Return to Sermon Archive
Please turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 2 and follow along as I read verses 8-20.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
He made his list, checked it twice, found out who had been naughty ... who had been nice. Then it happened last night: Santa Claus came to town. This morning, all across America, excited children rushed out of their bedrooms to see what Santa had delivered in the darkness. Anticipation! Expectation! Visions of iPods, X-boxes, and cell phones danced in their heads. For most kids, Santa’s annual deluge of presents is the highlight of the year.
But you have to wonder: Has Santa become too big and lost touch with himself? Some people think that Santa has become too big, literally. Everyone today is concerned about how overweight Americans are, and the suggestion is that jolly old Saint Nick should set a better example. We should, they say, leave him a salad, instead of milk and cookies, along with a note about losing a few pounds.
But there is a religious question we need to ask: Has Santa lost touch with himself? Specifically, has Santa Claus lost touch with his roots as a Christian saint named Nicholas?
Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra back in the early fourth century. Myra is in modern Turkey, a seaside town that is now known as Demre. It was in Demre, ancient Myra, 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.
However, Demre has apparently decided that Santa Claus is more important that Saint Nicholas. For years, Russian tourists visited the town to pay their respects to their patron saint. About five years ago, a Russian sculptor donated a bronze statue of Nicholas to be displayed in the center of town. Now no one knows what Nicolas looked like, but the Russian sculptor produced a representative image of a 4th century middle eastern man.
But then, on February 3, 2005, the Demre City Council voted unanimously to erect a statue of Santa Claus in the town square, a plaster-of-Paris image of the jolly old guy in the red suit. The elegant bronze statue of Saint Nicholas was moved. In this Turkish town, Santa rules, even if he looks a little strange in the hot Mediterranean sun.
“This is the one everyone knows,” said the mayor of Demre to The Washington Post (March 24, 2005). He figured that the Santa statue was a better fit with the tourist trade that Demre is promoting. Demre is officially “Christmas-land.” Images of Santa Claus appear on a stone archway on the edge of town, and the city’s official seal features a picture of Santa with a stylish red cap. If you are looking for a hand-woven wall hanging of Santa, with bushy whiskers made of lamb’s wool, then Demre is the place to go. So Demre has given up on the hometown boy Nicholas and gone with that miracle of modern advertising, Santa Claus.
There is 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 Nicholas, and to the Christ child that he worshiped. Nicholas was a passionate follower of Christ, and he can give us some gifts that have nothing to do with Santa’s bag of loot. From Nicholas and the shepherds, we discover the true significance of God’s glory.
In the eyes of the world, glory is associated with a high point of human achievement, enjoyment, or prosperity. We speak of glorious accomplishments or glorious vacations or 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, heavenly glory did not go to Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, who represented the height of human glory in that day. Instead, it went to “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” said the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14). The greatest honor, praise, and distinction of all time goes to a child who will never achieve material prosperity, who will never know a life of leisure, who will never have any of the marks of worldly accomplishment. Instead, he is given glory because he will grow up to become a servant leader, and to be the Savior of the world.
Saint Nicholas attempted to follow the Christ child 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), so he 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 others? Real glory comes from care for the vulnerable children of our world, and in our service to the sick and the suffering and the poor all around us? If we want modern examples of real glory, maybe we should think of people like the great missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
There is a story from the time of Nicholas that shows us what glory is: 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 wanted a piece of the wealth that he believed Christians must possess.
The bishop protested, saying that the church had no gold or jewels or other valuables. But the emperor was adamant, 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 not the gifts we found under the tree this morning, but the opportunities we have to love our neighbors, and to show generosity to those in need.
Saint Nicholas reached out to people around him. On three different occasions, he gave bags of gold to poor girls needing dowries. By doing this, he saved them from being sold into slavery and prostitution. He became well known for his goodness, his compassion, and his generosity. He 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.
So Saint Nicholas is a role model. Santa Claus is never presented as a role model. Santa is an elf who lives at the North Pole surrounded by other elves, who spend their time making presents for little girls and boys. All this is never-never land stuff. There is no suggestion that we should be like Santa.
But we certainly should be like Saint Nicholas. We should live centered on Jesus Christ, who is the center of the cosmos. We should be centered on Christ even in this Santa-Claus saturated season. Let’s follow the example of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas 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 a tree. Amen.
Vick, Karl. “Turkish town exchanges St. Nick for Santa: Local hero’s statue moved from square,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2005, A1.
“Who is St. Nicholas?” St. Nicholas Center Web Site, stnicholascenter.org. Retrieved May 12, 2005.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 02/27/06