Coal and Switches

My enthusiasm for the Christmas season rivals that of ‘Buddy the Elf.’  Growing up, Christmas-time was filled with daily wonder.   Each Sunday we would light a bulb on the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering wreath for each $100 given for world missions.   A few Saturdays before Christmas, Daddy and I would load up our ax, travel to our garden spot, and cut a sparsely foliated (but free) pine for the living room.  What it lacked in branches was easily compensated with icicles.  The color-wheel was set up and blue electric candles lighted every window.  My mother made fudge and divinity on an industrial scale.  And on Saturday mornings, my father would patiently take me on the annual Christmas shopping pilgrimage – which always included chocolate-covered cherries and a calendar refill for Mama.

On Christmas Eve we would make all the final preparations.  Mesh stockings were hung on each door knob, in hopes that they would be filled with an apple, an orange, a giant candy cane and spice drops.  After supper, we would open our gift from Nana.  She always gave us the same thing — a new pair of pajamas.  Predictable though it was, it never got old.  Donning those flannel PJs signaled the beginning of Christmas.   Before bed, we would set out chocolate pie for Santa because my father said he would be tired of cookies by the time he made it to Georgia.   Then Daddy would pull out his giant reel-to-reel audio recorder and conduct interviews with my sisters and me.

My father had a flair for the dramatic.  With a news reporter’s demeanor, he would conduct his man-on-the-street interview with us, always wrapping up with the devastating question, “Have you been good this year?”  Of course, I always tried to answer a confident, “Yes.”   But in the quiet of my mind and the long night, conscience began to do its work.  Had I been good?  Had my merits exceeded my demerits?  Had my kindness overshadowed my unkindness?  Had I helped others more than I had hurt them?  How good did I need to be?  Had I obeyed my parents?  Had I obeyed them joyfully?

These days the darker side of Santa is rarely discussed – the vindictive, cold, works-based side of Santa Claus that delivers the punitive gifts of a lump of coal and a bundle of switches to bad children.  But in my childhood Santa’s Covenant of Works was well publicized.   Many hours of reflection would follow bedtime.  While Nana passed the hours in sonorous oblivion, under the weight of three quilts on my bed, I pondered the question, “Had I been good?”  How good did I need to be?  I had never heard of any of my friends actually getting a lump of coal or a bundle of switches, but would that be my lot?  Between considering other questions such as “how will Santa get in our house since we don’t have a chimney,” and “how can he get to every home in just one night,” the central quandary would return.  Had I been good?  In the final assessment, I could only hope that Santa’s intelligence network was not very good, otherwise I was sunk.   If he really knew who was naughty and who was nice, it would be coal and switches for me.

A man once came to Jesus and posed the same question, but concerning for a more serious outcome.  “Good teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus reply was devastating.  “Why do you call me good, no one is good except God alone.  You know the commandments!”  Then Jesus proceeded to remind him of those commandments which related to people.  The young man’s superficial claim of perfect obedience was then met with a final command which utterly crushed him.  “One more thing, go sell everything and follow me.”    At these words he was saddened and went away grieving.   How good do you have to be ‘good with God?’   Well if it is up to you, you have to be perfect.  Unless you can love God perfectly with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength and your neighbor just as much as you love yourself, you will receive, not just the temporal punishment of a lump of coal and a bundle of switches, but the eternal wrath and curse of a just and holy God.

Who can make a claim to this kind of goodness?  The Bible tells us that “no one is good, no not one.”  But it is in that same context that we are told the good news that the judgment of God is not the last word.   God loved us and sent his son, the eternal Son of God, to become man, to live a perfect life and to die a sinner’s death on our behalf so that we might receive the gift of life through faith in Him, not by our works.   There is no hope for bad children with Santa, but with the eternal God, sinners have hope.  For Jesus said, “the one who comes to me, I will never turn away.”

Join us this Sunday, November 3 as consider what the Bible teaches about the justice and the mercy of God for men who recognize that they are not good.     We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock.  Click here for directions. Come with a friend and join us for fellowship and worship. We look forward to seeing you there.