As we approach the Feast of St. Nicholas, I thought I'd reprise what has proven to be one of the most popular entries in this blog.
St. Nicholas, before he donned his red coat and moved to the North Pole, was the third century bishop of the city of Myra in modern Turkey.
Many miracles were attributed to Nicholas. But the most evocative story attributed to him, and the one that would come to lend the most to our vision of him, wasn’t magical at all. He reportedly helped a poor man who had three daughters and who could not afford a dowry for them. Without a dowry, in the culture of the day, the daughters would have been condemned to a life of prostitution. Under cover of darkness, Nicolas threw a small bag of gold coins into the open window of the home of the poor man to pay the dowry of each daughter as they came of age. As the last daughter came of age, the poor man tried to discover Nicolas’s identity by waiting for him by the window. So, Nicholas instead threw the bag down the chimney into a stocking the daughter had hung by the chimney with care - to dry after washing.
In another variation of the story, the poor man successfully confronts Nicholas and thanks him. But Nicholas urges him to thank only God.
So, Christmas really is about gifts! But it is not gifts that we give - it is the abundant gifts God gives us. When Jesus multiplies a few loaves of bread and feeds thousands, he does not expect us to be able to repeat the miracle. The story demonstrates that God’s love is abundant. While in the human economy everything of value is scarce, must be rationed and reserved for the worthiest, God’s economy is different. God’s love is abundant enough to go around with plenty left over. We don’t need to decide who is good enough – and God won’t either - He’ll just quietly throw His love to us under cover of darkness.
On the third day, when it was morning, there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of an exceedingly loud trumpet; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lower part of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai smoked, because Yahweh descended on it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice. Yahweh came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. Yahweh called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
Yahweh said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people, lest they break through to Yahweh to gaze, and many of them perish. Let the priests also, who come near to Yahweh, sanctify themselves, lest Yahweh break out on them.”
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”
He said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim Yahweh’s name before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” Yahweh also said, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, andyou will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope into his nose,
or pierce his jaw through with a hook?
Will he make many petitions to you,
or will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make a covenant with you,
that you should take him for a servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird?
Or will you bind him for your girls?
Will traders barter for him?
Will they part him among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with barbed irons,
or his head with fish spears?
Lay your hand on him.
Remember the battle, and do so no more.
Behold, the hope of him is in vain.
Won’t one be cast down even at the sight of him?
None is so fierce that he dare stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before me?
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Everything under the heavens is mine.
“I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
nor his mighty strength, nor his goodly frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who will come within his jaws?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Around his teeth is terror.
Strong scales are his pride,
shut up together with a close seal.
One is so near to another,
that no air can come between them.
They are joined to one another.
They stick together, so that they can’t be pulled apart.
His sneezing flashes out light.
His eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.
Out of his mouth go burning torches.
Sparks of fire leap out.
Out of his nostrils a smoke goes,
as of a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
His breath kindles coals.
A flame goes out of his mouth.
There is strength in his neck.
Terror dances before him.
The flakes of his flesh are joined together.
They are firm on him.
They can’t be moved.
His heart is as firm as a stone,
yes, firm as the lower millstone.
When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid.
They retreat before his thrashing.
If one attacks him with the sword, it can’t prevail;
nor the spear, the dart, nor the pointed shaft.
He counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.
The arrow can’t make him flee.
Sling stones are like chaff to him.
Clubs are counted as stubble.
He laughs at the rushing of the javelin.
His undersides are like sharp potsherds,
leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
He makes the deep to boil like a pot.
He makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
He makes a path shine after him.
One would think the deep had white hair.
On earth there is not his equal,
that is made without fear.
He sees everything that is high.
He is king over all the sons of pride.”
Job, Chapter 41
Moreover Yahweh answered Job,
“Shall he who argues contend with the Almighty?
He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
Then Job answered Yahweh,
“Behold, I am of small account. What will I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.”
Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Now brace yourself like a man.
I will question you, and you will answer me.
Will you even annul my judgment?
Will you condemn me, that you may be justified?
Or do you have an arm like God?
Can you thunder with a voice like him?
“Now deck yourself with excellency and dignity.
Array yourself with honor and majesty.
Pour out the fury of your anger.
Look at everyone who is proud and bring him low.
Look at everyone who is proud, and humble him.
Crush the wicked in their place.
Hide them in the dust together.
Bind their faces in the hidden place.
Then I will also admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.
“See now behemoth, which I made as well as you.
He eats grass as an ox.
Look now, his strength is in his thighs.
His force is in the muscles of his belly.
He moves his tail like a cedar.
The sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are like tubes of bronze.
His limbs are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the ways of God.
He who made him gives him his sword.
Surely the mountains produce food for him,
where all the animals of the field play.
He lies under the lotus trees,
in the covert of the reed, and the marsh.
The lotuses cover him with their shade.
The willows of the brook surround him.
Do you watch when the doe bears fawns?
Can you count the months that they fulfill?
Or do you know the time when they give birth?
They bow themselves. They bear their young.
They end their labor pains.
Their young ones become strong.
They grow up in the open field.
They go out, and don’t return again.
“Who has set the wild donkey free?
Or who has loosened the bonds of the swift donkey,
whose home I have made the wilderness,
and the salt land his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city,
neither does he hear the shouting of the driver.
The range of the mountains is his pasture.
He searches after every green thing.
“Will the wild ox be content to serve you?
Or will he stay by your feeding trough?
Can you hold the wild ox in the furrow with his harness?
Or will he till the valleys after you?
Will you trust him, because his strength is great?
Or will you leave to him your labor?
Will you confide in him, that he will bring home your seed,
and gather the grain of your threshing floor?
“The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
but are they the feathers and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs on the earth,
warms them in the dust,
and forgets that the foot may crush them,
or that the wild animal may trample them.
She deals harshly with her young ones, as if they were not hers.
Though her labor is in vain, she is without fear,
because God has deprived her of wisdom,
neither has he imparted to her understanding.
When she lifts up herself on high,
she scorns the horse and his rider.
“Have you given the horse might?
Have you clothed his neck with a quivering mane?
Have you made him to leap as a locust?
The glory of his snorting is awesome.
He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength.
He goes out to meet the armed men.
He mocks at fear, and is not dismayed,
neither does he turn back from the sword.
The quiver rattles against him,
the flashing spear and the javelin.
He eats up the ground with fierceness and rage,
neither does he stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
As often as the trumpet sounds he snorts, ‘Aha!’
He smells the battle afar off,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and stretches her wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up,
and makes his nest on high?
On the cliff he dwells and makes his home,
on the point of the cliff and the stronghold.
From there he spies out the prey.
His eyes see it afar off.
His young ones also suck up blood.
Where the slain are, there he is.”
Job, Chapter 39
Most readers don't get past the first chapter of the Book of Job. It appeals to our sense of the dramatic and the binary: God makes a wager with Satan to tempt poor Job. Most commentators believe it is a story about the importance of fortitude. But the book is really an exploration of the Problem of Evil. We are told at the onset that Job is good man. As the story progresses, he is beset with ever more challenging circumstances. Job's three friends - Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar - offer the theology of the day: If bad things happen to Job, it must be a punishment from God for some bad conduct. Decades or even centuries after the principle book is written, the redactor even adds the character of Elihu. Even Elihu argues that bad things only happen to bad people. God eventually loses patience. He curses the three friends for being so wrong about His nature. He does not answer the Problem of Evil directly, but God described Himself in the most profound and powerful terms:
Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind,
“Who is this who darkens counsel
by words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man,
for I will question you, then you answer me!
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measures, if you know?
Or who stretched the line on it?
What were its foundations fastened on?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
“Or who shut up the sea with doors,
when it broke out of the womb,
when I made clouds its garment,
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
marked out for it my bound,
set bars and doors,
and said, ‘You may come here, but no further.
Your proud waves shall be stopped here’?
“Have you commanded the morning in your days,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
and shake the wicked out of it?
It is changed as clay under the seal,
and presented as a garment.
From the wicked, their light is withheld.
The high arm is broken.
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea?
Or have you walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you?
Or have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?
Have you comprehended the earth in its width?
Declare, if you know it all.
“What is the way to the dwelling of light?
As for darkness, where is its place,
that you should take it to its bound,
that you should discern the paths to its house?
Surely you know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved against the time of trouble,
against the day of battle and war?
By what way is the lightning distributed,
or the east wind scattered on the earth?
Who has cut a channel for the flood water,
or the path for the thunderstorm,
to cause it to rain on a land where there is no man,
on the wilderness, in which there is no man,
to satisfy the waste and desolate ground,
to cause the tender grass to grow?
Does the rain have a father?
Or who fathers the drops of dew?
Whose womb did the ice come out of?
Who has given birth to the gray frost of the sky?
The waters become hard like stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen.
“Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades,
or loosen the cords of Orion?
Can you lead the constellations out in their season?
Or can you guide the Bear with her cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you establish its dominion over the earth?
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that abundance of waters may cover you?
Can you send out lightnings, that they may go?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts?
Or who has given understanding to the mind?
Who can count the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can pour out the containers of the sky,
when the dust runs into a mass,
and the clods of earth stick together?
“Can you hunt the prey for the lioness,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
and lie in wait in the thicket?
Who provides for the raven his prey,
when his young ones cry to God,
and wander for lack of food?
Job, Chapter 38