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.