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Abiding truth: Part 12

One of Luther’s favorite things to preach about was Christmas—God made flesh to save us.

Nathaniel J. Biebert

Martin Luther and Christmas were like two peas in a pod. He called Christmas a “great festival,” a “beautiful festival,” a “lovely festival.” He called the Christmas story a “joyful, blessed history,” a “comforting, lovely account.” He composed three original Christmas hymns—Christian Worship 33, 38, and 53—including his famous 15-stanza hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” In fact, Luther and Christmas have become so intertwined in many minds that when “Away in a Manger” was first published in the 1880s, it was falsely claimed that Luther had composed both text and tune for his children.

But what married Martin Luther to Christmas more than anything else was his preaching. Between 1514 and 1544, he preached at least 47 different Christmas sermons on Luke 2:1-20 alone, not to mention the Christmas sermons he preached on Matthew chapter 1, John chapter 1, and Isaiah chapter 9, and the Christmas sermons he prepared only for print. Just between 1527 and 1533, he preached six sermon series on Luke chapter 2, each of them three to five sermons long.

Luther himself tells us how he could do that and why he did: “[The account of Christ’s birth] is a rich history on which there are many sermons to preach” (Luther’s Works [WA], Vol. 29, p. 679). “By God’s grace we know almost all of this Gospel text quite well; on the other hand, we don’t know it at all. We know it well because we hear it and read it and sing it so often . . . and yet we know nothing. That is why we are moved by it only a little or not at all, and it does not go to our hearts and does not occupy us as it ought.” If we knew it well, we would always “have joy and delight from it” (WA, Vol. 23, p. 726).

Luther almost invariably began his sermons on Luke chapter 2 with “the history.” Jesus’ birth was not merely a cute story. “Notice the certainty in the statement of the evangelist [Luke] that the birth of Christ took place at the time of Emperor Augustus and when Cyrenius was governor of the Roman Empire in Syria” (LW, Vol. 52, p. 8). All the comfort we derive from the Christmas story is rooted in its historicity. “Is he here for the sake of the geese, cows, or pigs? He is a human. If he had wanted to help the pigs, he would have assumed the nature of a pig. . . . He has put on human nature; he was made the son of a virgin” (WA, Vol. 37, p. 236).

The fact that Mary had to give birth to Jesus in shameful circumstances was proof that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, that he came to suffer and that those who bear his name must suffer, and that he came for a world of sinful rogues and wretches. The world either thinks little of the account or think that it’s ridiculous, but believers revel in every detail like the angels did.

Luther then moved on to the angel’s message to the shepherds, “the first and best preaching” in the New Testament (WA, Vol. 29, p. 656). Don’t miss it when the angel says that a Savior is born “to you.” “T-O Y-O-U [in Luke 2:11] should be written in large letters” (WA, Vol. 27, p. 493), yes, “in blazing letters” (WA, Vol. 37, p. 236). “For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart. For, if what the angel says is true, that he is our Lord and Savior, what can sin do against us?” (LW, Vol. 51, p. 216). The angel’s sermon is also proof that God communicates his grace and works saving faith through the proclamation of the gospel.

When Luther reached the song of the angel host, he divided it into three stanzas:

1) “Glory” belongs “to God in the highest,” not to our works or merit.

2) “Peace on earth” is the result of the Christ-child’s birth for those who believe he came to reconcile them with God.

3) When humans have this peace, then they also have “good will,” which Luther said he would rather translate as “delight” (WA, Vol. 49, p. 291).

From the example of the shepherds, Luther taught that faith in Christ produces good works. And good works are not limited to what is done in a monastery or in an official church-related position (after all, “the shepherds returned” to their flocks).

Luther simply could not get over the miracles of Christmas. It was miracle enough that God would stoop so far down as to assume human nature in the womb of the virgin. “But is even more miraculous that the Son of God . . . does this for the sake of the poor, condemned human race, to deliver them from the curse and the devil’s power and to restore them to their proper condition again” (WA, 10/3:432).

Perhaps this is all best summed up in a Christmas hymn that predated the Reformation and seems to have been Luther’s favorite. He quoted it at least five times in

his Christmas sermons and cited it as proof that the gospel was preserved even in the darkness of the pope’s false teaching:

For us today is born a child,

A perfect son so peerless,

Of Mary, fair maid undefiled,

To cheer mankind so cheerless.

Were he not born, we all had dwelled

In fear and fire, from God expelled—

Salvation’s ours forever!

To you, sweet Jesus, glory be

For sharing in humanity!

Let hell subdue us never! (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 131:2)


Nathaniel Biebert is pastor at Risen Savior, Austin, Texas.


As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the final article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.


Want to read more of Luther’s Christmas sermons? Check out Biebert’s recently published English translation of Luther’s Christmas sermons on Isaiah 9:6.


Luther still speaks

In his book on the bondage of the will, Luther wrote, “What matter of more sacred importance can lie hidden in Scriptures now that the seals are broken, the stone is rolled from the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries is brought to light: Christ, the Son of God made Man—God Triune and yet One, Christ, who suffered for us and will rule eternally? Are not these things known and sung in our very streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what else will you find in them?” (What Luther Says, Vol. 1, #437).

“Keep Christ in Christmas” urged the sign on the front lawn. Luther would agree, and so do we. At the center of our salvation lies the glorious teaching of God becoming man to save us. That little baby clothed in the diapers of poverty is a miracle of love.

Maybe we should also have yard signs that read “Keep Christ after Christmas.” The Bethlehem crib is only part of the story of our salvation. If the account were to end there, Jesus’ birth would still be a miracle, but worth nothing to us. That diapered holy child asleep on the hay must lead to the sin-laden one on the cross for whose seamless robe calloused soldiers cast their dice. Nor dare it end on that skull-shaped Good Friday knoll. An emptied borrowed Easter tomb and a “mission accomplished” Ascension complete the story of redemption.

Of course, we want to keep the Savior’s birth at the heart of our Christmas joy. But we surely don’t want to stop there. “Christ, the Son of God made Man . . . Christ, who suffered for us and will rule eternally” are things we know and will want to sing about all year long.


Richard Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.  


 

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Author: Nathaniel J. Biebert & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

God with us

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14                                            

Daniel J. Habben  

Not so long ago, my wife found a list of names that we had compiled 16 years ago in anticipation of each of our children’s births. We wanted their names to mean something, to be just right, since our kids would carry those names for life.  

In a few weeks, churches all over the world will remember a far more significant name-choosing: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Talk about a name packed with meaning. Immanuel comes from the Hebrew and means “God with us.” The child Mary would bear was God himself. Isn’t that what we celebrate every Christmas—the fact that God chose to pitch his holy tent among sinful humanity? 

Help is at hand 

But perhaps God’s arrival should be cause for concern. If you came home to find an ambulance parked in your driveway with lights flashing and engine running, you wouldn’t think: “Cool! I’ve always wanted to see an ambulance up close!” Instead you would race into the house and shout: “What’s wrong?! Who’s hurt?!” The presence of an ambulance means trouble.  

Likewise, when God parked his Son in that Bethlehem crib it signaled trouble—or at least it should have. Do we really want a holy God to be with us? In the bedroom? In the boardroom? In the bar? Do we want him observing our every action and reading our every thought? Such a prospect should dismay us more than someone livestreaming every hidden moment of our life!   

But while the presence of an ambulance signals a problem, it also means that help is at hand. So it is with Immanuel. God is with us—not to punish, but to save. The Son of God accomplished our salvation by actually becoming one of us. In the person of Jesus, God has hair and an eye color. He became thirsty and tired. He even died.  

One eye on the cross 

But why bring up Jesus’ death before the ink on his birth announcement has even dried? Why conjure up images of a brutal crucifixion even as we prepare for the joy of Christmas? Because Christians understand that lasting joy and happiness can only come from knowing and believing that all of our sins are forgiven. And that means celebrating Christmas with one eye on the crib and one eye on the cross where Jesus paid the penalty for our sin.  

At this time of year, credit card companies often offer the chance to win all the purchases you will make in December. Wow—wouldn’t it be something to win that contest so that you wouldn’t have to start the New Year with a huge credit card bill? But here’s something better. When Roman soldiers fastened Jesus to the cross, God the Father charged him with all the sins that we have done and will ever commit. With sin paid for, the debt we owe God has been erased. The door to everlasting happiness is wide open.  

It’s no wonder churches all over the world proclaim this well-known prophecy from Isaiah at this time of year. It’s a joy to be reminded that in Jesus we have Immanuel: God with us. In the person of Jesus, God joined Team Humanity so that we undeserving sinners may live forever with Team Divinity.  

Whom will you invite to church this Christmas to learn the meaning of Immanuel, God with us?


Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. John’s, St. John’s, Antigua, West Indies.  


 

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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 8

Two monuments taught the children of Israel—and us—one lasting lesson. 

Samuel C. Degner 

“To this day,” wrote Joshua (7:26). The people of Joshua’s day could still go and see two distinct monuments, which together taught one lasting lesson.  

God’s wrath 

The Lord had just toppled mighty Jericho. So Joshua led his men against the next objective—Ai. He was confident in the Lord’s power and promise to give them the victory. 

Instead, the Israelites were routed. Joshua was dumbfounded and cried out desperately: “Lord, how could you let this happen? If you promise to fight for your people and they lose, what happens to your good name?”  

Indeed, the promise had been broken—but by Israel, not the Lord. Lying hidden beneath the tent of a man named Achan was plunder from Jericho that the Lord had commanded his people not to take, under penalty of death. As long as that sin remained between them, the Lord would not fight for his people.  

But God showed mercy. He told Joshua about the sin and revealed the guilty one. Achan confessed, and both he and his family were stoned and burned. A pile of rocks was heaped over Achan, and that valley was named Achor, which means “trouble”—reminders of what disobedience brings. 

The punishment might seem shocking. But it could have been worse. Death by stoning is nothing compared to what rebellion really deserves. Achan’s sad monument stands as a warning that it is a deadly serious matter not to listen to the Lord—a warning for me and for you still today. 

You may even have your own sad reminder to this day of disobedience and rebellion—a scar, a broken relationship, a criminal record. On the other hand, maybe you managed to hide your sin—at least from others. But God knows. He would have every right to crush you under his wrath.  

God’s faithfulness 

But the Lord is merciful.   

Once the Israelites had dealt with Achan’s sin, the Lord turned from his anger and he went right back to fighting for his people. He gave them a plan of attack and, when they followed it, he granted a resounding victory over Ai (Joshua chapter 8). Its king was put to death, and a pile of rocks was heaped over his body—another monument, this one to God’s faithfulness. God’s people may have broken their covenant with him, but God had an even older promise to keep. 

It’s a promise he repeated centuries later through his prophet: “I . . . will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. . . . I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God’ ” (Hosea 2:15,23). 

Our rebellions should cut us off from the Lord and disqualify us from receiving his help. But Jesus stepped forward and owned our disobedience. He was executed for our crimes, crushed under God’s wrath in our place. By his death, the sin that had cut us off from God was removed and the Lord’s anger is turned away. We are God’s people through faith in Jesus.  

As the Lord’s people, we know he has given us eternal victory over our enemies—and so much more. He has graciously promised to bless us. We can march forward in life, confident in his covenant of forgiveness.  

His word still stands as a witness to that faithfulness; you can see it for yourself to this day. 


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin.  


This is the eighth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us.  


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest : Part 1

Nourished by meals with the Messiah

Joel S. Heckendorf

Bethany buffet (Luke 10:38-42)

The Thanksgiving turkey has barely settled in your stomach, and you’re already planning the Christmas cookie assortment. Ever since God said in Genesis, “They will be yours for food” (1:29), eating has played an important role in our lives. Jesus also came and ate with friends, disciples, and others. Fully human, the Son of Man came “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). We continue to invite him to be our guest at mealtime.

“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest”

“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Martha didn’t rush through those words as a precursor to, “Please pass the potatoes.” She truly wanted Jesus to be a guest in her home. Martha often gets remembered for being on the wrong side of Jesus’ rebuke, but don’t miss the compliment: “Martha opened her home to him” (Luke 10:38). Considering the circumstances, her “Welcome” was more than a word on her doormat; it was evidence of her faith in Jesus.

Welcoming Jesus was not cheap. Remember, he didn’t travel alone. Martha couldn’t just instruct her family, “F.H.B.” (Family-Hold-Back), in order to stretch the mutton when Jesus landed at her Bethany home. Jesus usually arrived with 12 hungry students. I don’t mind if my son brings a few friends home for supper, but if he brings the whole basketball team I get concerned about the grocery bill. Not Martha! She welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her home without counting the cost.

It wasn’t only her checkbook. Having Jesus in her home also had the potential to cost Martha her safety and reputation. This Bethany buffet occurred during the “year of opposition.” Jesus was no longer viewed as a popular miracle worker. He was increasingly viewed as a rebel who stood up to the “righteous” religious rulers. Yet, Martha “opened her home to him.” May we too pray and live in such a way that invites Jesus to be our guest.

“And let these gifts to us be blessed”

At the same time, Jesus did not come to be served. He came to serve. This was a difficult lesson for Martha to learn. It’s difficult for us too. Among the readers of this article are Sunday school teachers and funeral-meal preparers, choir members, ushers, canvassers. councilmen, coffee roasters, and parent/teacher organization leaders. You may be tired of being the 20 percent who does 80 percent of the work. Thank you for your service to the Lord. Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

But, “Martha, Martha,” is your service getting in the way of being served? Even if you think it’s not, listen to your Savior, “Only one thing is needed” (Luke 10:42). Like Martha, your service is a blessing to Jesus’ work and his people. But the Savior’s primary goal is to serve you. That’s a lesson Martha’s sister Mary knew well.

Have you ever been told as the host, “Just sit down and enjoy the meal”? That’s what our Savior says to you. Sitting at Jesus’ feet with Mary, we are served endless helpings of forgiveness, inexhaustible portions of peace, limitless servings of grace, and an all-you-can-eat buffet of blessings.

Like Mary, may our prayer be, “And let these gifts to us be blessed.”


Food for thought

1. What helps sharpen your focus on “the one thing needed”?

Examples may include: 

  • Actually writing in “Bible Time” on our calendars.
  • Enlisting an accountability partner.
  • Link your reading of God’s Word to your personal prayer life.
  • When you read the Bible, look for yourself and your Savior in every text, story, prophecy, and promise.
  • Set asidefive minutes daily to read God’s Word and ask, “What is God telling me through this text for this particular day?” 
  • Tell someone else what you learned or thought. Telling others helps clarify our thoughts.
  • Devotional books or lists of key Bible texts can help guide our meditation.

2. How have you learned not to count the cost of service?

By focusing our eyes on what Christ has done for us, our service will feel less forced. Christ’s love compels us (2 Corinthians 5:14,15) is the key to joyful service. This same focus also humbles us so that we are glorifying God’s name in what we say and do and not glorifying ourselves. 

3. Read Matthew 6:25-34. What comfort do you have concerning the worries of this world?

One of the most comforting truths of Matthew chapter 6 is the fact that our heavenly Father takes care of the birds. If he takes care of the “stuff”even the little “stuff”of this world, we don’t have to worry or get upset. 


Contributing editor Joel Heckendorf is pastor at Immanuel, Greenville, Wisconsin.


This is the first article in a 11-part series that looks at Jesus as a mealtime guest and how he blessed his fellow diners—and us—with his living presence. Find the article and answers online after Dec. 5 at wels.net/forwardinchrist. 


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Author: Joel S. Heckendorf
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Heart to heart: Parent conversations : How can we help cultivate a mission heart in children?

How can we help cultivate a mission heart in children? 

This month’s topic gets at the heart of one of our fundamental jobs as Christian parents—helping cultivate a mission heart in our children. Of course, that is more likely to happen if we as parents display our mission hearts. I’m the first to admit that my mission heart can go missing for days—or even weeks—in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Reading an article like this helps me refocus. It’s a great message to hear any time of year, but I think that it’s especially timely at Christmas. It’s a natural time to share our faith in Jesus, the true “reason for the season. May God bless our efforts! 

Nicole Balza


These are my five ways to cultivate a mission heart in children. 

  1. Build awareness: When I was a young child (think three years old), I thought that everyone knew and believed in Jesus. As I grew older, the reality that a kind neighbor, relative, or friend in my small world didn’t believe was heart boggling. What did that mean for them?  

When children learn that not everyone believes in Jesus, they can feel sad. We have the opportunity to build them up. We know Jesus and the comfort that God our Savior “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:4-6).  

That knowledge comes with an opportunity. God gives us—young and old—the privilege to share the good news about Jesus’ love and forgiveness. Romans 10:13,14 says, “ ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” 

It is such a joy to witness children sharing their faith! They talk about Jesus with their neighbor, the hurt child at the playground, or even the cashier at the store. When children learn that they carry the powerful good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness with them, it is hard for them to keep it to themselves.  

  1. Be an example: Children imitate what they see more than what they are told. As we consider how to cultivate a mission heart in young ones, we first need to discern our own heart. 
  • Do we hold Jesus as our own example to follow?
  • Do weview lives from an earthly perspective or an eternal one? 
  • Do we believe ourselves to be disciples of Christ in whatever job or role we have?
  • Are we willing to make personal sacrifices (time, comfort, materials) for the good of others?
  • Do we treat and speak about others who are different from uswith compassion and respect?  

When I was a young teen, my dad asked me to accompany him on his guitar for the new Spanish worship services at our church. At the time, I did not want to share my time or talents, but out of reluctant obedience I agreed. God certainly reached more than the Spanish-speaking believers who walked through the door. He changed my heart as I watched families strengthened in their faith with others in worship and got to know them personally. 

Now I greatly treasure that experience. My dad not only encouraged me to serve others but also took me by the hand and led me by his example. He still does. Thank you, Dad!  

As 1 Corinthians 11:1 tells us, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 

  1. Use resources: There are many different tools that can cultivate a mission heart in children: 
  • Read and talk about God’s Word. This is where children learn their own need for a Savior and see that the entire Bible points to Jesus as their risen herowho has won eternal life by grace for them. The Spirit strengthens their faith, knowledge, and heart through the Word to share the gospel.  
  • Learn about past missionaries, persecuted Christians, and martyrs throughout history from books, magazines, videos, and audio books. You can start with Jesus (of course!), the disciples, Saul/Paul, Polycarp, John Huss,and Martin Luther. 
  • Pray for missionaries and persecuted Christianswho are alive today. We have missionaries in East Asia, South Asia, and other places. Their work is often difficult. Make a list of their names, print off their pictures as reminders, and bless them as a family. Consult the World Mission office of our synod for assistance (414-256-3234 or bwm@wels.net). Children can be pen pals with mission children from a different country or in orphanages. The opportunities to serve others in your own community and abroad are many. Your family can help stuff meal bags or help pick out food for the hungry when you go grocery shopping. They can even share hope with a child whose parents are in prison. 
  • Play!Use your imagination and learn. One game we play with our kids is “Pin the Missionary.” Give a globe a spin and when the child places his finger on a random location, look where he has been sent. Did he land in Brazil? Pakistan? America? Look up information about the place he “landed” and see how many Christians live there and what the climate is like. Learn the different kinds of food the people eat and what the most common jobs are. If you only have a map, you can tape it to the wall, blindfold and spin the child, and have her place a marker on a map. Still fun!  
  1. Take a trip: Consider taking your family on a mission trip. Often when family vacations are planned, they are purposed to serve ourselves with entertainment and rest. There is nothing wrong with taking a family vacation. But consider how your family can grow closer to each other and closer to God when your vacation has a greater purpose than yourselves. 

When I think back to family vacations, I remember a variety of bad attitudes that would creep up—entitlement, bickering over small issues, and discontentment. Serving others can cause little ones to see the needs of others as well as their own. What if we considered taking our time—yes, even our vacation time—and using it to serve others and our Lord? 

  1. Serve at home: You don’t have to travel far to be a missionary! Look in your backyard, your community, or elsewhere in your state and discuss with your children ways that you can reach others with the gospel in words and action. Matthew 5:14-16 says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” 

Often Christians are criticized when it comes to helping others in need because we’d rather send a check than get our hands dirty. But you can go out and be a testimony of Jesus’ love by how you treat others.  

Who are the weak, poor, or neglected in your community? Is there an elderly neighbor who could use help with lawn care? Is there a population of homeless that can be intentionally served by your family? Are there any recent immigrants that could use a helping hand? Is there a women’s shelter in need of donations? Include your children! They may complain at first, but they will see how God can use not just their money but also their time to bless others.  

Your home is an excellent place to welcome and serve others with hospitality. These opportunities can be big or small—invite a new guest at your church over for dinner, hold a Bible study, host an international student, allow a family member in need to live with you, plan a play date for the young families on your block, or (on a grander scale) have a block party for the neighbors. You’ll find out that they are just as weird and uniquely made as you. Food brings people together! 

Let’s give others true food that never leaves them empty: “ ‘For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘always give us this bread.’ Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ ” (John 6:33-35). 

Jesus brings believers together eternally.  


Amanda Rose and her husband, Frank, have four young children and live in Kingston, Wisconsin.   


This article is reprinted with permission from holyhenhouse.com, a blog with “chatter that matters” for women of all ages.  


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Author: Amanda Rose
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Light for our path: Lying about Santa and other mythical figures

“Why do Christian parents lie to their children about Santa Claus and other mythical figures?” 

James F. Pope

fear your question is going to drive people into two camps: some who agree with you and others who do not appreciate your characterization of them. aim to address both groups.  

Fact behind fiction 

Make-believe characters and fictional personages are commonplace in children’s literature. “Once upon a time” often leads to imaginary people like Jack of beanstalk fame, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. The Christmas season has would-be characters like the Grinch; Frosty the Snowman; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; and, of course, Santa Claus. 

While the chubby man in the red suit is fictional, there is some factual basis for “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” Some three hundred years after Jesus’ birth, a baby by the name of Nicholas was born in present-day Turkey. Nicholas grew to become a monk and then a bishop in the Eastern Church. Stories developed about the red-robed bishop who protected children and gave gifts to the poorest of them. After he died on Dec. 6, A.D. 343, people began honoring Nicholas on the anniversary of his death with gift giving.  

It appears we can credit Dutch immigrants to the United States for bringing traditions of Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas with them. Over time in our country, Sinterklaas morphed into Santa Claus, and the day associated with him changed from Dec. 6 to Dec. 24/25.  

So, while the fellow from the North Pole is make-believe, the man from Turkey is real. Children need to learn the difference. So do Christian parents. 

The gift above all gifts 

Where does this leave us with your question? Ideally, Christian parents are teaching their children: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Whether it is Christmas, a birthday, or any day gifts are given, Christian parents want to teach their children that God is behind every “good and perfect gift.” Ideally, at Christmas, Christian parents are teaching their children to give thanks to God for his “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)—his gift of a Savior in Bethlehem. 

I think you would agree with me that, with or without Santa Claus in the picture, Christian parents can easily distract their children from the real meaning of Christmas. They can lead their children to think that Christmas is all about presents under a tree instead of God’s gift in a manger. 

Christian parents who teach their children biblical truths and engage in Christmas cultural practices can open themselves up for criticism. I, for one, do not want to judge their motives or characterize them as liars. I do not know how they handle other make-believe characters and fictional personages that fill children’s literature. I do not know what kind of playful interactions they have with their children.   

A suggestion that might retain a cultural practice and remove distractions from the Christmas celebration is to move the traditions associated with St. Nicholas back to his day on the calendar: Dec. 6. If we separated our gift giving from Christmas, there could be less interference with the celebration of God’s “indescribable gift” of grace. 

But that’s unlikely. Instead Christian parents will need to keep pointing their children to the Gift above all gifts in December and throughout the year. 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

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