Festival Day: St Nicholas
God’s People Are Comforted
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen
‘Tis the season to be jolly. Or so the Christmas saying goes. And it’s true, it is the season to be jolly… But not because a rather rotund gentleman of dubious disposition, sporting a natty long white beard in a red coat, will somehow be coming down a chimney you don’t have and leaving gifts you probably don’t want…
No, ‘tis the season to be jolly because we are now in the second week of Advent, and this is a time of joy and hope, a season of expectation and preparation as the Church prepares to celebrate the coming of Christ.
But what of the jolly man in red? Who is he, and where did he come from? What does he have to do with the Christmas story, and is there anything, as christians, that we can salvage from Santa Claus?
There is a small link we can make, that of gift giving…
For those who don’t know, today, and 6 December every year, is the festival day of St Nicholas. “Ah…!” I hear you saying quietly. St Nicholas. That’s where we get Santa Claus from. Indeed it is, but do you know the story? I shall enlighten you. Once again, nothing like a little history lesson to make things interesting.
St Nicholas was a real person, who lived in the 3rd century. He wasn’t a saint back then, he was just a bishop. The bishop of Myra in Greece (current day Turkey) to be exact. Without going into the complete history of his life, suffice to say he was a very good man and he did many good deeds. The bits that are of interest to us in our story are his kindness to strangers and helping those in desperate need, especially giving money to poor children. The most prominent of these stories is that he gave gold to a man’s three daughters who were destined to a life of poverty and prostitution as they didn’t have enough money for a dowry. It is from these stories and deeds we get the act of giving.
The Dutch traditionally celebrate St Nicholas on 6 December in the form of Sinterklaus. Every year a character with white hair and long beard dressed as Sinterklaas walks around with Christian symbols: he wears a long red chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s Alb and sometimes a red stole; a red bishop’s mitre, crosier and cross. The children set out their shoes and stockings, hoping for a little trinket or a coin.
When the Dutch went to America with the early settlers there, the tradition of Sinterklaus in his red outfit and gift giving went with them. It is from this tradition of the man with the long white hair, the red bishop’s mitre and robes, that today’s Santa Claus came into being. And of course, with the world as it is now, this secular form of Santa took hold and overshadowed the Dutch Sinterklaus. In fact, in the Netherlands today the American Santa isn’t really seen, as the Dutch have tried very hard to hang onto their own tradition.
And so, even though Santa Claus is secular, and most people see this as a season to give gifts without understanding, there are Christian roots in the story. Something we should remember at this time.
But what does any of this have to do with our bible readings this morning? Not very much, but as mentioned before, there is the idea of giving.
Mark’s gospel opens by being very direct. He doesn’t mince words or dally in the trivial. He immediately starts with “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” He doesn’t go into the birth of Jesus or even touch on any events of his youth. He wants to give a message, and goes straight into the heart of the matter.
This can be seen as a bit of a wake-up call. A slap in the face to remind us there is a lot at stake here. Mark starts with a quote from Micah and Isaiah, proclaiming the arrival of John the Baptist, talking of: “Sending a messenger…” and “…a voice crying out in the wilderness.”
John was in the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance. I looked this up; to repent is to turn back and go the right way. John was telling the people to turn back on their sins and follow a path of righteousness. Why? Because he was expecting something great. So here is John’s big gift to the people – the proclamation of the arrival of Jesus. An arrival he expected was imminent. As he put it, someone would follow who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and John wasn’t even worthy to untie his sandals.
And while we are on gifts – let us not forget in this season of giving, the greatest gift of all. God gave us the gift of His son for the forgiveness of all sins.
This is a special gift. It is the arrival of this gift, as proclaimed by John, that we celebrate at Advent.
As Christians, we willingly accept this gift. But as we look forward to the coming of the Messiah, are we ready?
I’m not sure the world was ready for Jesus back in the 1st century. Before then, when Isaiah and all the prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, the world wasn’t ready. And today we make all these preparations for the Christmas season, starting way in advance. But are we really ready for Jesus?
Yet we must always be prepared. God has given us the greatest gift – His Son.
A gift for the forgiveness of sins.
A gift that keeps giving.
At this time, we must also give.
St Nicholas was renowned for good deeds and giving to the needy, giving all that he had. As we head towards Christmas, let us also give – let us give the Good News to all who will listen. And if there are youngsters about, let them know that without Jesus, there would be no St Nicholas, and hence no Santa. Santa Claus may be secular, but he needed Jesus in order to exist.
We always strive to be more like Jesus.
Sometimes we ask, “What would Jesus do?”
But today, let us also look at being more like John the Baptist. Let us pave the way for the Messiah. Be that voice in the wilderness. Proclaim Jesus as Lord to all.
Let us take our lesson from Isaiah, and I paraphrase a few parts from today’s reading:
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And what shall we cry?
Lift up your voice with strength
Say to the people of the world
“Here is your God.”
“The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.”
A poem by Glen Scrivener, a Church of England minister in Eastbourne.
Santa vs Jesus
They say there’s a big man who lives far away,
Supposedly jolly but it’s hard to say.
I’ve never seen him, and neither have you.
But the children believe, whether or not it’s true.
He’s known as a loner, with many a quirk
No time for a chat, he’s embroiled in his work
He keeps to himself, for most of the year,
I reckon we’re grateful he doesn’t appear.
We send him requests, for particular needs,
But we never hear back, who knows if he heeds?
We try to be good, give his arm a twist,
To merit our place on his blessed little list.
And maybe one day if we do what we should,
He’ll give us our things, so long as we’re good.
I’ve had it to here, I’m calling his bluff:
He’s a weird moralistic dispenser of stuff!
Granted, this rant is a strange one to pick
But listen I’m not really after St Nick
As strange as he is, and Santa is odd,
I’m really addressing most folks’ view of God.
It’s God who we see as a distant Big Guy –
An ancient, invisible, St Nick in the Sky.
“He’s sees you asleep, He knows when you wake
He’s watching and waiting to spot your mistake.”
And just like with Santa, requests we hand in,
We want all his things but we don’t want him.
That’s our connection with old Father Christmas.
We might dress it up, it’s essentially business.
Throughout the year, good behaviour’s our onus
When Christmas rolls round we’re expecting our bonus.
“Just leave us the gifts Nick, we’ve been good enough!
And then please push on, now we’ve got all your stuff!”
I mean Santa is interesting, curious, quirky
But no-one wants him to share their Turkey!
I’m sure his “ho, ho, hos” are sublime,
But I fear what he’ll say once he’s drunk our mulled wine.
That’s old St Nick, but the picture rings true,
It’s how we imagine what God is like too.
But Christmas resounds with a stunning “Not so!”
The One from on high was born down below.
To a world in need He did not send another.
God the Son became God our Brother.
He drew alongside, forever to dwell,
Our God in the flesh, Immanuel.
This God in the Manger uproots all our notions:
A heavenly stooping, divine demotion.
Born in a stable, wriggling on straw,
Fully committed to life in the raw.
Santa gives things and then goes away.
Jesus shows up, to befriend and to stay.
Santa rewards those with good behaviour.
Jesus comes near to the broken as Saviour.
If you don’t like God, I think I know why…
You probably think He’s St Nick in the Sky.
You’re right to reject that far-away stranger!
This Christmas look down to the God in the manger.
See Glen recite the poem here: