Saturday, 3 December 2016

A talk for St Nicholas' Day

Yesterday I was on retreat at an Orthodox monastery, and I was speaking with one of the monks. I told him I was struggling with a talk for St Nicholas’ Day, trying to put together his story and the passage for the day. But I then said that I had noticed that I had been put in a room with not one but two icons of St Nicholas. He said – slightly mischievously because he knows the tradition I come from - that perhaps I should pray to St Nicholas. Well I did pray: to the one to whom St Nicholas prays.

We know very little about St Nicholas. He was bishop of Myra around the beginning of the C4th. But over time stories have been told about him.

The stories speak of a passionate defender of the faith of scripture. It is said that he went to the Council of Nicaea and that he got so annoyed with Arius who was denying the full divinity of Christ, that he smacked him around the face. Well he gets full marks for zeal for the truth, but it is not the sort of behaviour I encourage in the PCC. Sadly, there is no record in the official documents that Nicholas did ever attend the Council of Nicaea.

And the stories tell of his deep devotion to Christ, from an early age. He was brought up in a wealthy home, but on the death of his parents, he heard Jesus’ call to sell everything and give to the poor.

And they tell of his deep love for his people. Probably the most well known story is of the widow with three daughters. There was no money and the girls were about to be sold to traffickers. It was the only future that they could see. So Nicholas walked past their home and he threw three bags through an open window – with enough money for a dowry for each of the girls. And that is how he has come to be associated with the giving of gifts to children.

And there are the stories of the things that happened around him. In the Orthodox church he is known as St Nicholas the wonder worker. There are the healings, people saved from drowning (many naval churches are dedicated to St Nicholas) and even stories of how the dead were raised. I don’t know what to make of the stories, but I do know that when a person is devoted to Jesus and when they sacrificially love, quite remarkable things happen.

Our reading from 1 John 4 speaks of how we are to love one another. Three times we are told that. And John is speaking here not of love for everyone – the bible very clearly tells us that we are to love our neighbour (to do them good and seek their welfare) irrespective of who they are – but here he is specifically speaking of love for those who are our Christian brothers and sisters.

And he gives us three reasons.

1.      We’ll love them because of the Spirit of God in us. If we are born again, if the Spirit of God has come into us and given us life, then like John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, our hearts will leap when we meet Christ in another person. So John writes, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (v7). We will delight in them, we will long that they might become the people who God called them to be, and we will be drawn to them. And if we don’t, he says, we need to question whether we have been born of God and we need to ask him for his Spirit to come and give us life.

2.      We will love our Christian brothers and sisters because we have begun to grasp just how much God loves them.
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v11). The key word here is ‘us’.
Because God so loved us, he sent his one and only Son into this world, to live with us and to die for us.
That is why it is so important that – with St Nicholas - we confess that Jesus is fully the eternal Son of God. At Christmas, God did not create a super charged special angel and send him down here. God sent part of his very self, who had been with him before time began, to come and live among us. Jesus was Immanuel, God with us.
And at Easter, when Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, it was not one created being taking onto itself the wrath of God on behalf of another created being. It was God himself in his Son, taking onto himself the penalty for and the consequences of our sin, so that we might have life. Listen, says John, and this is the point of what he is saying, if that is the extent that God will go in his love for us, who am I to reject you.

3.      We love our brothers and sisters because when we do, we all become complete. “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (v12).
We were made for each other! If I am to become the person who God means me to become, I need my Christian brothers and sisters. And if you are to become the person who God means you to be, you need your Christian brothers and sisters.

I think that is one of the reasons that St Nicholas is so attractive. He was very ordinary. He didn’t write anything. He didn’t die a martyrs’ death. But he lived these verses. And the stories portray one who is very complete. He was a leader of God’s people who was sold out for Jesus Christ the Son of God, who sacrificially loved God’s people and who saw God do great stuff.

So returning to the monastery! The icon of St Nicholas that was in my room shows him standing surrounded by scenes depicting events in his life. With his right hand he blesses. But what is unusual is that in his left hand he holds a bible, the Word of God, and together with it he holds a towel, the symbol of service.

My prayer for each of us is that we will be like St Nicholas: people who bless others in the name of Jesus, wherever we find ourselves to be, and that we will do that by being a people who hold in one hand the bible and in the other hand the towel.  

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