Santa Claus Goes to Church

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.

The Tyranny of the Urgent

The Tyranny of the Urgent

Mark 1:35-39

Dr. Jim Denison

The Dallas Morning News recently carried a story on the growth of the Christmas lights installation profession in our city. This business has quadrupled in six years, with costs ranging from $100 to $7,500 per home. Why do people now pay to put Christmas lights on their homes? The number one reason: it saves them time. We understand the appeal, don’t we?

We are working on average 20% more hours per week than we were in 1973. But the quality of our lives is not improving; in fact, it is suffering.

Recent studies report that 60% of successful professionals suffer from chronic stress and depression. 48% of top corporate executives report that their lives are empty and meaningless.

For the past 25 years the American Index of Social Health has tracked the well-being of Americans. While the gross domestic product has risen continually for the past 25 years, the social health index is 52% lower than it was in 1973. We have more, but enjoy life far less.

Recently I reread a little booklet entitled The Tyranny of the Urgent, by Charles Hummel. Its central point is simple: there is a great distinction between the urgent and the important. The urgent demands our time, but usually wastes it; the important redeems it, gives it eternal significance. Doing urgent things takes from us our energy, peace, and joy; doing important things gives us fulfillment, significance, peace, joy.

How much time do you spend doing the urgent? How much time do you spend doing something important? You and I can trade the urgent for the important in this new year. I’ve brought proof today.

Choose a model

Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes, or sandals, actually. You begin your Sabbath day by preaching and leading worship in the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum, your ministry base in Galilee. This is the first of the day’s three services, beginning at 9 a.m. And the people hang onto your every word; never have they heard such authority before. The One who inspired the word by his Spirit, now teaching it to his people.

Then you cast a demon out of a man sitting right there in the synagogue, amazing everyone present. Not a boring morning at church, wouldn’t you agree?

From the synagogue service you go to Peter and Andrew’s home for lunch. Taking the preacher out to lunch apparently has very old roots. But there’s a problem—Peter’s mother-in-law, the one who was going to cook the meal, is in bed with fever. And so you take her hand and heal her.

You spend the afternoon at her home, teaching your disciples. Then comes the sunset, when the Jewish Sabbath ends. But your reputation has spread far and wide, so “the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door” (Mark 1:32-33). And so you end your day by healing the sick and driving out demons from across the entire community.

What will you do tomorrow? Jesus preached in church, healed a demoniac, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, taught his disciples, and healed the sick and demon-possessed from across the entire town. Just one day in the life of our Lord. And yet he went through this day with remarkable calm, peace, and purpose.

Imagine that your purpose in life is literally to save the world, to bring eternal salvation to all of humanity. Can you feel the stress, the unbelievable pressure of it all? And yet the One who was given this life purpose went through that life with the greatest peace, joy, and fulfillment of any man who has ever lived. He was never hurried, hassled, or burned out. He experienced serenity in the midst of life’s greatest stress.

He will teach us how, if we want him to. If you want him to.

Years ago someone gave me some excellent leadership advice: choose the best mentor you can find. Get a model, an example, someone whose life you can emulate. Choose a mentor, well.

Athletes know they cannot improve unless they compete against people better than themselves. Business professionals know they must hire “tens,” because “tens” hire “eights,” “eights” hire “sixes” and “sixes” hire “fours.” Teddy Roosevelt said the secret to his success was that he surrounded himself with men better than himself.

Choose the best mentor you can find. I nominate Jesus.

Define your purpose

With him as your model, you can escape the urgent for the important. But you must do what he did. First and most important, you must define your life purpose, your reason for being.

You see, life is best lived on purpose.

Aristotle defined excellence as “expressing your highest talent to its fullest measure.” What is your “highest talent”?

Winston Churchill, standing before the House of Commons in June of 1941, said, “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler; and my life is much simplified thereby.” What is your “one purpose”?

The psychologist Maslow concluded, after many years as a therapist, that an artist must paint, a poet must write, a musician must make music, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What did God make you to do?

Will Rogers was more plain but no less profound: “If you want to be successful, know what you are doing, love what you are doing, and believe in what you are doing.” Do you “know what you are doing”?

Jesus did. “Very early the next morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35). In Mark’s original Greek it is clear that Jesus got up around 3 a.m. to do this. He “left the house and went off to a solitary place”—the Greek shows that he purposefully, deliberately found a place where he could be alone with his Father. And he spent the entire morning in prayer.

Why? This was the very beginning of his public ministry. Already our Lord has defeated Satan in the wilderness, called his first disciples, preached to the crowds, taught the people, healed and exorcized demons, and drawn gigantic crowds from all over Galilee. Now what? What is next? Where should his work go?

The Untold Story of Christmas

The Untold Story of Christmas

Luke 2.8-14

Dr. Jim Denison

Over the years that I have been a preacher, I have presented many messages as monologues. I have been Joseph, Mary’s husband; a shepherd at Christmas; I’ve been the thief on the cross; Samuel of the Old Testament; the innkeeper in Bethlehem; even a Wise Man. But I’ve never strained the borders of incredulity more than today, for this day I wish to speak to you as an angel. Not a fallen angel (more appropriate type casting, many would say), but one of God’s heavenly host.

I’d like us to view Christmas through the eyes of an angel who first announced the birth of the Messiah. I want us to see this event, its history, and its significance as one of those heavenly messengers might have seen it all. Let’s listen to his story, and see what it says to ours.

The ministry of angels

Good morning. My name is Malkiah. I am one of God’s angels, sent today as his messenger to you. I can see that you are surprised. Don’t be. This is what we angels do, more often than you might imagine. I’m sure you’ve met some of my colleagues before—you just didn’t know it at the time. But more of that in a moment.

For those of you who are not familiar with angels, perhaps a little introduction is in order.

“Angel” means “messenger,” for this is our ministry. The Holy God created us to worship him and to lead others to worship him. To proclaim his love, justice, and grace to his creation, across all time and eternity.

We are much more common than you might think—we’re mentioned 108 times in your Old Testament, and 165 in your New Testament. David wrote in your Psalm 68 that we number “tens of thousands” (v. 17); John’s Revelation numbered us as 10,000 times 10,000; our Creator said that we are as many as the stars in his heavens (Job 38:7).

We were present at the creation of the universe (Job 38:7). We talked with Abraham, and delivered Lot and his family from Sodom (Genesis 18-19); we appeared to Jacob (Genesis 28:12); we called Moses to deliver the Jews from Egypt (Exodux 3:2,10) and led Israel through the wilderness (Exodus 14:19; 23:20). We led judges such as Gideon and Manoah, protected Daniel from the lions, and appeared often to the prophets.

In your New Testament we freed the apostles from prison (Acts 5:19), directed Philip to Samaria (8:26) and Cornelius to Peter (10:1-7), delivered Peter from prison (12:5-11), and encouraged Paul at sea (27:23-25). We are present all through John’s Revelation, in worship and proclamation.

And most important of all, we worked with the Lord Jesus all through his ministry on earth. We announced his birth to Mary, and led Joseph to make her his wife and raise Jesus as his son. We led Joseph to save Mary from Herod, and to settle in Galilee.

We ministered to the Lord in his temptations by the enemy, and protected and empowered him all through his ministry. We strengthened him in Gethsemane. We rolled away the stone at his resurrection, and announced his return to life. We were present at his ascension back to the Father, and promised his Second Coming to your planet.

And we will come back with him when he returns (Matthew 25:31); we will gather together his people and judge all mankind (Matthew 13:41-42); we will defeat Satan once and for all (Revelation 12:7-9); and we will spend eternity in the worship of Jehovah God.

The grace of angels

All through eternity, our purpose has been one of grace. We exist to help you do what you cannot do without us. To guide you, guard you, empower you, lead you to God and to the abundant life he wants for you. God created us to bring you his grace.

And the single greatest mistake I have watched you humans make all through your history is to reject that grace. To live your lives as though there were no God; to be independent, self-reliant, self-determined. To do life in your own way, and expect God to bless it. To choose works, while God chooses grace.

It was so in the beginning, with Adam and Eve. They knew God’s will, but chose to ignore it. They chose their own power, their own ambitions, their own desires. They chose to become their own gods, rejecting the grace of their Creator. And our God had to send us to drive them from Eden and bar their way to the tree of life. Even this was an act of grace—to keep them from living forever in their fallen state. They chose works, but God chose grace.

Abraham chose to sire a son by Hagar rather than waiting on God’s grace through Sarah. We were sent to offer grace to Hagar, comforting her and saving the life of her son Ishmael. To this day there is conflict in that region of the world between the two sons of Abraham. All because they chose works, while God chose grace.

In your New Testament the Sadducees arrested the apostles for preaching the truth, making themselves to be their judges and gods, choosing the works of legalism. We freed those preachers and sent them back into the temple courts to preach the grace of God (Acts 5:17-21). The religious leaders chose works, while God chose grace.

Still later King Herod jailed Peter, intending to execute that servant of God to please the religious authorities. But we freed Peter to preach his message of forgiveness and grace to the world, and brought just condemnation upon the King who refused the grace of God (Acts 12:1-19, 23). The king chose works, while God chose grace.

The grace of Christmas

But we never brought the message of God’s grace more powerfully to earth than on that night 2006 years ago in Bethlehem. Our Lord had been planning since the creation of the world for this great day.