"AS GOD INTENDED" (GREENERY)
There’s nothing wrong with the customs of Christmas! There’s nothing heinous about braving the stores or browsing on Amazon; nothing corrupt about the wrapping paper, bows, gift tags and bags that will be purchased, used, torn to shreds and disposed of, all in the name of exchanging gifts. There’s nothing wicked about the lore of a jolly, overweight man who prepares himself for 364 days to magically squeeze down your chimney, leave gifts under your tree and steal a few of your cookies in the process. There’s no damage done by listening to classic tunes about “Jingle Bell Rock,” the “12 Days of Christmas,” decking the halls and demanding “figgy pudding.” People will inevitably still kiss under the mistletoe- Silver bells will always ring at street corners and grocery stores and someone nearby will undoubtedly yell “ho, ho, ho” at least once to bring some smiles. There’s nothing nefarious about the excessive cooking, baking (and eating) we’ll all partake in; or the vast amount of decorations we’ll unpack from our attics and basements... all those fragile statues of snowmen, angels and gingerbread men that we forgot we had; those little Christmas villages with tiny windows aglow and their hills and valleys covered with freshly fallen (cotton) snow; the train sets and nutcrackers, wreaths and stockings, candles for our windows, lights for our shudders and those giant holiday inflatables that never quite inflate the way they’re supposed to. Say what you will- Support what you believe- Take a stance on (or against) whatever you wish. You may be overly pious or blatantly irreligious, but the joy of the season and the “magic” of Christmas are undeniably special! My wife and I certainly participate in the festivities and anyone who knows me personally will tell you that I have a "minor obsession" with all things “yuletide.” However, there is one holiday symbol that manages to trump them all and that, my friends, is the Christmas tree! O Tannenbaum!
Have you ever stopped and wondered, “but why a tree?” And furthermore, “why a tree inside the house?” All those pine needles and sap! Moving furniture around just to make room for one more giant decoration that will only last a month. Real or fake, evergreen or wire and plastic, it doesn’t really matter. Christmas trees are erected around the world and I’m sure that if you drive down any road (in any town), you’re bound to notice at least a few, gleaming brightly in the window.
So… why a tree? Pagans used pine branches to decorate their homes during the Winter Solstice to celebrate the coming of spring. Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples during the festival of Saturnalia. Germans would often decorate small wooden pyramids with paper and candy to use during Christmas Eve “pageants” and celebrations of “Adam and Eve’s Day.” Estonians in the early 1400’s and Latvians in the early 1500’s both claim the first use of Christmas trees in their town squares; lighting them on fire and dancing late into the night. Some claim that St. Boniface of England was one of the first to note. He came across a group of Germanic pagans about to sacrifice a young boy under an oak tree. Boniface cut the tree down to cease the sacrifice and from the stump sprang a young fir tree that was decorated with candles in honor of the victorious Christian faith. One of the first documented instances of a pine tree in the home was by 16th century preacher, Martin Luther. As the story goes, Luther was walking through the forest before Christmas when he noticed the stars shining brightly through the branches. He was moved by the beauty and reminded of Christ, who left the stars behind to come to earth as a baby. A tree was brought into the house and adorned with candles to remind others of that very same light. Early trees were often decorated with gold foil, wafers, apples and candies. Many were topped with a figure of the Baby Jesus, an angel of “good news,” or a “Christmas star,” much like the one the magi would’ve seen in the east. When you look at a Christmas tree, what do you see…?
I SEE A STAR, beaming brightly like the one over Bethlehem. I SEE AN ANGEL, bringing mind to the heavenly host proclaiming peace on those God favored. What symbol sits atop your tree today? It's a position of importance! Does it serve as a reminder of a God on high? The eternal, powerful Creator? The omnipotent, endlessly-loving Father who stepped out of glory to enter this fragile world of sin and sadness? He came with love, by choice, as a fragile baby- to fulfill His own promise as the King of salvation to souls that could never redeem themselves.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
Isaiah 9: 2, 6-7
The people in darkness cried out for a King. Creation groaned under the weight of sin and our hearts join in that cry today. We may mask it with false contentment- keeping ourselves busy and distracted, but every soul under heaven is in need of rescue. The Christmas star was a mercy call to find the manger. The angels brought good news to come and see. At some point, we'll all step up to the manger with a decision to make. Will you kneel in awe before the Son of the Most High or (like so many others) nod, smile and walk away? There are powerful, eternal implications to be drawn from “the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” We sing and celebrate “God with us,” but do we stop and take intimate stock of this Immanuel? Reflect very carefully on who He is. When you stand at the manger, what's your determination? Who is this child?
“What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary's lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing: Haste, haste to bring Him laud, The babe, the son of Mary.” William Chatterton Dix, 1865
When I look at a Christmas tree, I SEE THE LIGHTS. Not necessarily whites or blues or colorful strands, but a light that pierces through darkness. I see a light that cannot be overcome. I see the light of the Christ child! We hide in darkness, friends. We seek it out. In many ways, our sinful nature clings to the shadows, but we who are called by the Light of the World are also called to live as children in His light.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2: 15-30
Will you shy away from the light or cherish the bright miracle of the manger in your heart? Leave the darkness behind and be like those shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all you’ve seen and heard. Too many of us think that “belief” is enough, but the confession on our lips is Christ’s light in action. What if the shepherds witnessed, walked away and waved it off? When the fire fades, so does the light! Growth in our faith cannot happen without applying light to our darkness. The gift of Christ was opened to the world and that gift must not be hidden. Shine, my friends, like the glory of heaven!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1: 1-5, 9-14
When I look at a Christmas tree, I SEE AN EVERGREEN. The true majesty of the evergreen is it’s infallible color. Through the ice and snow it remains strong, healthy and vibrant; green with life as its counterparts fall to the grip of winter. What a powerful depiction of the eternal life offered through Christ. We know the truth of His story, but somehow separate it into instances that feel easier to digest. The Christmas Child became the hero of our souls. He rescued us from the hands of death itself. This baby, born to die, would rise again, to make us alive, reborn and delivered without so much as a threat from the sting of the grave.
“Christmas begins what Easter celebrates. The child in the cradle became the King on the cross”
- “Because of Bethlehem,” by Max Lucado
But how can eternal life be given by a child? Because that Child was God! That Child walked on water, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and calmed the storm. That Child loved those who would deny Him, called the "least of these" to follow Him and left the very essence of Himself within us when He ascended into heaven. That Child came to be close to us, with us (Immanuel) and He will come again for His chosen. We will live in a kingdom without end, sit at the table of the Father and dwell in the house of the Lord forever! Our souls are “evergreen” through the life offered by the Great I AM.
“I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” Revelation 1: 12-18
When I look at a Christmas tree, I SEE THE ORNAMENTS. So many shapes, sizes and colors. Some represent moments in time, memories of “where we were and what we were doing.” Ornaments bring a special beauty and the miracle of Christmas is no different. It brings an elegance to the ugliness of life. Consider your time here on earth. Consider your faith and then consider if Christmas plays a role in it all. It should, well beyond any date on the calendar! What happened in a little town called Bethlehem changed the course of all mankind. Because of what happened in Bethlehem, we have a friend named Jesus. We fight to "keep the Christ in Christmas,” but too often, we contain Him to December 25th. Strive to live out the beauty of Bethlehem with all of your days!
We ornament our trees for appeal and attraction. The beauty of a life adorned with Christ is undeniable to a world seeking purpose and fulfillment. It transcends the mess of struggle and pain because Christ is a Beautiful Savior. I’ve been gifted some stunning ornaments in my life and I admire them as they hang proudly on my tree, glowing, glimmering in the reflection of candlelight, but even the most astounding present cannot compare with the presence of the Lord. Only one gift can soften a hardened heart. It's a present no word of thanks can sum up. The Mighty God lying in the manger is the greatest gift the world has ever known! Decorate your life with His beauty.
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.” 2 Corinthians 9: 15
Application, my friends, is the difference maker in a life of faith. It’s what turns our “practices” into “passion.” In James, chapter 1, we are clearly warned about merely listening to God’s word without applying it to our lives. We can fill ourselves with songs and sermons, wholesome fellowship and ministry involvement, but unless we’re able to live out the truths we hear, the Bible calls us foolish.
“But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.” James 1: 22-25
We cannot call ourselves Christians without being changed by the Word. Belief is integral to our faith, but it's meaningless if it doesn’t bring transformation. Now consider the truths of the Christmas story. Consider the words you've often heard and even recited. Consider the baby- the miracle of His arrival- and the wonders of His love. When you look at a Christmas tree, what do you see?
May you see the stars and angels that call to His arrival. May you see the light of His love and radiance of His glory as it beams through the shadows of your life. May your soul be evergreen in a kingdom without end and may you ornament your life with the true beauty of Immanuel!
“Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings. Risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing "Glory to the newborn King!" Charles Wesley, 1739