I’d like to tell you about someone quite obscure – although I am certain that everybody here – apart from the very smallest - will have heard of him!
He lived 1600 years ago, in an Greek town called Myra. Today Myra is in modern day Turkey, and it is in ruins.
We don’t know that much about him.
He was a Christian born to a well-off family.
We know that he was really serious about his Christian faith, and he was deeply committed to Jesus. When his parents died, he took Jesus’ command to ‘sell everything and give to the poor and come follow me’ quite literally. He gave away his wealth; he became a priest, and subsequently the bishop of Myra.
Although nothing was written down, they told stories about him: about his love for God, for God's word and his love for people; and about how God did astonishing things through him.
This is an icon of him. Around the edge are scenes from his life. In the centre, he is shown wearing a bishop’s scarf. His right hand is raised in prayer and blessing – he is praying God’s blessing on his people. In his left hand, he holds a bible and a towel.
There are stories of how he prayed for people and they got better; and, on one occasion, how three people were brought back from the dead. There are stories of how, even after he had died, people had visions of him, or they went to his tomb and were healed. I don’t know what to make of that – although I do know this: that when a person commits themselves to Jesus Christ, and when they live for him, put their trust in him and ask him to come and live in them, astonishing things happen.
But this person is inseparably connected with Christmas
And there are two reasons:
One of the most well-known stories that is told about him is of the time when he heard about a widow who had three daughters. They had no money, and the only option if they were going to survive was for the girls to sell themselves to traffickers. Nicholas, for that is the name of this Bishop of Myra, walked past their window and threw in three bags of gold: sufficient for each of the girls to have a dowry.
And since then Nicholas, who in time became St Nicholas (in some places known as Santa Niklaus), has been associated with the giving of gifts to children.
I don’t know where the sleigh or the reindeer have come from – well, I do, Lapland! – but I do know that at the heart of it all was a man who loved God and who loved people and who, as a result, gave secretly and gave generously.
But there is a second reason that he is associated with Christmas.
It is said that he travelled to Nicaea for the big council of bishops, who were meeting because of a wrong teaching that was spreading through the Church.
The wrong teaching was about who the baby in the manger really was.
It began with a man called Arius, who said that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God. He was instead a super mega angel, created by God.
The story goes that Nicholas got so angry with Arius at the meeting, that he went up to him and smacked him round the face. That shows a commendable zeal for the truth, although it is not behaviour that I would encourage when you come to talk about your Christian faith.
But there is a connection.
What we believe about the baby in the manger – about who he is – makes a big difference to how we live.
If we look at him, as Arius did, as a super mega angel sent from God to come to earth, then there is still a gap between us and God. There is us, there is the angel, and there is God. But in between us and the angel and the angel and God there is a huge gap.
And if you believe, with Arius, that God is up there and we are down here, then the only way we can begin to get to know God, or to get God on our side, is for us to climb the ladder to get to God. We need to be sufficiently religious or good enough.
We listen to Jesus’ teaching; we look at him as an example of how we should live
And we think that if we want God to like us and give us what we want, then we need to become better people, more prayerful, more loving, more giving.
There is the story told of the little boy who wanted a bike for Christmas. His mother heard him praying: ‘Dear God, if you give me a bike for Christmas, I’ll be good for a year’. His mother said to him, ‘It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t give us things because we are good, even good for a year, because we can never be good enough’.
So on the second day, she heard him praying, ‘Dear God, my mum says that being good for a year is not enough, so what if I was good for a year and came to church every Sunday for a year? Would you please give me a bike for Christmas?’
Again, his mum said to him, ‘It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t give us things because we go to church, because we would never be religious enough’
The next day she noticed that a small statue of Mary had gone missing from the lounge. She couldn’t find it anywhere. But when she went into her son’s room she found a note pinned to his bedroom window: ‘God, if you ever want to see your mother again …’
But if you believe with St Nicholas that the baby born in the manger is the eternal Son of God, that he is Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’, then
· We don’t need to cut a morality deal with God in order to make him like us.
· We don’t need to become religious enough in order to make God like us.
We don't need to get to God because God has already come to earth. God has bridged the gap.
That is what the bible teaches. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’
It is what Jesus teaches. ‘Philip’, he says, ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.
It is what Wesley celebrated when he wrote Hark the Herald Angels sing, with the line ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’.
Jesus was the eternal Son of God. Everything he was saying, doing and being on earth was what God was saying, doing and being in heaven.
All we need to do is to receive this simple but stunning fact: that the baby in the manger is the Son of God, that God came to us at Christmas, that he is Immanuel ‘God with us’.
There is a precious verse in John’s gospel (John 1.12): ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’.
Arius couldn’t get that. He said it wasn’t God but a super-mega angel that God had sent
Our modern secular world can’t get it. They say it wasn’t God but a baby who grew up to be someone very special.
But Nicholas did get it. He realised that we don’t need to get to God because at Christmas God came to us.
St Nicholas was quite ordinary. He didn’t write anything. He didn’t die a martyrs’ death. He even smacked someone across the face (and got into trouble for it). But, according to the stories, he lived a very special life: he was prayerful, he was good and he was generous.
So when you see Santa Claus:
Thank him for his generosity. It is good to say thank you.
Thank him also for letting God show him that the baby in the manger was the eternal Son of God, Immanuel, God with us, and for his passion in showing us that we don't need to strive to get to God, because God has come to us.
All we need to do is to receive the love of God, to trust our lives into the hands of this God of love and allow that love of God to work in us, to transform us, so taht we reach out in works of love, power and deep generosity.