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“Santa” was good to me last Christmas (see editorial, Dec. ’06 issue). I got goats for HIV/AIDS orphans in Africa. And many good people urged our governments to clear up the mess in Darfur. And there was chocolate. Awesome.

I also got some rebukes from readers who didn’t like my asking Santa for serious stuff. They felt that trivialized matters and that I should have sent my wish list to an address much higher than the North Pole, which, of course, was my intent all along. But they could be right.

Which got me thinking: Is God really like Santa? In some ways, right?

  • God can distribute gifts to the whole world in a single night (Luke 2:7).
  • God gladly listens to us ask for all we want but wisely gives us what we need.
  • God is loving and kind and has a great and serious sense of humor (Luke 2:12).
  • God knows and visits our need even when we forget to verbalize it.

But in some ways God isn’t like Santa at all. God is more like the European Santa, who, in the country of my youth is called Sinter Klaas.

Kids were thrilled with Sinter Klaas. But they also feared him. That’s because Sinter Klaas isn’t just kind and gentle. He’s dignified and just. Our sins of the past year weren’t simply dismissed with a pat on the head and a “Ho, ho, ho.” No, when Sinter Klaas came to visit, you were called on the carpet with a serious “call to confession.” That inspired some fears of being whacked with a handful of dried twigs (such abuse, of course, never happened to me or to anybody I knew except for my Dad, but he more than had it coming).

Only when we fully understood that Sinter Klaas knew we’d called an unwanted taxi to the house across the street and rung all the doorbells on the block, would the good saint resolve our dread with forgiveness and grace. And we’d get our presents anyway—not because we deserved them but because Sinter Klaas insists on having justice tempered by mercy.

That sounds a lot more like God, especially because God-in-the-flesh who came that first Christmas didn’t just “live among us” (John 1:14, NRSV) to be merry: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).

Unlike the “sword” of renegade Jihadists, the sword Jesus brought doesn’t cut flesh and bone. It divides Jesus’ followers from everybody else (Matt. 10:32-42). And it doesn’t stop there. It cuts through every believer’s heart. Not even Jesus’ earthly mother is spared that (“a sword will pierce your own soul too” [Luke 2:35]). And when we wield that sword we are to use it first of all on ourselves (“first take the plank out of your own eye” [Matt. 7:5]).

As Advent teaches us, and the Santa routine doesn’t, Christmas is all about creation-saving surgery that cuts deeply into our very souls.

Read Luke 2 in light of Matthew 10 and carve out some time this Christmas to toss some godly fear in with your holiday cheer.

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