Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sermon for Midweek Advent Service II (December 7, 2016)

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent
St. Nicholas and St. Ambrose: Confessing Christ as Fully God”
December 7, 2016

In a speech to congress following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7 “a day that will live in infamy.”
            On our church calendar, December 7 is not a day that will live in infamy … but it is a famous day. It is a day on which we remember a very important figure in the history of the Church. St. Ambrose of Milan is commemorated today not because he died on this date (that actually occurred on April 4 in 397), but because he was consecrated as a bishop on December 7 in 374. And yesterday we commemorated another follower of Jesus who is significant at this time of year for various reasons … St. Nicholas of Myra, his death being on December 6, 343.
Let’s start with the earlier of the two, St. Nicholas. Much of what we know about Nicholas is shrouded in mystery and legend, but there are some things we can say about him. Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in a coastal town of what today is southwest Turkey. He eventually became bishop of Myra, a town not far from where he grew up. When his parents died, he inherited an enormous amount of money that he gave away secretly to the needy people of the city. In one of the most famous stories about Nicholas, he threw bags of gold through the windows of three girls who were about to be forced into a life of ill repute because their family could not could not support them. In one version of the story, Nicholas does this over a period of time, and one of the fathers stays up late to discover the identity of their benefactor. Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the bag of gold down his chimney instead. In this way, Nicholas became famous for his care of the poor and needy in his community.
But even more importantly, Nicholas was a great confessor of the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ. Arianism was a widespread heresy in those days that denied the full deity of Christ. Arius was a priest who taught that there was a time when the Second Person of the Trinity did not exist, that the Son of God was created and came into existence at a point in time. His false teaching was the primary reason why the First Council of Nicea was gathered in 325AD and which condemned the teachings of Arius. There’s even a story about Nicholas being present at the council and slapping Arius in the face. It’s a great story, but it probably didn’t happen since Arius would not have been allowed in the council chamber because he wasn’t a bishop. But the point is this: Nicholas boldly stood up for the truth of Holy Scripture and the full deity of Jesus Christ.
About three or four years before Nicholas died, another great follower of Jesus was born: St. Ambrose. Ambrose was born into a prominent Roman family and was raised in the city of Trier in Gaul in what today is southwestern Germany. His father may have been the praetorian prefect there, sort of like a military leader and governor of a certain region of the empire. After his father died, Ambrose went to Rome to study and later became governor in northern Italy centered in Milan. Even after the Council of Nicea, the Arian controversy had not faded away, and it had affected Milan, too. Ambrose was no friend of the Arians, but he was well-respected by both parties in the fight. When the bishop of Milan died, Ambrose attended the meeting to elect a replacement, hoping that his presence would ease the tension between the two competing factions. When he stood up to address the crowd as governor, shouts of “Ambrose, bishop!” interrupted him. The whole crowd took up this cry and Ambrose was elected bishop, even though, at first, he strenuously refused. He was not trained in theology. As a catechumen, he hadn’t even been baptized yet. He finally conceded to the crowd’s request, was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop of Milan. A strange way to begin one’s ecclesiastical career, that’s for sure. But Ambrose soon became a solid theologian and churchman and is known as another bold contender for the truth of the Trinity and the full deity of Christ, like Nicholas.
We can also thank Ambrose for introducing congregational hymn singing to the western Church. He wrote many hymns that still survive to this day, some of which we are singing tonight, including our theme hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come.” He is credited with composing the Te Deum which we normally sing during Matins. He is also known as the pastor who baptized another great church father, St. Augustine. In fact, even the writers of the TV show The Simpsons know this. In one famous scene, Homer accidentally gets baptized (it’s a long story) and Bart asks him how he feels. Homer responds, “I feel like St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan.”
Ambrose was also famous for standing up to oppressive civil authorities. In one instance, the Arian emperor Valentinian once sent troops to Milan and ordered the cathedral to be used for Arian worship. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves in the church and Valentinian finally backed down. Ambrose had declared, “If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.”
Ambrose and Nicholas remind us of the struggles the Church endured against heresies that arose and how our creeds and confessions were forged in the heat of battle in order to confess the truth about God the Father and his Son.
            Consider the language of the creed forged at Nicea. The Son of God is “begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” You can almost hear the bishops at Nicea striving to find a way to confess this mystery, that the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally God. He is begotten, but not like you and me in time. He is begotten in eternity … outside of time. There never was a time when he did not exist. He is God and of God. He is Light and of Light. He is very and truly and really God. He is of one substance with the Father. What in the world does that mean? “Of one substance.” Substance sounds like a word you would use when you step on a slug: “What is that sticky substance on my shoe?” Here, though, the council used a philosophical term that means something like “essence” or “the true nature” of something. “One substance” is actually one word in both the Latin and the Greek. Consubstantia. Homoousias. Whatever makes God the Father God is exactly the same thing that makes the Son God. They are equal in terms of their deity.
            Here is how Ambrose confessed the deity of the Incarnate Christ in his great Advent hymn:
                Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

When you think of a throne room, what do you usually think of? A castle made of stone and mortar. A resplendent hall with gold ornaments and intricately woven tapestries. And in the center a magnificent, luxurious chair raised high on a platform where the monarch sits and presides over their kingdom.
But when the Son of God took on human flesh, the throne of God was the womb of the Virgin Mary … imagine that! Mary’s womb was our Lord’s pure and kingly hall. After his miraculous conception, had we been in Mary’s presence we should have gotten down on our knees and paid homage to God truly present there, no matter how small he was. All little babies are sacred in their mother’s womb, and so we rightly take care to guard each life even before they see the light of day. But this Baby … this Child … this was Life itself. The Creator of all things became a creature. The Son of God humbled himself not only in his birth … but also in his death, the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world at the cross. Jesus became poor so that you and I might become rich. Jesus humbled himself so you and I might be exalted … forgiven, redeemed, beloved, made to be children of God, given a place in God’s family, brought into communion with the Holy Trinity.
And we respond by joyfully confessing this truth … joyfully confessing the name of Jesus before kings and princes, no matter what the consequences, like Ambrose. We respond by caring for others, especially those in humbler circumstances than our own, like Nicholas. We respond by boldly confessing the full deity of the Son of God, like both Nicholas and Ambrose. Because Arianism is still with us today. There are those who still would make Jesus to be less than fully God. But this has grave consequences regarding the nature of our salvation and the meaning of the atonement. Jesus had to be Man so that he could live a perfect, sinless life in our place and so that he would be able to die for the sins of the world. But he also had to be fully God so that his sacrifice would have infinite value … so that the death of One Man would be acceptable for all men and women who ever lived or who are still to live. Only the death of Jesus, True God and True Man, would do. Nothing less would be acceptable. Because you are infinitely loved by God.
So give thanks to God today for Nicholas and Ambrose and their courageous task of keeping the Church focused on the full deity of Christ. Give thanks to God today that the Son of God entered into this world for you, to sit upon the throne in his mother’s womb, and to come forth from his pure and kingly hall to be your Savior.

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