A Sermon on St. Nicholas by Rev. Dr. John Stephenson
St Nicholas 20111 Cor 1:3-7 & St Luke 12:35-40
Most people in my vicarage congregation in rural Iowa had their roots in the territory that lies just south of Denmark. By the time I got there, some of the over 70s still spoke German, but the old language was finally dying out. The shut-ins were happy that a vicar from England could talk some German, and one of them, an unforgettable character named Hattie, ended up giving me the old family Bible, which would be no use to her children and grandchildren. A century ago, though, CPH was still doing a brisk trade in Luther Bibles printed in Germany, Bibles full of Reformation-era woodcuts, Bibles featuring the Apocrypha in small print between the two Testaments.
I’ve always been intrigued by one of the post-biblical saints’ days listed at the back of Hattie’s family Bible. Why was the old Missouri Synod okay with the day of St Nicholas the Bishop, kept on this sixth day of December, why did it prescribe the two readings we have just heard, and why does LSB still recommend the same observance?
Of Nicholas Bishop of Myra in the province of Lycia, which is on the southern coast of today’s Turkey, we know precious little. He had a reputation for great kindness both before and after his ordination. And he’s recorded as having been present at the great council of Nicaea in the year of our Lord 325.
In much of Christendom, Nicholas has had a notable posthumous career as a beloved patron saint, and in Holland whole communities keep his day with rites and customs that go back hundreds of years. On the Eve of St Nicholas, Dutch children receive the bulk of their Christmas presents, with the result that believing people in that country keep 25 December rather quietly, with a family meal and, above all, by going to church. Here in North America, we must acknowledge with shame, hardly any Christians hear the homily prepared for Christmas Day, very few elements need to be placed on the altar, and the Divine Service in celebration of God’s birth in the flesh is almost as deserted as Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar did his work.
In the early fourth century Christ our Lord was more prominent in public culture than He is today, but there was great confusion about what and who He is. Is He true 24 carat God, or just a lower case god, a high-class angel of some kind? Is He true 24 carat man, a real breathing man of flesh and blood and human soul, or is He a truncated man, and hence no true man at all? The heresiarch Arius gained a big following when he wrote treatises and composed poems proclaiming that our Lord is some weird kind of centaur, a demi-god operating through a human body.
So it’s a big deal that Nicholas the Bishop got Christ right, that he acknowledged and taught the actual Jesus, that he put his signature to the first draft of the Nicene Creed and to the anathemas that the first oecumenical council issued against Arius; and it’s poetically fitting that we remember how Nicholas boxed Arius’ ears.
It’s also a big deal that Nicholas the Bishop was kindly and generous to people both before and after his ordination, because it’s a huge mistake to take the milk of human kindness for granted.
We hear non-stop propaganda today about human rights, but if you look around and observe what goes on at the grass roots, you’ll have to admit that human dignity is brutally flouted on all sides, in some ways on a bigger scale and with a greater intensity than in previous generations. There are reports in the media about cruel treatment being routinely dealt out to hospital patients and old folk in care facilities. Small wonder we treat the weak so badly, because it’s open season on the weakest of all, the developing children in the womb, infanticide has reared its head, and there’s big traction for euthanasia.
Now when Nicholas was Bishop, Constantine became emperor, and the bishops at Nicaea were astounded that, after centuries of unremitting hostility and sporadic bouts of bloody persecution, the Roman emperor was present at Nicaea in a supportive capacity, showering hospitality on the attending bishops, and showing great emotion as he kissed the empty eye sockets of an aged Christian who had been blinded in the last persecution.
According to secular historians and foolish Christians who can’t be bothered to check out the facts, Constantine was a hypocrite who simply used the Church for his own purposes. Don’t believe a word of such libel and slander. A Reformed pastor and theologian out in Idaho has just written a stunning defence of Constantine, pointing out that he was no slick politician with his finger in the wind eager to do no more than please the opinion polls of his day. No, he made Sunday a special day for the whole empire, a day on which he encouraged masters to free slaves. He wasn’t a sceptical pragmatist who didn’t care a fig for truth, for when he entered Rome for the first time as emperor, he infuriated the pagans by refusing to sacrifice on the Capitol which was, after all, part of the emperor’s job description. Not only di d he ban animal sacrifice, but he preached Christian homilies to his court, and he once even tried to evangelise the king of Persia. Up to Constantine’s time the major entertainment in Rome had been watching gladiators wound and kill each other in the Coliseum; he prohibited gladiatorial combat and, in Constantinople, built the Hippodrome instead, where people got their jollies by watching horseracing. Would you rather take the family to human blood sports, or to the horse races? Even sober Finnish Pietists would say the latter. Again, Constantine forbade the practice of exposing babies, he gave unprecedented legal rights to women, and he directed State funds to the support of the poor, the old, and the sick. Small wonder that the world hates him so, for it detests first and foremost the Lord whom he courageously confessed.
Advent, Nicholas, Nicaea, and Constantine all tie together quite perfectly, don’t they? Because the Second Person of the Trinity took human flesh, blood, and soul, even the most degenerate human life is of value in the eyes of God, and should be respected even in secular society. In the end of the day, you can’t have human dignity and human rights without the Second Person of the Trinity as the Son of Man who took crying human need into Himself right up to His self-immolation on the Cross.
As I’m thankful for Hattie’s gift of the old German Bible, so we may be grateful for Nicholas the Bishop who made the essential connection between Christian dogma and Christian ethics, for Nicholas the Bishop by whom God enriched the Church, for Nicholas the Bishop whose loins were girded, whose lamp was burning, and who was watchful for the coming of Christ both in person and in the needy neighbour. And, despite all the depressing cultural indicators, we may not lose hope that many in this society that has increasingly gone back to the pagan amphitheatre may yet hear the voice and accept the embrace of the true Christ of Nicaea and once again walk in the humane footsteps of Constantine the first Christian emperor and of Nicholas the Bishop whom we remember today.