St. Nicholas, an Advent Midweek Sermon
by the Rev. Aaron A. Koch, Mount Zion Lutheran Church, Greenfield, Wisconsin
Taken from The Saints of Advent, an Advent midweek series with St. Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Lucia and St. Thomas, Apostle. It has also been used for a youth candlelight service on the real St. Nick with the text divided into sections to create different speaking parts.
Advent Midweek Sermon
Week 2, December 6, 2006
- The real St. Nicholas gave to the needy and defended the faith.
- The love of Christ was working through St. Nicholas in his life of giving.
- The same love of Christ that was at work in St. Nicholas is at work also in you and in your gifting.
Jesus, love in the flesh for you, is the ultimate gift St. Nicholas sought to give.
One of the complaints that Christians often voice at this time of year is that Christmas has become too commercialized and too secularized. Far too many people observe the holy day of the Christ Mass without any acknowledgment of Christ at all. Everything's about parties and presents and television specials without any reverence for or meditation on the main focus of Christmas, namely, the incarnation of our Lord, his taking on of our flesh to save us. Santa Claus gets more attention than Jesus.
Perhaps, however, this problem can begin to be corrected by understanding where the legend of Santa Claus comes from and the actual historical basis of who he is. Most of us have heard Santa Claus referred to as St. Nick or St. Nicholas. And, in fact, that's where the name comes from—Santa is a word for Saint, and Claus is a shortened form in [German] of the word Nicholas. Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.
Now Santa Claus has become the stuff of fairy tales and has been influenced in many ways by pagan notions. But St. Nicholas was a real person who lived in the early AD 300s. Since December 6 is the day on which Nicholas is recognized in the Church, we shall focus a bit on his life this evening and meditate on what it has to teach us about Christ and Christmas.
Nicholas was born into a wealthy family in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey. Having become a Christian, Nicholas chose not to pursue a life of riches, but instead he devoted himself to the Church. He eventually became bishop of a city called Myra. Myra was a decadent and corrupt city, and Nicholas became well-known for transforming it by his pious hard work and preaching of the Word of Christ.
St. Nicholas was also known for his love for those in need, such as poor widows and orphaned children. As bishop, he saw to it that the Church worked to care for the needy. Perhaps his giving of gifts, especially to impoverished children, is part of what formed the Santa Claus tradition.
And there is one famous story in particular about Nicholas that stands out above the rest. There was a man in the city of Myra who had three daughters. But he did not have enough money to provide his daughters with suitable dowries necessary for marriage, and without being able to marry, it was likely they would end up as prostitutes. Nicholas was deeply troubled about this, and he decided to help, but he chose to do so in a way that wouldn't draw attention to himself. Evidently taking from his own resources, Nicholas prepared three bags of gold. On three successive nights, St. Nicholas went to this man's house and threw a bag of gold into an open window—one bag of gold each night for the three daughters, sufficient to provide their dowries. Later, when this story was told in colder regions, Nicholas was portrayed dropping the bags of gold down the chimney. Still to this day, three golden bags or golden spheres are the sign of a pawnbroker, in remembrance of how Nicholas bought these three daughters out of hock, you might say, redeeming and rescuing them from the fate that awaited them.
There are many more accounts of Nicholas helping others. For instance, once there were three men who were falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to death. Nicholas stepped in and spoke in their defense and was able to secure their release and give them their lives back.
It's interesting that in all the stories of St. Nicholas that I've seen, the number three keeps popping up—three daughters without dowries, three falsely accused men, and in another story, three sailors whom he rescued from drowning. And this is fitting. For Nicholas was one who was a defender of the trinitarian faith, someone who proclaimed belief in the one and only true God who is threefold—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In fact, it is quite possible that St. Nicholas was one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicaea, which defended and confirmed an essential truth about the Trinity—the teaching that Jesus is both true God and true man. It is from this council in AD 325 that we get the Nicene Creed, which we confess here each week. A certain false preacher named Arius was teaching that Jesus was not of the same substance as the Father, that the Son of God was a created being, godlike but not true God. The Council of Nicaea roundly rejected that heresy and reaffirmed the scriptural position that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human in one undivided person, true God from all eternity.
Whether or not Nicholas was present at that council, he was a defender of that faith, faith in Christ the Son of God as the only Savior from sin and death and the devil. Nicholas preached Jesus, baptized people into Jesus' body, absolved people of their sins in Jesus' name, and fed them with the life-giving body and blood of Jesus. This is the real St. Nicholas. He wasn't a Santa Claus taking attention away from Jesus. He was a preacher drawing everyone's attention to Jesus. He wasn't one making a list and checking it twice to see who was naughty and who was nice. For he knew that his people were both sinners and saints at the same time and that all desperately needed Christ's forgiveness and mercy.
By God's grace, the love of Christ shone forth in St. Nicholas's preaching and in his life.
We give attention to the generous deeds of Nicholas because that ultimately draws our attention to the infinitely generous love that he himself first received from God. It was that love of God that was working through Nicholas in his life. After all, just consider his deeds. Nicholas sacrifices and gives of his own resources to save the three daughters. Is that not what Jesus did for us? He sacrificed and gave himself for us to rescue us from being eternally violated by death and the devil. He redeemed us not with bags of gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. So it is that we are now worthy and prepared to be his holy bride.
Likewise, Nicholas stood in to defend those facing death, risking his own name and reputation. Is that not what Jesus did and still does for us? He stood between us and eternal death on the cross and thereby kept us from having to suffer that most capital of all punishments. Furthermore, the Scriptures say that even now Jesus is standing before the Father as our advocate, speaking in our defense, responding to every charge laid against us with the merits of his own blood and righteousness. Through him, we are set free to be people of God.
The same love of Christ that was at work in St. Nicholas is at work also in you. For in your Baptism you were crucified with Christ, and you no longer live, but Christ lives in you and through you. The Lord is working in you so that his boundless love, which has been shown to you, might spill over to others in the giving of yourself and in the giving of gifts—not so that you can feel good about yourself or draw attention to yourself, but giving that is anonymous and entirely for the good of others, like a bag of gold through an open window at night. That's why Christians, too, when giving an anonymous gift, might refer to gifts being given by Santa Claus, St. Nicholas. For such a gift is given in a spirit that reflects the love of Christ as Nicholas did, and ultimately it seeks to give glory not to ourselves but to God, who is the true giver of every good and perfect gift.
Indeed, every present that we give is a sign of that greatest gift of all, the Christ Child in the manger—given to us almost anonymously, noticed only by shepherds on that night, recognized and received only by few throughout his life. But hidden within the wrapping of his lowly humanity dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, full of grace and mercy. Jesus is love in the flesh for you. There is no greater present than that.
Jesus, love in the flesh for you, is the ultimate gift St. Nicholas sought to give.
So is there such a person as Santa Claus? Of course, there is. If you don't believe in the existence of St. Nicholas, you might as well not believe in the existence of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or the Wise Men. Sure, you're not going to find him sliding down your chimney. But, like all saints, like all believers who have gone before us, he is celebrating with us whenever we gather for the Divine Service. For in Christ's presence dwell angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all partaking of the same feast of which we now enjoy a foretaste. Thank God that St. Nicholas lives. He lives forever because, just like you, he was baptized and he believed in Jesus, who was born, who died and rose for us all.
By the Rev. Aaron A. Koch, Mount Zion Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, Greenfield, Wisconsin. Used by permission.