Posted on December 7th, 2011
Our 2011 Advent theme at Immanuel is “The Saints of Advent,” considering Andrew, Nicholas, Lucia, and Thomas. Below is tonight’s sermon for St. Nicholas (observed). I used the readings from the Daily Divine Service Book, Hebrews 13:7-17 and Luke 14:26-33. The Hebrews text worked remarkably well, and I used it as something of an outline.
Long ago, in a land that is now Turkey but was then part of the Roman Empire, some wealthy parents died, leaving their fortune to their son Nicholas. Legend has it that he performed miracles, leading to his nickname “Nicholas the Wonder-Worker.” Soon he was chosen by the people of a place called Myra to be their bishop. It is said that he is the youngest man ever to be made a bishop. His people loved him, and he was known for his humility. But persecutions began anew under the emperor Diocletian, and the bishop was put in prison.
Later, a new emperor, Constantine, came to power, and Bishop Nicholas was released, to find a great threat ravaging the church: Arianism. This terrible blasphemy held that Jesus was not equal to the Father; Arius taught that Christ is a creature. In the year 325, Constantine called a council in the city of Nicea, with more than 300 bishops in attendance. It is known as the first ecumenical council, and was called to resolve these doctrinal troubles. Constantine himself was sympathetic to the Arian heresy, and in the end was baptized an Arian. The orthodox doctrine of one God in three persons had an uphill battle; one ancient biographer of Nicholas, likely exaggerating, held that only in Myra, where Nicholas was bishop, was the orthodox doctrine of Jesus Christ unchallenged.
As the conversation at Nicea grew heated, Nicholas became so furious at the blasphemies of Arius that he crossed the room and slapped Arius in the face. Some reports have it as the punch of a closed fist. And you think you’ve been to some bad church meetings!
Well, such behavior is unbecoming a bishop, as Holy Scripture tells us that a bishop must be “of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre, but patient, not a brawler, not covetous” (1 Tim. 3.2b-3). As we will see a little later, Nicholas actually met these qualifications very well, but even the greatest of bishops are sinners, and Nicholas was put in prison and stripped of his bishop’s stole for striking Arius. Legend has it that while in prison, Christ and the virgin Mary visited him. When Jesus asked Nicholas why he was in prison, Nicholas replied, “Because of my love for You.” Jesus then gave him a book of the Gospels, and Mary gave him a bishop’s stole. Nicholas spent the rest of the night studying the gospels. When the jailer came in the morning, he found Nicholas’ chains loosed, and there was the bishop, dressed in his vestments, studying the Scriptures.
As with so much regarding St. Nicholas, it is very difficult to discern the facts among the legends. But clearly Nicholas made a great impression, for his fame spread far and wide, and soon many churches were named after him.
That is a fitting thing, because Holy Scripture, as we heard tonight, says, “Remember your leaders” – This is what we are doing when we remember St. Nicholas of Myra, for he spoke the Word of God faithfully to the church, at great personal cost to himself.
What makes Nicholas such an important man to remember, though, is what makes any saint truly notable: his life and words point away from himself toward Christ. Particularly, Nicholas remained faithful to the true confession of Jesus, which would become part of the Creed coming out of that first ecumenical council, the Creed we now call “Nicene,” from Nicea. When we say, “being of one substance with the Father,” remember Nicholas and the slapping of Arius. We should not strike our fellow man, but this confession, “of one substance with the Father” is a holy and pious slap in the face to the devil, Arius, and all peddlers of diabolical doctrine.
At the altar during Divine Service, the pastors serving here follow the custom of giving honor and glory to the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in His incarnation by kneeling at the beautiful words telling us that God became man. We would encourage you to join us in an act of reverence by bowing the head acknowledging this great mystery of the faith, that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, deigned to take on our nature, assuming into Himself our humanity, becoming also true man, born of the virgin Mary. The epistle for St. Nicholas’ commemoration is thus well-chosen also for these words: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This is central to Nicholas’ confession: Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, and no mere creature.
“Let us … bear the reproach he endured.” Nicholas gladly bore the reproach of Christ with his imprisonment, daring to defy emperors with the faithful confession of Jesus. With this holy defiance, what was the great bishop confessing?
“Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” The corrupted memory of St. Nicholas, Jolly Old St. Nick, has become an emblem of seeking a lasting city here, of finding life’s meaning in what kind of city we can build, what kind of life we can create, how much we can acquire and consume. But the real St. Nicholas points us to the city that is to come.
And since we are already citizens of that city, we need not be enslaved to money and presents and the things of this city. Instead, Nicholas was a model of the Scriptural admonition: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
I mentioned earlier that Nicholas was born to wealthy parents, who left him a great fortune when they died. Nicholas gave it away. Stop and think about that. All around us, the marketers are hawking wares, stressing that life is to be found in the abundance of possessions. What did Nicholas do with his? He gave them away.
There are variations on the story, but the most significant account from Nicholas’ life as a bishop has come down to us something like this: A man had three daughters, and was destitute. The girls could not marry, for he had no money for a dowry. They were soon to be consigned to a life of slavery, probably prostitution. The bishop, hearing of their plight, wrapped up gold coins—enough for a dowry for the girls—and tossed them through an open window in the girls’ home. They landed in shoes, or by some accounts stockings. From this comes the custom of giving gifts to children in shoes or hanging stockings—and the myth that St. Nicholas gives the gifts. Nicholas embodied those words of our epistle, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
There is nothing wrong in giving gifts, but perhaps we should place more emphasis on giving them to those in need, instead of contributing to a culture of greed. For meaning in this life will not be found in how much money you can make, but in how much you can give away, in the name of Jesus.
These things go together, these two great stories from the life of Nicholas, bishop of Myra. He confessed Christ, and showed mercy to others. For us to properly remember St. Nicholas, we will likewise rejoice that in Jesus, God became man, and in the name of Jesus we will show mercy with our gold and gifts. +INJ+