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The Greatest Gift Ever Given
John 3:16-21

What would you say is the fundamental difference between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus? Disregard for the moment the obvious fact that Santa Claus is a fictional character and that Jesus is the single most important person ever to have walked on the face of the earth. What else is there that clearly distinguishes one of these persons from the other?

One of them came from heaven to a manger outside of Bethlehem, then on to a cross in Jerusalem, followed by ascension back to heaven, and is coming back to earth to establish his everlasting kingdom. The other one comes from the North Pole in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. One of them makes an appearance once a year on Christmas Day, while the other one has promised to be with us every day of our lives for as long as we live. Both of them have had songs written about them, but it may be in the lyrics of those songs that the clearest difference between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus is to be revealed.

Here is what they say about Santa Claus:

You better watch out, you better not cry,
You better not pout, I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He's making a list; he's checking it twice,
He's going to find out who's naughty and nice,
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake,
He knows when you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake.

Now listen to what they say about Jesus Christ:

I shall forever lift my eyes to Calvary,
To view the cross where Jesus died for me.
How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul,
He looked beyond my faults and saw my needs.

Santa Claus keeps track of who has been naughty and nice and who has been good or bad. Then he gives good gifts to those who have been nice. In the Gospel according to Santa Claus, good children will find some toy or other treat under their tree or in their stocking on Christmas morning. Somewhere I heard that if you have been bad during the year then Santa leaves you a lump of coal. Most of us celebrate Christmas in accordance with the theology of Santa Claus. For most of us, Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts, and most of us only put on our Christmas list those people that we like and those people that have been good to us. We also keep track of who has been naughty and nice, and only those who have been nice to us will receive a gift from us for Christmas.

There are obviously two things wrong with this Gospel according to Santa Claus. The first problem with this approach to Christmas is that it buys in to the premise that Christmas is primarily about gifts and toys and presents that we give to each other. That is why most of the retail stores across the country opened for business at 6 am on the day after Thanksgiving; it is because they knew that people would be willing to line up and be ready to shop that early in the morning to buy the gifts they were going to give for Christmas. I know that I was not about to spend the night after Thanksgiving in a line outside of Wal Mart or any other store so that I could get a start on my Christmas shopping. Though most retail stores are counting on us to do just that, because they earn 40% of their annual profit during the Christmas season. One thing we learned from Santa Claus is that Christmas is about shopping and gifts.

It seems that every year the kind of gifts that we are urged to buy get bigger and more expensive. Once upon a time you might have seen a commercial urging you to buy a sweater, or a household appliance or some kind of jewelry. Now we are invited to exchange Cadillac cars, or park a luxury Lexus in the garage, or maybe place a $5,000 fur coat under the Christmas tree. People start dropping hints or raising the question about what they want for Christmas before the leaves have fallen from the trees. Some stores start decorating for the Christmas season as soon as the Halloween candy is removed from the shelves.

Not only has Santa Claus led us to believe that Christmas is primarily about gifts that are given and received, but most of us also give like Santa Claus gives; only to the people that we like. When was the last time you did something nice at Christmas for a person you did not like and that you knew did not like you? I would imagine that most of us are already well along in our shopping for this Christmas season. Who here remembered to buy a gift for the person who cursed you out on the job last week? Who bought a gift for the person who criticized you, and insulted you and went out of their way to make your life hard? The truth is, there may have been some person on our Christmas list this year to whom we were intending to give a gift or at least send a card. But then they said or did something that we did not like, and the first thing we did was scratch their name off of the list.

I remember when I first acknowledged my call to the ministry back in 1964 when I was 16 years old, there was a man in our church who made it his business to encourage me in every way he could. For Christmas of 1964 he bought me a set of clothes and a brand new Bible. For Christmas of 1965 he bought me a brief case and a Parker pen and pencil set. He told my mother and me that he would support my decision to enter the ministry in any way that he could. By that time, of course, my father had abandoned us, so the help this man was giving was genuinely appreciated and greatly needed.

There was only one problem; this man believed that all a preacher needed was a call from God, and that any academic preparation would be a waste of time. In 1966 I was set to graduate from high school, and he was urging me to look for a church and start preaching. I, on the other hand, at least wanted to go to college and was even thinking about going off to seminary after that. He reminded me of all that he had done for me, and then told me that his generosity and support would end if I did not do as he said. Needless to say, I ignored his advice and enrolled in college in the fall of 1966. When Christmas rolled around that year I don't have to tell you what happened. Not only did I not get a suit, or a Bible, or a brief case or a pen and pencil set; I didn't get a card, or a phone call or even a handshake. He scratched me off of his Christmas list, because I was naughty and did not do what he wanted.

This is human nature; we give gifts to the people that we like and to the people who are important in our lives. But there are other people who have hurt us, or offended us, or who we simply do not like for one reason or another. Under the guidelines of the Gospel according to Santa Claus, we can just scratch them off of our list for this year, and maybe for all of the years to come.

Now contrast Santa's approach to Christmas with the Gospel according to St. John. Two things are fundamentally different. First, John would have us to remember that Christmas is not about the things we give to each other; Christmas is about how the love of God was demonstrated when God gave to us His only begotten Son. That tends to get lost every year about this time, when TV commercials are blaring out the announcement of sales and discounts at stores and in catalogues. Christmas is about Christ. Christmas is about God going to work in human history to forgive our sins, and to reestablish a relationship with every one of us, and to establish our feet upon a path of peace and justice and love for one another. Christmas is about Christ.

Here this message as if you are hearing it for the time; For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but should have everlasting life. What gift has ever been given by anybody or to anybody that can compare with that? I hope you understand that the most precious gift any one could possibly receive this Christmas is the gift of salvation, the gift of the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life with God. Long after the clothes you receive no longer fit, and long after the jewelry you give has faded and lost its luster, our gift from God will still be working. After the Christmas decorations are taken down and the lights are turned off; long after the Christmas carols are no longer heard on the radio, God's gift to us will still be working on our behalf. Christmas is about what God did for us in Jesus Christ.

How appropriate that we focus on the love of God as our Advent theme on the same day that we celebrate communion. The two great events in the life of the church are drawn together in one service; the baby who was born in Bethlehem became the savior who died on the cross as payment for your sins and mine. Every time we share in the communion service we are reminding ourselves of the love of God.

Imagine that this Christmas you pay for all of your gifts and other holiday expenses with a credit card. Now imagine that you have spent to the maximum limit of that card so that you cannot charge another item. Then one day the bill comes in the mail telling you how much you owe and what your minimum payment must be. There is only one problem; you do not have the money so you cannot pay the bill. What do you suppose would happen next? Letters and phone calls would flood into your house demanding payment; but you have no money. The credit card is cancelled and your credit report reflects your non-payment status. But none of that really matters, because you do not have the money with which to pay. You made the charges and you enjoyed the purchases, but now you cannot settle your debt.

Now suppose you receive a letter from the credit card company telling you that someone else has paid your debt in full? The charges were not theirs, but they paid the price for you. The debt was not in their name, but they took it upon themselves. You do not have to pay them, and in fact, you cannot pay them back. All they wanted to do was make life better for you by taking that burden of debt away. What a wonderful gift and what a generous gesture that would be.

That is exactly what happened when Christ came into our world. We had built up a mountain of sin and debt. Every day the interest accrued making the debt even bigger. The debt consisted of promises we made to God but did not keep. The debt consisted of deeds of service we should have done but never got around to. The debt consisted of immoral actions and unjust actions. The debt consisted of our prejudices, our jealousies, our greed and our selfishness. But rather than continuing to hold that debt over our heads, God placed all of that sin on the shoulders of one man; Jesus Christ. God agreed that by the death of that one man all of our sins would be forgiven if we would only put our faith in him and agree to live in accordance with his teachings and example.

That is what God did for us at Christmas; he set in motion the plan for our salvation. It started in Bethlehem, but it ended in Jerusalem. It started in a cradle, but it ended on a cross. It started with the birth of a baby, but it ended with the death of a man. It started when angels sang "glory to God in the highest", but it ended when a Roman centurion cried out "truly this man was the Son of God." It started with Isaiah 7 where we were told that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, but it ended with Isaiah 53 where we were told that "he was wounded for our transgressions and he was bruised for or iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed."

What God did for us he did for people who were not obedient to his will. What God did for us he did even though we were not walking in his ways. What God did was not reserved for those who were already living "nice" lives." Instead, while we were yet in our sins Christ died for the ungodly. Here is the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ. Santa reserves his toys and gifts for people who have been good all year long. Christ offers his gifts to us even though he knows that we have chosen the darkness over the light, and even though we have chosen to disobey and disregard his teachings. What a wonderful gift God has given and what a wonderful blessing we can receive if we only open our hearts and accept it by faith.

There is one more difference between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus that bears mentioning. Santa Claus only comes once a year, and once he goes back to the North Pole he will not be coming back to see about us, no matter what our needs may be. Thank God, that is not the case with Jesus. His promise in Matthew 28:20 is what we can count on every day: "Lo, I will be with you always even to the end of time." Jesus Christ is on duty twenty-four hours a day. God's power is available to us every day of the week. The Lord has promised to walk and stand and stay by our side every moment of every day. What a mighty God we serve!

Earlier this year I went through surgery for prostate cancer. I was in the hospital for five days and recuperating at home for six weeks. I never got a card or a call from Santa Claus, because he is only on call for one day, and only for those who have been nice. On the other hand, there was never a moment when I was lying on my back during surgery, or sitting in my hospital room in the days thereafter, or regaining my strength while confined to my home that I did not have the blessed assurance of the presence of the Lord. My soul cried out both night and day; "I need thee every hour most gracious Lord." The voice of my savior cried back with this answer; "I will never fail you or forsake you."

No matter what else you may receive for Christmas this year, God has already offered the greatest gift that has ever been given. Accept the gift of salvation in the name of Jesus Christ and in so doing you are reclaiming the true meaning of Christmas.

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Marvin A. McMickle is Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.

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