Last Sunday we celebrated the start of a New Year in the church. Next Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is often referred to as Gaudate Sunday, also known as “Stirrup Sunday” with its Proper Collect, which begins “Stir up your power, O Lord,” reminding us to stir up the fruitcake batter one last time so it will be ready for Christmas. It’s all about Joy. This day, The Second Sunday of Advent, this day might be called Eat Your Vegetables Sunday.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, [yada yada yada], the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…
Repentance and forgiveness of sins. How many of you hear that and are like, “woohoo! Sign me up!”? Can’t wait to get my repentance on!
The trouble with forgiveness is it carries within it the acknowledgement of… sin. Which we have about as much taste for as a six-year-old has for Brussels sprouts.
I had a friend growing up whose mom told her that Brussels sprouts were what Santa would leave in her stocking if she was naughty. Santa, magical bringer of gifts, and also, we are warned, bringer of less pleasant things if we don’t straighten up and fly right. Brussels sprouts. Coal. Ashes is what he brought us in Texas. Or switches, even better.
Santa Claus is on my mind this week because December 6 is the day we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, who was actually a bishop of the Church in the fourth century. How do we get from a middle-eastern bishop to Santa Claus, patron saint of child behavior management and seasonal merchandise? By way of the Netherlands: Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors kind of a big deal in the Netherlands, for obvious reasons, and also of children, hence the tradition of celebrating his feast day by giving children treats. St. Nicholas—or, as the Dutch renders, Sinter Klaas, is generous but just: good children get presents, while naughty children get—guess what? coal? ashes?
Nope. In the Dutch tradition, Sinter Klaas slaps naughty children, or kicks them, or maybe tosses them in his sack and takes them back to Turkey with him.
Who was this guy, anyway?
Nicholas was bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey, in the first half of the 4th century. He was a man of great faith and great generosity. There are a lot of stories about him, but there’s one that I think is particularly relevant for today.
Nicholas was a “confessor”, meaning that he stood up and spoke his truth about his faith, even when the emperor Diocletian ordered that Christians be persecuted. Nicholas, as the leader of Christians in Myra, was arrested and tortured and imprisoned because he continued to speak his own truth: he continued to proclaim his faith in Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God’s Word, who was with God and was God, from the beginning.
The next emperor, Constantine, reversed the policy of persecuting Christians; and Nicholas and all the other imprisoned Christians were set free. Nicholas was quite the hero.
There was another bishop named Arius, whose claim to fame is that he promoted one of the greatest heresies of the early Church: Arius claimed that the Word of God—aka, Son of God—was NOT with God from the beginning, but was created by the Father.
Well, so what? The idea of God as Trinity is hard to wrap your head around and I tell you truly, I do not lie when I say to you, no one understands it completely. God is bigger than our brains.
Dealing with Jesus saying things like, I and the Father are one, is hard. And our salvation is accomplished by the grace of God in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, not by our own cleverness at having the right answers to tricky questions.
So what’s the harm in making it a little easier? What’s the big deal?
Here’s the catch: if you say well, God is the Father, and the Father created the Son, and the Holy Spirit, what we get is not God coming to us in the flesh, and dying on the cross for us and being raised from the dead, but God sending someone else—someone God loves very much, but still, someone else who God is sending to suffer and die and then be raised up, which is not the same thing.
It takes away the self-giving, pouring-out of God’s self in love that is the core of our faith.
Making things easier is sometimes a kindness; but sometimes it is not. And I imagine if one has suffered arrest and torture and imprisonment for the sake of speaking a difficult truth, as Nicholas had, “making things easier” might be more than one can bear.
The story is that at the Council of Nicea, which was called together specifically to deal with this controversy— between Scripture saying, the word was with God, and the word was God, and Arius’ claim that the Word was created by God— while all the various bishops and scholars were debating this, the legend goes that Nicholas finally lost his head and slapped Arius in the face right there on the council floor.
Didn’t even call him outside first. Just popped him right in the kisser in front of God and everyone.
The story makes me laugh. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a good story… from a distance of sixteen centuries. If this were to happen today? say, on the floor of the House of Bishops? I would not be entertained. I would be horrified.
Prophets and saints are not perfect people. They are passionate. The point is not that we have to be perfect people. The point, beloved, is that we are called to experience passion, to allow ourselves to be affected at the deepest possible level, and to stand up for what we believe in the face of blasphemy.
Is this Good News? or bad news?
Depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?
To paraphrase Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey In The Rock, Jesus brings us Good News. He never promises good times. In fact, he pretty much promises us Hard Times—but Good News.
I don’t know about you, beloved, but I could stand some Good News right about now.
Perhaps the most trying challenge to me right now in having my wife’s mother living with us is her dedication to watching the news. I know it’s important… but there are days when I hear those voices coming out the TV and I just want to…. but I do not have the street cred of Nicholas. I have not accrued enough righteousness to go around slapping people in the face in front of God and everyone.
The question for us this day, this Second Sunday of Advent, two thousand and some-odd years after the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the question for us at this time and in this place is, Whose voice is crying in the wilderness? Whose voice is calling out, preaching repentance and promising forgiveness, healing, wholeness if we will only turn around and embrace it?
Here’s a hint: it is a voice that is irritating. It’s a voice that is crying out and what it says may even feel to us like a slap in the face. You can be sure that it’s a voice that is not concentrating on making things easier or telling us what we want to hear. It’s not a voice concerned with making itself popular or winning an election. And it is not singing a lullaby.
It is a voice crying, bellowing to make itself heard above the din in the wilderness of our world: repent. Turn. Change, and be changed.
O beloved: pay attention.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Good News. Good News. Hard times, yes—but Good News. Whose voice do you hear calling you to repent? to change? Whose irritating, relentless voice do you hear calling you to act?
O beloved pay attention.
 Nicholas is also the patron saint of prostitutes, which could perhaps account for the objectification and commodification of Christmas which has followed the association of St. Nick with the Feast of the Nativity. But that is another story for another time.