St. Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor
Dear friends in Christ. Today we remember one of the more well-loved saints but also one about whom very little is known—St. Nicholas. He is claimed as the patron saint by the people of Russia, Greece and Sicily and is considered the patron saint of sailors and children. About 400 churches in England alone are named after him. In the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland children put out their shoes the night before St. Nicholas’s feast day hoping to receive presents. St. Nicholas’s feast day is a day to exchange gifts in many parts of Europe. In our country, of course, St. Nicholas has morphed/ been adapted to the Santa Claus. Remembering St. Nicholas in Lutheranism goes back to the earliest days. St. Nicholas was also dear to our Missouri Synod fathers as they included his feast day with readings in the first hymnbooks we produced.
Tradition reports that Nicholas was born in the late Third Century in what is now Turkey and it reports that he was religious from infancy, devoted to a life of good works, was generous to the poor, and died peacefully. He was still a young man when his parents died and left him a great inheritance. He used that inheritance to help the poor. One of the most famous accounts of St. Nicholas’ generosity concerns a poor man who could not provide the usual dowry for his 3 daughters. Knowing that this might force them into prostitution, St. Nicholas came to the rescue. One night he took a bag of gold, flung it through the window of the poor man’s house and hurried off. After hearing the first daughter was married, St. Nicholas did the same thing for the second daughter. When she was married, he repeated his trick for the third daughter, but this time the father was waiting for him, caught him in the act and thanked him and told everyone of St. Nicholas’ humble generosity. Perhaps this account serves as the inspiration for selecting today’s Gospel account for this feast day: “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.”
In the 4th century, Nicholas was bishop in the city of Myra in Lycia, in what is today modern day Turkey. By the 6th Century there was a church named after him in Constantinople. But just because St. Nicholas was humble, generous and merciful, this did not mean that he was indifferent to false teaching and heretics. It is reported that at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, from which we ultimately get our present day Nicene Creed, when it was dealing with the heresy of Arianism—a heresy that taught that Jesus is not the one, true, eternal God; that Jesus is not one substance with the Father—that after Arius, the teacher/ promoter of this heresy spoke, St. Nicholas got up and punched him. So precious and so dear was the true faith to St. Nicholas that he could not stand idly by while Jesus was being blasphemed and the true doctrine contradicted!
This points us to something vital—as a bishop, St. Nicholas was entrusted was a great good—the holy and pure word and doctrine. He was to see to it that that word and doctrine went out into the world, that it was handed down faithfully and pure to the next generation. As a bishop/ teacher of the Church, Nicholas was to see that at the right time God’s holy law was proclaimed; and at the right time God’s precious, lifesaving/ life giving Gospel to the penitent sinner.
That’s the illustration Jesus uses in our text: “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” The text points to a slave—a well trusted slave, but a slave none the less—being put in charge over other slaves. He was to see to it that the slaves would get their rations, their portion of food at the proper time, so that they would have the physical energy to do the master’s work. In other words, teachers of the word—bishops like St. Nicholas and pastors today—are to see to it that the ones the Lord has entrusted to their care hear His divine word/ doctrine, that the teachers of the word rightly divide the word preaching law so people recognize their sin and damnable condition, preaching law and God’s wrath to the person who is not sorry for their sin; but preaching the Gospel to those who recognize and are sorry for their sin, announcing to them the complete forgiveness of their sin in and by Jesus. “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?”
This is what St. Paul writes in the Advent epistle [1 Cor 4.1, 2]: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. St. Paul would later advise the young pastor/ bishop St. Timothy [ 2 Ti. 2.15]: Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth—or as Jesus puts it in our text: giv[ing] them their portion of food at the proper time.
When Jesus came the first time, He established/ set up His NT Church by His holy life, His innocent suffering and death, and His glorious resurrection and ascension. But He didn’t just leave her to flounder. Instead He gave her a firm foundation by the infallible Holy Spirit inspired preaching and writing of the blessed apostles and evangelists. Once they were martyred or died off, He still didn’t leave His Church to flounder but instead raised up and continues to raise up servants/ slaves to serve their fellow servants/ slaves—people like St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and faithful pastors and teachers--stewards. And He entrusted them with His holy word and sacraments that they might give [their fellow servants/ slaves] their portion of food at the proper time. St. Paul puts it this way [Eph 4.11-12]: And He Himself [Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints... Being faithful to our Lord and His word, that’s what the Lord expects and demands of those He has called into the teaching office of His Church. Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.
This faithfulness is absolutely vital because only through the word and sacraments does Jesus come to us today and create faith in our hearts and preserve that faith in our hearts. He must call us through His holy word to faith in Him. Through that same word He gives us what He promises us in the word—forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But where that word is not taught, where there are not faithful teachers and proclaimers of that word Jesus has entrusted to them, where they do not give them their portion of food at the proper time, how can Jesus gather people into His Church and give them the gifts He won for them on the cross.
But our Lord’s words do not just apply to the likes of Bishop St. Nicholas and pastors down through the ages. The same idea applies to all Christians—the Lord has entrusted you, dear Christian, with a great gift and blessing. He did that as He brought you to faith and gave you the treasures of the Gospel: forgiveness of sin, peace with God, heaven, eternal life, etc. What a great blessing and trust from the Lord! He trusted you with His saving word and gifts. But with great trust also comes great responsibility. He expects you to be faithful. He expects you grow in your faith by being faithfully and regularly in His house around the pulpit and altar. He expects you to apply His holy law to yourself and to examine your heart and life and to root out sin. He expects you to serve no other gods—money, power, pleasure, etc. He expects you to hold fast to His word and promise in all the attacks and assaults your faith will experience from the devil, the world, and your own sinful self. He expects you to stand up for your faith and to share your faith—in love and gentleness calling a sinner by the Law to recognize his sin; to tell the good news of the forgiveness of their sin to the ones in sorrow and anguish over their sin; to point people to Jesus, the Savior of sinners/ their Savior.
Jesus has entrusted us with the greatest gifts—heavenly and divine. May we be faithful and diligent in treasuring them and using them rightly: Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.
Here you see that the hope of heaven shapes our life now so that we live lives of faithfulness to our Lord. Just think about it—Jesus entrusted to you and me, dear Christian, the gift of faith, His holy word, the forgiveness of sins, heaven; but who are we? –Sinners! And like Luther describes us: sacks of maggots. The very grace Jesus showed us by coming to us and entrusting us with these heavenly gifts, shouldn’t that in itself be an incentive to be a faithful and wise manager? Why would I disregard it, throw it away, be unfaithful and foolish to such a great treasure? As Christians, don’t we want to show that our Lord’s trust in us is not misplaced? Here we come to another Advent theme: Jesus’ return. We don’t know when Jesus is returning, but when He does we, in humble awe and love of Him for His grace and mercy, will want to be found ready, to be faithful and wise managers, to be doing the work that He has called us to do.
Jesus’ return is not some sort of sword hanging over our heads by a thread. It doesn’t fill us with dread. As Christians, as those to whom Jesus entrusted His holy word and given every heavenly and spiritual blessing, we know Him as our Savior who loves us and who has saved us from our sin. And as His dear Christians whom He loves and who love Him, it’s the greatest joy for us to hear of His return because for us it means an eternity in heaven, body and soul, before Him together with all the holy angels and saints. Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. Because we have been entrusted with the gift of faith and every blessing in Christ, we don’t now continue on in a life of sin. Instead, we fight against sin. We strengthen ourselves with God’s holy word; we receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament coming to us, uniting with us, and giving us His very body and blood. As we wait for Jesus to return, we are diligent in a life of faith and good works, a life in accord with the holy Ten Commandments. We bring forth fruits of repentance—instead of giving into sin we fight sin and follow the Holy Spirit in us who is leading us into every good work. As we follow what the Holy Spirit wants us to do, we are putting down/ killing that old sinful nature.
And this is why the return of Jesus and the hope of heaven shape our life now. If there were no heaven, what would be the point of living a life of good works, being faithful to our Lord and His word? Our life would be a constant struggle to do the good—and in the end there would be nothing. Our dear Lord is not a tyrant, far from it. Instead He tells us: Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. Our Lord promises us a great reward, a reward of grace. The good works and faithfulness we do is what the Lord expects/ demands from us. But in grace, when He comes, He rewards us with heaven and all its joy and bliss. As the Holy Spirit leads us and empowers us to live lives of good works—like St. Nicholas’s holy, humble generosity and love of the word—we are not daunted by the taunts of the world and attacks of the devil, instead in love and thanksgiving we live lives of faithfulness to our Lord and do the work He has called us to do as the hope of heaven shapes our lives now. INJ Amen.