Sunday, January 1, 2023

You, Be Evergreen

Once again, Happy New Year, everyone! Today, this very day, marks the onset of a new year – a new realm of grace, a new sphere of possibilities, a new chance to experience and enjoy the life God has given us. Today is a holiday. Actually, two holidays. Merry Christmas! For while the year 2022 has now closed, Christmas hasn't. New Year's Day is, every year, also the Eighth Day of Christmas – you know, like in the song. We're only at the eight maids a-milking today. We haven't even gotten to any drummers drumming, pipers piping, ladies dancing, or lords a-leaping yet! We've got four more days – and verses – to go.

And since it's still Christmas, that gives us time to tie up any loose ends left over from last Sunday's message. If you remember, if you were here, all throughout Advent and into Christmastide, we've been reflecting on lessons taught to us by the Christmas tree that stands here beside me this morning. And last Sunday, Christmas Day, we made our way through the book of the prophet Hosea, the back-and-forth between mercy and judgment, until we reached that final oracle of fresh hope. And in that strange and unique passage, God compared himself to a tree. “I am like an evergreen fir tree – in me your fruit is found” (Hosea 14:8). And so we celebrated that, at Christmas, this God-Tree planted himself in our earthly soil. That's Jesus, the true Christmas Tree – and these Christmas trees we set up in church and town and home, we said, show themselves as icons of Christ.

Hosea caps off that revelation by saying these closing words: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9). And that opens the door to today's passage, Psalm 1, the very beginning of Israel's collection of prayer and praise. For this psalm sets before our eyes and ears two pictures, two ways to live life, and they're the same as the two alternatives Hosea ended with.

One picture the psalmist paints us is a picture of sin. He speaks of “sinners,” of “scoffers,” of “the wicked” (Psalm 1:1), to mean those Hosea marked as “transgressors” (Hosea 14:9). Whichever word you use, whatever the added nuances it brings to the portrait, the overall idea here is of someone who ultimately disconnects from God. That's what sin boils down to: disconnection from God. When we disconnect from God – even when we think we have him – that's when we start crossing some lines. We can become proud of ourselves. We can get caught up in focusing on irrelevant earthly matters. We swell up and magnify penultimate goods at the expense of the ultimate. We get so focused on what's in front of our senses that we scoff at what we've lost sight of, paying such things no mind. Missing the mark in life, we don't guide our steps by God's instruction. We don't fuel ourselves off of God. Instead, we allow ourselves to be filled with myriad other things and other influences – and where that tends to leave us is on a bad path. It places us, gradually, among the wicked.

The psalmist compares the wicked, though, to “chaff” (Psalm 1:4). Now, if you don't know what chaff is, chaff is the coarse outer husk of a grain. Part of getting at that inner seed is getting the chaff off of there. The psalmist isn't saying that the wicked are like the inner grain. He's saying that they're like chaff. Chaff isn't something you'd plant somewhere. It isn't a seed. It doesn't grow. In fact, it's dead. It isn't drawing new life. And neither do those who disconnect from God. Nor is chaff edible to humans. Some of our livestock animals can digest it, but you and I can't digest chaff. It doesn't have many uses, and so it's readily expendable. The psalmist would point out that sin cheapens us, makes us indigestible and unhelpful for what this world and this life are really about. And finally, chaff is best known for the fact that it's mostly allowed to blow away during winnowing. In ancient Israel, after the grain got threshed, bruised so that the husks would split open, these grains got tossed in the air in a light breeze, which wasn't so fast that it'd blow away the valuable seeds, but was just enough to send the chaff flying. Chaff is light and impermanent. It doesn't stick around for long. And, in spite of the way the world seems, neither will the wicked. Much as chaff is blown away in winnowing, so the wicked will be blown away and perish in the judgment (cf. Psalm 1:5-6).

But that's only one of the psalmist's pictures. In the other, he paints a portrait not of sin but of its opposite, the blessed life of taking proper delight in God. Instead of referring to sinners, here the psalmist refers to those he calls the “righteous” (Psalm 1:6). Here we meet “the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). The ideal righteous person does not follow the same path of increasing disconnection from God. He's traveling the other way, contrary to influences that magnify penultimate goods at the expense of the ultimate. The righteous person is focused on putting first things first, and organizing his life accordingly. The righteous person is in search of a deeper connectedness to God. Humbly, he chews on all that God has said and all that God has done, day in and day out (cf. Psalm 1:2).

And just like the psalmist had a plant-based image for the wicked, so he's got one for the righteous like that. He says that this righteous person who's living life for the right things is like a tree. And not just any tree, but “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). A person who chews on what God says and does is like a tree planted in the best place, by canals that deliberately and wisely funnel life-giving water right to his roots. That's the exact opposite of chaff, which is no longer planted at all. Chaff is waste material from an ex-plant; this tree is a whole flourishing organism. Where chaff is dead, this tree is alive. The psalmist says so, right out: “Its leaf does not wither.” Not only is the tree alive, it manifests its life continually in its unwithering leaves, which continue year-round to draw in energy from the sun. Evergreen trees may not photosynthesize at quite as high a rate as deciduous trees, but they make up for it with consistency. “Slow and steady wins the race” is their motto as much as the tortoises. This evergreen tree is in it for the long haul. Not only that, but whereas chaff is inedible to humans and hence of very limited value, the psalmist describes the righteous as a tree “that yields its fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3). That's useful, that's valuable, that's edible – that's a tree doing what chaff can't, and making a real contribution to the world. That's a tree that combines beauty and function.

There's one other big difference between chaff and this evergreen tree. Chaff, remember, is light, impermanent, blown away and discarded during the winnowing process. But nobody's going to winnow this tree. It's here to stay. It is stably and deeply rooted. It has a hope and a future, for as the psalmist adds, “The LORD knows the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:6). He knows it because, as Hosea pointed out, it's his way: “The ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them” (Hosea 14:9).

As we enter a new year, these two pictures are set before us, inviting us (as it were) to make a choice of our own – would we rather be the chaff, or would we rather be the tree? Now, chances are, in your homes you may have already taken down the Christmas tree in your midst. In mine, as was once traditional, we're leaving what little decoration we have up through the twelfth day of Christmas, taking it down just before the arrival of Epiphany. But down it will come. And just the same, it probably won't be too long until we take down this tree here in the church, either. For this Christmas tree beside me is only for the season that is passing.

But we need to replace it. And what we need to replace it with is... you. We need you to be the Christmas tree now. We need you to be evergreen. We need you to decorate yourselves, hanging ornaments of faith and hope and wisdom, garlanding yourself with righteousness that comes from above, topping yourself with love as the bond and crown of perfection. We need you to be lit up with the beauty of grace and mercy that's appropriate in every season, and which will carry forward into reality all that resides in the Christmas tree as a symbol.

And to do that, to pick up in yourself where our Christmas tree leaves off, to become the tree the psalmist points to, you're going to have to be remade in the image of the real Christmas Tree, the God-Tree, who is Christ the Lord. For he, as we considered last week, is the true Christmas Tree. And to be remade in his image, you'll be needing to feed on the God-Tree's fruit and drink up the God-Tree's sap. And that, in a very real way, is what's to be laid this day before us on the altar: Christ's body and Christ's blood. For in him your fruit is found (Hosea 14:8)! So as Christmas bridges our way into a new year, let us prepare to begin the only way that's discerning and wise and righteous: to taste, to chew, to delight, and so to be remade into what we represent. Amen.

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