The Bishop of Myra ~ December 08, 2019 ~ Mark 1:1-8
We are in the gospel of Mark this morning, but I want to set the scene with this great story that happens in the first chapter of Luke. In the first chapter of Luke, there is a story about a man named Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth. They are getting along in years, we shall say – I hate to admit it, but probably about Renée and my age – and they were never blessed with children, regardless of how often they prayed and how fervently they wanted, that prayer seemingly was never answered. Zechariah was a priest. When it became his turn to offer the sacrifice on the day of atonement in the temple, he entered to do so, and the angel Gabriel spoke to him and told him that his prayers had finally been answered. His wife Elizabeth was to bear a son. His response was, “Well, wait a minute. I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in her years! This can’t happen!” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It is He who sent me to give you this good news, but now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent!” (Every wife’s dream) “You will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born; for my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Guess what? Elizabeth was with child. So, Zechariah can’t speak. He’s writing on a tablet for nine months. Finally, the day comes, the child is about to be born. It’s a son. They welcome a son into the world, and everybody expects them to name him Zechariah after his father. But the angel had told Zechariah to name him John. So, he is just about ready to write on his tablet that the boy’s name shall be John, when suddenly, boom! His voice returns and he says out loud, “His name will be John!” Everybody is amazed. They knew what had happened. And in verse 66, they said, “What will this child turn out to be? He seems pretty special!” Well, let’s find out. If you would join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the Word of God. Let us pray.
Lord, upon the pages of this book is Your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!”
This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
John announced: “Someone is coming soon who is
greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like
a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he
will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”
So, who is this guy that was supposed to be named Zechariah? It is John the Baptist. Let’s get the first two things that really stick out in that reading out of the way. His diet! For food he ate locusts and wild honey. Did you know that many people in the middle and far eastern world consider locusts a delicacy? The Oriental culture often roasts them and seasons them. Arabs ate the thorax, which contains wing muscles. And according to Leviticus 11:22, even the Israelites were allowed to eat locusts! They could be boiled in water, salted; or roasted on coals, dried, reduced to powder and eaten with salt. Actually, 50-60% of the weight of a locust is pure protein. This makes them, by weight, a more complete protein source than beef! There is, in locusts, iron, iodine, phosphorus, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and traces of calcium, selenium, and magnesium. Locusts are health food! Who knew? Ugh! That’s what he ate. He was living out in the wilderness. Locusts. As far as the honey, the Greek historian Josephus records that there were an abundance of bees that lived in the area at the time, so honey was prevalent there. Did you know that honey is the perfect food? It’s a complex carbohydrate. It never spoils. Even if your honey crystalizes and becomes hard and white, all you have to do is heat it up, melt it again, it’s good to go. Honey never goes bad, it’s a perfect food.
So, there is John, out in the wilderness, munching on some locusts, eating his honey. The second thing we can look at is his outfit. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. Why does John dress like Fred Flintstone? I have a theory.
I think it’s a statement. John is not mainstream. I mean, to go out into the desert, to him, is a different path than taking the usual road, going to the institutions and through the cultural settings of Jerusalem – the “Establishment” if you will. In a political and religious sense, John is the ultimate outsider. Apparently, God was doing something new. Perhaps the same will be said about the Messiah? Maybe He will not at all be what everyone was expecting.
The funny thing about John is that other than his unusual diet and appearance, was that all he had going for him was his message. There are no miracles attributed to John. There’s no stories of John feeding thousands of people, or walking on water, or turning water into wine, or curing leprosy, or raising anyone from the dead – none of that is ascribed to John. People came simply to hear him speak, that’s it. And because of his message, which was basically one version or another of “Repent of your sins and turn to God, the kingdom of heaven is near.” He said it over and over again. In fact, when Jesus returned from 40 days of fasting in the desert, that’s the first words out of His mouth: “Repent of your sins and turn to God, the kingdom of heaven is near.” But because of his message and the crowds that he attracted, many people began to wonder, “Hmm, maybe he was the guy, maybe he was the Messiah.” John was clear though. “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals.” John was clear. The entirety of his life and his mission was to point to Jesus.
Well, it’s Christmas, and I’m on a mission to reintroduce the world to Nicholas. You see, in the third century AD there was a little boy named Nick. He was born to wealthy parents in Patara, Turkey. They raised him to be a devout Christian. Sadly, both of them died in the plague, and Nick was an orphan at a very young age. However, the teachings stuck with him. Because of his upbringing, he took Jesus’ words to sell what you own and give the money to the poor literally, and he used his considerable inheritance – all of it – to assist the needy, and the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God. Because of that, to make a long story short, he was eventually made Bishop of Myra. As Bishop, Nicholas’ actions on behalf of his people, as well as his strong stand for the faith, for the Orthodox belief, it earned him a reputation of someone to be respected, not only as a model for being a Bishop, but as a defender of the faith. As you heard me say to the kids, as an orphan himself, Nicholas also never forgot how important it was to bring joy into the lives of children. And so, as he walked through Myra, he would carry the sack and it would have small gifts inside – apples, oranges, nuts; sometimes cookies or sweets, or a small wooden toy. Who does that point to? I think we all know, right?
Eventually, because of his service to his community and the church, the church would eventually saint him – make him a saint. And we have known him ever since as Saint Nicholas.
Now, sure, I wish children knew more about the real Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. I do. I mean, there are some incredible stories about him. Not only that one I shared with you about the poor man whose three daughters couldn’t afford to be married and were going to be sold into prostitution, so he saved them with a donation of gold. There’s also a story about a young boy named Basilios who Nicholas frees miraculously from slavery. There’s a story about grain shipments that were headed for Alexandria, Egypt – an incredible miracle Nicholas pulled off there. There’s a story about three murdered theological students who Nicholas brought back to life. There are some wonderful true stories about a real guy.
Alas, perhaps that ship has sailed. It is hard to compete with flying reindeer and a kingdom at the North Pole full of elves who make toys. That’s tough press to come against. But, you know what? The Bishop of Myra, to this day, is known for his kindness; how he touched the hearts of so many people, and how people learned from him what a beautiful thing it is to give, especially to those who are suffering and in need; and to spread joy whenever you can, especially to children. So, that made me think, hmm, inspiration for a kind, or jolly if you will, man dressed in red who brings joy to children? I can think of worse ways to be remembered! And it got me to thinking: how will I be remembered? When people look back at my life, what will they see that I pointed to? How, or who do I remind them of?
Renee and I were driving in the car a week ago, and we were talking about my funeral. Should I get nervous? We were talking about funerals in general, and I had said to her, you know my thing, almost every single time I do a funeral, when you talk about the deceased, they’re all Mother Teresa. They all walked on water and raised people from the dead. It’s incredible. If you want people to talk good about you, die! You’re good to go!
I don’t want that at my service. I really don’t. In fact, I said to her I want to record something, either on video (which might be a little creepy) or written down for people to hear at my service. Because I don’t want people to come up and make me sound like a saint. I was not. I know I was not the son that I could have been. I know I was not the friend that I should have been. I know I have not been the husband or father that I could have been. I know I’ve not been the pastor that I should have been. So, I don’t want people walking up here lying. I want people to hear about Christ’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness, because without it, I’m lost. I know all the things that I have said and done and thought, and none of them will appear in my obituary, because they don’t know about it. But He does. He knows it all. And that’s why I need His love, His grace, His mercy, and His forgiveness.
Kyle and I, last week or the week before, were having a discussion about the state of the church (in America primarily), and why is it that the mainline protestant church, for the most part, is dying, shrinking. I don’t know the answer, but I offered him one theory – could be true, could not be true, you tell me – I’m not pointing fingers, I’m truly not, because we raised them! But we have a couple of generations of young people who all got a trophy. They all came in first place. They all got a participation ribbon. They all have been told since the moment their feet hit the ground, they are Mother Teresa! In fact, there was a school out in Ohio, I read this a couple years ago. They did not want to offend anyone in the graduating senior class by singling out a person to be valedictorian, so they made all 239 people in the class valedictorian!!! How is it possible that all 239 people in the class have the same GPA?! But every single one of them would be able to put on their college application that they were valedictorian. And that’s what we’ve done to two generations of young people, so all of a sudden, they come into the church, and here I am saying, “You’re a sinner who needs to be saved by the grace of Jesus Christ!” and they’re saying, “What are you talking about? I rock! I have a room full of trophies to show it to you! I’m a good person!” I’m sure you are, by human standards. God’s standards are different, though. Romans 3:23 says:
Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.
Why do we fall short? Because we’ve all sinned! You see, what is God’s glorious standard? In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says this:
“You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Wait a minute! That is completely unfair! No one can be perfect! Everybody makes mistakes! I can’t be perfect!
That’s right. You can’t. Jesus’ love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness is your only hope, as it is mine. And that’s why Christmas. That’s why God sent His Son into the world. To die for our sins. God did not send Jesus into the world to give us all a participation trophy. We are not dogs! “You’re such a good boy! You’re such a good boy!” No. He sent Jesus because we all fall short. All of us.
However, we have hope when we believe in Him. We have peace in knowing that our future is assured. We have joy in experiencing Christ in our hearts, knowing that He loves us. That’s what I want people to hear at my funeral. That’s what I would like my life to point to – the gospel. How about you?
Have you ever played word association, where somebody says a word and you have to say back the first word that comes into your mouth? We can do that! Black? White. Up? Down. In? Out. Face? Book. You know, at the first service, I said face and Karl said book. Karl! He doesn’t know how to use a computer! Barrel? I thought cracker, I don’t know why. Shark? Week. Work? Play. Pastor Adam?
If I feel like I have to present my resume, all the things that I’ve done; if I have to give you a list of all my accomplishments; if I have to make an argument what your word should be, that speaks for itself, doesn’t it? That’s saying people don’t know who I am or what I’m about.
John pointed to Jesus. The Bishop of Myra points to Santa Claus. My goal is that Pastor Adam, the word might be the gospel, mercy, forgiveness, because he needed it. He really, really needed it. And he received it through Christ. Yes, even he received it. And you can too! That’s what I want them to hear. He received the grace of God through Jesus Christ, and he wants all of you to know you can too. If he can, anybody can. That’s what I want to point to – the gospel. How about you? Who or what do you want to point to? Would you stand and pray with me?