December 6, 2020
I’ve shared with you before that our American Santa Claus actually came from the Dutch story of Sinter Klaas or Saint Klaas. The story was brought by Dutch settlers to the New World almost four hundred years ago. According to the story, St. Klaas visits on the eve of December 6, today, to reward the good children and punish the evil children. Oh, but who’s who? The omniscient St. Klaas knows. Traveling from rooftop to rooftop on his white horse, Klaas delivers sweets and presents to the good children, while evil children get the rod, unless they were really bad. Then they are gathered in the leftover gift bag and carried to Spain. Apparently, the Dutch don’t like Spaniards.
In 1773, the name appeared in the American press as St. a Claus, eventually Santa Claus. He achieved his fully Americanized form in an 1823 poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa’s winks and nods; and how he returns up the chimney – which was a mystery given his rotund stature.
The Santa Clause image was further illustrated by Thomas Nast, who depicted a plump Santa for Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s. He’s added such details as Santa’s workshop at the North Pole and his list of good and bad children. But again, who is who?
So, by this time, children had seen drawings of Santa Claus in newspapers, magazines. There were Santa figurines, stories and poems about Santa. But, they had little hope of ever meeting the old gentleman in person unless they could manage to stay up all night next to the fireplace. Until James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts, changed all that for good. In December 1890 Edgar gave America the first department store Santa.
You see, that year Edgar, who owned a dry goods store, took the train to Boston and had a Santa costume tailored especially for him. A few weeks before Christmas he made his first appearance. Many years later a man who’d been a boy that very day reminisced: “My parents had taken me over to the store on Main Street. I remember walking down an aisle, and all of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”
The word spread, children began arriving by train from Boston, Providence, even New York. By 1891 Santa had appeared at many major department stores – this was a great marketing scheme – and by the turn of the century the department store Santa was an institution. Since then, each year, this omniscient Santa ubiquitously appears in malls, stores and parades across the country – incredibly, at the same time. Lines form with parents and smart phones, and children patiently or impatiently waiting their turn to sit on Santa’s lap. Pictures taken, the conversation goes like this:
Santa: Have you been a good little girl? Have you been a good little boy this year?
Child: Yes, I have (perhaps with fingers crossed).
Santa: Well, I’ll review my list, and if it checks out, what do you want for Christmas?
The dreadful interchange is even reinforced by mall music in the background, Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, and checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty or nice. And the child squirms a bit, because he knows, she knows, in their heart of hearts, they haven’t been perfectly good. Truth is, they’ve hardly been good at all. And if we’re honest, we’d admit the whole charade simply teaches our children how to lie – and sin, yet again.
And I know what some, maybe many or you are thinking. You don’t know my kids – they are mostly good – as if mostly is good enough. They’re better than most – as if better is good enough. If only Santa would grade on the curve. They deserve a pat on the back, a smile from Santa, a candy cane from the green and red-clad elf, and whatever I give them under the tree.
That thinking actually permeates our culture. In his commentary on I John, Robert Yarborough writes:
“In popular religion of modern times, the impression is sometimes given that sin is in the end not intrinsic to the person (‘God hates the sin but loves the sinner’), or that salvation alters the destiny of the soul someday but not necessarily the behavior of the body today (‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven’; ‘I’m just a sinner, saved by grace’), or that tolerance mandated by Scripture forbids ethical distinctions of any kind (‘judge not lest you be judged’).”
And so, Christmas has been hijacked by our culture. It actually fits better the major religions of the world and has wholly escaped Christianity. And many Christians have unwittingly given into that which is altogether not Christian. Goodness merits gifts; badness merits coal, a trip to Spain, punishment. So good I must and can be.
It was the teaching of the false teachers the Apostle John had to deal with in his three letters. We are currently studying I John. We’ve seen in this letter, John wanted to give assurance of salvation. You can know you are saved if you:
- Confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. That is, after all, the truth of Christmas.
- Second, confessing that Jesus is God and therefore Lord, you do what He says – you obey His commands.
- And third, confessing Jesus as Lord, you have been adopted into the family of God – sons and daughters. And so, you love other family members – you love other Christians.
To be clear, obeying His commands and loving other Christians doesn’t make you a Christian – it simply proves you are one. While John doesn’t clearly articulate the teaching of the false teachers – successionists who had left the church – it doesn’t take much to figure it out. He started the letter by establishing his authority – that he had indeed been with Jesus – he had seen Him, heard Him, touched Him. He had heard Jesus’ message – what he was now proclaiming to his readers so that they could have fellowship with one another, with God, and with His Son. The message? God is light, and Him is no darkness at all. He is perfectly good and holy and right and true. That’s the message of the Christian faith – God is good, you are not – and so you need salvation. If that is true of the character of God, John then launched into three if we say statements that we presume have to with the false teachers:
- If we say we have fellowship with Him – this God of light – and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
- If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
- If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
Really, Santa, I’ve been a good little boy, I’ve been a good little girl. I deserve the best of what you have to give – whatever I want. What would it be like if the child sat on Santa’s lap with a realistic self-awareness and said, I’ve not been good. I don’t deserve gifts. I don’t deserve a visit from you on Christmas Eve. But I throw myself at your undeserved mercy and grace. Well, that would mess up everything, wouldn’t it. We’d have to change our songs. We’d have to recover the true meaning of Christmas. That Jesus, the Son of God, came – not because we deserved Him – but precisely because we did not.
I have good news for you this morning. If you find yourself less than perfect – if you find yourself at the end of a bad year – you don’t have to lie about it. There is One who came to give you an undeserved gift. Well, let’s read our text today in our continuing study – only two verses – but of incredible importance – I John 2:1-2.
That’s a bit of a curveball. He just said, you can’t call yourself a Christian if you walk in darkness as a way of life. You can’t call yourself a Christian if you crawl up in God’s lap and say, I’m good. I have no sin – I have not sinned. Then we get to verse 1 of chapter 2 and John says, I write these things so that you may not sin. Which is it, John – in reality, do I sin, or not?
These last verses of chapter 1 and first verses of chapter 2 illustrate the paradox of the Christian faith – no doubt, the battle you’ve faced in your own life. Do I live in sin so that grace may abound? Certainly not. Do I pursue sinless perfection as if I can achieve it? Do I confess sin – post salvation, as if I will still sin? These are questions with which you and Christians through the centuries have grappled. And we will find that balance is the key to understanding what John writes here – and the rest of the letter. If we don’t understand that balance, we will come away from the letter saying, who then can be saved?
Let me give it to you in a nutshell – Do I confess my sins and Jesus as the Christ, the only Savior of the world – who died as the Lamb of God to take away my sin? Yes. Do I continue to sin after I become a Christian, and therefore continue to seek God’s forgiveness through a gracious Christ? Yes. Do I pursue righteousness, loving Christ and hating my sin, seeking indeed to not sin? Yes. Do I have the power through the indwelling Christ to say no sin? Yes. And when I fail, do I still find Christ as my advocate, and the sacrifice for my sin? Yes.
I have good news this morning. Christ not only offers forgiveness for the past sins of all people – those pre-conversion sins. Christ offers ongoing forgiveness for those who currently sin, even though they don’t want to. Well, let me give you the outline of these two verses:
- Little Children, Do Not Sin (1a)
- Little Children, If You Sin, You Have Jesus (Who is three things) (1b-2)
Please notice the balance John is trying to bring. I know some of you want me to be on one side or the other of the balance. Some of you think there has been too much emphasis on one or the other extreme. And you’d be right. Some want to say something like, I sin every day – which is frankly an unbiblical extreme. If you sin every day, John says, stop. Others want to suggest, I can reach sinlessness – which is also an unbiblical extreme. So, we will seek a balance today. To be clear – not condoning sin but confessing sin – acknowledging it and finding Christ’s forgiveness.
Starting with, my little children, I write these things so that you may not sin. The form of the sentence actually gives it imperatival force – do not sin. What? Yes, right. This is the first of eight times he refers to his readers as little children. John is old by now – his readers, by comparison, children in the faith. It’s a term of endearment. He will have some hard things to say, but wants them to know, he loves them.
I write these things – he says that several times too – because he writes for a number of reasons. Here he says, so that you may not sin – or again, so that you do not sin. Yes, he has just said at the end of chapter 1, writing to believers, that we cannot say we have no sin or have not sinned. But the acknowledgement that sin is not only possible, but probable – not only probable but inevitable – that acknowledgment is not permission to sin. He will say it over and over in this letter. The false teachers were living lives of sin and condoning it. He says, true believers will pursue righteousness. It is a lifetime pursuit in which there will be successes. There will be victories. You are no longer slaves of sin – you are slaves of righteousness. You have changed masters, so choose to be righteous. Choose to not sin. By the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, you can say no to sin.
But, what happens when we do sin? If anyone sins, we have Jesus. Not just for salvation, but for sanctification. Ongoing growth in Christ-likeness. Not just for removal of past sins, but present sins. If anyone sins, we have Jesus, who is described in three glorious ways:
First, He is the righteous, or the righteous one. That’s an important word – John just used it a few verses earlier. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive. I suggested then that God is righteous to forgive because the debt of our sin has been paid. We did not have the righteous lives necessary to atone for our sins. We needed one to stand in our place – through substitutionary atonement. Jesus, having lived a perfect, sinless life, died in our place, taking our sins in His body on the cross. As such, God is righteous to forgive, because He laid on Jesus, the righteous one, our sin. Paul said it this way in Romans 3:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Do you need to hear that today? Be reminded of that? Do you need to crawl into God’s lap, as it were, and be reminded that while you have not been perfect this year of all years – there is one upon whom your sin was laid?
Second, we see that when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ the righteous. The word advocate carries with it legal connotations. So, the idea is Jesus acts as our defense before the Father when we sin. Several thoughts about that. First, it is not as if the Father sits in heaven with a big hammer, waiting for us to step out of line to let us have it. But His righteousness demands justice. And that justice is met in the death of His Son, for our sin. So every time we sin, the Son is there, before the Father, to act as our advocate, our defense – to say, this one is mine – for his sin, for her sin, I died.
You should also know the word advocate is paraclete. You’ve perhaps heard that before. John is the only one who uses it – it’s found also in the Gospel of John 14-16 – called the Farewell Discourse. It’s Thursday night, before the crucifixion, and Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure – His return to heaven. Understandably, they are concerned. What are we going to do when you leave? Jesus says some things to encourage them.
In John 14, Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.
Yes, I’m going away, but I’ll come back. In the meantime, He said a few verses later:
16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper (Advocate – Paraclete), that He may be with you forever;
17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you will know Him because He abides in you and will be with you.
Then, in verse 26, Jesus said, “But the Helper (the Paraclete), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
We normally and rightly think of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete – the Counselor or the Advocate. But notice Jesus said, the Father will give you another Helper, Advocate. Because Jesus, the first Advocate, was leaving. But another would be sent. And His job, among many other things, would be to fill believers, to teach believers, so that they could speak of Christ before the world. So the Holy Spirit is our advocate the world. And now Jesus serves as our Advocate before the Father, interceding for us.
Don’t miss what John has said. We have an advocate in heaven for us before the Father. We have an advocate on earth for us before the world. Do you see, we are well-represented here and in heaven. We have not been left alone, here or there.
How does Jesus represent us faithfully in heaven – interceding for us? John tells us in verse 2 – He Himself is our propitiation. Notice, Jesus does not offer a propitiation – He Himself is our propitiation. He offered Himself as the sacrifice for sins.
Now, we don’t typically use the word propitiation anymore. In fact, many modern translations don’t have it that way. You see, the word has two ideas: expiation and propitiation. Expiation is the removal of sin and guilt through an atoning sacrifice. Don’t miss that – it is the removal of sin. Our sin is gone. So when we say, we have been pardoned, that is not fully correct. Our sins have been expiated – removed – such that we can say, we have not been pardoned, as if we still have sin, and the one who pardons overlooks our sin. No – we have been not pardoned, but acquitted. Our sins have been removed such that we have no sin – the trial judge, as it were, says not guilty. Not pardoned – not guilty.
Paul says it this way, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” We are righteous – though our sins were as scarlet, they are as white as snow.
But not only have our sins been expiated, they have been propitiated. This is the word that causes problem for people, because it carries with it the idea that God’s wrath has been appeased. It was used of the pagan gods who arbitrarily needed to be appeased. They were jealous, they were angry – and they needed some gift of sacrifice from people to avert their wrath. Such an idea seems so uncharacteristic of our God. So, they say, we must not see in the sacrifice of Christ a turning away of the wrath of God. They therefore change the translation of the word.
But the Scripture is abundantly clear – God is a holy God – after all, He is light – and His righteous anger (not unrighteous and arbitrary like the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods) – His righteous anger required appeasement. Because, God’s perfect justice had been violated. He was rightly angry at humankind. But, He also loves His creation, so He did something about our rebellion. He sent His Son who Himself was the propitiation – the sacrifice to avert God’s righteous wrath from us. You see, John uses the word twice in this letter – the second time is found in chapter 4, verse 10, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” God acted in love when He sent His Son that first Christmas, to die on that first Easter.
To be sacrificed not only for our sins, but the sins of the world. That is not teaching some universalism – that Jesus died for all sins so that all are ultimately saved. No, He died for all around the world, at all times who would believe the gospel and be saved. It means His death was sufficient for all. It’s not just for a select few, but for any and all who believe. He died for you, if you will repent, turn from your sin, and believe the gospel – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for sinners to expiate their sin, and propitiate God’s righteous wrath. For the sins of the world also implies there is no other way for sins to be removed. Christ died for all.
It’s Christmas time, and we sing the songs – songs intended to remind us of the first coming of Christ. For example, Oh Come All Ye Faithful. And we’re back to that question I asked at the beginning: who would that be? I suspect if that was the invitation extended to come to Bethlehem, the self-righteous Pharisees would have responded. All the good children of the world would have come. The shepherds? Not so much. The lepers, the lame, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – sinners? Not so much. Maybe, just maybe, the invitation is not to the faithful – to sinners like you and me. There’s a new song, released just this year which perhaps got it right. It’s entitled, O Come All You Unfaithful. It goes like this:
O come, all you unfaithful,
Come, weak and unstable,
Come, know you are not alone.
O come, barren and waiting ones,
Weary of praying, come,
See what your God has done.
Christ is born, Christ is born,
Christ is born for you.
O come, bitter and broken,
Come with fears unspoken,
Come, taste of His perfect love.
O come, guilty and hiding ones,
There is no need to run,
See what your God has done.
Christ is born, Christ is born,
Christ is born for you.
He’s the Lamb who was given,
Slain for our pardon.
His promise is peace,
For those who believe.
So come, though you have nothing,
Come, He is the offering,
Come, see what your God has done.
Christ is born, Christ is born,
Christ is born for you.