The Greatest Gift of All

by David B. Carver, First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A story-sermon told to children when Christmas falls on a Sunday

John 1:1-14
December 25, 1994, and whenever Christmas is on a Sunday

St Nicholas with children
St. Nicholas, reverse glass painting
Artist: Magdalena Hniedziewicz, Poland
St. Nicholas Center Collection

Today, I want to tell you a story about a boy who lived a long, long, long time ago—about 2 or 3 hundred years after Jesus was born. When the story starts, he's about as big as some of you—I think seven or eight. But just like you and me, he grew, and he became a man.

But anyway, the story begins when Nicky is about seven, and he was sitting in church one day when the people were talking about the Christmas story. One of the grown-ups was reading from the part where some men come to see the baby Jesus. Do you remember that part? Who were the men? What did they bring?

Well, Nicky thought this was great. He loved to hear the story about the three kings, and he asked his mother, "Who were those men?" And his mother didn't know what to say. Nicky said, "What were their names?" And his mother and father said they didn't know. They went to their minister, and Nicky asked again: "What were the names of the men who gave those presents to Jesus?"

And their minister told Nicky that nobody really knows who those men were. They just came and gave the presents to the baby and left. They never said who they were. "But why?" asked Nicky.

And then the minister got out the Bible and he read the very beginning of John's book to Nicky. It had a lot of hard ideas in it, and some big words, but there were some things that Nicky recognized. This is what their minister read to them:

The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word.
The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.
Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!—came into existence without him.
What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness, and the darkness could not put it out. . . . The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings into the Light.
He was in the world, and the world was there through him, yet the world didn't even notice.
He came to his own people, but they didn't want him.
But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said,
He made them to be their true selves, their child of God selves.
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.1

The minister explained to Nicky that one of the reasons that God sent Jesus to us was so that people could know that we were God's special children. That was a wonderful message, and the three kings, the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus knew that Jesus was great. They brought him presents to honor him, and to say thank-you to God for sending his son. Their names weren't important, because Jesus was God's special gift to his children.

Well, Nicky thought this was really cool, and he decided that he wanted to be like those three kings. And do you know what? He was.

About four or five days later, Nicky was sitting by the street in front of his house watching the smaller kids play. All of the children were laughing and running—all except for little Anya. Anya was only three, and she was crying by herself. Nicky went over to see what was wrong, and she only cried more. But he sat and watched, and do you know what he saw? He saw that all the other children had a toy or a ball, but Anya had none. Her family was too poor. No wonder she was so sad.

That night, Nicky asked his father to show him how to use the special carving knife to make things out of wood. With his daddy's help, Nicky made a small bird out of wood and he sneaked over to Anya's house and left it by her door. What do you think happened the next day?

All the children came out of their houses to play, and Anya found the little toy. She asked all of the children who left it for her, but nobody knew (except for Nicky, and he didn't say anything!). How do you think Nicky felt when he saw Anya playing with that bird? You bet—he felt great. He felt just like one of those kings who had come to leave a present for baby Jesus.

Well, Nicky grew up, and every now and then, one of the poor children would find a carved bird, or maybe a rattle or set of jumping sticks by his window. Nobody ever knew where those toys came from—but I do!

One thing that I haven't told you yet is that Nicky's family was really rich, and they had more money than they needed. But they weren't always lucky. In fact, when Nicky was still a young man, both of his parents died, leaving him a very wealthy young man. But many of the families where he lived were so poor that they had nothing. And sometimes, after a person sold everything he had and was still poor, that person would have to sell himself or herself and become a slave—just so they wouldn't starve to death!

One night, when Nicky was grown, he was walking though his village and he heard a man crying. He went to the window of the man's house, and he heard that the man was actually praying. Nicholas could see that the man was very poor, and very sad. When he listened, he heard the man telling God that he was so poor that he was going to have to sell himself or one of his three daughters as a slave, just to make sure they didn't starve to death. Nicky was very sad when he heard this prayer, and he ran right home and found some money he had been saving. He went back to the window and listened to the man some more, and then he was very quiet and he dropped his sack of gold money through the window.

And do you know what happened? When that purse went through the window, it hit the shelf and bounced into this stocking right here. So the next morning, when the poor man and his three daughters were getting ready to go to the slave market, the oldest daughter reached for her stocking, found the bag of gold, and their family was saved!

Well, Nicky grew older, and he kept reading the stories about Jesus. He never forgot that Jesus came to remind us that we were all special, and to make things right between us and God. Everywhere he went, he told people about the love of God. When Nicky became a man, he decided that God wanted him to be a pastor and serve God in a church, where he could spend all of his time telling boys and girls, men and women about the love of God.

For the rest of his life, every time he got the chance Nicky used to walk through his neighborhood and listen for stories of people who were in trouble. He knew that God loves the poor, and that God doesn't want anyone to have to do something terrible like selling themselves as a slave. And whenever he went out, he usually managed to leave something for the poor children—some candy, or a toy that he had made. And sometimes he hid the things in the stockings or the shoes that the children had left sitting by their windows.

Well, do you think that Nicky was able to keep it a secret forever? No, of course not. Sometimes people saw what he was doing. What do you think they did when the saw him?

It's funny. Some people, when they saw Nicky giving things away, tried to tell on him. When the child came out and found the toy or the candy, those people would say, "Big deal! It's only Nicholas that left it (that's what his grown-up name was, 'Nicholas'—but his friends still called him "Nicky"). Those people seemed to like spoiling the surprise.

But a lot of people, when they saw what Nicky was doing, they came and spoke to him about it. They asked him why he left presents for poor people, and do you know what he told them? He always told them about the three kings who came to leave presents for Jesus, and how nobody knew their names. He told them that he left presents for people so that they would remember that God loves them, and that God wants to be their friend. And when Nicky told the people that, do you know what the people did? Some of them acted just like Nicky, and THEY went out and left presents for people and helped to take care of the poor, too.

I should tell you that it wasn't just the presents that Nicky was famous for. He came to be known as a man who knew right from wrong. People respected his views. Once, someone had hurt someone else very badly. The crowd in town found three strangers and figured that they had done it. Nicky, however, knew that the men were innocent. Just when the crowd was going to kill the men, Nicky stepped in and convinced them to stop. He saved their lives!

And this went on for a long time, until Nicky became a very old man. He had become a very rich and very important man, called a Bishop, in his town that was called Myra. People came from all over because they knew that Bishop Nicholas could help them. And he did. This is how he looked when he was old.

Well, one sad day in the wintertime, Nicky was so old and so tired that he finally died. All of his friends, rich and poor, were very sad. They missed him a lot, and they wanted to remember him. So some of them got together and talked about it.

Somebody said, "We have to think of a way to say 'Thank You' to God for giving us someone as wonderful as Bishop Nicholas. What can we do that will show God how glad we are to have known him?"

One person said, "Remember how Nicholas used to tell us about the love of God? What if we built a big church and named it after him? Then everyone could know that God loves us."

Someone else was remembering the way that Nicky used to worry about all the children who were sick, and she said, "What if instead of building a church, we built a big hospital, where sick people could get better?"

A few of Nicky's other friends remembered how he had always tried to make people happy with the Joy of the Lord, and they suggested that they have a big party with lots of games and singing.

Well, they talked and talked, but finally they got the perfect idea for how to say "thank you" to God for Bishop Nicholas. One of Nicky's oldest friends remembered the story of the three kings who came to see Jesus and how they left without anyone knowing their names. And you know, that's what they did. All of Nicky's friends got together and on the night of Jesus' birth, they went through the town and left gifts for the children. And on Christmas day, the children in that neighborhood woke up and discovered that there were gifts for them. And because Nicky's friends didn't want anyone to know who left these gifts, whenever anyone asked about the presents, they always said, "Well, it must have been Bishop Nicholas—you know how much he loved children!" And ever since then, people have been leaving each other presents and remembering Nicky—only now we call him Saint Nicholas.

I bet that someone in this room found a gift this morning that was left for you by someone who didn't want you to forget that you are a very special child of God. Maybe someone in this room found some special gifts in a stocking at their house! There's someone who wants you to know that God sent Jesus into this world to be our savior and our friend, and that Jesus is the friend of every boy and girl, rich or poor, in the world. And because you know that, you can now act just like Nicky did. Sometimes on Christmas people give each other little gifts of oranges. Doesn't that seem like a funny gift to give? It does, until you remember the story of Nicky. Do you remember how he dropped the bags of gold into the window? Ever since Nicky died, people give each other oranges to remind themselves of the gold that Nicky gave to the poor. This morning, I want to give you all an orange, and ask you to share it…and while you do, tell someone else about the real story of Christmas—which is better than gold!

  1. From John 1, in The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English, by Eugene Peterson (1993, NavPress).

This story was written by David B. Carver using pieces of the Nicholas Legend gathered from Midred Luckhardt's The Story Of St. Nicholas (Abingdon, 1960), Duncan Royale's The Santa Claus Book (M.E. Duncan, 1983), Jeremy Seals' Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus (Bloomsbury, 2005), Stiegemeyer and Ellison's Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend (2005 Concordia), and resources provided by the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

By David B. Carver, First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Permission pending.