Sermon for the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra
preached by the Rev. Robert MacSwain, 6 December 2001, St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kinston, Diocese of East Carolina
1 John 4.7-14
Mark 10. 13-16
I remember very clearly when my best friend told me that Santa Claus did not exist. I must have been around six or seven, and I took the news rather hard. I started to cry and I protested that he was wrong, that Santa Claus really did exist. I then went straight to my mother and told her what my friend had said. I was hoping of course that she would take my side in this debate, but, sizing up the moment, she told me very gently that my friend was right: there was no Santa Claus. Coming from my mother, this somehow did not seem to be quite the catastrophic information that my friend had made it out to be. I dried my eyes, squared my shoulders, and went out from there more grown up, more mature, more wise in the ways of the world.
However, some twenty-five years later, I'm here to tell you that both my best friend and my mother were wrong: yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! His real name is Saint Nicholas of Myra, and we celebrate his feast today. He may not have been a jolly old elf, and he may not fly through the air on a reindeer-drawn sleigh delivering presents to good little children on Christmas Eve, but he did exist.
He did exist, but that's about all we know of him. He lived in the fourth century, and he was the Bishop of Myra, which is in present day Turkey. He is the patron saint of sailors, children, and Russia—so if you are a young Russian sailor, St. Nick is definitely in your corner. Most of the stories about him—even ones that do not involve flying reindeer—are legendary. The most well-known story—and the one that most relates to his later transformation into Santa Claus—has to do with a poor man and his three daughters. This man could not afford a dowry for the marriage of his daughters, and eventually his plight became so desperate that he planned to sell the three of them into slavery as prostitutes. But when Nicholas heard of this, he sold some of his own possessions, took the money, and went late at night to the man's house. He threw three bags of gold in through the window, and so saved the girls from an evil fate by providing their doweries. This was meant to be an anonymous act of charity, but it somehow became known, and Nicholas was soon revered as the benefactor of children in need. And from that we eventually get presents coming down the chimney! And those three bags of gold, incidentally, are also the origin of the three golden balls you see outside a pawn shop.
But while the myth of Santa Claus has overwhelmed the simple goodness and generosity of Saint Nicholas, the Scripture readings for this feast highlight the true spirit of the saint. In our reading from the First Letter of John, we are told of God's overwhelmingly generous gift to us. We read, 'In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.' In God's economy, God does not give because he owes us anything, or because we have given something to him first. No, God is the initiator, and he gives freely without any obligation. 'Not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.' Jesus is God's greatest gift, and it was given on the very first Christmas. But God not only gives us his Son, he also gives us his Spirit. 'By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.' The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our advocate and guide, the One who strengthens and sustains us through the long, hard slog of life.
The Psalm this morning also speaks of God's generosity:
The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.
God's character in Psalm 145 is a model for the traditional image of St. Nicholas of Myra, and Nicholas shows us how we can imitate a generous God who operates with an economy of abundance rather than an economy of scarcity.
Finally, our Gospel reading, with its famous image of Jesus blessing the children, is surely part of the inspiration behind the life of St. Nicholas. Jesus said, "'Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs" . . . . And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.'
Our own culture is so sentimental and child-centered that it is hard for us to imagine how unusual and radical these words and actions of Jesus were. Childhood was not valued in the ancient world. Children were seen only as potential adults, a burden to be borne until they were old enough to be put to work and produce more children. That's why the disciples were trying to keep them away from Jesus - don't bother the Master with babies! But then the Master says, 'Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' Jesus was one of the first people to place a value not just on children but on childhood itself. on the child's basic openness trust, simplicity, and love. And Nicholas has become associated with that aspect of Jesus' life and teaching.
Now Jesus does not mean, of course, that you can only become a Christian at a young age; though it is true that most people who enter the Church do so before the age of 18. No, Jesus is telling us that we must be like children: we must have that openness, trust, simplicity, and love. Otherwise, we will refuse the gift. We will spurn God's generosity. We will turn away.
So Saint Nicholas of Myra stands not only as a model of the goodness and generosity of God, but also as a model of the special Christian concern for children, for the little ones. May we follow the blessed example of St. Nicholas this Advent, and this Christmas, and beyond. Amen.
By the Revd Robert MacSwain, St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kinston,Diocese of East Carolina, 6 December 2001.