Sunday, November 27, 2016

Serve Jesus Like Santa: The Window

Yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. No, he may not look and act like you think. But he does exist; don't let anyone tell you different. Santa Claus is real. But he may not look like you think. Take away the sleigh and his eight tiny reindeer. Get rid of the boots and the fur suit. Shrink that belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. Ditch the cheeks like roses and the nose like a cherry. Turn back the clock, from Santa Claus to Sinter Klaas to where it all started: St. Nicholas. Not a “jolly old elf.” Not a personification of the holiday, like some “Father Christmas.” A saint, a real man, anchored in history, with a birthday, a family, a story, different than what we've done with him.

The truth is, the man on the Christmas cards in the big red suit would be horrified to learn that there are people who honor him, or some version of him, as the central figure of Christmas. He would be aghast to think that anyone would pit him against Jesus Christ and tell you to choose him as a nice, safe, secular Christmas man. The real Santa Claus would hate that thought. He didn't want to stand in our spotlight, not like that. The holiday isn't about him, and he'd be the first to tell you that. He may be nice, maybe, but he's not safe and he's not secular. Santa Claus versus Christ? No falser words could ever be said!

Because the truth is, Santa Claus is a pastor. Yes, you heard that right. Santa Claus is a pastor. And dear old Pastor Nicholas, our Jolly Old St. Nick, loved Jesus – loved him with every fiber of his being – and he still does. Santa's entire life has been about serving Jesus. He would run like Dasher, he'd fly like Donner and Blitzen, to kneel beside the manger. Santa says that the most important thing you can do with Christmas is to see that it's all about Jesus and act accordingly. 

As we get ready for Christmas, Santa himself would want us to serve Jesus. So for the next few weeks, we're going to give Santa Claus a fair hearing. We're going to learn his story – the real one, not Germanic folklore or Clement Clark Moore's poem – to see better how we, too, can serve Jesus – like Santa did.

To find the start of that real story, we need to cross nearly 1750 years of time and a third of the way 'round the earth. Way across the ocean blue, on the southwestern tip of the land we call Turkey today, sat a once-great city called Patara. It stood there in New Testament times – the Apostle Paul, on his trip back to Jerusalem, changed ships there. It was one of the great trade centers of Lycia, famed for two things. One: it had a stunning lighthouse. And two: for six months out of the year, the Greek god Apollo made his winter home there, and so the local oracle was the place pagans went to get the inside scoop. It was a thoroughly pagan place, in Paul's time.

And the same was still true over two centuries later, when there lived a man and his wife, their names unknown, who were one of the town's few Christian households. They weren't quite so vulnerable as some of the rest; they, in fact, were rather wealthy. They'd prospered, possibly as ship owners or being otherwise involved in the trades. They could have let their gold, their silver, their house and all that was in it, distract them from what really mattered. But they didn't. They'd made a commitment to Jesus Christ with their lives, and they didn't shy away from that.

They lived in the middle of a pagan city, full of idol temples and the smell of heathen sacrifices, with pilgrims swarming in half the year to get advice from demons at the oracle. It was not an easy place to be a Christian. The gospel was not a comfortable fit there, the way we too easily think it is here. And you almost wouldn't blame people in a place like that for deciding they didn't want to bring children into that sort of world.

But they had faith. And so one day, around the year 270, that man and that woman welcomed into their family one child – one, and no more. He broke the mold, as it were. And this couple gave him a rather unusual name – well, it was unusual then; but the boy grew up to make it popular. And that name was Nikolaos. It's a Greek name; it means, “victory of the people.” When his parents surveyed the pagan culture all around them, when they reflected on the growth of their little church as it waxed and waned through the years, they were convinced that the real victory wasn't in some great triumph of Caesar, nor in some twist of fortune, nor in some whispered secret of Apollo, nor in a windfall of prosperity. No, the real victory was belief in the gospel. And the gospel is for all people. One day, it would spread throughout Patara and throughout all of Lycia and beyond, and that would be the real victory of the people. And so, faithful in hope for that day, thus they named their baby boy Nikolaos.

Nikolaos didn't necessarily have an easy childhood. His parents were relieved he survived infancy – not that there was anything wrong with him, but just because, in those days, one out of every two or three kids didn't pull through. He grew up in the lap of privilege, with most all the luxuries his parents could afford. He was raised on a diet of fish, grapes, figs, olives, and whatever grains the ships brought to and fro. Most important, he was raised on a healthy spiritual diet. His isn't a story of coming to the gospel late in life; he was taught the faith from an early age. And as far back as anyone could remember, he had a laser-like focus on the Christian life and its ways.

In the days of his childhood, no one heard the word 'church' and thought of a building. 'Church' – ekklesia – just meant the people, the people of God. It had been passed down from the New Testament, and really, it was – and is – a bold word to use. See, in the Greek world, an ekklesia was the town council, the assembly of citizens empowered to make all the important political decisions. The apostles said that that's what the meetings of believers were – they were the true centers of all local politics that really mattered, the politics of God's kingdom. A shocking thing to hear, and still shocking in the days of Nikolaos' childhood, when the local ekklesia looked a bit like a very strange social club and met in private houses – maybe even his parents' house.

And from little on up, whether at his house or a neighbor's, Nikolaos would have met with other Christians each Sunday before sunrise, and maybe sometimes after nightfall, for worship, for fellowship, and for celebrating a holy meal of bread and wine. Sometimes, they met outside town at the local cemetery, to remember the martyrs – not martyrs from long ago, but people they and their parents had known. Like Leo, who had been one of their own – Nikolaos' parents surely knew him personally – but one day, before Nikolaos was born, Leo grew angry at the paganism in the heart of town. So he marched into the heart of the city, to the Temple of Fortune, where people burned candles and made little votive offerings to the god in hopes of improving their luck. And Leo had stormed into the temple, smashing the offerings and toppling candles, in protest. And so he lost his head. It was his tomb where Nikolaos and his parents went, every year on the anniversary of Leo's heavenly birthday, to celebrate communion in his honor.

While the fellowship of believers raised Nikolaos in the teachings of the faith and the way Christians should live, he meanwhile got the best schooling his parents could provide. Like most boys, he went through primary schooling between the ages of seven and twelve; but unlike most, he as a son of privilege learned the classics of Greek literature, all the myths and plays and epics, in grammar school until he was about eighteen. 

 Growing up in his teenage years, with his peers enjoying entertainment at the theater and various other then-sordid sorts of amusement, Nikolaos could have been tempted, like most teens are. But his parents had warned him from his infancy not to be seduced by the temptations of the world. And he listened to all that they taught him, choosing to live his young life in a Christian way. He was determined to be holy.

But then his idyllic and privileged home life was shattered. Throughout his youth, a plague had spread throughout the countryside of all Lycia, reaching even down to the coast and its beautiful, broad beaches. Plagues don't care about rich or poor. You can't bribe them. And the best medicine money can buy is no guarantee even now – how much less then, when doctors were as likely to harm as to heal? Maybe the plague is what did it. But we know that, when Nikolaos was in his late teens, his parents' earthly pilgrimage ended. Leaving him, in terms of natural family, all alone.

And that's how, as a young man, Nikolaos became the heir of the whole estate. He may have been fatherless, he may have been motherless, but he was far from penniless. He had plenty of gold, plenty of silver, and plenty of property at his disposal. But his parents were gone. So what would he do? How would he find his way in the world? He could do just about anything he wanted – but what was right? Those were the questions on his mind at the ripe age of eighteen. Think back for a moment to when you were that age. If you had been left alone, but given a considerable fortune, what would your next step have been?

Well, I'll tell you how Nikolaos responded. He remembered that, even with no father on earth, he still had a Father in heaven. And so Nikolaos began, all throughout this day and the next day and the day after that, to get down on his knees and pray. He told God that he and his life and all his belongings were at God's disposal, and he was ready to do whatever God wanted. 

And then he turned to one of his family's prize possessions – a scroll or a codex, with the Greek translation of Psalms. And he started to read aloud to himself, in the privacy of his home. And he started finding lines like, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:8, 10). And that's exactly what he began to pray.

And then young Nikolaos kept reading. “If riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). Those words got him thinking. His riches had certainly increased. He had more than he knew what to do with. But he couldn't afford to surrender his heart to them. He couldn't afford to be tied to his gold. He had to keep wealth at a healthy distance. It said so, right there on the page, in those words penned by David over a thousand years ago. Nikolaos could have dismissed it as irrelevant, as a relic from a simpler time. But he knew better. He felt God speaking the words to his heart, probing at the depths of his soul.

Nikolaos set aside the Book of Psalms, and he picked up what comes next: the Book of Proverbs. And there, too, he began to read. “Let not mercy and truth forsake you, but bind them around your neck: so shall you find favor and honest things in the sight of the Lord and of men” (Proverbs 3:3-4). “A merciful man does good to his own soul” (Proverbs 11:17). There it was again. 'Mercy.' Nikolaos could feel God underlining that word to him. What does 'mercy' look like?

Nikolaos kept reading. “God loves a cheerful giver. … He that has pity on the poor shall be maintained, for he has given of his own bread to the poor” (Proverbs 22:8-9). There! That's mercy! Mercy is care for the poor – not out of some public storehouse, but from his own sustenance, his own bread, to care for the poor cheerfully by giving to them. That's mercy! 

Nikolaos read onward: “Deliver them that are led away to death, and redeem them that are appointed to be slain” (Proverbs 24:11). Nikolaos understood what God was telling him. Some of the poverty he saw around him led to death – not just death of the body, but death of the soul. And it was right there in the scriptures: God wanted Nikolaos to use his wealth to rescue the poorest of the poor.

Some of the most respected Christians of the age, like the desert hermit Antony far away in Egypt, had once been as rich as Nikolaos. But they had given away all their wealth to all and sundry – not being intentional in their giving, just getting it out of their hands like a lump of burning coal. Nikolaos didn't want to burn his hands with money either, but he wasn't the impulsive type. He'd read the whole way through. He wanted his giving to matter – to actually do good, and in fact to do the most good it could. He wanted to obey God's word in the best way – intentional, targeted, personal giving. And to do that, he needed to plan and study.

There are probably dozens or hundreds of now-forgotten stories about people whom Nikolaos found to give his money to. But one story has been remembered ever since. There was a man in the neighborhood who had once been rich – in the same class as Nikolaos and his parents, maybe. But things had taken a turn for the worse. He lost everything. And I mean everything. It was a catastrophe ripped from the pages of the Book of Job. And that man – formerly inclined toward the church – was desperate. Maybe he'd turned to pagan promises, maybe he'd taken offerings to the Temple of Fortune and cried out with tear-stained cheeks for relief. But he got none.

This man had three daughters. In the custom of that day, it was the dad's responsibility to provide his daughter with a dowry, in order to marry her off. But now he was poor. So poor that none of his daughters could have a dowry; he just couldn't afford it. And no man in town would marry a woman without one. His daughters were unmarriageable, pretty though they were. 

He struggled to even put food on the table for himself, let alone to provide for them. And there weren't a lot of options. He first did what a lot of us do when times are tough, sad to say: feeling abandoned, he turned his back on God. But then he made plans to do what a lot of us don't and can't. He would send his daughters to work the only work a single young woman really had back then – in the red-light district.

Somehow, Nikolaos found out what that family was going through. He watched the situation. He saw that it was important. Marriage is important. Nikolaos felt called to a different life personally – he knew that it wasn't in God's plan for him to ever get married. But that didn't mean marriage didn't matter. A lot of Christians in those days were starting to think it didn't. Some were adopting some really dysfunctional ideas against marriage – thinking that it was just a hindrance to spiritual life, and should be avoided. But Nikolaos knew better. He could see that marriage was important to God, even if it wasn't his own path.

But it was important, too, because if the man went through with his desperate act, it would lead to death. Not death of the body, but death of the soul, for him and maybe his daughters, too. Nikolaos began to plan. He made his list, his list of important things to value in the situation. He wanted to find a way to save these young women from that fate and meet their needs. But he also wanted to preserve their father's dignity and honor. Nikolaos knew that was important, too – not to embarrass the man or put him in awkward and humiliating circumstances; not to demean the man or treat him as just another charity case.

So, too, Nikolaos wanted to keep himself humble. He didn't want praise and honor for anything he might do to help. He remembered what Jesus said about giving in secret (Matthew 6:1-4). That was countercultural in that era, and especially among Greeks. Secret giving just wasn't something people did. If you gave to somebody outside the family, the whole point was to get a good reputation out of it. That was the trade: money for honor. It's why the rich sponsored so many public works projects: to see their names inscribed and celebrated for all generations to come. That was just the norm, even in Patara. But it wasn't what Jesus taught. And to Nikolaos, when culture and Jesus collide, it's culture that has to bend.

However long he mulled over the plan, finally Nikolaos sprang into action, before it was too late. One night, long after dark, he found the house of the family in trouble. Stealthily, he crept as close as he could on the public street. From his pocket, Nikolaos pulled a small bag. Back home, he'd stuffed it with all the gold it could take without bursting, and he'd tied the string tight. And now, in the midnight hour, he pulled back his arm and let it fly – fly, fly through the open window and into the man's house. Whether it disturbed those asleep inside, we don't know – but Nikolaos wasn't about to risk finding out. He quickly and quietly ran through the night until he was home.

Dawn came, and that father found the bag. And when he untied it, and saw the gold coins pouring out, he was astonished. Not just astonished – he was filled with joy and amazement. And as he wept with delight, he called out to God and gave thanks for the incredible provision. And he counted out the coins, and saw that it would make a fine dowry indeed. And without delay, he made arrangements for his eldest daughter's marriage – that meant a good life for her, and one less mouth to feed for him, and spared both of them from doing harm to their own souls.

After the wedding, Nikolaos saw that God had taken his good deed and used it to bless the family. So later that night, Nikolaos filled another bag with just as much gold. And what he'd done before, he did again: crept out in the night, took aim, tossed the bag through the window, ran home. Morning came, and the father saw the bag. He never expected it – not again. But it knocked him off his feet. He fell prostrate on the ground, overwhelmed and speechless, but grateful to God and wishing only that he could find out what angel God had sent to answer his unspoken prayers.

The father made arrangements for his middle daughter's marriage. And some night soon after the wedding ceremony, Nikolaos filled a third bag with coins of gold. He tied it tight. He crept once more through the night, during the quietest of hours. And there was the open window once again. He pulled back his arm. And there's the toss! The bag sailed through the air, through the window, and landed with a soft crash. But it did not, as before, go unnoticed. No, each night since the wedding, the father had kept vigil, waiting up and listening carefully for that sound. 

And so he was ready. He pounced into the street and ran after Nikolaos, whose efforts to flee were unsuccessful. The father caught up to him, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, saw his face – and recognized him. He knew Nikolaos, knew why he did it – he knew it was because Nikolaos loved Jesus and wanted to serve Jesus and do his will. And as the father fell to the ground and hugged Nikolaos by the legs and thanked him with great sobs, Nikolaos asked only one thing: to promise not to tell the public for as long as he lived. And so the father agreed. His youngest daughter was married soon thereafter, poverty was relieved, and they all returned to the faith of Jesus Christ.

This is maybe the most famous story from Nikolaos' life. It takes up about a third of his earliest biography. It shows up in art from some of the earliest portrayals of St. Nick we have. As the story kept being retold, it mutated and changed. In some versions, the bags of gold landed in the girls' shoes or stockings. And as the story spread to northern Europe, it came to climates where open windows at night just didn't connect with people. And so somebody tweaked the story even more as they retold it. It wasn't through an open window that the bags flew; no, no, the window wasn't open – the bags fell down a chimney. And ever since then, Santa in the public mind has sent his bag of presents down the chimney to bless all the children of the house.

The title of this series is, “Serve Jesus Like Santa.” And now we know what Santa did. The great thing about this story is that you don't need miraculous powers to imitate it. You don't even need to be as wealthy as he was then. You don't need great age or lots of life experience. You just need the desire to obey God and a willingness to take your own resources, the money of your own bread, and use it for mercy to those in distress – those in danger, not just of physical harm, but of being pressured into spiritual harm. 

It may take some thinking. But that's why we're together as a church, as the ekklesia here. And it's why we partner with groups like The Factory Ministries and the Together Initiative. None of us has to do it alone. We, too, can bless the children, and the rest, in this place – our Patara – where God has seen fit to raise us up. That's serving Jesus like Santa. And this season is surely about nothing less. Go and, as his Spirit makes clear to you, do likewise. Amen.

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