Reading: Luke 1:57-80
Right now, we are preparing for Christmas. If you have not done your Christmas shopping, every day the stores will seem to get a little busier. We will buy our gifts, we will wrap them, and eventually they will be put out for everybody to see. When I was a child, starting at Thanksgiving, somebody named Henry Harvey, who was never credited, would appear on TV in a Santa suit, and tell everybody how many days until Christmas. Of course, if you didn’t live in Kansas, you wouldn’t have seen him — he was a local TV personality for ABC’s local programming; and if he didn’t attend Northridge Friends Church in Wichita, I likely would not have known his name.
If you go shopping today, you are likely to run into Santa somewhere — some stores he hangs around throughout Advent, but if he only shows up one day, it will be December 6 — the day of St. Nicholas. Many children will be writing their letters to Santa, and when December 24 comes, there will be many snacks put out, with a note saying that they are for “Santa.”
In my experience, Santa was part of the anticipation of Christmas. I never really saw him on Christmas day — I saw presents, and good food, and family and games; I heard the same passages of scripture read year after year on Christmas day, and sang the same songs celebrating the nativity. I know some people fear that Santa takes over Christmas, but that was not my experience at all — my experience was that Santa is there inviting me to anticipate Christmas — and I have no doubt that St. Nicholas and Christmas are connected by mere accident. The day he is remembered comes less than 3 weeks before Christmas, so we cannot remember him without remembering that Christmas is coming very soon.
I admit, my experience is my own, and I experience advent and Christmas in a very American way — but, the experience of there being something that announces the nativity is something that is very traditional. We have been reading the prophets, and last week, we talked about the promise of the New Covenant. Today we read about the birth of John the Baptist, and the prophecy uttered by John’s father Zechariah.
I like this passage, because it is in a very interesting place. Zechariah is a priest, and he utters a prophecy of Jesus upon the birth of his son John. There is a kinship with the prophetic words we read in Isaiah or Jeremiah — yet it is very different: hundreds of years have passed. The older prophets were speaking of something that was hoped for, but that neither they, nor even their great grandchildren could hope to see. Zechariah was speaking of something that was at hand: When Zechariah was speaking, Mary was very much expecting.
Luke’s narrative opens with Gabriel visiting Zechariah to tell him that he would have have a son, and to name him John — and that John would be a prophet that would “prepare the way for the Lord.” Next, Gabriel visits Mary, and tells her not only about Jesus — but that her relative Elizabeth is pregnant as well. When the two women get together, unborn John, the prophet that prepares the way becomes the first to recognize Jesus by leaping in the womb.
This relationship continues. John enters the ministry before Jesus does. He calls people to repentance, and he tells of the one who is coming who is greater than he is. Eventually, he’s the person who introduces Jesus — and when Jesus’ ministry starts to take off, he makes the observation: “He must increase, I must decrease”. John was a prophet who pointed to Christ — he prepared people for the new covenant. Jesus was the person who brought the New Covenant.
People needed prepared, because the New Covenant was nothing like what anybody was expecting. Everybody expected the New Covenant to be — Old Covenant, second attempt. They expected things to be like they were before, only better. Jesus was nothing like what was before, and John was the person who recognized him and prepared people to hear his message.
We Christians have been part of this New Covenant so long that we don’t even think about how different the two are. John, however really pointed this out when he was baptizing Jews into the baptism of repentance. Basically, John was telling the people of Judah that it didn’t matter who their parents and grandparents were — they needed to be personally right with God. Suddenly, there is no difference between somebody born a Jew, and someone born a Gentile — both have to be converted. Both need to repent and seek God.
One of the things that my pastor growing up told us was: “God has no grandchildren.” When I looked on the Internet, I quickly learned that lots of people say the same thing; and the people who say this come from the range of Christianity. When John asked Jews to submit to Baptism, he was asking them to symbolically convert to a faith that they were born into. He was asking them to make the declaration for themselves, as if they were born Gentiles — it was a symbol of washing away the sin of idolatry, and being made innocent again. Baptism was part of converting — and, this is what the New Covenant asked people to do; to convert.
After John introduces this very new concept — and it is new, remember, people feel that their connection with God is tied to having an ancestor who spoke with God! Jesus invites people to take part in the Kingdom of Heaven. He lets everybody know that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and they are invited into it. When Jesus speaks of who God accepts, and who is acceptable, it includes those who are on the edges of society, it includes people who seem to have zero claim to any kingdom — and yet, they are already entering.
It would still be some time before anybody had any clue what this new covenant was about. Remember, the Gospels depict the disciples as holding on to their old ideas until after the Resurrection. Even though the promise of the New Covenant included a more personal relationship with God where hearts were changed, and more amazingly the promise of Emanuel — God with us; many of them filled their heads with the dream of a restored kingdom on earth; One of the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus if it was time to overthrow Rome.
The first Advent was a period of time when the people who looked forward to the New Covenant had no idea what it would look like; and even those who identified the person who would bring them into this new Covenant and new Kingdom found themselves deeply confused. They didn’t get it. I love that this is the way that the story comes to us too, because you know, so often we don’t get it either. Part of the New Covenant is that God is patient anyways — and I am grateful that God is more patient than I.
John pointed to Jesus — and people misunderstood both. Saint Nicholas’ day is today — when his day comes, we know that Christmas will soon follow; and the Santa who drinks Coca-Cola and lives at the North Pole with Reindeer is as unlike St. Nicholas the confessor as the warrior-king that would overthrow the Roman Empire to establish a new kingdom of Judah was unlike Jesus.
Let me tell you what it means to be called St. Somebody the confessor. Nicholas was a young man during a period of terrible persecution. At the time, the emperor Diocletian carried out what was remembered as the most severe persecution of the Roman Empire. When somebody died under persecution, that person is called a martyr; such as St. Valentine, the martyr. When somebody survived persecution by denying Christ, that person would be called `lapsi’ — and, needless to say, would not be celebrated. When one is called a confessor, it means that the person survived persecution, always confessing that Jesus is Lord. Because of the brutal nature of persecution, Martyrs are much more common than confessors — we know that Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith. We also know that his bones show evidence of a broken nose; while it is fun to speculate how that might have happened, anybody called “the confessor” because he continued to confess Christ in spite of persecution is somebody who likely took a pretty severe beating.
This is what it means to understand the New Covenant; to realize that no matter who is the Emperor, Jesus is Lord. No matter which Earthly kingdom one belongs to, we are first a citizen of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom; and no matter what culture says, it means seeing value and sacredness in even the ‘least of these.’ I am glad for those who point to Jesus, such as John. I’m thankful for those who demonstrated what it means to live in the kingdom of Heaven, even on Earth; To be known for radical generosity, kindness and hospitality to foreigners and travelers, and for holding onto faith is something greater than themselves, even under the pains of death. I am thankful for those who did seem to get it — such as Nicholas.