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!

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