“The Santa Claus Dilemma”

“The Santa Claus Dilemma”

“My hope is that we can all experience the blessings of what it means to give and what it means to receive gifts ... especially those we did nothing to earn but are simply the expression of love and appreciation from the giver ... and especially that One Gift which is the ultimate expression of God’s love to us.”

Advent 2 (NL 3) John B. Valentine
Joel 2:12-29 December 6, 2020


I don’t quite know what to make of this morning’s Scripture lesson ... that text we heard Howard read from Joel ... chapter two.

You see ... the first half of that reading was all about uncertainty of God’s goodness ...

God inviting us to return to Him ...... and holding out the possibility that maybe ... just maybe ... God will be good.

“Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows .... WHO KNOWS .... whether God will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind?”

It’s an invitation for God’s people to come to their senses ... on the hopes that maybe ... just maybe ... God may relent and do us good.

But the second half of that text is all about the certainty of God’s goodness.

It’s this litany of what God is doing ... and will do ... on behalf of the people of God.

• “See ... I’m sending you good stuff and you will be satisfied ...”
• “See ... I will protect you from the armies that would desecrate the land ...”
• “See ... I will protect the environment ... its soil ... its animals ... its vegetation ...”
• “See ... I will bring abundance after abundance after abundance.”

It’s assurance after assurance after assurance ... that God is good ... and God will be good to us.

So if I were to preach one of those “fire and brimstone” sermons this week ... exhorting you to “Clean up your act” ...

I’d be true to the first half of the lesson ... and betray the spirit of the second half.

Whereas ... if I preach a sermon that says “Fear not! God is good ..... all the time.”

I’d be true to the second half of the lesson ... and betray the spirit of the first half of it.

In a certain way ... for me ... the preacher ... this is a “lose-lose” proposition ... for whichever way I turn ... I’m not gonna be faithful to half of the text ... and half of the Word of God.


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Actually ... that IS a pretty serious question ... you know.

For what’s at stake is nothing less than our status as children of God in this world and the next!

• Do we live in the anxiety of an uncertain conditional future ... worrying about whether God MAY in fact forgive us? .... or

• Do we live in the assurance ... the sure and certain hope even ... of the ultimate grace and the goodness of God?

Honestly ...

That is the question that determined the ministry of Jesus.

That is the question that defined the ministry of Saint Paul.

That is the question over which the Reformation broke some five hundred years ago now.

Are we ... as Jonathan Edwards once put it ... “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” ... or ... as Rob Bell more recently framed it ... does “Love Win”???

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Now before you answer that question ...

I should probably caution you that God ... and preachers ... aren’t the only ones who have to own up to this question ... ESPECIALLY this time of year!

No .... that question fairly can be posed of parents across our land as regards a certain fellow with a red suit and a frost-bitten nose who is going to be all over everything for the next three weeks or so ...

You know ... a certain Mister Kringle ........ Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick.

You see ... if you pay close attention to the reputation that Mr. Claus has developed over the years ... there’s a certain strain of it that portrays him as someone who is very ... VERY ... conditional.

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice,
Gonna find out who's naughty or 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!

You see ... according to the lyrics to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” ... the guy in the red suit who mushes on Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen ... is VERY conditional ...

He makes lists. He checks twice. His snooping skills would be welcome at the NSA!

The Santa of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is one of whom it might fairly be said ... “Who knows whether he will leave a blessing behind??”

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On the other hand ... consider the song “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”. (I suspect ... once or twice ... you’ve heard THAT song too.)

In “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” we encounter a good-hearted ... wise ... compassionate ... understanding ... old Saint Nick.

When the clock is striking twelve,
When I'm fast asleep,
Down the chimney broad and black
With your pack you'll creep;

Johnny wants a pair of skates;
Susy wants a dolly
Nellie wants a story book,
She thinks dolls are folly

As for me, my little brain
Isn't very bright;
Choose for me, dear Santa Claus,
What you think is right.

If you base your understanding of Mister Claus on those words ... you’re sure to find him to be benevolent, kind and good ... knowing us well enough to give us gifts just right.

So we’ve got one song says that Saint Nick is one who doles out gifts conditionally ... to those who somehow deserve them ...

And another that asserts that Mister Claus is far more unconditional ... giving good gifts because he himself is good.

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Now ... before we go any further ... maybe I should ask you parents out there if YOU know anything about this so-called Santa Claus dilemma?

• Are you more inclined to give your kids the gifts they want or give them the gifts they need?

• Do you find yourself thinking conditionally or unconditionally this time of year ... getting your kids good gifts whether they’ve been naughty or nice ... or doling out a lump or two of coal on occasion?

• Do you ever find yourself wondering if giving a child a gift that is extravagantly good is the right thing or the wrong thing to do ... in light of some recent misbehavior?

I may be wrong ... but I suspect that most of us err on the side of UN-conditional thinking this time of year ... do we not??

Not that we may not wish we had the gumption to give our kids what they deserve just this once.

Not that we may not wonder if maybe our unrelenting goodness to our kids doesn’t result in their taking us ... and our love for them ... for granted.

Not that there isn’t a little part of us that doesn’t hope that there was some way we could get the kids to wake up and smell the coffee.

But doesn’t the Santa Claus dilemma usually resolve with we who are parents siding with ‘Jolly Old Saint Nicolaus’ rather than the Santa Claus who ‘is coming to town’???

Doesn’t the Santa Claus dilemma usually result in our bending over backwards to give good gifts to our kids???

Actually ... though the Gospels predate Santa and our practice of giving gifts at Christmas ...... obviously ...... I can’t help but think that this Santa Claus dilemma was exactly the sort of question that Jesus had in mind when he said:

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Which leaves us where ... in the end?

Actually ... in a pretty fortuitous place!

For we have a God who desperately WANTS to share good gifts with God’s children.

We have a God whose love for us is not conditioned upon our love.

We have a God whose generosity to the world is way beyond where it rightly ought to be.

We have a God who is better to us than we are to ourselves!

“For God so loved the world” .... “For God so loved you” .... “For God so loved me.”

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You know ... every year ... about this time .... the Internet seems filled with peoples’ stories about undeserved and unexpected gifts.

Heartfelt personal reflections on what Christmas really means to them.

Honestly ... I don’t pay much attention to most of those missives ... but somebody forwarded me a reflection last Christmas from a fellow named Bill Watanabe that has stuck with me for twelve months now ... that seems to speak to this question of the Santa Claus dilemma ... so maybe it’s worth passing along.

It seems as though ... years ago ... for several Christmases in a row ... Bill ... as a kid ... would receive these truly extravagant gifts from a certain family that he barely knew.

Each year ... he would find these beautifully wrapped gifts sitting under the family Christmas tree ... with his name on them.

These were very costly gifts ... to Bill’s recollection:

• a Lionel train set ...
• an expensive telescope ...
• those really expensive top-of-the-line Tonka trucks.

He never knew WHY he received all these extravagant Christmas presents .... he thought perhaps it was he was “good” or somehow deserving of it ... but then ... he figured ... why question a good thing?

And it wasn’t until many decades later ... at the death of his dad ... that he came to learn the WHY of that the flow of abundant blessings that had taken place on those Christmas mornings of long ago ... that he came to learn the rest of the story.

You see ... when Bill was just a preschooler ... his parents had taken in ... and cared for a girl about Bill’s age ... for the girl’s mother came down with TB and was relocated to a sanitarium for a number of years.

And the girl’s father ... a gardener ... couldn’t care for their daughter ... so she came to live with young Bill and his family ... until such time as her own mother regained her health.

And it was out of their appreciation for Bill’s parents generosity that Bill had received all those wonderful gifts ... a connection he never realized until a funeral so many years later.

To which Bill concludes:

“My hope is that we can all experience the blessings of what it means to give and what it means to receive gifts ... especially those we did nothing to earn but are simply the expression of love and appreciation from the giver ... and especially that One Gift which is the ultimate expression of God’s love to us.”

Think about those words.

Let them give your Advent a deep root watering.

And know the grace of God.

“The Santa Claus Dilemma” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine in conjunction with worship for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  The  biblical text upon which it is based is Joel 2:12-29.