When many people think about Christmas, they automatically think about Santa Claus. And yet when Christians reflect upon Advent, we might be trying to push Santa Claus as far away as possible. However, I’m going to invite Santa, or rather St Nicholas who he is based on, back into Advent.
You may or may not know that St Nicholas was a Christian bishop who oversaw the church in a city in modern day Turkey. He lived between 270-343 AD. There are a lot of legends that have gathered about him but there are a few things that we do know. He was very likely at the Council of Nicaea, the council in which the Nicene Creed was developed. But how did he become the inspiration for Santa Claus? Beyond being theologically astute, St Nicholas was also very practical in his faith. We think of Santa as the gift-giver and this comes from the life of St Nicholas. But it was not toys that he gave to good little girls and boys. St Nicholas secretly provided three sacks of gold to prevent three young girls from being sold into prostitution. Not really the stuff of Christmas carols but those are the facts. St Nicholas was a follower of Jesus and that faith spilled over into his actions and those actions were not done to gain attention.
This is extremely practical for us. Especially the younger generations, but others as well, are attracted to faith that has real life applications. It is not that doctrines and worship songs are not important, but they want to do something that will make a difference in the world. We have to ask if we have a Christian faith that fits those desires. I’m not suggesting that we reinvent the gospel to satisfy the needs of others. If the gospel has no practical application then that is the way it is. But what I find in the New Testament is a faith that could never be described as being “so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good.” This will be made evident when we look at both the fruit of the Spirit and the sermon on the mount.
What is to Be Done
Much of what is found in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 has to do with inner states. That is good because what we do is influenced by the way we are on the inside. It is vital that the Spirit do his work of inner transformation. But the fruit of the Spirit is not just an inner harvest.
This week we are looking at kindness, goodness and faithfulness. Whereas you could feel love, joy or peace without doing anything, these virtues require action. It is simply impossible to be a kind person without doing something. At the very least you would have to say something to be identified as kind.
All three of these virtues are related. If I had to summarize the three, I would say that it is about being able to trust someone to do the right thing. Kindness is about love in action, taking the feeling of love and going the next step to demonstrating it in some way. Goodness is not just about being good, but about doing good. It includes kindness but is a bit more generic. Everything that is done is marked by goodness. There are many historical figures who are known as “the Great” but when you look at their lives, they were not good. In some ways it is easier to be great than it is to be good. Then there is faithfulness. We think of faith as being about our relationship with God. It can include that but also is our relationship with others. It could also be translated as trustworthy. Can both God and the people around us trust to do what we have promised to do?
There are different ways that people connect with God. Two of those are the contemplatives and the activists. But these are not mutually exclusive. If a contemplative sees a need and has the resources to meet that need, they must act. Even a contemplative must have an active faith. In the same way, an activist might find that help people comes easy. But these are meant to be not just human effort but fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is cultivated as we pray and reflect on Scripture. We need both, even if there might be one side or another which attracts us more.
How It is to Be Done
We have seen that we need an active faith that makes a difference in people’s life. But what does that look like? How is it to be done?
I will share one of my pet peeves. When there is a natural disaster of some kind, you will often see a national leader there handing out water, serving food or something. And yet it is so obvious that this is not about doing the right thing but is all about having a photo op. They are surrounded by cameras and they are spending more time smiling at the camera than actually helping people. Would these same politicians sneak out in a disguise and help out at a soup kitchen with no reporters around? Probably not.
Unfortunately this type of thing sometimes happens in the church as well. There are Christians that want to help but they also want to make sure people notice. They are fine to help, but they want the boost in their reputation as well. This can happen in both subtle and explicit ways.
Some people love the spotlight and want to be seen. But this is exactly what Jesus warns against. Jesus says that when you give to those in need, do it in secret. Do not make a show of it. That doesn’t mean that the deed was sinful if the secret gets out and someone discovers you did it. The point is our motivation. Why are we doing the good deed? Is it to help someone or is it ultimately to help ourselves?
Here is the test. Think about the things that you are doing or are considering doing. Would you still give that money even if no one knew about it? Would you help that homeless person even if no one saw you? Would you meet with someone for Bible study even if it never made it in the bulletin? Here is the real test. What happens when other people are recognized for what they have done and you are not? Would it feel as if the good work you had done was a waste?
Jesus says that it is better that no one notices our good deeds. God will reward us for what we do. I’m skeptical about elaborate systems of heavenly rewards. But what if we stand face to face with God and he winks and says, “I noticed”?
I will not pretend that any of this is easy. Our egos are real and we want to be noticed and appreciated. But it is happening. I get notified regularly that someone has donated a significant amount of money completely anonymously. I see people coming into our building, when no crowds are around and they are doing the unglamorous jobs. They are not looking to be noticed. There are kind, good and faithful people among us. And since this the fruit of the Spirit and not just our own effort, that could be all of us.
Some businesses and organizations have something at Christmas called a secret Santa. It is a chance to give something anonymously to another person without getting the glory for buying the best present. Ironically, this is getting close to the spirit of giving for the original St Nicholas. He have to help people in need, not so that he would be noticed, but because it was the right thing to do and it was the logical outflow of his faith.
We could all be a secret Santa. Not in the sense of secretly giving things to friends and family but by making a difference in the world without being in the spotlight. While we may not want to break into people’s homes like Santa, we can check our motives and to make a difference just because it is the right thing to do. Jesus gives us the instructions in the sermon on the mount and the Spirit gives us the fruit of kindness, goodness and faithfulness. Let’s do it.