St. Nicholas Nicked
preached by the Rev. Henry Brinton. December 25, 2005, Fairfax Presbyterian Church, Fairfax, Virginia
Christmas Sunday, Year B
Then it happened, last night: Santa Claus came to town.
All across America, excited children rushed out of their bedrooms to see what Santa delivered in the darkness. Hearts were pounding as gifts were opened, and an assortment of treasures appeared. For so many of our young people, Santa’s annual download of presents is one of the highlights of the year.
But you have to wonder: Has Santa become too caught up in the present thing, the bag of goodies thing, the jolly old man in the red suit thing? Some people are feeling that Santa has become too big—literally. Some people are talking about leaving him a salad, instead of milk and cookies. Along with a note about the need to lose a few pounds.
And there’s an even bigger question for us, here at FPC, in the Christian community. Has Santa lost touch? Lost touch with his roots as a Christian saint named Nicholas?
There’s some fresh evidence, from a seaside town in Turkey, that Santa has succeeded in nicking Saint Nick. The town is called Demre, and it is on that spot, back in the 4th century, that a Christian bishop named Nicholas lived a life of faith and performed an impressive number of good works. After his death, he became the patron saint of sailors, barrel-makers, small children and Russians. For years, Russian tourists visited the town to pay their respects to the saint, and about five years ago a Russian sculptor donated a bronze statue of Nicholas to be displayed in the center of town.
But then, on February 3, 2005, the Demre City Council voted unanimously to erect a statue of Santa Claus on the town square, a plaster-of-Paris image of the jolly man in the red suit. Away went the elegant bronze statue of Saint Nicholas. (Karl Vick, “Turkish Town Exchanges St. Nick for Santa: Local Hero's Statue Moved From Square,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2005, A1)
In this Turkish town, Santa rules. Even though he looks a little funny, transplanted from the icy North Pole to the hot Mediterranean sun.
Poor Saint Nicholas has been nicked. He’s been cut by the arrival of Santa Claus.
Well, there’s nothing we can do to reverse the actions of the Demre City Council, but we can certainly turn our own attention to the first Saint Nick, and to the Christ-child that he worshiped. Nicholas was, you see, a passionate follower of Jesus Christ, and there are some gifts he can give us that have nothing to do with Santa’s bag of loot. From both Nicholas and Jesus, we discover the true significance of God’s glory and God’s grace.
Think first about glory. In the eyes of the world, glory is often associated with a high point of human achievement, enjoyment, or prosperity. We speak of glorious accomplishments—glorious vacations—glorious dream homes. But in the eyes of God, glory is associated with the birth of a child in a barn, a little baby who is born to be our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord. On that first Christmas day, heavenly glory did not go to Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor known to the world as a bringer of peace. Instead, it went to a newborn king named Jesus, the source of a new and everlasting peace.
"Glory to God in the highest heaven," said the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem, “and on earth peace among those he favors” (Luke 2:14). The greatest honor, praise and distinction of all time goes to a child who will never achieve material prosperity, a life of leisure, or any of the marks of worldly accomplishment. Instead, he is given glory because he will grow up to become a servant leader, and be the Savior of all the world.
Saint Nicholas attempted to follow Jesus by serving others in whatever way he could. He was born to wealthy parents, and was in line to enjoy the glory of earthly prosperity and achievement. But he heard the challenge of Jesus to “sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22), and used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He was made a bishop of the church while still a young man, and became known for his love of children, and his generosity to those in need.
Christmas is a good time for us to do a glory-check.. We need to ask ourselves where we are finding glory in our own lives. Is it in our achievements, in our prosperity, in our enjoyment of a pile of gifts on Christmas morning? Or is it in our care for the vulnerable children of our world, and in our service to the sick and the suffering all around us?
Around the time of Saint Nicholas, another bishop was called to the royal court by the Roman emperor, and ordered to produce “the treasures of the church.” The emperor felt threatened by the growing Christian church, and he wanted a piece of the wealth that he believed the Christians must possess.
The bishop protested, saying that the church had no gold or jewels or other valuables. But the emperor was insistent, and demanded that the riches of the church be brought to him in the morning.
The next day, the bishop appeared at the palace doorway. He was empty-handed. "I told you to bring me the treasures of the church!" the emperor thundered.
The bishop then invited the emperor to look out at the palace steps. Gathered together, peering sheepishly at the great doors of the palace rising above them, was a mass of beggars, cripples, slaves, and outcasts.
"These," said the bishop to the emperor, "are the treasures of the church."
The treasure of the church is its people—it is a treasure made up of everyone who believes in Jesus, and everyone we are called to serve in the name of Christ. Our glory is found not in gold or jewels or the gifts we found under the tree this morning, but in the opportunities we have to love our neighbors, and to show generosity to those in need. A number of us discovered two weeks ago that the treasures of the church are found in the homeless men and women who came into our building to enjoy a warm bed, a hot meal, and some friendly conversation.
Our week of providing hypothermia housing was a truly glorious week. Thanks to Lou Major and all the wonderful volunteers who made it possible.
So both Saint Nicholas and Jesus can teach us about the true meaning of God’s glory. But they also open our eyes to the riches of God’s grace. One of the joys of Christmas is that it is a time of gift-giving, and I’m no Scrooge—I see nothing wrong with the presents we give and receive. After all, it was on Christmas day that God gave us the greatest present of all time—the gift of his Son Jesus, the Savior of the world. The gospel of John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16). Because God loves us, he gives us his Son. It’s a free gift. An undeserved gift. A gift that carries with it the unconditional love of God.
Grace is sometimes defined as the gift of God’s own self. And that definition certainly fits God’s generosity at Christmas, when he gives us the gift of his Son. This is a present that brings God right into the heart of human life. It’s a gift that saves us, and connects us to our Lord for all eternity. It’s a gift of God’s own self. A gift of grace.
Saint Nicholas continued this pattern of gift-giving when he reached out to people around him. On three different occasions, he gave bags of gold to poor girls needing dowries, and by doing this he saved them from being sold into slavery. He became well known for his goodness, compassion, and generosity, and was famous for doing whatever he could to protect people who were in danger—especially children and sailors. Saint Nicholas remains a good model for people who want to live a compassionate life—something that Santa Claus, despite his bag of presents, cannot quite pull off. (“Who is St. Nicholas?” St. Nicholas Center Website, www.stnicholascenter.org. Retrieved May 12, 2005)
It may be true that Saint Nick has been nicked, but he has not been mortally wounded. He remains alive and well for all who want to find God’s glory and God’s grace in the middle of this excessively Santa-centered season.
So let’s keep an image of Saint Nicholas in the center of our own Christmas experiences. He points us to the gift of the Christ-child, and gives us a model for generous and compassionate Christian service.
That’s better than anything we can find under the Christmas tree. Amen.