Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Sermon: St. Nicholas – 2011

7 December 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 14:26-33

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra.  The closeness of his feast to Christmas and the fact that in some countries, people exchange gifts on his feast day may account for his association with Christmas gift-giving.

There is also another reason.

Bishop Nicholas was at the Council of Nicea in the year 325.  At that time, the Church was being torn apart by a heretic named Arius, who denied that Jesus was true God.  People argued about the nature of Jesus.  If He is true God, can He be true Man?  Could He be only half human, like a mythological demi-god?  Maybe he was only God after His baptism and before His crucifixion – otherwise, we have to concede that God was born of a mother and that God died.

And the idea of God being born into our world is why Christmas is such a mystery, a wonder, a marvel, and the cause for joyful and reverent celebration. 

Bishop Nicholas was not confused by those who taught false doctrine in their denial of the Christmas miracle.  Nicholas relied on the truths revealed by Scripture and confessed by the fathers of the Church.  He too confessed with clarity the biblical revelation that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.  He confessed that Jesus Christ is completely human and completely divine – that in Him, God became incarnate as a Man, and that Jesus – very God and very Man – lived among us as one of us, having been born of the virgin Mary, that He was crucified, died, and buried, descended into hell, and on the third day, rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures.  And these phrases have been confessed by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church ever since.  St. Nicholas was devout and committed in the confession of his faith, our faith, the Church’s faith – the living faith of the living Christ. 

In fact, this steadfast commitment to the truth and to our confession of this faith is what our Lord speaks of rather shockingly: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Dear friends, being a disciple of Jesus is not the same as being a fan of the Rolling Stones or Justin Bieber, being a card-carrying member of the Who Dat Nation or a person devoted to a single brand of automobile or breakfast cereal.  Christian discipleship is all-consuming.  It means that nothing else comes first: not spouse or children, not parents, not work, not education, nor even life itself.  To be a disciple of Jesus is to be what the world calls a “religious fanatic.”  Or else, why bother?  If Jesus is whom St. Nicholas confesses that He is, then there are no halfway measures – not for Nicholas and not for us.  Our devotion for Christ makes every other relationship seem like loathing and hatred by comparison.  And this willingness to choose God over even close family members can be seen in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only beloved son upon God’s Word and command alone.  “Now I know,” said God, “that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Of course, God spared Abraham this duty of sacrifice, instead, God Himself provided the ram, whose head was nestled in thorns: the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  God Himself sacrificed His only begotten son so that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.

Our Lord Jesus called Nicholas to believe, confess, preach, and hold this faith above all else – even life itself.  For as our Lord continues: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  We confess what we believe, and we believe what was revealed to be true.  We will not believe a lie or turn away from the truth – no matter how seductive, no matter if it allows us to love family, job, hobbies, and life itself more than Christ.  Jesus is the truth, and we will confess this truth even if it costs us “goods, fame, child, or wife.”  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

St. Nicholas understood what our Lord meant when He said: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”  St. Nicholas confessed Christ – the full Christ, who is God and man, who is sinless and perfect, who is our Great High Priest and who is also our Lamb, the One who died to pay for our sins, the One who rose to pave the way for our eternal life – all as a free gift.  And we honor St. Nicholas for making this good confession, the confession he helped to give our church.

And yet, dear friends, it is not enough to believe in the truth, to fastidiously teach correct doctrine, to believe the Nicene Creed with all of one’s mind.  There is also the matter of the heart.  And that is where the “hate” that Jesus speaks of comes in.  In “hating” one’s closest family members, Jesus refers to the extreme love He calls us to have for Him, a love unequaled by any other.  Love denies self and serves the other, and we do not worship ourselves, nor do we even allow the gift and blessing of family to become an idol, but rather we are the Lord’s disciples when we “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”  Above all things.

That “love…  above all things” is more than correct doctrine.  Love translates into the good works produced by a living faith.  Love is expressed in compassion, self-denial, and acts of mercy.

The Church not only remembers St. Nicholas for his steadfast confession of the true faith, but even more so for his selfless love and kindness shown to those in need, especially to children.  He is remembered for a life of giving alms and gifts, for sharing his possessions, for his compassion to the poor.  He is especially called to mind when it comes to Christmas, a time of year when we reflect on the Lord’s selfless love and kindness shown to us in need, we children of the fallen Adam.  In His incarnation as a Man, God the Son gave Himself as a gift, forsaking all heavenly possessions, out of compassion for us poor, miserable sinners.

Bishop Nicholas is St. Nicholas because of his confession of faith, and his works of mercy.  It is “both/and.”  For the two go hand in hand: faith and works – even as the Lord Jesus Christ is the Word who both creates and saves, both God and Man, both Victim and Priest, both Almighty Master and humble servant.

May the St. Nicholas’s good confession be on your lips even as his godly compassion is in your heart and hands – for Nicholas is a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, both our Lord and our Savior, both our Teacher of truth and our Benefactor of mercy; the one born of Mary, the one risen from the dead, the one who forgives and gives life – now and forever.  Amen.”

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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