St. Matthew.jpg

Coming to Town

Matthew 3:1-12

The Rev. Jon Roberts

5 December

2010

Good Shepherd Episcopal

Venice, FL

1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sad′ducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit that befits repentance, 9 and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

St. Nicholas, by Jean Poyer in The Hours of Henry VIII, 1500

Oh, You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He knows if you are sleeping, he knows if you're awake,
he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

It's been forty years since Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin directed that Christmas time movie favorite, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It's an animated classic geared for children of all ages, and it begins with the voice of Fred Astaire who plays a mailman at the North Pole; He is flooded with letters about Santa Claus; letters from children everywhere, who want to know him. They want to know how he grew his beard. They want to know how he began going down chimneys. They want to know what makes his reindeer fly. But the journey for Kris Kringle, heard in the voice of Mickey Rooney, was not so much about beards, chimneys or reindeer, as much as it was about the goodness of giving.

We celebrate the feast day of St. Nich-o-las (Greek), Sinterklaas (Dutch), or Santa Claus (English) every December 6th and the emphasis is on giving. But it's not just giving for goodness sake. It's about giving something unexpected. The story of Kris Kringle in the movie is about this jolly red head with a red beard and a red suit, hopping down chimneys and leaving toys for children. He sees they have no joy in their lives. They were prohibited to play. In his compassion he slipped a doll in a stocking, a ball in another, simply to give a child hope for a brief moment.

The story of Nicholas is about a similar youth. One who goes back way further. Living between the years 270-346 AD, he hopped from island to island somewhere around Turkey and Greece leaving gold coins for people in despair. Legend has it that a poor man had a debt he could not pay. He could not afford the dowry to marry off his three daughters. Tradition had it that when they came of age, if he could not afford a husband for them, they would have no choice but to become prostitutes to earn money.

One night, while they were sleeping, Nicholas went to the bedroom window where the eldest slept and slipped three bags of gold coins beside her. As you can imagine there was a great rejoicing the next morning, but they did not know who to thank. It was an unexpected gift; a miracle. By the time the second daughter came of age, the same problem was encountered and once more a miraculous three bags appeared. When the third daughter came of age, the father decided to wait outside to see who would come. Seeing this, Nicholas climbed up the roof and dropped three bags of gold coins down the chimney. It just so happened that the daughter awoke, not to find the money in her bed, but rather in her stockings, drying over the embers in the fireplace.

By now you can see how the original story merges with the one in the movie. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of merchants, archers and children, of course, but did you know this story also makes him the patron saint of pawn shops? Whenever you go by one, look at the emblem outside their window. The three balls represent the three bags of gold coins. It's a place where one can find a rare and unexpected gift to buy.

Unfortunately, much of the relation of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus is drifting further apart because of materialism. Instead of the charity of giving something unexpected, the story of Christmas is turning into the necessity of getting something expected. It is also drifting further away from the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and how such news can transform the life of simple folk like Nicholas into a saintly man of God.

In many places today, it makes people uncomfortable to associate a venerable, saintly person with Christianity. We can tolerate jolly 'ol St. Nicholas as long as we don't have to mention why he led his life by following Christ or observing the icon of the cross seen on the miter on his head, worn during a Christmas pageant procession. For many, Christmas is turning into a festive time off from work and school but it needs to be seen for what it really is. We continue to prepare in Advent for an unexpected gift. We discover that we are worthy not by who we are, but who God is. We were born in poverty, turned over to live on the street. But God knew our coming of age, and he dropped Jesus down beside us, to be the offering that would save us. It is naughty to forget what the gift is that has been laid beside us, or that good news that has dropped down within us.
In this Advent, prepare the way for the one who comes to town, to wash away all our sins. Let us be like John the Baptist; a voice that cries out in the wilderness areas[1]: to the person frantic in the shopping mall; to that relative at a family gathering; or perhaps the person sitting next to you today. Tell them not to be anxious and to prepare the way.

Tell them “they better watch out; they better not cry; they better not pout, you'll tell them why.
Jesus Christ is coming to town.

[1] Matthew 3:1-12

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