In all of Christian history, there is perhaps not a greater example of a generous servant of God than the 4th century pastor Nikolai. Nikolai was born around the year A.D. 270 in Patara, which is in modern-day Turkey. One day, as a young man, he knelt to pray in church. An elderly minister approached him and inquired who he was. “Nikolai the sinner,” the young man answered. “And I am your servant.” Not many years after that he became the Bishop of the church at Myra. He was a faithful pastor to God’s people. And when the Emperor Diocletian began to ruthlessly persecute Christians, Nikolai was exiled and imprisoned.
He survived the persecution, and after his release, Nikolai attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. More than 300 bishops from all over the Christian world came to Nicea to settle debate on a very important issue: the deity of Jesus. Bishop Arius from Egypt taught that Jesus was of a different nature than God the Father. But Bishop Nikolai stood firm on Scripture’s teachings. Nikolai maintained that Jesus is fully divine and equal to God the Father. And the theological stance he supported won the day over. Nikolai helped save the Christian faith from a devastating false teaching.
But it was none of these things that people remember about Nikolai. People don’t remember that he became a godly bishop. Nor do people remember the persecution he endured or the theological stand he took. Nikolai is remembered for one thing: He was someone who personified Christian giving. He became so well-known for his giving that today more European churches are named after him than any other person outside of those found in the Bible.
Nikolai was born into a wealthy Christian family. His mother and father raised him to obey all of Jesus’ words. Yet tragically, while he was still a teenager, Nikolai’s parents both died. Although he was left with his parents’ fortune, a greater treasure remained: his parents gave him a strong faith in the Lord.
It's impossible to know exactly what drove Nikolai to make the decision he made. Perhaps he remembered his father warning him about the rich young ruler who loved wealth more than God. Whatever the reason, Nikolai set his heart to become the embodiment of the words of Jesus: “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He became a generous giver. Nothing he owned was his, but God's. And this simple decision not only changed the rest of his life, but history itself.
It would not be long after his parents' deaths before Nikolai's faith was tested. History tells us that he heard about a destitute family who lacked money for food and was even prepared to sell their daughter to survive. So under the cover of darkness Nikolai threw a bag of gold coins through the window of their modest home. When the father awoke in the morning he was filled with joy. His family and his daughter's honor had been saved. Nikolai eventually provided anonymous dowries for each of the three daughters, enabling them to marry.
Over the years of his life he eventually gave all his possessions away so he could follow Christ unhindered. With every selfless action his status and reputation grew. Eventually the stories of Nikolai became legendary.
It was said that at times when open windows could not be found, he would drop coins down the chimney. And sometimes those coins dropped down the chimney would even land in stockings hung by the fire to dry.
His name in Russian is Nikolai, but to us he is known as "Nicholas" or "St. Nicholas." The Dutch call him "Sinterklaas," from which we get "Santa Claus." In the 1800’s he was said to have had "a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly." His legendary image continued to change more recently as he was outfitted with reindeer and a sled.
It’s been a long time since the days of Nicholas’s life. But if you look long and hard at Santa Claus, he is still Nikolai, Bishop of Myra, whose caring continues to model for us true giving and faithfulness.
Nikolai remains a example of how Christians are to live: We live for the benefit of others best when we put Jesus as the center of our lives. And when Jesus is at the center of our lives, we can finally agree with the young man who would become Santa Claus and say, “I am Nikolai the sinner, and I am your servant.”