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A New “Visit from St. Nicholas”

December 6, 2016

St. Nicholas — the real one — was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and has his “feast day” on December 6. He was a much-loved saint of the early church, and his reputation over the years grew because he gave away his inheritance to needy children (and this and various legends over the centuries inspired the eventual corruption of his name, through other languages, into “Santa Claus”). But his real passion was the gospel — one legend has it that once he got so upset at the false teachings about Christ that the heretic Arius was spreading that he went up and slapped Arius in the face — in front of hundreds of other bishops at the Council of Nicea (the one that gave us the Nicene Creed). They kicked him out for “conduct unbecoming a bishop”, but they let him back in when he repented — but it shows what was really important to him.

 This poem explores how he might react to having the focus put on him as Christmas approaches — to being made bigger than Christ.


A Visit from St. Nicholas

A sound broke my slumbers one cold winter’s dawn —

Grief-laden sobs and sighs deeply drawn.

I rose from my bed and searched for the sound.

In a chair by the tree, a stranger I found.

With white hair and beard, and eyes long turned red —

His cheeks glistened wet with the tears he had shed.

 

“Who are you?” I asked, though somehow I knew.

The things all around him gave me a clue.

Stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

And Christmas cards spilled on the floor by the chair.

My red Santa hat had been thrown at the tree

And Rudolph and Frosty played on TV.

The “spirit of Christmas” filled up the room

But reindeer and tinsel only deepened his gloom.

 

This had to be Nicholas — his beard left no doubt —

But what brought this on I couldn’t make out.

His red suit was missing, and where was his sleigh?

And why was he here on the wrong winter’s day?

No jelly-bowl belly and no “Ho, ho, ho!”

Something was wrong, and I just had to know.

 

So “Nicholas,” I asked him, “what’s up with the tears?

They’re hardly a symbol of holiday cheer!

You’re not looking much like a ‘jolly old elf’ —

This morning, it seems, you’re just not yourself.”

 

He lifted his gaze and the tears left his eyes.

A rage seemed to come as he started to rise.

“My ‘self’ is the problem since someone took me

And made me a someone I never would be.

I came here to visit and saw what you’ve done:

You’ve made me a rival to God’s only Son!”

 

“The children I’ve asked — they all knew my name.

But Jesus their Savior — none cared that he came.

These stories and specials and movies and songs —

They’re all about me — and that’s simply wrong.

It’s Christ you should think of and worship and praise —

Go to the manger and ponder and gaze.

Forget about me and look to your Savior —

The very best gift of God’s loving favor.”

 

“How could you do this? How dare you distract

The children’s young minds from this wonderful fact?

A babe born for sinners — what wonder, what joy! —

Please focus their thoughts on God’s little boy!”

 

“I cried since my giving of gifts had been changed

from a service of love to a practice … deranged.

I’m glad to be seen as a figure of love

But I will not compete with God’s Son from above.”

 

“I wept most of all when I saw I’d been made

A reason to make little children afraid!

To punish and frighten the ones that keep sinning?

Oh, how that must keep the old Serpent grinning!

Christmas is gospel — grace freely given;

Trust in the Lord and sins are forgiven.”

 

“So don’t use my name to threaten or plead

The gospel of Christ is just what you need

To change your dear children from naughty to nice

And give them their place in God’s paradise.

Forget me, I beg, if I get in the way

Of Christ and his coming that first Christmas Day.”

 

The darkness was lifting as light filled the room

And Nicholas faded, along with his gloom.

He’d freely confessed, and did not deny

His place as a servant of Christ crucified.

 

A dream or a vision? I couldn’t quite tell.

But he’d corrected my Christmas and broken the spell.

And back to my slumbers I slowly returned

And dreamt of the Baby whose story I’d spurned.

 

Since then the Santas and reindeer are gone

From my mantel, my window, my roof and my lawn.

Instead there’s a manger scene down by the way —

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay —

It’s part of my witness to God’s saving grace

And Nicholas is happy to give Christ his place.

Copyright 2005 — Jeffrey L. Samelson

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A Letter from St. Nicholas

December 6, 2016

December 6 is the Festival Day for St. Nicholas, the 4th Century Bishop from whose name we get “Santa Claus”. Here is a letter from him for a child — really, for any child of God — as we approach Christmas and all the things associated with it.

 

  • (This was originally posted at www. wels.net, but has since disappeared from that site, so I figured this was as good a place as any to repost it.)

December 6

My Dear Child,

I was so happy to receive your letter yesterday! I am always surprised — pleasantly — when the mail finds me wherever I might be.

But I didn’t just want to write and thank you for your letter. What you wrote was very nice, but there are some things I need to tell you, because I don’t want you to misunderstand. If not, you will be more than disappointed on that day we’re all looking forward to!

So if you promise to be patient with me, I will tell you: It’s about your gifts. You see, you have asked for some very nice things, and I am certain that you would be happy to receive them, but the way you asked for them made me afraid — yes, afraid! — that you were thinking so much about those presents you wanted that you forgot about the gifts you have already been given — the gifts that are most important.

Don’t worry; I’m not trying to tell you that this year you just have to be happy with what you got last year. What I want you to remember is what God has given you, and his greatest gift is what we will soon celebrate: the Festival of Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s gift of his own Son as the Savior of sinners.

Your mother and father have raised you to know and trust Jesus, and they gave you a great gift themselves when they made sure to have you baptized as a baby, so you could have your sins washed away and spend all your life as God’s child, too. So you are a Christian, and that means what you want most for Christmas is to be told again about the miracle of our Savior’s birth in Bethlehem and to celebrate that happy day just as if you were marveling with the shepherds in the fields and singing with the angels in the skies.

With the gift of Jesus, God gave you many other wonderful things: the forgiveness of your sins, the promise of paradise, a place in his family, and his very own Word, through which you hear him speak to you every Sunday. And, of course, he has also given you gifts like your family, a home to live in, food to eat, and a beautiful world to explore. These are the gifts I hope you will be thinking most about these next few weeks — and all your life!

But it’s not only which gifts you were wanting that I needed to write you about; it’s also how you thought you would get them. I wasn’t happy at all to hear you promising to be good so you could get presents. That has things turned around completely! Don’t be good to get things and don’t be good for goodness’ sake; be good because that’s the way saved sinners say “Thank you!” to God for his gifts!

And it is also a way to show the world that we are ready for Christ to come — his return on the Last Day. Every believer is eagerly waiting for that just the way you are eagerly waiting for Christmas this year, and how we wait is important. The Apostle Peter wrote, “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God,” and that is a good reminder for us. What the Lord has told us about that day may be a little frightening, but it shouldn’t be for you, because “in keeping with [God’s] promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”[1] The gift of eternal life in Paradise with Jesus is good beyond anything you can imagine, and because you are God’s child by faith in Christ, that wonderful gift is yours!

But you’d better watch out. You’d better not put your trust in anyone or anything other than Jesus, because when he comes it will be like a thief in the night — like someone who slips down your chimney without anyone ever knowing he’s coming. It will be very sad for anyone who doesn’t believe in him. So we all want to be ready with faith when he comes, and we want our lives to reflect the gospel of Christ in every way. We’ll be good for Jesus’ sake.

Because in the end, it’s all about Jesus, isn’t it? Faithful Christians throughout the empire[2] will soon celebrate God’s gift of a Savior at Christmas, and in the spring we will remember Christ’s gift of himself as a sacrifice for our sins, and then we’ll celebrate the gift of eternal life he guaranteed for all believers with his rising from the dead. Everything about us and everything in our lives is all about Jesus, because he is our hope and our joy and our salvation.

Of course, you probably knew I couldn’t finish a letter without talking about Christ! There is no subject more important, and we must make sure not only that we always talk about him, but also that we always talk about him correctly. Your parents may have told you a certain story about me and that naughty monk, Arius, at the Council of Nicea[3] — I’ll leave it to you whether to believe it or not. But Jesus the eternal Son of God and your loving Savior? Never fail to believe in him! That’s how you can best “be good” and make me very happy!

These travels around the world are tiring for an old man like me, but I hope I can see you at home in Myra for Christmas. I’ll be sure to stop by your house when I come to town — if it’s late, I’ll see you when you’re sleeping; if not, I’ll know when you’re awake!

God bless you greatly, my child! He has already given you priceless gifts and great treasure in Jesus your Savior. Rejoice!

Bishop Nicholas

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (2 Pe 3:11–13). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the original basis for the legends of Santa Claus, lived during the waning years of the Roman Empire.

[3] One legend of St. Nicholas puts him at the Council of Nicea, where at one point he was so upset by the words coming out of the heretic’s mouth that he went up and slapped him. He was rebuked for losing his temper and his violence and he apologized, but sealed his reputation as a defender of the deity and two natures of Christ, and the importance of these doctrines for our salvation.

Opportunities with the Word & Worship

July 12, 2016

I’ve been teaching myself how to create these videos. Since this one includes an … encouragement to worship, I thought I’d share the link here: Opportunities with the Word

Responsive Prayer for Father’s Day

June 20, 2015

[Just remembered I had this in my files. Feel free to use and/or adapt.]

Responsive Prayer for Father’s Day

Leader:  Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, on this day when we give special honor to our fathers, we come before you in humility, parents and children together, and plead for your mercy according to your unfailing love.

All:  As children, dear Lord, we confess that we have failed to always honor and obey our parents and those in authority over us. Wash away our iniquity and cleanse us of our sin.

Leader:  Forgive us for every sinful failure to give our fathers love, respect, or forgiveness.

Parents:  As parents, dear Father, we confess that we have not always lived lives of perfect example. We confess that our relationships with our children have not been as loving, patient, firm or forgiving as you command. We confess that we have exasperated our children with our failures and frustrated them with our frailties.

Leader:  Forgive us all for every selfish, faithless act or thought that denies or disregards the responsibilities you have given us. According to your great compassion blot out our transgressions.

All:  As your family, dear Lord, we are troubled by our sin. We confess that we have not honored your gift of marriage as you command. With selfishness and lust, dissatisfaction and disrespect we and our society have cheapened and broken the blessed union of husband and wife, of father and mother.

Leader:  Against you, you only have we sinned. Hide your face from our sins and blot out our iniquity.

All:  We have sinned against the Lord.

Leader:  The Lord has taken away our sin.

Leader:  Almighty God, who established fatherhood in your creation and who has shown a Father’s love in all your dealings with us, we pray for earthly fathers and their children.

All:  Lift up and strengthen our fathers and grandfathers, and any who have served us as fathers without bearing that name. Give them strength and wisdom to lead and love their families according to your example and command.

Fathers:  Let our children see you in us. Lead them to value and imitate all the good that you have done in us and withhold from them our weaknesses. Establish and increase both unity and love in all our family.

All:  Bless the fatherless, and use us to be a blessing to them. Through us and all believers support and strengthen both fathers and your plan for fatherhood.

Leader:  Dear Jesus Christ, God’s own dear Son, who submitted to your Father’s will and taught us how to honor and address him as our own Father, we pray for men and women, for husbands and wives.

All:  Help us to submit to each other out of reverence for you.

Wives: Give us humility, strength, love and patience, Lord, so that we submit to our husbands as to you. Help us to be their helpers, and move us to respect and strengthen them in their roles as fathers.

Husbands:  Give us a love like yours, O Christ, that we love our wives as you loved your church and give ourselves to and for them. Give us patience, love and sensitivity, and crush our sinful pride whenever it intrudes and threatens our loving union.

All:  Bless the unmarried and strengthen them in following your will. Give them chastity, purity and peace, and help them live lives devoted to you.

Leader:  Come, Holy Spirit, Faith-giver and Sanctifier, and bless us with your wisdom. We pray for the salvation and instruction of children everywhere.

Parents:  Deepen our desire and hunger for the Scriptures, that we might be more ready and able to raise our children in the training and instruction of the Lord. Lead us to live lives of joyful sanctification that show your presence in our hearts. Unless you build our house, our labors are in vain.

All:  Lead children to honor and obey in all things out of love for you and for their parents. Let them walk in your ways, and keep your decrees and commands, so that they may prosper in all they do and wherever they go.

Leader:  O Holy Spirit, let the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, giving thanks to God our Father through Jesus Christ his Son. Amen.

Holy Innocents – Resources

December 13, 2014

The Festival of the Holy Innocents

Service Theme:          No Earthly Force or Fury Can Foil God’s Plan to Save Us

Color: Red


Prayer of the Day

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by order of King Herod. Receive into the arms of your mercy all who lay down their lives for your sake, and prepare us by your grace to be ready at all times to live and die for you; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Verse of the Day, Matthew 5:10:

Alleluia. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Alleluia.


Psalm of the Day:

Psalm 130, page 114 (per Christian Worship: Manual)

Psalm 2, page 65 (also appropriate, in re: Herod’s raging)


Lesson Introductions:

FIRST LESSON:         Jeremiah 31:15-17

This prophecy from the Lord, through Jeremiah, was spoken at a time in Israel’s and Judah’s history when things seemed hopelessly bad — the northern kingdom had been destroyed and its people sent away, and the southern kingdom of Judah would soon itself be conquered and its people taken into exile. But the Lord tells his people not to weep, but to keep on working, because with him there is always hope.

 

SECOND LESSON:    1 Peter 4:12-19

In these verses the Apostle Peter puts an unexpected spin on Christians suffering for the sake of Christ.

 

GOSPEL:       Matthew 2:13-18

These verses, which will serve as our sermon text this morning, are the gospel account of the flight into Egypt and Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents:


Music Suggestions:

“Coventry Carol” — LAPPY, pp. 54,55

Hymn of the Day:       “Sweet Flow’rets of the Martyr Band” — to tune of Christian Worship 5 or 53

Sweet flow’rets of the martyr band,

Plucked by the tyrant’s ruthless hand

Upon the threshold of the morn,

Like rosebuds by a tempest torn.

 

First victims for th’ incarnate Lord,

A tender flock to feel the sword;

Beside the altar’s ruddy ray,

With palm and crown, you seemed to play.

 

Ah, what availed King Herod’s wrath?

He could not stop the Savior’s path.

Alone, while others murdered lay,

In safety Christ is borne away.

 

O Lord, the virgin-born, we sing

Eternal praise to you, our King,

Whom with the Father we adore

And Holy Spirit evermore.

 

“The Star Proclaims the King Is Here” — Christian Worship 91 (verse 1, maybe verse 2, only)

“Gathered ‘Round Your Table” — LAPPY, pp 82, 83 (if celebrating the Lord’s Supper)

Other Hymns/Songs/Carols that deal with Christ in infancy, town of Bethlehem, etc., including but not limited to:

“Away in a Manger” — Christian Worship 68

“Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” — Christian Worship 56

“Your Little Ones, Dear Lord, Are We” — Christian Worship 46

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” — Christian Worship 65


Sermon Theme Ideas (Matthew 2):

Christmas Is for Kids

The Lord Always Outwits the Wicked

The War on Babies

“Our God Is Not Like Us” – Hymn

July 17, 2014

I’m posting this as a resource in case you’re looking for a different or fresher hymn text; feel free to use it (unless you’re planning to alter it or sell it, in which case, contact me first!).  Isaiah 55 comes up in our lectionary a few times this Pentecost season (unfortunately, the portions used are spread out and out of order); this hymn was an attempt to make the whole chapter “sing”. (If you find it useful, I’d appreciate the feedback, too.)

 

Our God Is Not Like Us

A Hymn based on the 55th chapter of Isaiah

To the tune St Denio (Christian Worship 240)

 

1.      Our God is not like us —

Seek him while you may!

The Lord will have mercy —

To him turn today!

His thoughts are not our thoughts,

His ways not our ways —

Abundant forgiveness his Word now conveys.

 

2.      Forsake wicked ways,

See the cost of our sin.

Our guilt and corruption

Leave no good within.

We’ve nothing to offer;

No works can suffice.

Our lives are demanded,

for death is sin’s price.

 

3.      Come, all who are thirsty!

Come, listen and live!

Take hold of the blessings

The Lord wants to give.

Drink deep of the waters,

A feast is prepared —

Your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

 

4.      The one Bread of Heaven

Come buy without cost!

The price has been covered

By Christ on the Cross:

One man died for all men;

Sin’s debt he did pay.

The gift of salvation is God’s higher way.

 

5.      And all this he gives us

Through his pow’rful Word.

He works through the Scriptures

Both written and heard.

As life-giving waters

From heaven come down,

His Word brings forth faith in the soul’s thirsty ground.

 

6.      So go out in joy

And be led forth in peace!

The praise of creation

For God will not cease.

The mountains will sing

Of his glory and love

The trees of the field laud our Father above.

 

7.      God’s faithful love calls us —

O, share that good news!

O, tell all the peoples

Those sweet Gospel truths!

To nations bear witness

That Jesus does save!

To us life and innocence freely he gave.

 

8.      Our God is not like us —

O thank him today!

The grace that he’s shown us

Invites us to stay

Close by him forever

In faith and in love,

To serve him and praise him on earth and above.

Copyright 1999,2002 – Jeffrey L. Samelson

The Richest of Fare

July 17, 2014

Isaiah 55

1     “Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

2     Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

3     Give ear and come to me;

hear me, that your soul may live.

I will make an everlasting covenant with you,

my faithful love promised to David.

4     See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander of the peoples.

5     Surely you will summon nations you know not,

and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,

because of the Lord your God,

the Holy One of Israel,

for he has endowed you with splendor.”

6     Seek the Lord while he may be found;

call on him while he is near.

7     Let the wicked forsake his way

and the evil man his thoughts.

Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him,

and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

8     “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the Lord.

9     “As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10   As the rain and the snow

come down from heaven,

and do not return to it

without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

11   so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

12   You will go out in joy

and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills

will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field

will clap their hands.

13   Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,

and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

This will be for the Lord’s renown,

for an everlasting sign,

which will not be destroyed.” (NIV1984)

At any dinner party, who is the person least likely to enjoy the food? It’s the one in charge — the one who’s putting everything together and putting everything out on the table — the cook, the server, the host. It’s not that the food is bad, it’s not that he or she doesn’t like the fare — in fact, his or her appreciation for the food is precisely why it’s been served to the guests.

So what is the reason the one in charge doesn’t enjoy the food? It’s the busy-ness — he or she becomes so preoccupied with the making and doing and serving that there just doesn’t seem to be time to stop and smell the rosemary, savor the steak, or sip the syrah. Perhaps it might also be over-familiarity with the food — spending so much time so intimately with the smells and flavors numbs the senses to them so that they don’t seem that special once they are finally sampled … which can just reinforce the idea that taking time to actually enjoy the fruits of his or her labor isn’t really all that important, especially with all the other things that need to be done.

In Scripture, the imagery of God’s gospel gifts is both beautiful and familiar: Psalm 23 speaks of the table the Lord our Shepherd spreads for us; Jesus presents himself as the Bread of Life, freely given and sent from heaven; Peter writes of the gospel as “pure, spiritual milk”; and the image of a wedding feast is used in both Christ’s parables and John’s Apocalypse as a picture of the nourishing abundance and joy that awaits believers in Paradise.

Isaiah 55 opens with dinner party imagery — the Lord invites all who are thirsty, poor, tired, and hungry to come, buy and eat, come, buy wine and milk — and though it doesn’t expand much on the figure afterward, it does an amazing and appetizing job of further setting the table with gospel richness: It emphasizes that what we receive from the Lord’s hand is not the fruit of our own labors or purchased with our own coin, and it points to the promise of love fulfilled in the Son of David, then shows that Israel’s Messiah is also the Savior of the nations. Isaiah 55 calls the sinner to seek the Lord and call him while there is still time, and promises mercy and free pardon to all who turn from their ways and thoughts to the Lord, because his ways and thoughts are not ours.

We are likely all familiar with these dishes of divine deliverance — and most especially with God’s assurance that his Word will not return to him empty — though we don’t so often see them all laid out together. But how do they taste to us as pastors and worship leaders? Do we take the time to savor the meat of the Gospel when we serve it? Does our preoccupation every week with the doing and preparing and serving of preaching and planning and playing preclude us from appreciating “the richest of fare” that we are privileged to set before the people?

It’s not difficult to point the finger at others who have lost their sense of the value of what they do with God’s gospel cuisine. We’re familiar with the fare of liberal scholars/theologians, who probably spend more time with the Scriptures than we do, and of churchmen (and women) whose devotion to liturgical practice and precision cannot fail to impress — but their faith is sterile, at best. Like a vegan waitress serving customers at a barbecue joint or a chain-smoking chef at a French restaurant whose taste buds barely register “salty” anymore, they have lost or never had any appreciation for the fare they prepare and serve.

But we best not imagine that simply identifying ourselves as WELS or Confessional Lutherans will immunize us against inattention or inurement to the glories of God’s grace or the wonders of his high ways and thoughts of mercy, pardon, and peace, because too often we can too easily think of ourselves as the ones in charge — in presiding, in preaching, in planning, in playing — and the dinner party we’re supposed to enjoy even as we serve becomes our thing instead of God’s thing.

And while it’s easy to see what’s wrong with that theologically, we don’t want to forget what’s wrong with that practically: our faith is not fed as it should be by the divine service’s rich dishes of Scripture and sacrament. Our minds are elsewhere — on what comes next, on the logistics of the service and Supper, on the sermon to be preached — and then the Means of Grace no longer mean what they should for us.

And the problem with this lost focus — even if inadvertent and usually unconscious — isn’t just personal: it weakens the very service we’re so concerned with presenting perfectly. Because we can hardly be effective in encouraging them to find excitement and edification in our “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” when we ourselves have stopped looking.

Of course I am preaching to myself as much as anyone with these comments. I am so often so much focused on the doing and serving at our “dinner party” that I lose sight of the eating and enjoying — of what’s really happening in our worship.

But you know as I do that the solution is not beating myself up over my failings. The key is to remember whose feast it is. Who’s actually the cook? What actually are we serving? Who actually and ultimately has the responsibility?

It’s not me and it’s not you! It’s God who sets the menu, who prepares the food, who calls and gathers and welcomes — we are both his servants and his guests, because he invites us also to come to the table he has us set, and encourages us like all other sinners to partake of his pardon and peace, to come to the waters, to come and eat what is good, to satisfy our deepest thirst and hunger, so that our souls delight in the richest of fare — which is a loving, leading Savior; a near, findable, merciful Lord; thoughts and ways so greatly and graciously higher than our imaginings; a Word that does God’s work for him, giving us his reliability while taking away our liability; and finally the promise of the praise we will know in Paradise and yet sample today — songs shared with mountains, hills, and trees, for the Lord’s renown.

So we will take his invitation to heart, to come and eat of the same gospel feast we spread each week before our people. Whet your appetite with repentance. Savor both the salt of our Substitute’s suffering and death and the sweetness of your sins forgiven. Take the time — even if it means an extra minute of silence in the service to stop and smell the … resurrection.

Come and eat, and taste and see that the Lord is good.