Sunday, December 25, 2022

I, the Evergreen: A Christmas Sermon on Hosea 14

Now, I know what you might be thinking, and I couldn't blame you if you were: “But Pastor, it's Christmas Day! Shouldn't our scripture reading have been the old, old Christmas story? Shouldn't we have just sat down with one of the Gospels – probably Luke, maybe Matthew, or even John if need be – and gone over that usual ground again? So why – why, Pastor – why are we reading from the Book of Hosea, a passage that just doesn't sound like Christmas at all? What's Hosea got to do with Bethlehem? Where are these words at the manger?”

That'd be a pretty fair question. But let's think for a moment about where we've journeyed together this Advent as we waited and waited for Christmas to come. We've been turning to our Christmas tree for inspiration:

  • First, we let the Christmas tree take us back to Eden. After all, the Christmas tree descends from the prop used in medieval 'paradise plays,' commemorating the story of Adam and Eve. Bringing the Christmas tree into our midst is a way of reminding ourselves of Paradise lost – of the tree in the middle of the garden, and the temptation we failed, and the exile we're living in until a Savior is at last born to crush the serpent and lead us back to our lost tree of life.

  • Second, we let the Christmas tree introduce us to a man named Boniface, a missionary to eighth-century Germany, who dared to chop down a 'sacred' oak tree to fulfill the words of Moses in Deuteronomy and show that the God he preached was mightier and worthier than the thunder they feared. So bringing the Christmas tree into our midst is a way of reminding ourselves that Christmas is a season of spiritual warfare, that we still have a mission, and that idols must be toppled and their rubble must serve the Lord.

  • And then, third, we let the Christmas tree make visible to us the parable Ezekiel told as Judah's king was in exile, about the little cedar twig that God would replant in Zion and turn into a noble cedar with room for all the birds. We heard how God is determined to “bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, and dry up the wet tree, and make the dry tree bloom” (Ezekiel 17:24), and how that's what Mary was singing about when she celebrated God giving his kingdom to the poor. Bringing the Christmas tree into our midst is a way of confessing our lowness and dryness, taking shelter in God's promise of justice.

And that sets the stage for this Christmas tree of ours to help us learn something today, too. The Book of Hosea gives us a dramatic meditation – sometimes graphic, sometimes painful – on the imperiled love story of God and his creation, though specifically God and Israel. Israel, led by the tribe of Ephraim, had turned to Assyria to watch over it and feed it (Hosea 5:13). Israel had been tempted by the serpent yet again, and “like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7). And in chasing after other empires and other gods, Israel had become like a cheating wife, giving all her husband's gifts to the lesser lovers she pursued (Hosea 2:8). The trouble is that Israel's love is so very fickle – “What shall I do with you, Ephraim? … Your love is like a morning cloud, like a dew that goes early away” (Hosea 6:4). The whole book vacillates, wavers back and forth, between the harsh necessity of judgment and the wounded love of God that persists even in the face of betrayal. “Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit” (Hosea 9:16). “Ephraim's glory shall fly away like a bird – no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!” (Hosea 9:11). And yet... “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim” (Hosea 11:8-9). But as Hosea 13 wraps up, it seems that wrath is going to win out after all: “The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is kept in store. The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son, for at the right time he does not present himself at the opening of the womb” (Hosea 13:12-13). And so the last word to Israel is one of terrifying violence against babies and expectant mothers: “their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16).

But then we reach the last chapter, the passage we read this morning, and we find that there's still a chance for a change, still a route to redemption. “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God,” the prophet begs (Hosea 14:1). They only have to pray for forgiveness, commit themselves again, and trust in God's mercy (Hosea 14:2-3). If they do, God says his anger has already turned away again, and he'll pick them back up and wrap them in love (Hosea 14:4). He'll make Israel flourish in beauty and abundance (Hosea 14:5-7). But they have to forget their idols, have to forget Assyria. Because they aren't what can make Israel great.

The words that come next – words we've already read – are shocking, or should be shocking. He says to them: “It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen fir tree: in me your fruit is found” (Hosea 14:8). Hosea is availing himself of plentiful puns here. The Hebrew word for 'look after' sounds a lot like the word for 'Assyria.' The Hebrew word for 'fruit' sounds a lot like the word for 'Ephraim.' But it's the comparison of God himself, the LORD God Almighty, to an evergreen tree that stands out. This is the only place in the whole Bible where God is compared to a tree. And he does it himself. Nor is it just any tree, but an evergreen tree, probably a fir tree or a pine tree – the same kind we've come to choose for our Christmas trees. But God is a fruit-bearing one, one who in any season has the supply for which Israel hungers, and from whom Israel has been feeding even when Israel's thought otherwise. Israel's fruit doesn't come from the golden calf. The fruit doesn't come from Assyria. If Israel keeps hunting there, if we keep hunting there, we'll never find fruit.

Hosea doesn't write that in efficient shopping and clever deals your fruit is found. Hosea doesn't say that your fruit will be found wrapped neatly in a box. Hosea doesn't declare that your fruit will be served as part of a big family meal. Nor is Hosea telling us that your fruit will be found in all your warm, cozy, nostalgic feelings. It would be have been very easy for all of us to absent ourselves this morning, to go hunt our fruit in those places, and try to make Christmas about those things – about giving and getting, about family and feelings. Christmas could be turned into a time of hunting to find our fruit there. But Hosea says that would be a mistake. Because it isn't there that our fruit is found. It's in the God who answers and looks after us, like a sheltering evergreen.

For we are the woodland creatures in the wake of a devastating forest fire. Sin and death burned our habitat to the ground. And in the bleak midwinter of the ages, we've been shivering, and we've been starving. We tried to make our burrows and nests in the ashes. We've tried to graze for food, and even turned on each other. But our habitat is ruined by sin, and what we need is not among these ashes. We need the God-Tree to plant himself in our earthly soil, in the sin-ruined habitat all scorched and bare, with berries of life we can feed on through this cold, cold winter. We need to be nourished on his peace, on his justice, on his humility, on his love.

And so God declares, “I will love them freely” (Hosea 14:4). The words of judgment on Ephraim, on Israel, on creation, were of fruitlessness. Ephraim was censured as a child refusing to be born from the womb (Hosea 13:13). Ephraim's lost glory would result, then, in “no birth, no pregnancy, no conception” (Hosea 9:11). How fitting, then, that the route of redemption should plant the God-Tree among us in just this way. If Ephraim's lost glory canceled birth, pregnancy, and conception, God would come by conception and pregnancy and birth. If Ephraim would refuse to “present himself at the opening of the womb” and so prove himself “an unwise son,” God would send a wise Son to present himself exactly “at the right time” (Hosea 13:13).

On Christmas, a Child is willingly born, willingly accepts our nature and our burden, willingly comes to be our Savior and King, so that God's warm and tender compassions might have a human face to enlighten our eyes, and human hands to bind up our wounds, and a human heart to beat with holy love, and a human frame to be broken and sacrificed for our costly salvation. Or, to tell it another way: On Christmas, a Tree is planted, a Tree that is God's evergreen glory come at last to earth. The Evergreen grows from the soil of Mary's blessed womb, to cancel out the fruitlessness of Israel. The Evergreen grows to feed the starving and shelter the shivering. For what does the LORD say? “They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow. They shall flourish like the grain, they shall blossom like the vine” (Hosea 14:7). That's why Jesus has come! He's come to gather us back, to restore a greater habitat than we lost. He's come to make us flourish and blossom, to make us fragrant and beautiful once again. He's come to feed us his fruit, the only fruit all creation really needs to eat.

Jesus Christ is the God-Tree, Jesus Christ is the Evergreen, Jesus Christ is the Fruitmaker! Entering our bleak midwinter, he is the one Tree where we behold a bright glory when all else proves, despite our illusions, burned and gray. And so we raise up the Christmas tree in our midst – for now, having heard from Hosea, we realize the Christmas tree is an icon of Christ himself. For Jesus, the Evergreen, is the real Christmas Tree. As Hosea concludes: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things” (Hosea 14:9). God has planted himself in our nature, to be our shelter and our supply, to make our habitat new! Blessing is born!

In this Tree – and only in this Tree – is your fruit to be found. But he is evergreen, ever-living, ever-fresh, to supply you with everything your starving, shivering, sin-sick heart has needed all along. That's worth a season, and so much more. So let your Christmas indeed be all about the miracle tree, all about the reverse of the curse, all about the fruit-bearing birth of God into our human world. And go forth rejoicing, to tell this good news to all and sundry by your merriment. Merry Christmas, then, to you all – and God bless you, every one!

Sunday, December 11, 2022

High Tree, Low Tree, Wet Tree, Dry Tree: Sermon for Advent 3

Fifty-seven years and two days. That feels rather like a long time, doesn't it? I mean, it does to me: that long ago, I just didn't exist. But the same isn't true for most of you, I remind myself. So let's rewind the clock to 1965, shall we? By December 9, the oldest among you here this morning was 31 then, I do believe. A few of you guys and gals were in your late twenties, in many cases married with small children. One or two more of you were in your early to mid-twenties. And still more of you – okay, a lot more of you – were teenagers in those days. Then there were those rare few of you who were just a bit younger still. Thursday, December 9, 1965. Given your backgrounds, I'm sure some of you didn't have a TV. But for those who did, were you among the fifteen-million-plus American households listening on CBS as the children sang: “Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all the children call their favorite time of year...”?

But maybe you didn't know what to look for. It may not have meant that much to you. Back in December '65, the funny pages of our county papers didn't run Peanuts. They preferred to reserve space, I suppose, for more enduring cultural properties like Fritzi Ritz and Captain Easy. Yet maybe – just maybe – some of you were nonetheless at home, glued to the screen, the very first time they debuted that half-hour special: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now, whether that was you in '65 or not, I'd wager a good number of you have seen the seasonal re-run. So let's see a show of hands: who here has ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas?

Now, those of you with hands up – (you can put them down now) – no doubt remember the most famous scene: the image of Linus taking the stage, not for his own glory but to recite a seven-verse stretch from the Gospel of Luke – a major faux pas even then, on network TV. “That's the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown,” concludes he. And, of course, he's absolutely right, and we'd best never forget it. I wonder, though, if you remember the scenes just before Linus takes the stage. The kids are getting ready for some kind of Christmas play, and Lucy has sent Charlie out to go bring back “a great, big, shiny aluminum Christmas tree,” of the sort in vogue in the early sixties. But when Charlie returns from the tree yard, what's he got instead? A frail natural sapling, perhaps less a spruce than a sparse! He sets it atop Schroeder's little piano, and at once – in true Peanuts fashion – faces the withering mockery of his peers. “What kind of a tree is THAT?” asks one girl. Lucy, per custom, chastises him fiercely: “You were supposed to get a good tree! Can't you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?” At once is Charlie laughed to scorn, even by Snoopy, and consumed with regret.

But let's pause the TV there, and take a needful detour to what, even from 1965, must have seemed a very, very distant past – back over twenty-five hundred years to, oh, around 590 BC, let's say. And there, meet a young man in a work camp in Babylonia. He's the son of a priest, and himself of the age where he ought to be brought into holy service in the temple, but you'd hardly know it here as he labors clearing silt from the canal. He's had to leave all he knew and loved behind. This young man's name is Ezekiel. And he's got a story to tell.

Ezekiel was born under the rule of righteous King Josiah. And Ezekiel was just a teenager when Josiah rode off half-cocked against the Egyptians and got himself killed far, far too young. After a three-month stint on the throne by his hapless son Jehoahaz, who got carted off to Egypt, Josiah's elder son Jehoiakim got put in charge instead – and began promptly running things into the ground (2 Kings 23:29-37). It was under Jehoiakim's tyranny that Ezekiel grew to young manhood. He was in his mid-twenties when Jehoiakim managed to start a war with a superpower, Babylon (2 Kings 24:1-2). Then, with Jerusalem surrounded, Jehoiakim shuffled off this mortal coil. With little choice, into this sad situation stepped his 18-year-old son Jeconiah (2 Kings 24:6).

Compared to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the reign of Jeconiah was a lot less fun to curl up with your family and watch unfold. He found himself trapped in his capital city as it was surrounded and besieged by troops who'd been provoked not by his own decisions but by those of his late dad. For three months and ten days, he had to figure out what to do and how to hang on. Now, he was no great man. Unambiguously, Jeconiah “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD in this short time (2 Kings 24:9).

Yet, as the siege wore on, it became clear to Jeconiah that only one thing could save the city from destruction. In spite of all his evil, he had to do the noble thing, the self-sacrificing thing, the marching-to-Calvary thing. So, in March, the teen king surrendered himself. He surrendered with his mom Nehushta and all his wives, with his servants and officials. Along with them, too, were taken carpenters, metalworkers... really, all Jerusalem's best and brightest, by the thousands (2 Kings 24:12-14) – and 25-year-old Ezekiel had fit the bill. Ezekiel still remembered looking across that captive crowd to King Jeconiah, seven years his junior, as together they walked away from home, wondering if they'd ever see it again. In Jeconiah's place, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Jeconiah's 21-year-old uncle, the last living son of Josiah, as King Zedekiah – or so many said. Ezekiel, for his part, said, “Not my king!” To him, Zedekiah was only “one of the royal seed” (Ezekiel 17:13).1 But Zedekiah assumed power in Jerusalem and in Judah, swearing an oath in the LORD's name not to rise up against Babylon.

That was seven years ago or so, and now that Ezekiel's been seeing visions these last couple years, he's grasped for himself just how much of a disaster Zedekiah's treacherous ways have been creating for Jerusalem, all while the true king Jeconiah with his growing family of sons languish under arrest in Babylon. And so Ezekiel now gathers his neighbors together to tell them a riddle (Ezekiel 17:1-2). In this clever parable, Ezekiel casts Nebuchadnezzar as a big, beautiful eagle who flies all the way to the mighty cedar forests of Lebanon, and there finds the biggest, tallest cedar tree – the House of David – and plucks off its crowning twig, which of course is Jeconiah (Ezekiel 17:3-4). And the colorful eagle flies that twig away to a city of merchants in a land of trade – that, of course, is Babylon. Ezekiel's riddle then moves on from the twig as unresolved and forgotten, leaving his neighbors in suspense – but the phrase Ezekiel picked, “land of trade,” is spelled exactly the same as the phrase “land of Canaan” – as in, not a land of exile, but a land of promise (Ezekiel 17:4, 12).2

Cryptically leaving that mystery aside, Ezekiel tells how the big Babylonian eagle plants a seed beside abundant waters, and it grows into a mighty vine which has everything it needs to thrive. That's Zedekiah, and he turns his branches toward Nebuchadnezzar – that's the covenant they make (Ezekiel 17:5-6, 13-14). But then another eagle flies by. It's not as fancy as the first one. And this is the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik II. Suddenly, the vine tries to shift itself to this new eagle, hoping to get more from it than the first eagle gave (Ezekiel 17:7-8, 15). So Ezekiel asks his neighbors: Does that make sense for the vine to do? Is it smart for a vine to uproot itself when it's already well-watered and growing strong? Wouldn't that weaken the vine so that the slightest breeze could make it wither? And shouldn't the vine expect an east wind to blow from Babylon (Ezekiel 17:9-10, 15)?

What God was warning these exiles through Ezekiel was that, rather than think things were good back home, actually Zedekiah was in for a world of hurt. In Jerusalem's fall, Zedekiah would be captured, traumatized, blinded, and at last carried to Babylon in chains to face the judgment of God on his treacherous arrogance (Ezekiel 17:20). Meant to be a low vine, he'd stretched high, desiring to make himself a vine of glory (Ezekiel 17:6, 8). Instead, he'll be plucked up by his roots (Ezekiel 17:9). “In Babylon he shall die” (Ezekiel 17:16).

But remember that cedar twig already taken away, lost king Jeconiah? Everybody listening to Ezekiel spin his fabulous yarn has been wondering about it, ever since the twig got sidelined from the stage. The suspense has been killing us.3 But these suspense-slain bones, too, shall live. God's got a plan for the cedar twig in its new land of Canaan, the prophet says. The LORD will personally take a teensy sprig from its top and plant it on Israel's high mountains. In other words, the kingdom of David would be restored in the unlikeliest of kings, the very smallest, but in the land where it belongs. Yet this kingdom will grow and grow to “bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar, and under it will dwell every kind of bird” – yes, even the eagles of Babylon and Egypt4 – for “in the shade of its branches, birds of every sort will nest” (Ezekiel 17:23). This tree towering over the world will spread its branches so wide that all can make nests in its protection and peace.5

And as he foretells this, Ezekiel is prophesying something deeper about how God works, a general principle by which the LORD delights to dance with history. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD!” God shouts through Ezekiel. But how will they know? How will the world see? They'll see it in the teensy sprig on Zion's hill. They'll see it as they watch the kingdom grow from the humblest start to the vastest reach. What does God do when he works in the world? “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, and dry up the wet tree, and make the dry tree bloom. I am the LORD! I have spoken, and I will do it!” (Ezekiel 17:24).

That's not a message for the nation of Israel alone – not even for these depressed exiles, Judah's cream-of-the-crop now reduced to lowly labors. It's a message for the world to hear. It's for Jeconiah and Zedekiah. It's for Nebuchadnezzar and Psamtik. It's for me. And it's for you. The LORD is the Great Overturner. Make yourself high, he'll bring you low. But make yourself low, he'll grow you high. Boast in your greenness, he'll dry you out. But confess your dryness, he'll water you green. Not only can he do it, but he will – the LORD has spoken!

And to see that, fast-forward through nearly the next six centuries. Let Ezekiel rest his weary bones in the earth – and let Nebuchadnezzar do the same. Nebuchadnezzar's son Amel-Marduk, out of sympathy, frees Jeconiah from prison and honors him at his table (2 Kings 25:27-30). When Babylon finally falls, Jeconiah's grandson Zerubbabel governs Jerusalem, inspiring hope of fulfillment of the promise (Haggai 1:1; 2:23). But in time, power passes to others not of David's line, and as one empire after another lords it over the Jews, it seems harder and harder to believe that Ezekiel's words could ever really prove true.

But “hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5). Meet, then, a gentle girl named Mary, a settler in the new frontier town Nazareth in Galilee, chastely betrothed to a simple carpenter. No one, scouring the world for greatness, would've thought to seek this girl out. She's poor and despised in the world's eyes, utterly forgettable and unheralded, a dime-a-dozen kind of gal. Or so it seems. But she's the premium example of what it means to be God's poor. And she's also descended from the royal house of David. Not only that, her fiancé Joseph is descended from David on every side, including by the line of lost Jeconiah, the forgotten twig (Matthew 1:11).

So when an angel of revelation visited this poor girl in her frontier village, calling out, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28), he foretold her she'd be miraculous mother to the Messiah – for to her holy Son would God give “the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Zedekiah couldn't reign forever, Jeconiah couldn't reign forever, even David couldn't reign forever – but this Child will reign forever. Mary will be his queen-mother, a position of unimaginable privilege. It's scarcely sunk in as she rushes off to the hill country, and hears John the Baptist's mom, filled with the Holy Spirit, tell her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). The baby just beginning to grow in Mary's womb – still a number of cells you could count without getting lost – is truly the LORD God himself, taking on holy human flesh from the woman he's chosen to become his mother.

So is it any wonder Mary starts singing? If the sound of Mary's greeting stirs the unborn John to rejoice in the Spirit, is it so surprising her faith leads her to sing praises out of her own ocean of joy in the Lord? After all, she's a distant daughter of daring David, and even he sang many songs to God – including when he sang to God, “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28).6 So that's what Mary sings about, too. She sings that God is the Great Overturner still, just like Ezekiel said. She sings about how God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (Luke 1:51). She sings how God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). Mary sings how God “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). For it's in the humble, the hungry, the lowly, the poor that Israel most truly and fully subsists. And such especially is Mary, the humble handmaiden in her place of poverty (Luke 1:48). So she was singled out for this greatest of graces, to have such great things done for her (Luke 1:49) and to be remembered as blessed on the lips of every generation to come – even ours, if we'll dare to say it (Luke 1:48). Mary is 'Exhibit A' when it comes to God exalting the humble poor, filling the hungry with good things. And she can rejoice in the relative emptiness of the rich, the overthrow of the mighty, the scattering of the proud, because they are her oppressors, they are Israel's oppressors. They are new Zedekiahs. They are new Nebuchadnezzars. They must fall, by removal or by repentance, if justice is to be done, and if Israel is to step out of the dark into the light of the Lord's mercy.

At the approach of Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the divine shoot in whom Ezekiel and Mary alike bade us hope unashamed. Through this Holy Child to be born in Bethlehem, the little sprig planted in Mary's virgin womb and arms and heart, God was establishing the kingdom of David and the kingdom of heaven, not as two related realities but as one seamless thing. And this twig, this sprig, this baby child who is God with us, was God acting to overturn the world: bringing down the lofty, raising up the lowly, feeding the hungry, saving the lost. In Jesus' adult teaching, he explained that kingdom as like “the smallest of all seeds. But when it has grown, it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). You know, just like Ezekiel said it'd be.

Now, back to 1965 once more. Charlie Brown has been mocked by nearly all his so-called friends over his puny little tree – barely a twig – that he's brought them. Can't he tell a good tree from a poor tree? Poor can't be good. After this mockery, Charlie laments in confusion, wondering what the real meaning of the celebration is. That's what spurs Linus to step into the spotlight and recite the words of life from the Gospel. It gives Charlie strength to dream that there could yet be hope for his sad little tree. Yet it falls to the earth under the weight of a single ornament, driving Charlie away in despair again. Once more, it falls to Linus (that child prophet) to see and say the truth: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” As he leads the other children in bolstering and beautifying, the tree transforms through their ministrations, until even Lucy has to concede: “Charlie Brown is a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree.” That little Christmas tree, once so low and once so dry, is now high and green and decorated with wonder. And as the children and Charlie sing the song of herald angels around it, we who watch hopefully realize what this parable on the screen is saying – and what the Christmas tree is for. Not just Charlie's, but yours and mine.

The Christmas tree brings an opportunity to visualize Ezekiel's prophecy in action. God is a God who takes the high and flourishing, those who take and take in their self-satisfaction, and brings them down low. But God is also a God who takes the poor faithful, those who persevere in their trial and who humble themselves in the Lord's hands – as did the sons of Jeconiah in Babylon, as did wonderful Mary in Nazareth – and he'll make these low trees high, these dry trees green. That's built into the message and meaning of Christmas. Christmas, you see, isn't such a cheery time for the Herods of the world, is it? Herod's not celebrating. Christmas isn't for the self-grown tall trees, thrusting themselves like daggers at heaven. Christmas isn't for the self-pampered green trees, drinking down the raging rivers of prosperity and ease. To them, Christmas means axe and flame.

But Christmas is for those who, like the birthday boy himself, are “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:29). Christmas is for the poor who can't afford it. Christmas is for the tiny, the unnoticed, the forgotten. Christmas is for the weary and the wounded, for the solitary and the scared. Christmas is for those who've been dried out and cracked apart, who've lost their needles, whose bare branches are pointed at with shame. Christmas is for the fruitless, the leafless, the friendless, the loveless. Christmas is for Mary, for Joseph, for the shepherds. It's for the poor in spirit and pure of heart, for the meek and merciful mourners, the persecuted peacemakers; it's for those who hunger and thirst for a justice in the world they've yet to be given (Matthew 5:3-12). That, too, is the real meaning of Christmas. And if it's the meaning of Christmas, it'd best be the meaning of the Christmas tree.

When you see a Christmas tree, then, and gaze at its ornament assortment in all its colorful diversity, think on the kingdom, and how Jesus compared it to a tree growing from humblest start until big enough to nest all the birds in its branches – a kingdom where all of us can find a shelter to nest, if only we'll settle down and keep the peace. This Christmas tree, then, sets before us a promise. It sets before us also a choice. For if we insist on making ourselves high and green in life – be it by commercialism, workaholism, sentimentalism, or whatever -ism is your favored flavor – then God may just have to grab axe and torch to change you. But if you stand before him as Blessed Mary's example helps you – as a low tree, as a dry tree, as a poor tree – then you're a good tree indeed. Maybe you, too, just need a little bit of love. So God has greater gifts of glory in store.

So when you see a Christmas tree, humble yourself. Embrace your lowness. Confess your dryness. Put away all those strategies of making yourself high and green. Know that the LORD is the one who will exalt and feed you, if you'll let him. And to see it for yourself, go to Bethlehem. Kneel low by the manger with the hungry and the humble. Look within at the Great Overturner, and watch in hope the poor kingdom-tree grow. For it is growing great and green indeed even now, and so it shall, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Under Every Green Tree: Sermon for Advent 2

Thirteen centuries ago, a missionary in his late forties glared in disgust and dismay northward from the ramparts of Büraburg across the River Eder at the village and forest on the other side. The year was 723, and Boniface could ever so faintly hear the noise of some of the sheep of his flock betraying their God yet again at the trunk of that oak tree whose lofty, lightning-scarred top he could see from here. As he gazed out at Geismar and its grove, Boniface turned around and marched back toward the Church of St. Brigid, there in the hill fort. It was built by Irish missionaries when he was still a boy, but Boniface was nowhere around here then. He grew up across the sea in the Kingdom of Wessex. Inspired by passion and dream, he'd gotten ordained, and gone for a few years to assist in evangelizing the Frisians. It was there he'd become better acquainted with Germanic paganism, whose imagination centered in a great evergreen tree whose branches embrace the skies and whose roots anchor the world. A couple years ago, Boniface had circled down through safe Frankish territory and begun working his way back north. He was eager to one day reach the Saxons, his long-lost cousins, with the mercy and majesty of Christ. But for now, the Hessians, caught between Franks and Saxons, needed saving.1

For although the southern Hessians had been brought into the Frankish sphere of influence through forts like the one at Büraburg for decades, the Hessians had seldom been the target of any concerted mission. Boniface was among the pioneers a couple years ago. He'd announced the Lord, baptized thousands. But somebody needed to build up the church here with authority and to confirm these people in the faith. Pope Gregory II had thus called Boniface to Rome, consecrated him bishop, and sent him back “to preach the word of the true faith.”2

And now Boniface had come back, only to find that, caught in the crossfire of winter skirmishes between Frank and Saxon, and without sufficient encouragement and guidance, many of those thousands of Hessians he'd led to Christ had continued their lives as before – superstition, idolatry, and all. When he traveled among them to lay hands on them and confirm them in the Holy Spirit, only some accepted and renewed their faith; others balked, and some declared they wanted nothing to do any longer with this foreign god he'd hoodwinked them into getting wet for. Some secretly and others even openly, although having once believed and received Christ, persisted in joining their still-unbaptized pagan neighbors in their traditional worship in that grove by Geismar. That grove, that blasted grove! It was that old oak tree they worshipped – for by it, they thought they served their weather god Thunaer, to whom they sacrificed in propitiating him for a fertile earth.

This was a crisis for Boniface. The forested darkness all around in Hessia was crushing. The land was soaked, literally soaked, in paganism too profound for most Hessians to resist. So long as the land seemed to them to bear witness to Thunaer and not to Christ, there was little hope to build up the church here and effect any lasting transformation. On that, Boniface had a thought. But he couldn't go it alone. So there in Büraburg, perhaps at St. Brigid's Church, he called a meeting. No doubt the few Frankish priests in town were there, with the abbot and six monks attached. No doubt some of the more influential Hessian Christians who'd accepted confirmation were there – their voice was vital. Boniface was there, and others. Alas, as handed down to us, we don't know what was said, only that Boniface sought out the “counsel and advice” of those who remained faithful.3

And so we have to use our imaginations. But I imagine that Boniface's discussion with them might have started by reading from that scripture we ourselves heard this morning. “Friends, you recall, don't you, what it says in the Fifth Book of Moses? 'These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place' [Deuteronomy 12:1-3]. Such was the plan of God and his servant Moses. For the abominations of Canaan were served under every green tree, and so the sons of Israel, to be faithful to the Lord their God, were to ban those places with axe and flame, lest they be tempted into idolatry themselves.”

But,” continued Boniface, “did Israel obey Moses and the Lord? Were they faithful with the axe? No! Once brought into the land, they withheld obedience, for we read in the Books of the Kings that 'they set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them..., and they served idols' [2 Kings 17:10-12]. Now, is the Oak of Thunaer across the river not one of the green trees of which Scripture has spoken? And is the Church not a new Israel? And have some Christians here not imitated the sin recorded in the Books of the Kings, joining the Canaanites under this green tree to serve abominations? What, then, are we to do to be faithful, to rescue our fallen brothers and sisters from temptation, and to glorify Christ in the land?”

I imagine that's the first point Boniface could have made. For a second, I think he might have turned his focus to the Frankish priests, monks, and soldiers of Büraburg. “And you, who let this go on! Brothers, have you never traveled to Bergheim, just a two-hour walk northwest? There, you Franks built one of the only other churches in all Hessia, and you dedicated it to the honor of St. Martin of Tours, who passed to heaven over three centuries ago. But in his day on earth, did your ancestors not worship at trees, as the Hessians do still? For in the Life of Saint Martin, you've read how in one village, he found just such a pine tree, and said it ought to be cut down. So pagans challenged him to stand bound where the tree would fall, and they themselves would cut it down to kill him, unless his God would save him. But as it fell, what happened? He raised his hand, made the sign of the cross, and his undaunted faith was answered by the Lord, who spun the tree to fall away from him. And what do we read? That monks wept for joy, that pagans believed the miracle, and that Martin 'immediately built a church or monastery in every place where he destroyed a pagan shrine,' and so 'salvation came to that region.'4 So, you Franks, why do you honor St. Martin with your lips and do not the works he did?”

Perhaps, if Boniface said that, the uncomfortable silence sure to follow left him way to say even more. “And have you not read the sermons of St. Caesarius? I know you have, for the Frankish priests who haven't training enough to preach their own sermons are accustomed to use those St. Caesarius assembled for their help! How, then, have you for so long ignored what he said over and over again in them? For what did he say? 'We are sad and we grieve,' he said, 'because we know that some of you rather frequently go over to the ancient worship of idols like the pagans who have no God or grace of baptism,' and so 'make vows to trees,' which is to 'reject God and embrace the devil. … Why did they receive the sacrament of baptism, if afterwards they intended to return to the profanation of idols?'5 So said St. Caesarius, and should we not ask our fallen Hessians the same?”

What else,” Boniface might've continued, “did Caesarius say? What should be done? 'If anyone knows that near his home there are altars or a temple or profane trees where religious promises are made, he should be eager to destroy them by pulling or cutting them down.'6 'If a man has... trees or altars near his estate where miserable men are wont to fulfill such vows, if he does not destroy them and cut them down, he will doubtless be a participant in those impious practices which are carried on there.'7 'On judgment day he will have to render the whole account for the souls of however many come there and commit dreadful crimes.'8 What, then, of us?”

I imagine Boniface closing the discussion something like this. “Here we are gathered in Büraburg from the fort and from the countryside around – Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Hessians – and we know that the fate of souls lies in the balance. The peoples of this land are a rude people, who respond to power and to protection. The Hessians who have fallen away have done so because of the ties of tradition and because of fear – fear that Christ is not strong enough to give them what their old gods and spirits, which are but idols and demons, had promised them. The hard winter was too harsh and violent for their newborn faith to withstand. Unless they see that Christ has strength to wrest this land from Thunaer, I fear they shall never be converted in heart. I propose, then, to obey holy Moses, to imitate holy Martin, to heed holy Caesarius. By God, I will put an end to the oak, if you are with me, and this will clear the way to confirm the weak, restore the fallen, and regenerate the pagan. If there is anything inadvisable in this plan, counsel me otherwise now. But if not, join me. Let us serve God!”

That, in my heart, is what Boniface could've said, might've said. Again, the discussion is left to our imagination – but not so the outcome. For, after talking things through with the few Hessian faithful and with his Frankish backers, they crossed the River Eder to Geismar, that ancient settlement through which the mineral waters flow. And they went out to the forest grove, to the great oak of vow and sacrifice. Boniface brought with him an axe. All around on every side, Hessian pagans stood – and some fallen Christians with them – and jeered and cursed, at least inwardly if not vocally. They were furious with Boniface, who dared to make himself an enemy of their old gods. Yet they knew they dare not try to physically intervene, not so close to Büraburg. For, with his signed papers of protection from the East Frankish king Charles Martel, to injure Boniface would to be challenge earthly as well as heavenly wrath. And so, axe in hand, Boniface approached the massive oak tree and swung.

Then, we're told – and this account comes from within living memory of the event – that there was a sudden blast of wind from heaven, which like a storm hit the top of the tree just right. And though Boniface perhaps had barely made a dent, it was enough. The great Oak of Thunaer, see, was mostly dead weight – just like the god they served by it. And Boniface's faith was enough to move mountains – or, in this case, topple trees. The oak came crashing down, cracking into four pieces as it shattered on the earth beneath. No lightning descended from the heavens in wrath on the missionary bishop for his impiety against Thunaer. On the contrary, a stronger God had made his will plainly known. Forget Thunaer. Glory in Christ!

Those in the crowd who had fallen away from their baptism were astonished – they hurried to Boniface for the laying on of his hands, recommitting themselves by confirmation to the Holy Spirit they had received, and so were strengthened with further grace, enlisting themselves in the army of the Lord of Hosts. Those in the crowd who hadn't yet been baptized, who were pagan through and through – they, too, were astonished, and some of them blessed the Lord, persuaded by the mighty deed done before their eyes. Certainly all cursing died away from every tongue. The future of Geismar and its lands was clear. This place was claimed by Christ.

St. Caesarius, the Franks in the crowd surely knew, had complained about lingering superstition about the wood from a so-called 'sacred tree' like this fallen Oak of Thunaer. “How is it,” Caesarius had asked, “that, when those trees where vows were fulfilled are cut down, no one takes the wood of them for his hearth? See the misery and foolishness of men: they pay honor to a dead tree, but despise the commands of the living God!”9 Superstition would lead the Hessians, too, to treat this oak's wood as taboo, building nothing with it, nor burning it for fuel on the cold nights. But Boniface was determined to break that superstition's hold here. If St. Martin had normally replaced pagan shrines with something better, why not kill two birds with one stone?

And so, after talking it through with the Hessians, Boniface enlisted their help. They chopped and hacked and sawed the oak trunks, just that morning a place of demonic sacrifice and impious vows, into useable wood. And from it, Boniface had them build a small chapel – there wasn't enough from this one tree for a full-blown church in the grove, and one wasn't quite needed, but it would be a place for prayer to the true God, and a reminder, so long as one was needed, of the victory of Christ over the darkness. When it was finished, Boniface wielded his authority as bishop to dedicate the chapel to the honor of the Apostle Peter, through whom he'd been sent on this mission. He left it behind him as a beacon, to light the way for these Hessians to follow heavenward.10

Centuries came and went. The exact site of the Oak of Thunaer, and of the little oratory built of its wood, was lost to time. But the story continued. Eventually, as we heard last week, the Christmas tree was born, probably in medieval Germany. But its roots went deep in history. And in time, some came to accuse the Christmas tree of being merely a revival of the tree cult of the ancient pagans. Still today, we hear that claim being made, that nothing is going on here with us now but what the Hessians used to do at Geismar. But that's not at all how Christians ever meant this tree. And so a legend arose. As the story of Boniface was retold once Christmas trees came into use, people began to imagine that maybe the day Boniface went to Geismar was Christmas Eve, and that when the oak fell, it revealed a humble little pine tree behind it, which Boniface could've told the Hessians to bring into their hall and decorate as the very first Christmas tree of all.11 But even if that's not how it happened, the story of the Christian reaction to the pagan tree cult can't be told without Boniface.

To the ancient Germans before Christ, trees like the oak at Geismar might have signified the cosmic tree that, in spirit, upheld the whole world. But Boniface tamed the tree. He chopped it down and turned its wood into a house of prayer, a way of changing the landscape to take it captive for Christ. That was part of his strategy of evangelism in his day, as he moved through Hessia and Thuringia toward Saxony. And our Christmas tree is, in part, a celebration of his victory – because without the mission of St. Boniface and those who followed in his pioneering footsteps, the Christmas tree would never have come to be. The Christmas tree, insofar as it comes to us from what St. Boniface did, reminds us that evangelism is a battle. We tend to think of Christmas in very sentimental terms, a baby meek and mild, sleeping in heavenly peace. And while peace was brought between heaven and earth, war was joined between heaven and hell. The early Christians imagined that when Christ was born, it threw the demons everywhere into a panic, making them redouble their vain efforts to keep the world in their clutches. St. Boniface would have had an easier time than we perhaps do in remembering that this tender season of Christmas is a flashpoint not in a mere 'culture war' but in a spiritual war over souls and societies.

When we look to the Christmas tree, we see an emblem of that war. We see the tree that Boniface victoriously felled, by the grace of God, and how he took it captive for Christ, because he had such passion for Christ's glory and for the preservation of at-risk souls. In our own day and age, we understand that the trends all indicate that our land is being secularized and repaganized, much as Boniface's first Hessian converts readily repaganized in his absence. In a pagan or repaganizing society, even the souls of those baptized into Christ are vulnerable to various forms of compromise – of assimilating to the prevailing ways of thinking, of appeasing thisworldly powers for the goods we think we need most. And so we find that even Christians are pulled to this grove, that tree, to make vows to things that are not God. Be it political idols, customary superstitions, blended beliefs – in any case, we make a Geismar out of our hearts and bow to the powers of mere nature there, listening in vain for the shock of thunder to answer our paganized prayers. And so, in this season, we put up Christmas trees in our homes – not because they are a capitulation to paganism, but because they remind us of Boniface's insistence that we need not capitulate, not even in our own hearts. The Christmas tree carries into our church and into our houses the demand that we chop down the oaks within, surrender the superstitions, and build something for God out of the rubble left by what he's toppled. We can grow in grace only as our own idols fall within us first.

And the Christmas tree is also a promise. It's a promise that the God of St. Boniface is a winning God, a God who will topple the tallest trees when his servants have faith to confront the darkness where it lives. “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh,” like mere axes, “but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We chop the oak, we build the chapel. We carry the tree into the house and give it to Jesus. We challenge the repaganizing myths and customs, we live differently, we preach the true word of life and salvation. The Christmas tree tells us to evangelize as St. Boniface did, in faith and hope and love. And the Christmas tree reminds us that souls are at stake, but that souls can be saved. To Christ be the victory! Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Tell Me a Tale of Paradise Lost: Sermon for Advent 1

Hans stood in the crowd, ready for the play to begin. It was cold out, but he and seemingly the whole town – or at least the neighborhood – had gathered at the churchyard for the performance. His place was one of the towns of southern Germany; his time was the late 1400s. At least it wasn't quite so cold as one might normally expect this time of year – it being the twenty-fourth of December, after all. But what better day for this play, really? Tomorrow, it'll be Christmas Day, when Hans and all his neighbors will come to church and celebrate the birth of their Savior, their Lord, Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of the words of all the prophets. It'll be a grand liturgy tomorrow indeed. But if the morning will see the birth of the One whom apostles hailed as the 'Last Adam,' it only seems fitting to prepare – on this, the day before – by remembering the First Adam, and why a Savior needed to be sent. It made sense to Hans, then, that on December 24, they watch the story of Adam and Eve.1

And so, a while earlier, Hans had caught sight as the performers paraded through the streets of town, carrying the final props needed to be set up – with Adam himself (or, rather, the actor who'd soon become Adam, with his short beard and long hair) bearing the weight of a tree to set in the midst of the garden.2 And now, the parade complete, the play was about to begin. The actors took their positions. The narrator's voice shattered the silence: “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae super faciem abyssi...” Hans was a simple man, not exactly conversant in Latin, but even he recognized the opening lines of the First Book of Moses.3

From the time when a choir sang back in Latin the line about the Lord God creating man from dust, breathing into him the breath of life, the action began to unfold. Hans stared in rapt attention as, in the first few bits of dialogue, the actor portraying the Maker brought forth, as if out of a pit, the actor playing Adam, and soon the actress playing Eve. Dialoguing with Adam and Eve in rhyming German lines, the Maker quite early on led them into the central level of the stage: a well-decorated area representing Paradise. And at the center of that scenery stood the juniper tree that Adam's actor had helped carry through the streets. Here it stood, evergreen – after all, any other tree would be barren this time of year. The hewn-down juniper loomed over the set, its branches festooned with shiny red apples and white communion wafers.

Around this would much of the action happen. Hans watched as, below the paradise stage, actors playing devil and demons frolicked and schemed, and as Satan slipped up to the tree to entice the pair. “Are you here, Eve?” he said, to no reply. “Oh, are you here, Eve?” he said. “Yes, I am here – but who's there?” “Are you here, O Eve, my true love?” Caught off her guard, Eve was drawn into dialogue with this serpentine trickster. Where the Maker in earlier dialogue had invited them to eat from any tree in all of Paradise except for this one, now Satan sowed seeds of doubt in Eve's mind. “Eve, seize the red apple, eat, and then you'll be wiser than God!” “Oh!” says she, “but the tree is so high that I can't seize the apple from way up there.” “Fear not, Eve,” Satan soothingly seethed, and helped her reach the apple so red. Hans watched in the crowd, as though he'd never heard the story before – and indeed, he didn't know it or understand it well. This, this was in his language. He watched as Eve bit into the apple on stage, and offered its remainder to Adam, telling him, “Adam, I've thought it through, I've brought you this: Eat with me, and you'll be wiser than the Maker of Paradise!” And as Adam thanked Eve, his true love, and agreed with her, he too bit into the apple – and immediately raised a cry of loud lamentation. “Oh, what danger! Oh, what peril! Oh, what bitterness is ours! Don't you see we're both naked in our shame?” Donning aprons designed like fig leaves over their prior costumes, the actors proceeded to play out the consequences of the fall, the confrontation with the Maker, the curses and the promise – and then they departed the stage of Paradise, as in the lower stage depicting Hell, the devil-choir cheered and feared – cheered the victory for now, feared the defeat that, in the Maker's words, they'd heard was still to come.

By the time Hans went to bed that night, what do you suppose he might've dreamt of? Could his subconscious mind have rehearsed images from that play? And if it did, wouldn't the vivid sight of that tree, verdant and bedecked with its red apples, have pressed itself to the forefront of his dreams?

Fast-forward through the centuries, and here we sit in our church, and here we move through our community. Hans was finishing out the season of Advent, whereas today we're just beginning it. This is Advent – it's not the Christmas season yet, but it's a time of thoughtful reflection and preparation for the Christmas season that'll begin in just under a month. And this year for Advent, we're going to be using an aid to our reflection. Oh, of course we have our Advent candles to guide us and mark the passage of time – and there's plenty of richness there. And we have our nativity set, to portray in miniature the scene we'd've seen in Bethlehem two thousand or so years ago, when Christ was born. But we also have this tall cone of greenery, lights, balls, and ribbons – a Christmas tree. Why, of all things, might we have a Christmas tree set up in our church? Why is there a tree set up in the town square, to be lit publicly this week? Why might some of you have put up a Christmas tree at home? What does a tree have to do with Christmas? What does this thing mean?

Undoubtedly, the Christmas tree has plenty of historical roots, and many are shrouded in mystery. But over the past couple centuries, many scholars have entered agreement that it's no coincidence that a decorated evergreen tree shared the stage with Adam and Eve in medieval Germany, and later started showing up in town halls and private parlors in the generations that followed. What Hans saw would eventually find its way into our homes – and, yes, our church. For the tree used in the 'Paradise Play' was, perhaps, a major ancestor of the Christmas tree we've come to know and love.4 The apple-bearing evergreen on stage with Adam and Eve stole the show – and the hearts of Christmas-lovers. Even in the modern era, there were once pockets of Germany where it remained customary, even after the Christmas tree made it into homes, for people to put little figurines of Adam, Eve, and a snake at the foot of the Christmas tree.5

We don't have those figurines here, but we don't need them if we use our imagination. And we should be using our imagination, this time of year especially. Ours here may have no juicy red apples, and it may be artificial – not even a real tree at all – but it connects us to that same tradition. So take a good, hard look at this beautiful Christmas tree up front today. If you put up a Christmas tree at home, or if you pass by one of the community Christmas trees this year, pause for a while to think. Don't just see it as a symbol of Christmas. Press beyond a modern shape, and see the tree that Hans saw.

As you look at this tree, mentally place it in the Garden of Eden – in Paradise. Look around it, and see with your mind's eye all the splendors of God's creation, with every running river and every blade of grass declared very good by its Maker. Take in, with your admiring gaze, the limitless bounty he provides – how in this place, this paradise, you'd want for nothing, but have all the desires of your simple heart met by the generosity woven into the fabric of the world around you. Breathe in that fragrant air, and listen for the footsteps of the Lord God as he walks with you and talks with you and tells you that you are his own. For that's what you're there for. You live in Paradise to walk with him, to talk with him, to savor his goodness. You're there to rule the earth from a garden palace, to lead the chorus of creation in a song of praise, to lay out your self-will on the altar of love and devotion. You're there to keep the garden clean from pests and well-tended, to share its splendors with the waiting world beyond those walls (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). Paradise is beautiful, next to heavenly in its bliss.

Now look again at the Christmas tree, and see the tree in the heart of the garden. Stand before it, and imagine yourself acting alongside Adam and Eve in that fateful moment. See the tinsel, the garlands of the Christmas tree? See them now as the unclean serpent, coiled around the tree. He corrects you, confronts you, challenges you in his cunning hisses. Hear him whisper his seductive lies. He denies the word God has spoken. He makes your Maker out to be a bumbling buzzkill, a stingy and jealous tyrant, irrationally hoarding from you what you can just seize for yourself. You decide your destiny, the crafty snake wants you to know (Genesis 3:1-5).

The ornaments on the Christmas tree – see through them, to the fruit they represent. So sumptuous, so plump are they! They're “good for food” (Genesis 3:6) – they'd be nutritious, they'd be delicious, just like the fruit on any other tree you'll find (cf. Genesis 2:9). Oh, but they're also “pleasing to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6) – beautiful in their symmetry, shining in their juicy fullness, just like the fruit on any other tree you'll find (cf. Genesis 2:9). Ah, and these – unlike any other tree's fruit – are “desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6) – they can teach you something, take you to the next level. They seem to be exactly what the snake is describing them as.

Look at the Christmas tree, and see the tree in the garden, with its forbidden fruit so hard to resist. All of us, in staring at that tree, have taken our nibble. Each one of us has bitten down on sin. And when we did, it turned out to be about as pleasant as biting into a Christmas ornament that we only imagined was fruit. For even if it were in itself good for food, in itself pleasing to the eyes, in itself desired for making you wise, still in being forbidden, it became deadly, like shards of glass in the roof of our mouth. Bite into an ornament, and you'll struggle to sing the praises you were made for. Sin handicaps us from living up to our full potential and living out our real purpose. It traps us in artificiality, the mere simulation of life. We become plastic representations of the people we ought to be and become.

And so, as we get ourselves ready for Christmas, we unbox this Christmas tree to remind ourselves of what we lost and how we lost it. We set it up so we can see what we let go, what we abandoned because we were too foolish and proud to say no to such flattery. The Christmas tree pictures for us, year after year, the fruitfulness we traded away for the dreary toil of winter's chill – how we smashed our summertime souls with snow shovels, and trudged eastward from Eden, out into the cold and bitter night. In the Christmas tree, we see our temptation and our sin. In the Christmas tree, we see our foolish decisions laid bare. We see and sorrow for paradise lost.

But as we look ahead to Christmas, this tree reminds us also of what can be gained. Because the Christmas tree doesn't just represent the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Christmas tree is also, just as much, an image of the Tree of Life that likewise stood at the heart of the garden. And much as the First Adam and Eve were sent away from that tree, so on Christmas we celebrate as a New Eve brings forth a Last Adam who can crush the snake and lead us victoriously back to our paradise lost and to the life-giving tree we so sorely miss.

When we set up a Christmas tree, a flourishing evergreen abounding in symbolic fruit, we have to remember that in our earliest records, Christmas trees were decorated, not just with apples, but with wafers. And those wafers were hung there as symbols of what every Christian saw, and at least sometimes tasted, Sunday after Sunday: the redemption-bringing body of Jesus Christ. For in letting himself be pinned and hung from a tree of wood, Jesus made his cross into the tree of life for us, and he himself, in his body and his blood, became the immortal fruit we've been missing out on. It's to the cross that we can reach out our hand, take and eat, and live forever. The pierced heart of God-with-us, a God who became human so he could die on a tree to save us, is the fruit of the tree of life. And so that, too, was hung on the first true Christmas trees.

For the Christmas tree does tell us a tale of paradise lost. But it tells us also the tale of paradise found – found in a Savior born in Bethlehem, found in a Savior crucified outside Jerusalem, found in a Savior who takes away the flaming sword and tells the cherubim to stand down their guard. The Christmas tree shows us a Savior born to beckon us back to the tree of life. For if the Christmas tree on the one hand shows us the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where the snake seduced us to sin and where we lost paradise, the Christmas tree on the other hand shows us the Tree of Life, where we regain paradise. For doesn't Jesus tell us that if we overcome, he'll give us permission to at last “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7)?

And that, too, is what the Christmas tree is all about – or can be all about. The Christmas tree calls us to come for our healing to the evergreen leaves that are meant to cure what ails all the nations (Revelation 22:2; Ezekiel 47:12). The healing isn't for one nation alone, or one party in a privileged position. To all who approach the tree of life, the leaves are medicine for whatever ails them, and whatever ails you. The Christmas tree is a word of welcome to feast on fruit that's fresh and new each month. Its juicy blessings are far more resplendent than any mere shrewdness or wisdom or knowledge. It's blessing is life, life abundant, life to the full, life eternal.

To eat from the tree of life that is in Christ is to eat the life of God, communicated to us in a way our creaturely bodies and souls can receive. That's the life that awaits us, that's the life that has been reopened to us, if only we overcome, if only we turn back from our east-of-Eden doldrums and overcome this winter we've fallen to. The Christmas tree shines bright because it needs to pierce our darkness, needs to not only remind us of our fall and the perils of temptation in the world, but to inspire our hope that, in Christ in his manger and Christ on his cross and Christ interceding for us now in heaven, the paradise of God is being opened to us once more. This fruit is for all who come in faith and overcome in faith, and to taste it is to know delight that never fades. These healing leaves will anoint all the pains and sorrows of our lives, will make good all the broken dreams, missed opportunities, and thwarted futures. And in the paradise of God, we'll dance with our Savior 'round the tree that is his grace, and open an endless chain of revelations of his undying favor and immortal love.

And that's why we've put up this Christmas tree. Pulling double duty, the Christmas tree anchors us in the scene of paradise lost and paradise regained, calls us to stand with Adam and Eve before the tree of temptation, to feel and admit the allure of sin, to properly grieve the simplicity we fouled up with our foolish grabbing of wisdom we weren't ready for. But the Christmas tree invites us not only to grieve what's past but to hope for what's to come. The Christmas tree shows us a picture of redemption, of Jesus presenting himself in a way that feeds and heals not merely for a day but for eternity – a greenness that outlasts the worst any winter can whip us with. So when you see a Christmas tree this season, think about that paradise long lost – and on paradise found, regained, restored – and tell yourself the tale again. It makes for quite the show. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Lamb Will Conquer

It was a chilly December day, 1922. He'd been on the job ten months now, and no man alive could say he hadn't been living through interesting times. Born in Milan, Achille Ratti was four years old when the Kingdom of Italy was unified. Called to a vocation in service to the Church, he was ordained when he was twenty-two, and then spent his early years earning not one, not two, but three doctorates. He dove headfirst into academia, loving Christ with all his mind. And he became prefect of the Vatican Library just as Europe – and all the world with it – was plunged into the most devastating of wars by the fuse lit by an assassin's bullet. During the war's last year, Ratti was sent into diplomatic service in Poland. And it was a mighty rough world he stepped out into.

The previous year had brought down the Russian tsar and swept the Bolsheviks into power, and in the civil war that ensued, July 1918 brought the execution of the tsar and his family in the name of Communism. Four months later, at America's insistence, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated amidst widespread uprisings, going into exile and leaving Germany to be reconstructed as a republic. Likewise, in the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire, Emperor Karl – who'd only come to power during the war and had tried to find peace – was formally dethroned and banished by the Austrian Parliament in April 1919. The world, she was a-changin'.

Then, the 65-year-old Achille Ratti – having been kicked out of newly independent Poland – was, much to his own surprise, elected on the fourteenth ballot. In February 1922, he quite abruptly found himself pope. In keeping with tradition, he gave up his name and adopted a new one: Pius XI. Now sequestered behind the Vatican walls, he watched Joseph Stalin approach power in the Soviet Union; Italy welcome the overthrown king of Greece; and, the very next month, Fascists march on the city of Rome just outside his walls. They foisted upon Italy a new prime minister: Benito Mussolini. It did not portend sunshine for the world's soul.

Pius XI had been watching all these events unfold with dismay, and now Christmas was near. It was time to let the voice of the gospel be heard. He'd been preparing a letter to speak to such sensitive times as these proved to be. He lamented that “since the close of the Great War, individuals, the classes of society, the nations of the earth have not as yet found true peace.”1 “Public life is so enveloped, even at the present hour, by the dense fog of mutual hatreds and grievances that it is almost impossible for the common people so much as freely to breathe therein.”2 “Internal discord... menaces the welfare not only of nations but of human society itself. … To these evils, we must add the contests between political parties... From this course, there often arise robberies of what belongs rightly to the people...”3 “It is most sad to see how this revolutionary spirit has penetrated into that sanctuary of peace and love: the family, the original nucleus of human society. … Frequently we behold sons alienated from their fathers, brothers quarreling with brothers... Too often likewise have we seen... the sanctity of the marriage tie... forgotten.”4 “In the face of our much-praised progress, we behold with sorrow society lapsing back slowly but surely into a state of barbarism.”5 “The sense of man's personal dignity and of the value of human life has been lost in the brutal domination begotten of might...”6

“Because men have forsaken God and Jesus Christ, they have sunk to the depths of evil.”7 They desired “that both our laws and our governments should exist without recognizing God or Jesus Christ, on the theory that all authority comes from men, not God.”8 “Legislation was passed which did not recognize that either God or Jesus Christ had any rights over marriage...”9 “Added to all this, God and Jesus Christ, as well as his doctrines, were banished from the school. … Gone, too, was all possibility of ever laying a solid groundwork for peace, order, and prosperity, either in the family or in social relations.”10 “It is, therefore, a fact which cannot be questioned that the true peace of Christ can only exist in the Kingdom of Christ.”11

That was what Pius XI shouted to a world desperately broken and in need. And yet the next three years see the world continue to spiral into further godlessness. A teenage boy in America is murdered by rich college students chasing the thrill of the kill. Italians are assassinated for speaking out against the Fascists. In Germany, Hitler, released from prison, calls for a racial society with no room for Jews. In the United States, the ACLU challenges Christian influence in the school, while the KKK marches publicly in Washington DC. With his fingers on the world's pulse, Pius XI could feel the quickening secular arrhythmia, and a whole host of disorders along with it. And so, in December 1925, he preached a message into the ears of every nation.

He asked, “Do we not read throughout the Scriptures that Christ is the King? He it is that shall come out of Jacob to rule [Numbers 24:19], who has been set by the Father as king over Zion, his holy mount, and shall have the Gentiles for his inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for his possession [Psalm 2].”12 “This same doctrine of the Kingship of Christ which we have found in the Old Testament is even more clearly taught and confirmed in the New.”13 “Christ himself speaks of his own kingly authority.”14 “It would be a grave error,” then, “to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power.”15

“Thus, the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. … Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the state, for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual; in him is the salvation of society. … If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”16

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”17 “That these blessings may be abundant and lasting in Christian society, it is necessary that the kingship of our Savior should be as widely as possible recognized and understood; and, to that end, nothing would serve better than the institution of a special feast in honor of the Kingship of Christ. … Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself and use it with profit for his spiritual life.”18

“We firmly hope, however, that the Feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of our society to our loving Savior. … If the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ the King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to the Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him...”19 “Therefore..., we institute the Feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to be observed yearly throughout the whole world...”20 “Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment...”21 So hoped Pius XI. And wouldn't that be a very good thing indeed?

The following year – 1926 – was the first in which Christ the King Sunday was celebrated. In the 1960s, it was relocated to when it is now: the last Sunday before Advent. Today. And although it was originally celebrated only in the Catholic Church, the idea caught on. Over the decades since, it's been wisely adopted by Anglicans, Lutherans, Moravians, Methodists – and who are we to hold ourselves aloof? Officially, our denomination hasn't caught up yet – our calendars just say “Thanksgiving Sunday.” But in spite of ourselves, today we break out the white paraments you see up here on the altar and pulpit, the same ones for Christmas and Easter. Because today is much bigger than just “Thanksgiving Sunday.” It's the Feast of Christ the King.

And as we wind down another Christian year – which runs from Advent to today – we know we have no less need of this holiday today than we did a century ago. Because the way Pius XI described the world around him is hardly foreign to what we see around ourselves. And these things are made clear in the scriptures we read.

For what have we learned from Scripture today? We heard, first of all, that Jesus is first and foremost the Lamb – “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain, with seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). He was crucified – there the Lamb was slain. He is risen – that's why the Lamb stands! He offered himself as a sacrifice out of perfect love, and his indestructible life is forever grounded in his identity as Supreme Love, as the Love which God eternally is. And because love can't be limited, his vision and power pour forth the perfect sevenfold Holy Spirit of Love to the whole world.

Second, we heard that, as the Lamb who had been slain but now stands in heaven, Jesus is acclaimed as worthy. Worthy of what? “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12) – seven gifts for the seven spirits. He's 'worthy' because the Lamb is the Lord who deserves to reveal secret wisdom from heaven, who deserves to be invested with royal strength and royal authority, who deserves to receive all tax and tribute from creation, who should be respected and heeded, who ought to be celebrated with praise. The Lamb, from any angle, is worthy! For, as the Lamb, Jesus' blood ransomed people from every tribe and every nation, and enrolled them as citizens of a higher kingdom than any earthly empire could boast (Revelation 5:9-10). And, because his kingdom is as indestructible as his resurrection life, and because his kingdom is a heavenly kingdom to which all earthly kingdoms are accountable, Jesus is rightly acclaimed as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).

And yet, as both scripture and history bear out, the worldly powers-that-be tend not to want to be ruled – least of all by a Lamb. And so we read cryptically about a beastly force at work (Revelation 17:11), and about many “kings” who briefly receive political authority in the earth (Revelation 17:12-13). And what do they do with this authority they have? “They will make war on the Lamb” (Revelation 17:14). That's what we're told. Now, it's not the Lamb who picks this fight. He doesn't come against them with aggression or with armies. The Lamb's kingship isn't like the kingships of this world, so as to require swords and guns and bombs, political savvy and deep pockets and the serpentine shrewdness of propaganda machines (cf. John 18:36). No, the Lamb took his throne when he perched himself on a cross, when he let thorns crown his brow bloody, when he hurled his lifeblood against the heart of darkness to dissolve it away and let the light shine in.

But, risen, he appears again and again on the world scene with a royal witness and royal claim. His appearance comes in the person of the Church, the Lamb's Body that still bleeds his blood on the earth and its darkness. He appears even by the dignifying image of himself that every human life is made in, from the terminally ill to the unborn, from every creed and from every party, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native, prisoner and free. He appears with his royal witness and his royal claim. But often, when the kings of the earth look at human life they deem unworthy, and especially when they behold the Church staking claims for Christ, they choose – with a mind borrowed from a beast – to go on the attack. They react against what they see, what they hear, what they fear. And so whether against human life in general, or human life of a particular kind, or against even the Church itself, the kings of earth have a nasty habit of waging war on the Lamb all over again, wishing to crucify him anew through the hands and feet of everyone they disdain or crushingly neglect.

But what will the result of all this be? The same Scripture has told us. “The Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings!” (Revelation 17:14). Whenever the kings of earth make war on the Lamb, and whenever individuals think themselves kings worthy of making war on the Lamb, we know the outcome. They can be assured that they're in the wrong (for he's unquestionably King of kings), and they can be equally assured that, because they're in the wrong, they're then outmatched (for he unquestionably will conquer)! The Lamb may conquer in the midst of the years, by turning the wheel of the ages, shifting the balances of power. The Lamb may conquer by salting the earth with the blood of his martyrs, so that the aspirations of the beast cannot thrive in the soil that cries out against these new Cains. The Lamb may conquer by the voice of witnesses that can't be silenced by any show of tooth and claw. And the Lamb will conquer, in the end, in ways that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Corinthians 2:9). From start to finish, the Lamb renders his verdict on human history, in all its twists and turns, with all its movements and all its moments.

But then what does that mean for us? Scripture has the answer here, too. “The Lamb will conquer..., and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). Those three words describe the winning team in the war of the ages. First, those with him are 'called' – they're summoned, they're invited, they're given an audition. That's what happens when we hear the preaching of the gospel, the apostolic call going out into all the earth. Paul addresses himself to “you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6), and says to us, “You were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Ephesians 4:4). You're called – that's 1 out of 3.

But, as Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). That's the second part. It's passing initial inspection (cf. Matthew 22:1-14), and so being selected after being called. Yet “we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5). We didn't just hear the word with our ears; we were baptized into its power, body and soul, and so “have been born again... through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23; cf. Colossians 2:12). That's you, yes? You're called! You're chosen! Two down...

One to go. “Those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). That means vindicating the call and choice of God with our grace-enabled response, day by day. This one, it's up to us, individually and collectively, to determine: With the grace given us, will we be loyal to Christ the King? Will we take his side? Courageous faithfulness is all we need to be assured that we'll find ourselves with the Lamb as he overcomes the rebellious kings of earth, regardless of what madnesses those kings serve in the meantime. Whatever comes out of Moscow or London, Beijing or Washington, if they make war on the Lamb, know the Lamb will conquer. Because the Lamb is Lord of lords and King of kings. In his own heavenly way, he rules over all and will judge all, and will give the final victory, not to those who wield earthly power now, but to those who live and die as called, as chosen, as faithful. Victory is for those who are truly with the Lamb. Cross-bearing is our warfare.

And that's what today is all about. Today is a feast celebrating the truth that Jesus Christ is King of Kings. It's a feast celebrating that the Lamb is certain to conquer. Today, by this holiday, we declare to the world that its politics are provisional and temporary, and so are all the ways in which we try, of our own power, to govern our families and our communities, our bodies, our souls, our lives. Today is a feast of rededication, then, so that we who are called and chosen might prove faithful to the Lamb, to loyally and trustingly and courageously “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4). For the Lamb – and none other – is King of the Universe.

And to that, we'll let Pius XI have the last word: “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth – if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion – if this power embraces all men – it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or, to use the words of the Apostle Paul, 'as instruments of justice unto God' [Romans 6:13].”22 Now that sounds like faithfulness from the called and chosen. May it be ours! May we be all for Christ the King! Amen.