheat so the people wouldn't starve physically, just as he lived to feed them spiritually. In later life, Nicholas dealt with constant headaches due to bone thickening in his skull, and his spine was wracked by severe arthritis, a chronic ailment. And in light of all that, I'm sure he began to look forward more and more to seeing his Savior and leaving his pains behind.

At last came the year of our Lord 343. At the age of about 73 years, on the sixth day of December, Nicholas traded the present earth's dimness for heaven's brightness – or, as an early 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...” Now, that was not the end of the story of St. Nicholas. His rejoicing goes on! His life goes on! Meanwhile, on earth, nearly a thousand years ago, after Myra was overrun by the Seljuk Turks in 1071, two Italian cities, Bari and Venice, both wanted to carry out a rescue mission to evacuate St. Nicholas. Sailors from Bari showed up first and carried away all the big bones they could carry (or steal, depending on your point of view); they brought them home to Bari, where a special church was built to hold them. Later, the Venetian sailors collected the smaller bones left behind, bringing them to home to Venice. The two towns share St. Nicholas, though with small fragments of his bones dispersed throughout the world.

There he rests. Here we sit. St. Nicholas, living in fourth-century Lycia, proved himself to be a courageous spokesman for prisoners, particularly the wrongly accused. Now we live in the twenty-first-century United States of America – the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. About 0.7% of all Americans are incarcerated – that's seven of every thousand people in the country. So far, of that incarcerated population, one in every five prisoners have caught the coronavirus, including a few hundred in our own county prison. The COVID-19 mortality rate among prisoners is double that among the broader population. In the last decade, our own state's department of corrections underwent a three-year investigation by the federal government, which found widespread mistreatment of prisoners, especially those with mental illnesses or disabilities. And to make matters worse, it's estimated that between 2% and 10% of America's prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes of which they've been convicted. A year ago, two Philadelphia men were exonerated and released after 28 years in prison for a crime they had nothing to do with. To know stories like that, statistics like that, is to understand the prophet's outcry that “the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth; for the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4). What might St. Nicholas say to that?

St. Nicholas was a big believer in the words of another prophet: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Those were words by which Nicholas lived during his time on earth. Can we afford not to live by the same command? Here and now, St. Nicholas has his imitators. In our county, some of them work with Justice and Mercy, a local prison ministry and reform advocacy group. They help judges find alternatives to imprisonment, they coordinate compassionate care for prisoners, they train people to mentor those released from prison, they encourage the justice system to live up to its name. Some imitators of St. Nicholas work with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which helps people qualify as official visitors with access to interview inmates and ensure proper treatment. Still others write letters of hope and wisdom, or pray for defendants and victims and judges, or dream of better ways. But most of all, those who imitate St. Nicholas live by justice and mercy in how they face each neighbor while walking humbly with Jesus. To follow, we can do likewise. Comfort and support neighbors afflicted with illness, grief, unemployment, crime and punishment, and the wheels of bureaucratic nonsense. Feed the hungry. Be a companion to orphans and widows. Be a lifeline to prisoners, refugees, the lonely, the homeless, and the poor. That's the church being church.

As we complete this season of Advent, we remember, on the one hand, how eagerly and desperately the people of Israel waited for centuries for their Messiah to come. The Messiah would be the justice-bringer. So often, Israel had suffered under injustice. They cried out with words like: “We all growl like bears, we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there's none; for salvation, but it's far from us” (Isaiah 59:11)! And not only were Israel (and we) victims of injustice, so too were they (and we) its perpetrators. For sin is both unmerciful and unjust, and we've all been those who “turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the dirt” (Amos 5:7). And we know that “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8). But the prophets had promised the birth of One whose shoulder would bear the weight of government, who would uphold the kingdom of David “with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:6-7). And as the time of that Messiah's birth drew close, his mother Mary was elated to prophesy that in this Son, God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

Now we also wait for his advent – not as a Baby in a humble Bethlehem feed-trough, but as the Risen King to the rescue, as the Victor over death and devil, as the triumphant Lord of Lords with all his Father's glories on and all his angels with him. And when Jesus the Lord Messiah again sets foot on earth, he will “fill Zion with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 33:5). He “will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4). The good news is: Jesus, King of Justice, is coming! “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you, because the Lord is a God of justice! Blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18). And we are waiting with desperate expectation. “Let justice roll down like rivers, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)!

As we wait, how might we better imitate St. Nicholas as he imitated Jesus his Lord? How can we become more generous, more humble, more courageous, more devoted to knowing and sharing the truth, more outspoken for justice for all? How we answer a question like that will determine who Christmas morning finds us to be. Let us become, for our community and for all the oppressed of the earth, light and sight and liberty in the Lord! For this Lord, whom we serve, whom we stand for, is the joy of all the earth and the living jubilee of God. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Santa at the Council: Advent Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church, there is a Santa Claus. And in the past two weeks, we've been learning the story of the real St. Nicholas. Born in the town of Patara on the southwest tip of Turkey around the year 270, he lost his family to plague and, left with a vast inheritance, was led by God into strategic giving, rescuing whole families from the death of body and soul. Around the age of thirty, he traveled thirty miles to the town of Myra and was chosen by the voice of God as its new bishop. A few years into his ministry there, Emperors Diocletian and Galerius launched a persecution of the church that landed Bishop Nicholas in prison, where he was tortured for his faith in Jesus. When we last left Nicholas, it was the year of our Lord 313. Bishop Nicholas was 43, and it had finally been declared legal to be a Christian. Nicholas could rebuild his church and comfort the flock he'd been called by God to shepherd. See, the Santa Claus of history, not of legend, was a man of flesh and blood, led by the Spirit, finding his way to follow Jesus in a challenging world – much like us. And from his success, we can learn how to imitate him as he imitated Jesus Christ.

A couple years after we left him, Nicholas might have been astonished and thrilled with the direction the empire was going. For the first time, he might have held in his hand a Roman coin with a Christian symbol on it. Two emperors ruled the empire: Licinius held the east, and he was a tolerant pagan who upheld the law, but in the west was a man named Constantine, who'd just the other year had a vision of a cross in the sky, and a voice bidding him to conquer under this sign, and no other. He bowed the knee to Christ, though he was unbaptized and hence not fully part of the church. Over the coming years, Constantine and Licinius would squabble for dominance, watching each other warily, even as they fought off the threat of the Goths. At last, in 324, it turned into yet another civil war – as if Nicholas hadn't lived through his share of those! But this one was a religious civil war: Licinius cast himself as the defender of the old Roman religion, Constantine as the defender of the message of Christ. Again and again, the pair faced off in battle – at Adrianople, in the Hellespont, and finally at Chrysopolis, where on September 18, Constantine finally broke Licinius. When the dust cleared, there was only one emperor holding the reins of power – and that man was Flavius Valerius Constantinus.

Nicholas certainly paid attention to the news. While pagan persecution would not be the end of the church, he'd no doubt prayed for Constantine to come out on top, for the health of the empire and the opportunities it would bring for the gospel to shape culture and touch lives. Now stability could finally return. The church had legal protection and imperial endorsement, and while Constantine certainly had his foibles and Christianity was hardly in the majority, they would be upheld.

At the same time, the church had a lot of questions to settle. There were many lingering questions about how this or that thing was to be done – what the right call would be, how to deal with this situation or that. And it was important that the whole church get on the same page. We – as children born of church division – tend to think that, if you don't like how the church is being run, just go break off, do your own thing, start your own or else be a solo Christian in the comfort of your cocoon. We split, we divide, we church shop. We are wrong. St. Nicholas – and most of Christian history is unanimously with him on this – would have had harsh words when he saw that sort of thing happening in his day. Because those are the sins of schism and heresy and rebellion, which can be deadly enough to cut people off from Christ and place them in danger of everlasting fire. Church unity matters deeply to Jesus, so it mattered deeply to Nicholas. And if church unity matters, then it means that some issues have to be dealt with in a unified way, across the entire church, not just a part of it – and as the Spirit leads the whole church to decide, so is the whole church bound.

Some of those questions were about church order. If the church is one, then which local church answers to whom? Do the bishops of cities like Antioch and Alexandria take leadership roles in their broader areas, much the same way that Rome's bishop was known to? And where does the bishop of Jerusalem rank? Is there a real hierarchy in each town's church? Who has the authority to give communion to whom? How should bishops be chosen and ordained? How long should somebody be a Christian before they can be ordained into the ministry? And if one bishop ordains somebody from another bishop's jurisdiction without consulting that bishop first, is that valid? Also, what about people who'd become leaders in a fake church – how can separatists and heretics be brought back, and can pastors of fake churches get ordained for real if they repent?

Other questions dealt with the worship of the church. Which days should Christians stand to pray in church? On what occasions should they kneel before God? And how should we decide which Sunday is Easter – what role should the Jewish calendar play in setting the date?

Still other questions were about ethics for those in clerical ministry. May clergy lend money out at interest and get rich that way? May clergy live in what look like compromising situations with women? And what about clergy who denied the faith during the persecution – can they stay in ministry?

Even more questions were about penance – the process of restoring sinful believers to full fellowship. A lot of believers lapsed during the persecution – whether through pressure or simply cowardice, they turned over their Bibles or they offered sacrifices or they tattled on other believers. The church didn't believe in just waving a magic wand over the situation and saying it was all good. Just like people in the Bible used to sit around in sackcloth and ashes after serious sins, offering penance for what they'd done, so the church often asked people to do penance for a certain length of time before they could be welcomed back into full communion after certain serious sins. But how long? Was there a difference for those who hadn't yet been baptized versus those who had already made certain promises to Jesus with their baptismal vows? And what about for other sins, like going back to professions that were incompatible with the gospel – how long should that penance be, and when can it start? And if somebody's under the church discipline of their bishop, should there be a way to appeal that to the neighboring bishops, in case yours made a mistake? Those were some of the other questions.

But the biggest question had to do with Christ himself. Nicholas had caught wind, before the civil war broke out, that there was trouble brewing. In the famed big city of Alexandria, north of Egypt, there lived a popular preacher named Arius, a priest from Libya. He'd been trained in the best schools, he thought he knew his stuff. He was a theological know-it-all – except he didn't know it all. Nicholas at some point got a letter from Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who'd been a long-time friend with Arius, about how Arius had been unfairly treated by his bishop Alexander. Then Nicholas got a letter from Alexander setting the story straight.

Arius' preaching had gone off the rails, and when Alexander – known for his gentle, quiet, and tolerant spirit – reluctantly tried to correct this young star, Arius doubled down on his mistakes. Not only that, but Arius started writing very catchy music to spread his theology – and soon people everywhere were singing it, were humming the tune, were getting these words stuck in their heads. Our faith is learned through what we sing, which is why hymns are so important. And soon Arianism, the beliefs of Arius, were spreading like a disease, and on the verge of becoming a theological pandemic. Alexander warned that Arius had started “teaching an apostasy which one might reasonably consider and label the forerunner of the Antichrist.” Those are serious words!

So what was Arius' problem? When he read his Bible, he saw that it called Jesus the “only-begotten Son.” And Arius couldn't see any difference between being begotten and being created – they just sounded so similar. To 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' was, for Arius, God's definition. So if Jesus the Son is 'begotten,' that must be the Son's essence – defining him as different than God. Arius could not stand to think that the ultimate God had personally been involved in taking on human flesh and blood and in suffering and dying for us. Arius wanted to drive a wedge between the Supreme God and Jesus as a merely “mighty god.” Arius realized that this wedge would open up a vast gap. To him, only God is unbegun, while the Son has a beginning; only God is eternal, and Jesus had an origin in time. There was a time when there was no Jesus, no Son of God: “There was when the Son was not,” and “when there is no Son, the Father is God.” Arius sang that Jesus “has nothing proper to God in his essential property,” and that therefore even Jesus doesn't really know his own Father, seeing and knowing him only from a distance, like us. Arius sang things like, “To the Son himself, [God] is invisible,” and “the Father is essentially foreign to the Son,” and “God exists ineffable to the Son,” while “the Son himself does not know his own essence.” Arius believed that Jesus was a “perfect creation of God,” who had been “created by the will of God” out of nothing – unlike God, but just like all of us.

Now, 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. Paul also tells us that by Jesus Christ, “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). The person of Christ is no creature; he's beyond all things, before all things. The power that holds reality together is him. His constant touch is the power that binds quarks into protons and neutrons, then into atoms, and atoms into molecules that make up us and all we see or feel. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). 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 Godhood – but the Baby in Bethlehem's manger has the fullness of everything God is.

The difference between these two views could not have been wider. And you can't have two totally different views of Jesus side-by-side. Jesus is too important. The church would have to either take a side or else break apart in bitterness. And that was the last thing the new emperor Constantine wanted. He'd already learned the hard way, after trying to settle some church controversies in northern Africa, that fighting Christians were an exhausting political problem. And so Constantine had an idea. Back in Acts 15, all the apostles got together in the city of Jerusalem to settle questions in a unified way. Since the apostles had ordained bishops as their successors, why not have bishops do the same thing? Bishops occasionally got together in local provinces to settle local questions; why not have bishops come from all over to settle the questions that matter all over?

Thus, one day, a messenger came into Myra with a letter for Nicholas. This was important official mail. This was a letter from the emperor. It was an invitation to come, in May of the year 325, for a months-long meeting hosted by the emperor at his palace in a lakeside city called Nicaea. Constantine had sent a copy of this letter to each bishop. All the leaders of God's church were invited to come settle all the questions of the day – including this biggest one. Now, by the time Nicholas has this letter in his hands, he's about 55 years old, and has been a church leader for nearly half his life. He's got his church rebuilt. He can trust his priests, his junior or associate pastors in Myra, to handle things while he's gone. And so, although it's a long journey of over 400 miles, St. Nicholas hit the road for Nicaea.

About eleven years ago, I spent some time in Nicaea, walking the same roads St. Nicholas walked. The ruins of the palace are mostly underwater now. But on the day the council opened, Nicholas found himself in the innermost hall of that palace, surrounded by hundreds of his episcopal collagues, many with some assistants in tow. They came from Egypt, from Africa, from Italy and England and Spain, from Greece and Asia and Galatia, from the Holy Land, from Mesopotamia and Arabia and India – never before in history had so many leaders of God's church gathered in one place. Picture Nicholas sitting in his assigned seat on the benches alongside so many men whose names he'd heard. Over there was Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem. In that corner sat Eustathius of Antioch. There sat Vitus and Vincentius, priests sent on behalf of the absent Roman bishop Sylvester. Here at one end was Jacob of Nisibis, a miracle-worker from the east. Over at the other end was Paphnutius of Thebes, from the deserts of Egypt – one-eyed and crippled from torture. Nicholas met Paul of Neocaesarea, whose hands had been burned and cut. Alexander from Alexandria sat, with a short 27-year-old deacon by his side – the brilliant young man Athanasius, ghostwriter of Alexander's big letter. Can you imagine how excited Nicholas was to meet everyone, to put a face to the name?

And then a Spanish bishop named Hosios, presiding at the council, stood up, and so did everyone else. Then the Emperor Constantine, ruler of the Roman Empire, entered, wrapped in luxurious purple robes, with a gold crown on his head, decorated with jewels. The emperor made his way through the crowd of bishops, kissing their scars sustained in the persecution. Picture Nicholas, standing face-to-face with the emperor, looking right into Constantine's eyes. In age, the two were peers – Nicholas was almost two years older. At last, Constantine sat on a golden throne, the bishops sat, the emperor gave a speech encouraging the bishops to keep the church united. And then the council began.

And so opened many raucous debates, most especially on the big question. Many of the bishops weren't clearly decided at first. A lot of them had a hard time following the argument, with all its technical philosophy words and all their abstract ramifications. 'Essence' this, 'substance' that, quibbles over Greek grammar. Some eyes no doubt glazed over. Maybe a few of them were thinking, “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?”

Nicholas didn't think that. He didn't think it was irrelevant. He wasn't undecided. He knew from the very start that he was not on Team Arius. His parents had raised him in the faith of the church, the whole church; and that faith meant to worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. If Arius was right, then the whole church was wrong in how it worshipped and how it prayed. That was serious. Everything was at stake.

See, if Arius were right, then the difference between Jesus and his Father is way bigger than we can imagine. If Arius is right, then Jesus may not really be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Anything created can change. So if Arius is right, how can we be sure Jesus won't turn on us someday? There's no basis for security in what Arius teaches. And if Arius is right, then Jesus is less 'god' than God is. And if that's true, then Jesus can't reveal God to us, because he doesn't really know God himself. Yet Jesus told us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And if Arius is right, then Jesus shouldn't be worshipped, because he isn't the Supreme God. And right there, out goes centuries of Christian prayer and worship, right back to how the apostles acted in Jesus' own presence. What's more, if Arius is right, then Jesus and the Father aren't one God. But the Gospel of John builds its call for Christian unity on that truth: we should be one people because the Father and the Son are one God (John 10:30; 17:11). So the nature of the church itself was in jeopardy.

And if that weren't bad enough, if Arius is right, then being joined to Jesus – the branches of his Vine, members of his Body – does not join us to the Ultimate God. But salvation, true and full salvation, is about God's own life being shared with us. If Jesus doesn't link us to the Father's life, then John lied in writing 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 the life that's in Jesus, and nothing less than God's light can enlighten us for eternity. If Arius is right, our salvation is finally incomplete, and we haven't been brought to God's own heart. That matters. And it matters more than anything. For Jesus had also said, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23) – which means that those like Arius who demoted Jesus from God's level were blaspheming against God and refusing the light of grace. Bishop Alexander had been right to accuse Arius and his friends of “resisting God” and being “destroyers of souls!”

Nicholas 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, eternally! Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” – all the way back to eternity past, and unchangingly for endless ages to come (Hebrews 13:8). 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,” full stop.

That's what Nicholas knew. And after a month of meeting with the hundreds of bishops who rubbed shoulders with him at Nicaea, you could count on one hand those who weren't convinced. So on top of answering a lot of the other practical and ethical and ecclesiastical questions in front of it, the council also made a statement about what the Christian faith is all about. They rejected anybody who said that Jesus came from nothing or once didn't exist. They rejected anybody who said he 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 – we call them the Nicene Creed. Some churches recite those very words every Sunday. Some of our favorite Christmas hymns point us back to them. In the end, the beauty of Jesus Christ won the day. But even during Nicholas' life on earth, the controversy raged on among those who didn't accept the work the council did. Even today, Arius' bad ideas have followers – some in groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, others among lots of well-meaning Christians who haven't thought out their faith the way St. Nicholas did. Arius and his supporters were suspended from church fellowship by the council and sent into exile by the emperor.

There's a legend that, during the council, Nicholas heard Arius teaching his blasphemies, and so Jolly Old St. Nick took a break from being jolly and walked up and smacked him in the face. Popular story, but unlikely to be true – it's a very unreliable story, and it just isn't St. Nick's style. But what is his style is 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 Nicholas' style. The council wrapped up by August in the year of our Lord 325, several months after it began, ending with a grand victory-feast hosted by the emperor in his own halls. And in the coming years, when Nicholas wasn't busy breaking down Myra's pagan temples, he was reaching out to the people who'd been hoodwinked by Arius, including the ex-bishops who'd been exiled. Nicholas was hearing them out, gently explaining to them what the Bible really said and the Church really held, showing them how it made a difference in his life and in the church's life. And through the patient witness of Nicholas, God granted even to one of Arius' own pet bishops the gift of repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth – and that bishop came to his senses and escaped from the snare of the devil. He really did repent, he really did come back to the church and to the real Jesus – and God used St. Nicholas to help that happen.

St. Nicholas knew that Jesus is important. St. Nicholas 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? Where do you stand? Which Jesus Christ have you known? Who and what do you say that the baby laid in the Bethlehem manger is?

This Christmas season, don't settle for a counterfeit. Don't be content to misunderstand Jesus. It matters – for you, for your next-door neighbor, for everyone. Be a student of the truth. Understand what God wants you to know about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Be a confessor of the truth. Gently help your neighbors, in your pew or on your block, to see the big brightness of the real Jesus – like St. Nicholas did. The Light still shines in the darkness, and all the darkness of Arius' bad ideas (or any other false teaching) has not overcome it. May we see and share the Light, too, the same as St. Nicholas did. And may we learn from him to worship at the side of the manger, beholding the fullness of true God and true man truly present there! Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Santa Behind Bars: Advent Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church... there is a Santa Claus. If you were with us last week, you started to hear his story – the true story, not the myth. We traveled to a far-off city called Patara on the southwest coast of Turkey and met this young man named Nicholas, bereaved of his earthly family too soon, but using his wealth in strategic ways for intentional anonymous giving – just like Jesus his Lord had said. He was a man made of flesh and blood, this real St. Nicholas, trying to follow Jesus in a chaotic and challenging world – just like us.

And believe me, his world could get chaotic. His parents had lived through a time historians now call the Crisis of the Third Century. For about fifty years, the reigns of emperors could most often be measured in months or days, and very few enjoyed any sort of nonviolent death. It was a time of great political upheaval, a time of plague and invasion and loss. And even during Nicholas' own childhood in Patara, while he was being brought to church and made “acquainted with the sacred writings” which were “able to make [him] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15), emperor after emperor had their reigns abruptly ended by disease, lightning strike, or – still most common of all – murder.

But then, one day, when Nicholas was a teenager, a new man rose to power. Diocles was a 40-year-old cavalry commander from the region of Dalmatia. And in November 284, when the emperor Numerian was found dead in his coach (perhaps assassinated by Diocles), the generals elected Diocles to be emperor. Promptly murdering his closest rival, Diocles changed his name to Diocletian, hunted down Numerian's brother Carinus in July 285, and soon began reorganizing Roman politics from the ground up. At the same time when Nicholas in Patara was throwing bags of gold through a poor father's window to save a poor family from spiritual death, Diocletian was forming the Tetrarchy, the rule of four. He'd chosen an old army buddy as co-emperor, an Augustus, to govern the west; and each of them took their son-in-law as a junior co-emperor, or Caesar.

Nicholas didn't have to pay much attention to Maximian and Constantius. Patara was in the east of the empire, right in the lands ruled by Diocletian and Galerius. Diocletian was a military-minded conservative. He was an army man who wanted to see the army restored to its former glory and the empire made great again. He was a staunch defender of traditional Roman values – he wanted to get back to the old ways, whatever it took to get there. Maybe some of you understand the feeling. That sounds like somebody you'd vote for. But traditional Roman values meant traditional Roman gods. Diocletian wanted to purify the empire religiously, and believed that “an ancient religion ought not be criticized by a newfangled one” – such as, for instance, that upstart called Christianity. Not great news for the church. Meanwhile, Diocletian's son-in-law and Caesar Galerius was rumored to have an anti-Roman streak, very different in temperament from Diocletian. Galerius was half-Thracian and half-Dacian – people whom the Romans had brutally subjugated two centuries earlier. His mom was a deeply superstitious woman named Romula, who resented Christians for never coming to her parties and who passed along a bitter anti-Christian zeal to her son. To have Diocletian and Galerius at the controls of the empire made it an uncomfortable time to be a Christian. It was very obvious to the church that those in political leadership in their land were, at best, bitterly unsympathetic – and, in fact, a hostile danger to watch out for.

As the third century drew to a close, something happened that would change Nicholas' life. About thirty miles east from his town of Patara, there was another town on the southern coast of what we now call Turkey – a town called Myra. And the bishop of Myra died. We don't know his name, but he had served for years as the head pastor of the city, directing the affairs of the church, devoted to the simple life of praying, reading, and preaching – he cared for the church, distributed charity to the needy, baptized and taught new believers. It wasn't a task for just anybody – and not a task many wanted, considering that being a bishop meant having a target on your back for harassment. Whoever stepped up next would need to be strong and wise. And so the other pastors of Myra and the bishops of some neighboring towns assembled to talk – and to pray, and pray, and pray. But still they had no idea what to do.

Then it happened. One of the neighboring bishops heard a voice. And I can't tell you whether that voice was a booming sound in his ears or an unspoken whisper in the depths of his soul. But it had a clear message to give him. And the voice said to him: “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.” Now, there were plenty of different ways to pick a bishop, but that seemed absolutely deranged! And the voice followed it up with one more bit of information: “By the way, his name will be... Nicholas.” You see where this is headed!

That bishop shared his experience with the other bishops and the priests of the town. And they murmured in confusion. None of them had ever even met anybody with that kind of name. And it seemed like a very silly procedure. What were they to do, wait in the dark overnight outside the church? But... then again, who were they to argue with a voice that seemed to be the voice of the Holy Spirit, answering all their prayers? And it's not like anybody else had a solution. So, they gave the go-ahead.

Meanwhile, thirty miles west in Patara, Nicholas, after a decade of generous service to his local church and his community, heard about the death of the bishop of Myra. And Nicholas was deeply affected, and figured that it couldn't hurt to go pay his respects. Perhaps the bishop of Myra was an uncle, or perhaps it was merely a move of Christian care. But Nicholas set out on a journey along the coast. It took longer than he thought, and so he found himself arriving late, in the middle of the night, in the early hours of the morning, before sunrise. As he approached the doors of the church, the sun crept to the horizon. Nicholas felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw a bishop standing suddenly behind him. In those dawning rays, this venerable bishop asked the young man's name – for Nicholas was just past his thirtieth birthday. And he humbly said to the bishop, “Sir, I am Nicholas, a sinner and a servant of Your Excellency.”

Can you imagine what went through that bishop's mind in that moment? The voice had been real! It had been telling the truth! Here was the man appointed, practically by prophecy! So this bishop invited the unsuspecting Nicholas into the building, where the rest of the synod was waiting – the other neighboring bishops, and these priests of Myra. And when the visionary introduced this young man as Nicholas, people's jaws dropped. This was the one they'd been waiting for. This was the man of God's own choosing, the one whom God had called – without letting him yet in on the secret! Soon, a small crowd of believers began to arrive, and they started rejoicing and thanking God for sending them a new bishop.

Now, this came as no small surprise to Nicholas! He was utterly unaware of the situation. He had only come to visit, to pay his respects and get back home. He had no aspirations for higher church service. And he was not exactly keen on the notion. So it took some convincing. The synod, the council of neighboring bishops and the local priests, explained to Nicholas what had happened. He didn't like it, not one bit. But after plenty arguing, they managed to get him into the bishop's chair. And as the crowd shouted its consent, these other bishops laid their hands on Nicholas. And the one with seniority began to pray:

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ..., you established rulers and priests, and have not left your sanctuary without ministers... Even now, pour out from yourself the power of the Spirit of governance, which you gave to your beloved Son Jesus Christ, which he gave to the holy apostles, who set up the church in every place as your sanctuary, for the unceasing glory and praise of your name. Father, you know the heart. Grant that your servant, whom you have chosen for the bishopric, should shepherd your flock and should serve before you as high priest without blame, serving by night and day, ceaselessly propitiating your face and offering the gifts of your holy church. And let him have the power of high priesthood, to forgive sins according to your command, to assign duties according to your command, to loose every tie according to the power which you gave to the apostles, to please you in gentleness and with a pure heart, offering you the scent of sweetness. Through your Son Jesus Christ, through whom be glory, power, and honor to you with the Holy Spirit in the holy church, now and forever. Amen!

And in those words, under the bishops' hands, the Holy Spirit rushed upon Nicholas, made this young man into a bishop, a high priest in the church. Some of those who'd serve under him had been in ministry as long as Nicholas had been alive. And yet they handed him bread and wine. And for the first time, Nicholas celebrated communion, feeling the Holy Spirit act through his hands. Undeniably, Nicholas was the new bishop of Myra. And the best gifts Santa Claus gave were the words of the gospel he spoke with his mouth and the body and blood of Christ he offered with his hands for the spiritual food of many. Santa Claus had become a pastor.

As the fourth century began, Nicholas began to adjust to his new role. Patara was his past; Myra was his future. Nicholas started getting to know his flock, meet the people suddenly entrusted to his care. He had assumed the responsibility for all the souls in his town. And a few years went by. And things were good. His ministry there prospered. He preached the gospel. He offered the sacrifice. He led the prayers. He counseled and absolved.

But things were about to get difficult. It was the winter of 302, and Diocletian and Galerius were both spending it in the city of Nicomedia, about 450 miles north of Myra. They'd been trying to fix the empire's economy with price edicts, they'd been attempting to restore Roman glory, and the blame for a lot of the trouble seemed to be all these newfangled ways that had taken the Romans away from tradition. Galerius, in particular, believed that something needed to be done about the Christians. The gods hadn't been speaking – things seemed to go wrong in pagan ceremonies whenever they were around, making the sign of the cross, invoking their Christ. They consulted the oracle of Apollo, and it was out of order because of Christian influence. The emperors' pagan advisors all suggested something had to be done. Diocletian was convinced. And so, in February 303, he gave a sweeping new executive order: destroy the churches and burn the scriptures. Soon enough, news of this new law reached Myra. The church building was in danger. Nicholas had to hide the scriptures to protect the sacred saving word of God from being consumed in the flames. It was a tough time for Nicholas and his congregation.

And it was about to get tougher. Only a few months passed before Diocletian and Galerius laid down another law. They gave the order for civil authorities to arrest all bishops. The position was now an illegal one. And so the local magistrate commanded the police to put it into practice. And St. Nicholas was under arrest. Cuffed, processed, put in prison. Santa Claus behind bars. That's not part of our customary picture, I know. And the prisons of the Roman day were not comfortable at all. They were dank and dark, cramped and cold, and rats had free rein. At the time of Nicholas' arrest, he wasn't just the exact same height as me, he was also the same age as me – but the effects of his imprisonment would be with his body for the rest of his life. St. Nicholas was in a nasty prison. Too often today, we who claim the name of Christ have lobbied for harsher prisons, desiring that they should be nasty to punish those whom civil authorities send there. Seems short-sighted, given how often in history we've been the ones behind the bars, like Nicholas. For centuries, one of the main purposes of the offering taken up in worship was to provide for the needs of Christians locked up in these prisons.

Nicholas' first summer in the prison began to pass. And around the empire, the arrests of so many bishops and others started to put stress on the prison system, leading to overcrowding. Since Diocletian was getting ready to celebrate his twentieth anniversary on the imperial throne, he issued another order. Any jailed bishop who was willing to offer a pagan sacrifice could be set free. Those who resisted, though, would face torture. In some places, bishops who refused to sacrifice, refused to renounce Jesus, were executed. That wasn't the case where Nicholas was. He wouldn't be put to death. But he would be put through quite a lot.

Santa Claus in prison. Santa Claus being beaten, burned, branded. We hardly like to think of Santa Claus, that 'jolly old elf' of the children's stories, as a torture victim. But the real St. Nicholas was. He got bruises, he got broken bones, he got bloody. We'd like to not think about it. But Nicholas took it as a compliment. God must think well of him to let him share Christ's sufferings. For Jesus Christ was whipped and slapped and mocked and nailed to a cross, where Jesus himself was tortured, shamed for our guilt, sacrificed for our sins. And to be tortured like Jesus for Jesus, Nicholas took as a compliment straight from God. And he rejoiced in his jail cell.

Outside the prison, the flock Nicholas loved was soon under attack. By February 304, Diocletian and Galerius had doubled down, giving a fourth order that all Christians should sacrifice or suffer. A lot of Christians found ways to escape. Some slipped through the cracks in government records. Some fled into the countryside and couldn't be located. Some were hidden by non-Christian friends. But many Christians were put to the test. And some of them passed that test. They refused to sacrifice, even a little bit, to false gods; they refused to lend their support to traditional Roman religion. And some of those were killed, and some of those were put in jail with their bishop Nicholas. But other Christians buckled under the pressure, made compromises to save their skin – and no doubt that was true of some in Nicholas' church. Some didn't pass the test.

Those years were chaos. Diocletian became sick and retired to his countryside estate to farm cabbage. In 305, he promoted Galerius, who took his nephew Maximinus as his new junior co-emperor. Civil wars broke out throughout the empire. This Tetrarchy was a doomed experiment. As Paul might have remarked, “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Meanwhile, Nicholas stayed chained in a prison dark, resisting the demands of the state. He treasured biblical promises like Peter's words, how “if you suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed; have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). He spent his time in prayer, pleading with God to uphold him and keep him strong, lest he prove unworthy by base denial and finally betray Christ.

Years passed. By April 311, Galerius was seriously sick, suffering intensely from what may have been cancer or gangrene. Galerius sensed it was the touch of divine wrath. And he became desperate. In his desperation, this fiercely anti-Christian emperor issued an order releasing all bishops from prison. He ended the persecution. Galerius begged the church he'd persecuted, the Christians he'd hated, to start praying for him – that he might either be restored or have his suffering ended. By the end of the week, Galerius was dead.

In those final days of Galerius' life in May 311, Nicholas stepped out of prison, limping into a changed world. His church had been destroyed, his flock had been demoralized. Some had had their faith strengthened – they'd become more passionate, inspired by the witness of the martyrs, determined to cling to Jesus. Others felt shame for having crumbled under pressure, and questions circulated over on what terms they could be welcomed back into fellowship and restored from their sin. Nicholas paced the rubble, briefly breathing a sigh of peace, glad to be back in contact with his people. But not many months passed before Maximinus, now in charge, broke that peace: he sponsored anti-Christian propaganda campaigns, he refused to let Nicholas and other bishops rebuild their churches, he renewed torture of some bishops, he even encouraged cities to apply for a permit to evict all Christians from their midst. We actually have a request from a town not far from Myra, asking Maximinus “that the Christians, who have long been disloyal and still persist in the same mischievous intent, should at last be put down and not be suffered, by any absurd novelty, to offend against the honor due to the gods.

None of these experiences had caught Nicholas by surprise, though. They'd catch us by surprise, if they came here. If the government ordered this church building to be torn down, if the government ordered the destruction of Bibles, if the police came to arrest me for being your pastor, we'd find that awfully surprising. And if they told you to make a token gesture – sacrifice to what they wanted, salute to what they wanted – or else face the consequences, you'd be quite surprised. But Nicholas wasn't surprised. He'd grown up visiting the graves of martyrs. He believed Paul when the Apostle wrote that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Nicholas had no other expectations. So when the pressure was on, he proved to be neither a coward nor a compromiser but a Christ-follower.

Nine sunrises ago, in Indonesia, terrorists invaded a village populated heavily by Christians. They burned the church and several homes, and they beheaded a number of men – fathers and husbands – for being Christians. A week later, this past Friday, an Israeli extremist attempted to burn down the church in Gethsemane where Jesus had prayed before going to the cross. At this very moment, I could name believers imprisoned for their faith in countries around the world – places like Eritrea, Iran, Somalia, China, and more. They will spend this coming Christmas the way St. Nicholas himself spent many: jailed for the gospel. And as the church in Myra supported St. Nicholas, so it falls to us to encourage and support the persecuted church around the world, in our prayer and in our giving and in messages of hope.

Yet these things are perhaps not all so far off as we'd think. Last month, in France, as believers rallied for the reopening of their churches, police warned them not to pray – because praying in public is illegal there. And when they knelt to the ground outside their shuttered churches to beseech their Lord for help, the government took action. Even here in the United States, the Supreme Court recently had to rebuke several sitting governors, reminding them that they can't mindlessly repress churches and other assemblies of worship. The day may someday come, even here, when the Diocletianic hearts of governors and presidents and bureaucrats will be less restrained. And then those desiring to live a godly life in Christ will indeed be persecuted – as Saint Nicholas could tell us. He knew what it was to be persecuted in prison for Jesus.

For Satan is a harsher tyrant than Diocletian or Galerius. A sin-infected world, and the demonic powers behind it, can imprison us in difficult circumstances. And in this world, we can be tormented by financial insecurity, or by political instability, or by social disharmony, or by disease. This year, we know a lot about that. This world can seek to stoke our anger, our grief, our bitterness, and our loneliness; it can tempt us toward sins of cowardice and of compromise. The question isn't whether we suffer, whether we grieve, whether we hurt. This year, we do suffer. This year, we do grieve. This year, we do hurt. The real question is how we'll handle it.

As Christmas approaches, we often don't like to think about these things. We like the sentimental picture of the Baby in the manger, of the angels singing about peace, of the warm glow of the star, of the cuddly animals and contented faces. That's the way we like our nativity scenes. We want to airbrush out the part about Herod's soldiers coming to butcher infant innocents. We want to airbrush out the distress on Joseph and Mary's faces as they rush out into the night to escape. But these things have always been part of the meaning of Christmas.

The reason suffering makes it harder to appreciate Christmas is simply that we've made Christmas something it isn't. We've stripped Christmas of its gritty realism and made it sentimental. We've made it about domestic happiness and cheer around the fireplace, with mugs of eggnog lofted high, with pristine snowflakes outside, with festive ornamentation and togetherness. But Christmas is about how God injected his living Light into a sin-darkened world so that he could share our suffering – and suffer so that we might share his. Christmas is about a hope that holds true 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 is unsafe and the children die – yes, even then, Christmas is still Christmas. Perhaps especially then, Christmas is Christmas. St. Nicholas knew that. Santa Claus spent his fair share of Christmases behind bars, perhaps was tortured on some of them – and those were the Christmases he most appreciated the song of peace on earth. If this Advent season is gloomier, if the coming Christmas should have less togetherness and less sentimentality, it will not take St. Nicholas by surprise or overcome his joy. He's had these Christmases before. So might we.

In the end, things looked up. By February 313, two of the emperors, Constantine and Licinius, issued an edict officially giving Christianity legal status. Maximinus tried to fight it, but Licinius defeated him, and so he felt he had no choice but to issue a similar order of tolerance. It restored full freedom and returned stolen property. And whatever fits and starts there'd be in the years to come, the direction was clear. Nicholas would live to see the day when Constantine would consolidate power as the first Christian emperor. And Nicholas could at last say, like Paul, “these persecutions I endured, yet from them all the Lord rescued me” (2 Timothy 3:11). St. Nicholas had patiently persevered. After the cross comes the resurrection; after the agony comes the hope; after the devastation comes the renewal. The road ahead would be hard, but the rebuilding could begin. So will it be for us after our trials, if only we imitate the persevering faith of our fathers in Christ – like St. Nicholas. Amen.