by Travis Meier
“Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”
If you think about it too long, the image of the “powers in the heavens shaking” is a bit un-nerving. The thought of fainting from “fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world” is a bit unsettling. The concept of the “Son of humanity” coming in the clouds with “power and great glory” is enough to keep anyone up at night. But I don’t think Luke is calling for us to be sleep deprived; although it is that time of year. Perhaps what Luke is calling us to is a state of readiness for what is to come. These images are enough to keep anyone on their toes. They’re enough to keep us alert. Watchful. Waiting for what is next. And Luke wants us to be ready. Because if you sit through the apocalyptic images, there is hope on the horizon.
If you stay through the signs written in the moon and the stars, if you wade through the foreboding music of roaring seas and waves, you’ll find a beacon of hope in the distance. Luke is drawing our gaze to what is to come, reminding us that if we raise our heads we will see redemption coming our way.
But it’s hard to stay focused. Life gets in the way. The troubles pile up. The redemption in the distance fades and we forget Luke’s call to readiness. It seems that a man in 4th century Patara had forgotten Luke’s plea for readiness and in the midst of great troubles was at his wit’s end. He had lost all of his money and had no means of supporting his three daughters. He was on the verge of selling them into prostitution. He was thick in the roar of the restless waves of hopelessness, cast about in the darkness of the end of his world. For this man, there was no deliverance on the horizon until a man Nicholas came along to lend a hand.
It started with a bag of gold through an open window, perhaps, as legend holds, finding its way into an empty stocking, hanging by the chimney with care. The first daughter was set free from her grim fate of being sold into slavery. In turn, the other two daughters were also set free. Nicholas became a beckon of hope, a symbol of the redemption on the horizon and new life for all through Jesus Christ.
Today we celebrate St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Little is known about this saint from the Mediterranean. If you keep up with pop culture, you are probably more apt to match St. Nicholas with the jolly old elf on Coca-Cola cans or in the driver’s seats of read Mercedes. But in the church’s memory, Nicholas is the saint of children, protecting them harm, redeeming them from troubles. In the church’s story, Nick is the saint of sailors, protecting them from perils on the sea, providing hope in times of distress. For us, St. Nicholas is a symbol of hope, a man who waded through the chaos of apocalypse, with an open eye for the redemption on the horizon, clinging to the promise of God’s salvation.
If you stay with Luke past the signs of the end of the world, you’ll catch the word redemption. For us in academia, this word gets bogged down in journal articles and dictionary entries. But for Luke and his audience, this word opens the window to the rich history in God’s story of salvation. You have to go all the way back to Abraham to hear it first told. After the promise of an heir is made, a prophecy is made of 400 years of slavery. And in that moment, there was the hope of redemption. The LORD had spoken.
It came to pass that the children of Israel did indeed spend 400 hundred years enslaved in Egypt. But God heard their cries and remembered the promise. The people waited. And in what must have seemed like a moment of apocalypse, God acted. The sun went dim, the waters turned to blood, and the people fled under the cover of darkness. They traveled by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Their redemption came in an outstretched hand and the stilling of waves, sheltering a way through the sea. God redeemed the children of Israel, and the Exodus would be their hope for salvation forever more. The people would tell of it to their children, generation to generation, and the Exodus would be the promise of hope to the people. Even in the exile of Babylon, some clung to this hope. Jeremiah spoke of the one who would come to fulfill the promise, the one would who execute justice and righteousness and redeem the people once and for all.
One would indeed come to redeem the whole world. God would remember the promises made to Abraham and his descendants forever. God would look with favor upon the lowly. God would fill the hungry with good things. Hope would come in the form of a baby, born to Mary. He would grow to preach and teach and minister. He would eat with sinners, dine with tax collectors, and stand toe to toe with the religious leaders, calling for life in the face of death. They would lead him to a cross, thinking they would have the last word, but God remembers the promise. God brings redemption. Jesus Christ is our hope, our new life, and our salvation forever more. He who was and who is and who is to come, is our beacon of hope when darkness sets in. In the face of apocalypse, we cling to Christ, and Christ remembers.
Luke wants us to remember this story, to recall what has brought us to this moment. We stand in a time of waiting. Moments of apocalypse lap at our feet, the roar of waves filling our ears. The uncertainty of the fiscal cliff. The dark of a not-quite winter. The pressure of final assignments. The unknown of first call paper work. We stand in the face of the unknown. We look for signs in the moon and the sun and the stars and we fear that we may be swallowed up by the weight of it all. But the call from Christ is to stand. To be ready. To remain alert. To keep a weathered eye on the horizon. The imperative of hope, that is our call in these days of advent.
For one is surely coming who will remember the promises made to Abraham, to Jeremiah, to Mary, to us. St. Nicholas reminds us to remain watchful in the moments of apocalypse with an eye open to the redemption on the horizon, already present in Jesus Christ. As we gather in the dancing shadows of Advent, we await once again the coming of the one who has redeemed us. We long for the one who comes with hope and assurance that the kingdom of God is on the way, and perhaps already in our midst. In water and word, God’s kingdom comes. In bread and wine, God’s kingdom comes. The promise is remembered. Even as we gather now, the story of redemption is told once again.
Friends, as we conclude another semester and go our separate ways, even for a little while, remember that there is hope, even when the present grows dark. As we journey through this time of waiting, let St. Nicholas be a reminder to keep a watchful eye on the redemption on the horizon. As we wait for the one who is surely coming, we cling to the promise we have in Jesus Christ. And Christ remembers.
Gospel Text, Luke 21:25-36 (Jeremiah 33:14-16)