Practical Proverbial, about Santa Claus, 18 December 2017

…if it is giving, then give generously.   Romans 12:8.

Let’s talk about the gift of the magi, but not the wonderful O Henry story.

Yesterday I was reading a bit in Matthew 2, the book & chapter that discusses the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus.   You know the account.   Wise men from east of Israel showed up in Bethlehem, looking for the Christ child.   They were (presumably) astrologer ‘kings’ who saw a special star that they believed would lead them to the Messiah; Martin Luther thought they might have been learned men, perhaps professors even.  We don’t know when they showed up, though scholars today (supposedly wise men themselves) seem to think it was while Jesus was a toddler.   That would mean Joseph, Mary and Jesus lived in Bethlehem for a good long time after the Roman census was complete.   In the end, we don’t truly know.  The wise men presented three gifts we know of, though to be honest we don’t know if there were only three gifts.   We also don’t know if there were only three wise men.  Tradition has assigned them names of Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar (of Arabia, Persia, and India respectively), but we don’t specifically know that to be true, either.

What we do know is that the magi gave generously.   The gifts they brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh – wouldn’t have been given to commoners in first century Judea.   They weren’t things that common Jewish children received at birth.   If kids of that time received anything, it probably wouldn’t have been those gifts because they were extraordinarily expensive and usually given only to wealthy or royal people.   The makeup of the gifts themselves only adds mystery to the story.  Years ago I heard a sermon where the minister wondered if Mary didn’t keep the three precious birth gifts from the magi to use in embalming and burying Jesus, especially given that myrrh and frankincense were used for embalming in Bible times.   I suppose that’s possible.

Flash forward to Santa.   Santa’s gift-giving reflects that of the magi.   There’s no set rule saying Santa brings you only one toy; that, too, is open to tradition.  He might bring you one, two or three.   He might even bring you gold, frankincense, and myrrh, though I’m not sure those would compete well against a PS4 in today’s world.  But the comparison still remains:   the story of Santa is one of giving generously.   Santa gives out of an abundance of the desire to give, to share agape love with total strangers and innocent children.   Santa goes to whatever extremes are necessary to get you the gift you desire just to make your life a little brighter.   It’s because of a Christ-like heart that someone gives generously.

My wife has over 30 nativity scenes in her collection.  I think she loves the story of the magi even more than the story of the immaculate birth because of the wonder of three learned men from far away lands showing up to worship this holy child.   The glitterati of the day saw something unusual in that star that they considered to be a miracle.   They saw and they believed.  This same wife of mine also still believes in Santa.   It’s a game we play in our family.   Say you believe in Santa and you get a cool gift from Mom and Dad (even though our children are grown and gone).   Say you don’t believe and those gifts stop.  Saying you don’t believe would be evidence of a generous heart growing cold, of starting to lose sight of the miracle that is Christmas.   Saying you don’t believe in Santa is like saying you don’t believe in giving generously.  Or in the gift of the magi.

For further reading: Deuteronomy 26:11, Matthew 2.

Lord, I believe in You.   I believe in Your gift of giving generously.   I praise You for the story of the Magi, and for inspiring a spirit of giving in the story of Santa and in each of us.

Practical Proverbial, about Santa Claus, 15 December 2017

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Romans 8:32.

This is a message that is easily lost when you think of Santa.   In fact, I suspect it’s part of the reason – maybe even THE reason – why so many followers of Jesus actively, vociferously disdain all things Santa.   Santa can’t save you from your sins but Jesus does.   Santa can’t give you all things your heart really desires but Jesus does.   Santa can’t this, Santa can’t this, but Jesus does.   All true, all like a boring confirmation class quiz.  I get it.

So don’t lose the message of Romans 8 when you’re busy defending Jesus, ok?   I get the idea of defending Christmas, of defending Jesus.   Are we really so arrogant to think God can’t defend Himself without our help?  It might be a noble thing, especially since the idea of Christmas as the birth of Christ is under attack in our age of Muslimism and atheism.  But we lose sight of God’s giving when we get busy defending our positions.   How about we step back a bit and look for some common ground?

What He gave still matters.   What Santa gives reflects that.

We’ve talked about how giving is Christ-like, how Christ-like giving is the foundation of the idea of Santa Claus.  But have you considered the gift itself?   The character we know as Santa exhibits the best of Jesus’ attitude, namely to give glory to God by expressing agape love, of showing love to someone who doesn’t deserve it by giving them something from yourself.   That attitude, that giving heart, is central to Jesus’ character as well.  But the gift matters too.   What you are given can matter as much as the heart of the person giving it.

Consider this:  kids go to see Santa, or write letters to Santa, telling him what they most want.   They reveal their most urgent material desires to him.   The story of Santa, then, is how Santa fulfills those most urgent requests for the good little girls and boys by bringing them things they want most.   Winner winner chicken dinner.

Consider this as well:  people pray to Jesus their innermost thoughts about their most urgent desires.   We express our groaning to Him about things that matter most to us.  We give our requests to Him, and sometimes those requests are even self-less.   But Jesus always answers them, even when we don’t understand the answer.   And in addition to that, God then gives us a redemption that only He can give.   He gives us eternal life with Himself.  That gift matters most.  He promises it to us, and His promise is always sure, always reliable, always true.   He proved it by promising to redeem us, then giving us the life blood of His most precious being, His Son, to secure it.   He did it for us, not because He had to.   God the Father and Spirit gave His Son to us because He wanted to, because He could.   He did it because He loved us unconditionally.   Love for love’s sake, giving because of love’s sake, the gift of Jesus Himself.   The ultimate Christmas gift.   His gift brings peace on earth and good will to men.

Every gift given since then, whether gifts of the Magi or gifts from Santa’s workshop, is a reflection of God’s gift to us.   THAT gift matters most because eternity always matters most.   No matter what else Santa brings you this year, when you realize God gave you this, you realize you’ve gotten more than you could honestly want.   Don’t ever lose sight of that.

For further reading: Romans 12:8.

My Lord, thank You for the gift of Your Son.   Of the idea of Santa who reflects Your wonderful gift.

Practical Proverbial, about Santa Claus, 13 December 2017

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  Luke 6:38.

These are real words of Jesus.   It makes sense, you know, to have some things said by Jesus in a blog that talks about Jesus and why today’s symbol of Jesus’ birthday is still all about Jesus.   It REALLY makes sense to think of giving in the way Jesus describes it here in Luke 6.  Giving is the most selfless thing you can do in the way of bettering your self-interest.   Huh?  It’s the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ in the story of Santa Claus.

My favorite story of Santa is the Rankin Bass animated program “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”   You probably have seen it at one time or another.   Mickey Rooney, Fred Astaire, Keenan Wynn.   It’s the fable of Kris Kringle taking toys to Sombertown give them away to the children.   The evil Burgermeister Meisterburger tries to thwart Kris, who then learns how to sneak into town, leave toys in stockings, and use flying reindeer to get around.   One scene in the show even has Mr. and Mrs. Claus getting married on Christmas Eve, deemed “the holiest night of the year.”  Imagine that:   running off every year on your anniversary to spend it giving away free stuff to a bunch of total strangers who happen to be underage.

No, this isn’t a 2017 political campaign.  It’s the essence of giving.  Kris Kringle gave away toys because giving was a way he could love.  In the show, Santa gave because it made him feel good to share, to make a child smile.  In your life, you give because it makes you feel good to do so.   The reason is the same:  to feel good.   When you dig deeper, you discover it isn’t just some dopamine rush.   You feel better when you do the right thing.   You do the right thing when you do as God requests.   Logical transition:   you feel better when you do as God requests.   Jesus said “give and it will be given to you.”   He isn’t setting up some divine wishing well.   Instead, He was talking about transforming one’s heart.   Give because your heart tells you to love someone this way.   When you love, you’ll be loved back.

Giving is love.   When we love through giving, we’re bettering someone else’s life while indirectly bettering ourselves.

That’s what Jesus was saying here in Luke 6.   He said that, the more we love, the more we’re loved back.   The good measure, pressed down and given back, is an expression of love for you.   Even more than that, it’s a reflection of the love that is God Almighty.  We simply have to share it.  If you enjoy the idea of Santa giving selflessly what you’re really enjoying is a form of God’s love for all of us.  Giving is love and God always gives mercifully, gracefully, endlessly.   It’s part of His character, and it’s first, best expression is the baby born on Christmas Day.   You know, the one Santa celebrates.

Giving makes us better, and cheerful givers turn into better people, which pleases God.   Underneath all that is the solid foundation that giving is love, that love is Jesus.   When we give selflessly like Santa Claus would give, we share Jesus.   Knowing that, here’s a quote from Martin Luther:  “To love is not to wish one another well, but to carry one another’s burdens, that is, things that are grievous to us, and that we would not willingly bear.”  When you see Santa with a child on his lap, remember that is a symbol of the older man wanting to help the younger person bear life’s hurt.   When you think of the baby in the manger, remember that He came here to live as a man specifically to carry our sins for us.   And the next time you hear Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle, remember that the bag of toys he carries on his shoulder is actually a way to give love while taking up someone else’s love burden.

For further reading:  John 14:27.

Oh Christmas Lord, thank You for showing us how You give to share Your love.

Practical Proverbial, about Santa Claus, 12 November 2017

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’  Acts 20:35.

Giving makes us better people.  Churches that ask for tithes know this.   Your manager at work knows this.  Political campaigns know this (ok, maybe not so much).   Your teenage kids know this (ok, not so much again, though we hope they’ll learn it).

In 21st century America, the most popular symbol of Christmas is Santa.   He’s at the center of what we consider Christmas to be.  But when you scratch off the red velvet and ring the jingle bells you see that the center of Santa is Christ.   It’s impossible to reach any other conclusion without rejecting the words here in Acts 20.  Whether the inspiration is Coca Cola, Hollywood, or pop culture, our notion of Santa Claus always goes back to Saint Nicholas of Myra, the bishop of Myra (in Turkey) who lived from 270 to 343 AD:   only about 240 years after the life of Jesus.  According to Wikipedia, Nicholas is the patron saint of many tradesmen, and his life spanned persecution and torture by the Romans, pardon from the Emperor Constantine (who split the Roman empire) and sitting in the council of Nicaea (in which the early church was reorganized and from which we received the Nicene Creed).

But his greatest gift was in giving.  A most likely true legend has it that Nicholas gave a bag of gold to each of a poor man’s three daughters because the father was too poor to afford a dowry.  Some versions of the legend have him throwing the coins through a window, others down a chimney and landing in stockings.   No matter how it happened, over time this morphed into the concept of Santa Claus that we know today.   In the 1800 years since Nicholas died, his tradition has been compounded with that of Father Christmas (dating the Tudor England of the 1500s), practices of Martin Luther (to focus kids on Christ instead of Saint Nicholas), Sinterklaas and Pere Noel in Europe, and Scandanavian Yule traditions.   Here in America, Clement Moore’s famous poem from the 1820s popularized the idea of Santa as did advertising pictures from Harper’s Bazaar and Coca Cola in the late 19th century.   And don’t forget the popular editorial response which said “yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Giving is the glue that binds together those representations of Santa; self-less giving to children and the poor.  All along the timeline from Saint Nicholas until today the saint of Christmas gives to those who have not.   He blesses others by giving to them things they want and need.   In doing so, what he’s really doing is giving them the love of Jesus.   He inculcates a gift to a stranger with the strange gift that God gave us.   You and I don’t deserve grace any more than a child ‘deserves’ an extravagant gift under the tree.   We don’t earn gifts but God gives them anyway.   We weren’t looking for the Christ child in Bethlehem but He came there anyway and the angels then sang of His glory.

Without the spirit of Jesus, there is no giving.   Our very concept of Santa is thick with giving and, therefore, replete with Jesus.

Giving makes we better people because it puts aside ourselves.   Gifts are acts of mercy to other people, reflections of what we believe.   To give to someone with no expectation of anything in return is righteous, it is Christ-like.  To give is to share God’s grace.  Nicholas of Myra understood that when he gave gold to women who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to marry (something that would likely have resulted in their resorting to prostitution).   If you separated the concept of Santa Claus from giving, you wouldn’t have Santa anymore.  You wouldn’t even have a good advertising gimmick.  Santa gives to share, to make others better, to give things they wouldn’t otherwise have.  If the center of today’s celebrations is Santa, then the center of Santa selfless giving.   You can’t give selflessly without first having the love of Jesus in your heart.   Apart from Him we can do nothing.   Therefore, apart from Jesus, Santa could give nothing.  s The next time you get down about how commercialism is ruining Christmas, remember that the spirit of Christmas is still Santa and still, therefore, all about Jesus.

For further reading:  Luke 6:38.

Lord, thank You for how giving makes us better people.   Thank You for giving us this gift of mercy, of sharing, of Your Spirit.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 20 January 2017

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.  Hebrews 7, verses 4-10.

These verses contain some pretty detailed theology.   Let’s sum it all up:  give to God.   Give to Him generously.

My home church, Water’s Edge Frisco, espouses an idea:  live 90.  Like any church we want to encourage tithing and giving.   It’s a big way to give something meaningful to God from our hearts.   We also need to pay the bills, as does any organization.  Our leaders have found that the most Biblically centered way to build up giving attitudes is to stick to the Bible.   That means encouraging, not mandating, a ten percent tithe.   The church likes catchy phrases, so along comes “live 90.”   Live on 90% of your income and give the first ten percent to God.   That’s ten percent of the gross in your earnings, your possessions, and even yourself.   Tithe to God and then watch Him bless you in ways you might not have imagined.

It isn’t a gimmick; God isn’t a Pavlov reactor or a divine wish factory.  God doesn’t care whether or not we give anything from our incomes or our talents.   God DOES care very much about the heart behind that giving.  He wants us to give selflessly.   He wants us to want to give to Him “just because.”  Just because we can.   Just because we want to share with Him some of what He’s shared with us.   God wants us to live for Him in an attitude similar to how we live for other people we cherish.  God wants us to express that attitude with things that mean something to us, knowing that other believers will use those things we give – like money  and possessions – in ways to further His Kingdom.

As you can see, it stems from this passage about Abraham and Melchizedek.  Abraham had just won a large battle against pagan Canannite kings and had, accordingly, won great plunder of gold, property, and livestock.  Along comes Melchizedek to bless Abraham.  God had promised that all people would be blessed through Abraham, and Melchizedek reinforces that blessing.   What’s Abraham’s response?   He gives generously to Melchizedek.   He gives ten percent or more of his boodle to a stranger.

Later, as an expression of the blessing, God institutes the formal priesthood through Abraham’s descendant, Levi.  Levi was one of Jacob’s twelve sons (meaning he was Abraham’s great-grandson).  Levi’s family formed one of the twelve tribes of Israel, his tribe being the priesthood.   It would be the pleasure and the purpose of Levi’s descendants to share God’s message – His promises and His promised blessings – with people forever.  That calling reflects the royal priesthood of this stranger, Melchizedek.   We’ve already discussed how Melchizedek’s true identity remains unknown; he might have been a Christophany (a pre-incarnate Jesus), or he might have been Shem, or he might have been someone else altogether.   Whoever he was, he worshipped and praised the true God and did so in ways that would demonstrate the ministry God wanted instituted among His people.   To honor this, Abraham tithed to Melchizedek.

What did Melchizedek do with that enormous plunder, with that selfless tithe given to him by Abraham?   We don’t know; it doesn’t matter.   We can all decry, sometimes rightfully, the excesses that some of today’s ministers flaunt with tithes from God’s people.   Huge churches, lavish lifestyles, rock-star followings:   was that what Melchizedek, Abraham and Levi had in mind?   Probably not.   Yet consider 1 Kings, chapters 2-11, especially chapter 10.   In these, King Solomon’s splendor is described.   Solomon, a descendant of Abraham, was extraordinarily blessed by God with wisdom, wealth, and success.   It wasn’t because of anything Solomon did:  it was because of God’s grace, God’s generosity.   Solomon started life asking for wisdom and was blessed with it and so much more.   Though his life ended in him wandering away in pagan beliefs, God still blessed him.

All that splendor was paid for with tithes from the people.  The people gave of their hearts to God’s purposes, and God chose to bless both them and their leaders in extraordinary ways.   He still does so today.  And it goes back to the precedent set by Abraham and Melchizedek.

So the next time you do your budget, before you pay your bills, say a prayer of thanks to God and then write a check to Him.   Consider giving things to others, giving things that are meaningful and that others may need.  Give of yourself and your time and give generously without expectation of anything in return.  Live happily on ninety percent of what you’re blessed to earn.  Give that other ten percent to God’s purposes.  Through churches, charities, and ministry activities, God will use this to bless others in extraordinary ways.   When you do this, you’re siding with Melchizedek, Abraham, Levi, and Jesus.

For further reading:   Genesis 14:18-20, 1 Kings 2-11, Psalm 76:2, Psalm 110:4, , Matthew 4:3, Hebrews 2:17, Hebrews 5:6.

My blessed Lord, thank You for blessing me.   Thank You for Abraham and Melchizedek and the practice they began.   Thank You for opportunities to still give in those ways today.

Daily Proverbial, from Ruth, 14 March 2014

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!  “Who are you?” he asked.  “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”  Ruth 3, verses 7 – 9.

So much to unpack here.

Don’t be mistaken:   it wasn’t a party on the threshing floor.   ‘Eating and drinking’ does not equate a Snoop Dogg kind of party. It would have been mostly men working there, mostly young men, farmers or farmers’ sons.  After a hard day of beating grain from stalks, then collecting, sifting, sorting, and bagging it, they would have been dirty and tired; some things about farm work never change.   Anyway, they ate a farmer’s dinner and had a farmer’s drink of beer or wine.   But it wasn’t a party.   It was a typical night.

Spread the garment over me; what a beautiful picture of being covered in God’s grace.  On that threshing floor, those same young men were, well, young men and both virile and familiar with taking pleasures from women as they saw fit.  Yet Ruth goes confidently, faithfully but humbly to Boaz and asks for both his protection and his devotion in this simple symbol.  When we pray to God even today, don’t we ask for the same thing?   And He gives it.  Just as Ruth understood Boaz would honor and protect her, we can always know that God will honor and protect us, even when He does things we don’t expect or even want.

Finally, let’s talk ‘servant.’   It wasn’t that Ruth was wanting to become Boaz’s slave, and it wasn’t as if she was signaling her intention to wait on him constantly.   She was submitting herself to another person in humility.   She, who had already lost one husband, known privation, and lived in sad desperation, found hope in humble submission.  Ruth wasn’t signing up to become Boaz’s slave:   she was submitting herself to her husband’s love.   In my opinion, no word in Scripture is more misunderstood than “submit.”   It’s not slavery or compulsion:   it’s an act of giving and devotion.   That’s what Ruth did.   Boaz understood this and didn’t press his advantage.   As we’ll soon see, he did the right thing.

So should we.

Father, thank you for being our guardian-redeemer

 

Read Ruth 3.