Santa Claus Goes to Church
1 John 1
Dr. Jim Denison
Nicholas of Myra was born around AD 270 in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra, was exiled and imprisoned by Emperor Diocletian, released by Constantine the Great, and died in Myra around AD 350. In 987 he was named the patron saint of Russia. In the year 1087 his remains were purchased by Italian merchants and moved to the city of Bari in Italy, where they are still preserved to this day in the church of San Nicola.
Nicholas has been one of history’s most venerated saints. By 1400 more than 500 songs and hymns had been written in his honor. When Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 6 of 1492, he named the port St. Nicholas. By 1500 more than 700 churches in Britain were dedicated to him.
Why was he so beloved? Because he spent his life helping the poor and underprivileged. He was the first to initiate programs for mentally challenged children. He loved children and often visited their homes at night, disguised in a red and white hooded robe, leaving gifts of money, clothing or food at their windows or fireplaces.
The Dutch especially appreciated his story. They spelled his name “Sint Nikolass,” which in America became “Sinterklass,” or “Santa Claus.”
We know of St. Nicholas today because of Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary in New York. In 1822 he wrote a poem for his children entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” It began with these words:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In the hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The illustrator Thomas Nast put Dr. Moore’s figure to art, creating the figure we know today as Santa Claus. And so yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
As with Santa Claus, so with Christmas. Today we have trees and toys and tinsel, cards and gifts and parties. Christmas is a holiday. But it was once a holy day. There is reality behind the story. Today I want to remind you of that real, historical stuff, and show you why it matters so much to your life and mine.
Is Christmas real?
John begins, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (v. 1). This is how he takes his readers back nearly a hundred years, to the first Christmas.
The babe born that day was “from the beginning.” John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Jesus was creating the world: “for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth” (Colossians 1:16). He was holding it together: “He was before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). The Christ of Christmas existed long before he was born.
Then this Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer came to the earth he made. He chose his parents, a teenage girl and her peasant husband. He chose his town of birth, a tiny country village. He chose his place of birth, a dank, musty, dark cave behind a stable. He chose his crib, a stone feed trough; and his baby clothes, rough blankets. He chose his first worshippers, lowly field hands.
And John knows it is true, because he has seen it all himself: he has “heard” him teach, from the Sermon on the Mount to his ascension; he has “seen with our eyes” his miracles and physical ministry; his “hands touched” his resurrected life. This eyewitness testifies that it is all true.
And he’s not the only one. In addition to the biblical witness, Roman historians Tacitus, Seutonius, and Mara bar Serapion document his existence; Jewish historian Josephus gives us many details of his life; and Roman administrator Pliny the Younger describes the fact that the first Christians knew him to be real and worshipped him as God. It’s all true.
Long before there was a St. Nicholas, there was the Christ he worshipped. Long before there was a wooden manger in nativity scenes, there was a cave. I’ve been inside it, and even sang Christmas carols there. We know beyond any shadow of historical doubt that this is all true. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Christ of Christmas.
Why does Christmas matter?
Now let’s ask our other question: why does it matter? Why does the fact that a baby was born in a feed trough in ancient Bethlehem matter? For these reasons.
First, life is found at Christmas.
The text continues: “this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us (vs. 1b-2). Life, significance, eternal purpose “appeared” at Christmas. It came to us with the baby born at Bethlehem, and with him alone.
My dear friend Oscar Dellet explained this better than I can. In his message at the contemporary service last weekend, our Cuban brother and my fellow pastor spoke from John 10:10: “I have come that they might have life.” He made the point this way: everything you see around you exists. The platform exists; the chairs exist; our bodies exist. But they do not have life. Life is found only in Jesus Christ. Everything else is just existence.
He went on: there is a God-sized hole in every human soul. That hole can be filled only with the life which Jesus gives. We can put everything that exists in that hole—cars, houses, clothes, status, money—but it won’t fill it. It can’t. Only Jesus can. Only he can give us life, significance, meaning and eternal purpose. We can have life only in him.