Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
We’re turning a corner today. The lessons for the past few weeks have been largely about God’s judgement, and there’s still healthy portion of that today with calls for repentance in several of our appointed bible texts. But something else is going on too.
In the prophecy of Isaiah comes a new word: comfort, o comfort my people says your God. After years of bad news – about chronic failure to be people of justice and peace – the prophet hears a new thing. Be comforted, God is coming. Get ready; clear the path. Everything that has obscured your vision of holiness will be removed: no more mountains or valleys in the way. All of you will see it together – the glory of God.
But the prophet found it hard to believe this news. When a voice told Isaiah to cry out, the prophet said, Really? What am I supposed to cry out? Life is fragile, corruptible, that’s what I have to say. But the voice pushed back, Yes, but God’s word will stand forever. Say this from the highest mountain. God is here. God is mighty and judges all. God is gentle and shepherds all.
Mighty. Gentle. These opposing themes show up in the Gospel today too. John the baptizer came on the scene in the wilderness of Judea. His appearance was reminiscent of the mighty prophet Elijah who was described in 2 Kings 8 as, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (It’s impossible to know if Mark, the gospel’s author, meant that people were reminded of Elijah when they saw John, or that John understood himself as fulfilling Elijah’s role. Either way, this was an intense experience for people, who heard the mighty voice of God in John’s prophetic call to repentance).
John’s presence and words were mighty, but what he did was remarkably intimate. He washed them in the river Jordan as they admitted their faults and failures. There’s a gentleness to this whole aspect, just as there is a gentle tenderness to the baptisms we do.
John came crying out in his preaching, and preparing by his washing. Mighty yet gentle in his work for God. He pointed to authority beyond himself – One greater than me comes after me; for whom I am not worthy to loosen the laces of his sandals. And this next part is remarkable too: I have washed you with water; but he will wash you in a holy spirit.
The text of Second Peter is typically apocalyptic. But it’s not all about catastrophe. It juxtaposes God’s patient waiting for people to repent, with heaven’s ending in loud noise and melting elements. There it is again, divine gentleness amid righteous might.
There’s more good news today too. In all three lessons today God is found to be beyond the boundaries of places where the divine is typically expected or encountered. It’s a way of restoring the ancient idea that nothing is beyond or outside God. There’s comfort and encouragement galore in having this larger, more complex understanding of God.
Isaiah speaks of God coming in the wilderness, in the wild ungodly space where unclean spirits were known to roam freely. Second Peter invites people to be at peace, living peaceably, knowing the presence of God even as all heck breaks loose around you. And John the baptizer encouraged people to come to the Jordan River, bypassing the purification system of the Jerusalem Temple to cleanse and prepare themselves for God’s judgement. No more sacrificing unblemished animals for sin. Instead, sacrifice your sin, to be found without blemish by God.
But these things are all theological. How about an example of faith formed out of love for God who is mighty and yet gentle; a lively faith that serves God outside of formal holy places. What would such a person look like?
And so I give you…St. Nick. For real. Nicholas of Myra, born in Patara, Turkey in the late 2nd century CE. As a young man, Nicholas came into an inheritance which he decided to use charitably. He shared the money with such people as a poor man who needed dowries to marry off his three daughters. Nicholas also advocated for three innocent men who had been falsely accused and condemned to death by a corrupt governor. Nicholas convinced the executioner not to carry out the sentence and confronted the governor who is said to have repented.
Eventually Nicholas got into trouble with Emperor Diocletian and was imprisoned about 305 CE. His skull, examined and forensically reconstructed just fifteen years ago, featured a nose broken so violently that the injury was probably intentional; perhaps from being beaten by Roman soldiers. He was released after 306 CE most likely by Constantine.
Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra at a young age. It’s said that while attending the council of Nicaea, Nicholas became so indignant over the teachings of Arius that he slapped the man’s face, an act of dishonor. Nicholas was deprived of his bishop’s insignia and imprisoned. He was repentant though and soon was released and restored. Despite acting defiantly for the sake of justice in political and spiritual spheres, Nicholas was known as a man of peace. Nicholas was generous, committed, and focused on God’s love.
Nicholas lived as one clothed in holiness of spirit, working in the world for the needs of others. He dedicated himself to the way of Jesus, making God who is mighty and gentle, known by generosity and love. His fame spread by reputation. Perhaps because Nicholas acted out of the conviction that God is over all and in all, he is the patron saint of a diverse group, including bakers, brewers, children, fishermen, judges, longshoremen, merchants, newlyweds, pawnbrokers, penitent murderers and thieves, pharmacists, poor people, prisoners, sailors, students, travelers, and even the University of Paris.
Sailors wished one another safe voyages with the words, "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller." They probably spread his story to river and sea ports far and near. After a long life Nicholas died quietly on December 6, 346 CE in Myra Turkey. By 500 CE a church was dedicated to Nicholas in Constantinople. In the 11th century, Nicholas’s bones were taken to Bari in Italy where they are revered to this day.
We are unlikely to leave such a large impression on the world. Nor is it necessary. Whenever we repent of wrong, or share a gift of comfort or encouragement with someone, these are holy acts. They accomplish mighty things in the name of Jesus, God’s glorious Word. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.