Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Sermon: St. Nicholas of Myra - 2017

6 December 2017

Text: Luke 14:26-33

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

St. Nicholas is one of the world’s most beloved heroes of the faith.  He lived in the fourth century in Asia Minor, which is today Turkey.  Nicholas was a pastor and bishop and defended the Christian faith at a critical time.  In fact, he was at the council of Nicaea when the Nicene Creed was born.  Tradition says that he actually got into fisticuffs defending the doctrine of the Trinity – something we generally try to avoid these days.

Bishop Nicholas had a reputation not only for being a staunchly orthodox theologian and defender of the faith, but he had a soft spot for children and the poor.  There are many stories about his charity and kindness – including the giving of gifts to children.

And since the St. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD – 1,674 years ago today – the Church all over the world celebrates his feast day today.  This being the case, the good bishop has been forever linked to Christmas, and the celebration of the Lord whom St. Nicholas served his whole life.

And so it seems weird that the Gospel reading chosen in honor of St. Nicholas’s feast day as we approach Christmas should be Jesus telling us to hate our families – including our children.

Yes, indeed, what could be more triggering than Jesus instructing His followers to “hate” – and to say this at Christmas time.  Why would our Lord Jesus Christ say to hate the children?  

Well, obviously, Jesus is using what is known as “hyperbole” – a form of exaggeration to get our attention.  What our Lord is saying here is tremendously important, for He makes us take a long, hard look in the mirror to see how many ways that we sin.  He calls us to repent of the most basic sin of all: idolatry.  He points out that our worst sins often camouflage themselves as virtues.

Our Lord Jesus Christ says, “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.”

To be a disciple of Jesus, dear friends, means that Jesus is our number one priority – even more important than our families.  For we cannot serve two masters.  We cannot worship two gods.  And we have a habit of finding anything to worship other than the one true God.

Yes, even our families can become a false idol, turning us inward upon ourselves in our homes, and away from the Lord, where He is to be found in the Holy Scriptures and in the sacraments.  How often pastors hear that parents have to take their families out of church because of a soccer game or a dance recital!  It is as though anything and everything takes priority over hearing the Word of God and receiving His holy sacraments.  People who never miss work or pull their children out of school will routinely miss church – and will do so in a way that sounds virtuous: for the sake of their families, in love for their children.

Jesus calls us out on this false piety.  For if we really love our children, we will love God first, and we will raise our children to put their Christian faith before anything and everything.  Or as we say in the Catechism: “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”  “Above all  things,” dear friends, even above our love for our families.

Paradoxically, if we “love” our children more than God, we are really hating them.  And if we “hate” our children compared with our love for God, we are really loving them.

And in fact, to be a disciple of Jesus means that we even love God more than we love our own lives.  For our Lord pointed out the similar paradox that whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever would give up his life for the kingdom will save it for eternity.

This is what our Lord means that in order to follow Him, we must “bear [our] own cross.”  To follow Jesus means to make absolutely everything in this life subservient to Him.  No exceptions.  That includes our own lives, our families, and all that we hold dear in this world.  And this is real faith, dear friends.  To have faith in Jesus doesn’t just mean we think that He is a real person, or even that we intellectually acknowledge His historic work on the cross.  Rather it means that we trust Him, here and now unconditionally, even to place our most beloved people and things in His hands, knowing that in doing so, we don’t lose them, but in fact, save them. 

Jesus compares this life of discipleship to a building project.  If we want to build something, we get an estimate.  We make sure that we know what we are getting into before we commit and begin.  He also compares the Christian life to the calculations performed by military strategists.  How many troops do we have, and can we win?

Dear brothers and sisters, our Lord doesn’t want you to follow Him blindly, but knowingly.  To be a Christian is costly.  It will cost your life.  It means placing all things in His trust, and withholding nothing for yourself.  But it isn’t like you are leaving behind the things you love, but rather you are putting them in a kind of bank, into the hands of Jesus, as the ultimate act of trust.  Do you have faith enough in Jesus to let go of your most beloved people, and even your own life?

Well, here is the good news, dear brothers and sisters, what is important is that Jesus has exactly this kind of faith for us.  He loves God the Father and He loves us more than He loves His own life.  He bore His own cross and hated His own life in order to save us.  He counted the cost of building the tower to Heaven – not the phony tower of Babel, but the true tower of the tree upon which He was suspended between heaven and earth, in accordance with the Father’s will, and for the purpose of redeeming us.  He calculated the cost of the war between good and evil, determining that His blood was sufficient for victory.

Our Lord Jesus loved us and redeemed us by His blood.  He humbled Himself to be born of the Virgin Mary.  He came to the Christians in Myra sixteen centuries ago when Bishop Nicholas preached and officiated over the divine services, distributing the body and blood of Christ to those whom Christ loved, and our Lord continues to pour Himself out for us today, dear friends, challenging us and strengthening us with His Word, and instilling in us a faith capable of self-sacrificial love by feeding us with His body and pouring His blood into us, as the Holy Spirit works upon us as the gift given to us in Holy Baptism, uniting with us, and making us holier and more loving with each passing day in His presence, even as we do nothing but sit and kneel and be fed and nourished.

This is the lesson of St. Nicholas for us: that we poor miserable sinners, we children of God, receive divine gifts through the work of the Lord’s servants, giving us faith as a gift, calling us to love our children and our families not by idolizing them, but by placing God first and living out that divine love with our families, whom we truly love by our “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

That is the faith the Lord calls us to, the faith we confess in the Nicene Creed, the faith St. Nicolas preached, the faith of Jesus Christ given to you, dear friends, now and even unto eternity!  Amen.

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

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