The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY>/h2>
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Advent • December 24, 2017
When I was a boy, Christmas began at a department store. Other children may have looked forward to Santa Claus; the high moment for me was seeing the new Lionel Trains layout for the first time. There, in the midst of the toy section, would be the loud clatter of wheels on tracks, the shrill whistle of the engine, the acrid smell of electric motors and simulated smoke. I never tired of watching the trains flash by, bright boxcars, shiny coal hoppers and, of course, the red caboose. Every year, there would the surprise of a new building. There was the log dump, where a car stopped and as if by magic, dropped off round brown sticks of wood which moved into a plastic building while model lumber came out the other side. There was the station with the little man in a blue suit who endlessly shot out of the station and waved and many others. Each year I’d go home, visions of trains in my head and Christmas magic in my heart.
So some years, I still set up a train around our Christmas tree. Not a Lionel train, not a large layout, just a circle of track, an engine, a couple cars, a caboose. I want to feel again that child’s faith in Christmas; I want to experience again the peace of knowing what Julian of Norwich said: “All is well, all is well and all shall be well,” or what we so quickly and casually say to each other sometimes: the peace of the Lord.
The peace of the Lord: it’s where we start every Sunday, it’s where we turn for that great inner stillness which smiles from inside and gives real rest. Where shall we look for that peace which bears fruit in true joy, in a character expressed in kindness? Isn’t it from souls nurtured in the confidence and experience of God’s providence? Isn’t it from knowing ourselves to be seeds growing in the soil of God’s love? Isn’t it from believing there is a power beyond our power that cares for us as a gardener cares for a garden? In one way or another, the message of today’s readings is simply this: if we allow our roots to dig down into the soil of God’s love, our souls will grow and bear fruit in the peace God planned.
Perhaps this need to feel rooted is why the Christmas Tree is so central to our celebration of Christmas today. It’s actually a recent import. Four or five hundred years ago, about the time German Lutherans were renewing their faith, they began to bring evergreen trees into their homes at Christmas and decorated them with roses made of colored paper and edible treats: apples, wavers, sweetmeats. They illuminated them with candles. From Germany, the custom-made its way to England in the 19th century, when the English monarchy was closely related to Germany. Christmas trees were introduced to America by Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution and became common in the 1800’s. Windsor Locks, CT, claims to have had the first Christmas Tree in the United States but several others challenge this. The first tree with electric lights was in New York City in 1882. The custom grew and in the 1920’s, it became an official national tradition with the lighting of a tree at the White House. Wherever the tree, they all draw on the same symbolism: the permanence of the evergreen tree.
Permanence is at the heard of the situation of David in the story we read. Here he is in the years of accomplishment, mortgage paid off, enemies defeated, security assured. “After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.”
Have you known such moments? Then perhaps you have known as well what David feels: he’s not ready to rest. He decides to undertake another great project, to build a temple for the Lord. Even his head prophet, Nathan, agrees this would be a wonderful thing. But in the night, Nathan receives a word from the Lord, and the Word is this: God does not need or want David’s temple, Instead of thanking David, the Lord discloses an even greater work: David’s line will be established forever. What a contrast! David thought up the biggest building project he could imagine, a huge temple built out of cedar; God sweeps it away with a brush of eternity. David hoped the temple would stand for a long time; God deals in forever.
But forever is a long time; we live day to day. What has this great broad canvas of eternity to do with day to day? How can it help us get through the crowd at the mall, the backache that makes just sitting short-tempered, the feeling of being burdened instead of lightened by Christmas?
Perhaps it will help to look at the Gorski’s, the family at the center of the play Greetings. In the play, Phil and Emily are middle-aged folks, living in a house where fuses blow, with dreams that didn’t pan out. One of those dreams is a son named Mickey who has never spoken. Their other son Andy comes home on Christmas Eve and introduces Randi-with-an-i, his fiancé, a woman who is Jewish and atheist and as far from their values as could be imagined. Then amidst one of those Christmas eves when everyone is tense and pretending to be happy someone else drops by, a visitor from eternity named Lucius who takes over Mickey’s body and begins to speak. What would you do if you were visited by an angel? What would you do if you walked down the street and witnessed a miracle?
What the Gorski’s do is fight and fuss and fume for a while but somehow the light of the miracle begins to change them. They learn to draw together; they learn there is more to life than they thought. At a pivotal moment, Lucius says,
Why do you suppose so many people in your world lead mixed up lives? I’ll tell you. It is because they look at the mixed up mess that’s all around them and they say, “There now. See? That’s reality. That’s what I’m about.” That’s not what you’re about. Reality is right in there. (points to her heart) That is where you’ll find your answers. And if you can’t hear them it is because you have allowed everyone else’s clatter to drown them out.
David let the clatter of his own accomplishments drown out the pure song of God in his heart he heard when he was a shepherd boy. Reality is not the marble of an imperial palace but the kingdom of God.
What about us: what clatter goes on in our lives? When will we listen to the quiet voice of God in our heart instead of the clatter of the world around, when will we seek the true peace of the Lord? It doesn’t take much: Moses only got to see God’s back rushing away, but it was enough, he shown with the light of that moment the rest of his life. Jesus preached for three years or so but people drew such power from him their lives were changed forever. They stopped letting the clatter drown out God’s Word; they lived as God’s people, in the power of eternal life—forever life. Forever: that’s the canvas on which God works, that’s the soil in which God means our souls to be rooted.
So we have this story: Mary, a young woman, recently betrothed, is going about her day and in that day from nowhere with no warning, an angel drops in. A messenger from eternity stops by and quiets her fears. He tells her of great events about to be born and what does she say? Just what Lucius predicted; she explains reality to the one who created reality. And the angel replies: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
This is the point of celebrating Christmas. Because day to day, where we live, we forget forever and assume things will stay pretty much the same. But out there is something being born, something new, something wonderful, something powerful. When will we see it? When will we believe it? When will we embrace it?
We know the day to day reality; we know the world is old that things stay pretty much the same. When will we know it is at the same time new? Annie Dillard says,
That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.
The surprise that the world can be new: that is the reason for Christmas.µ When we see God recreating, when we know God’s renewal, then we see Christ born not only in our world but in us. And then indeed, as Dillard says, everything else is governed by this knowledge. Everything else is known with a peace that knows forever is assured; day to day is only day to day.
Jesus said: Unless you are born again, unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God. I take this to be not a summons to one particular spiritual experience but rather a comment on the facts of spiritual life, an invitation to stop listening to the clatter around us, as Lucius says in Greetings, to stop pointing at what is and triumphantly saying, “See, that’s reality!”, and to believe in the possibility of surprise and the promise of newness. So God has given us this gift: a greeting wrapped in Christmas, a message to say, “Nothing is impossible — there is no one and nothing I can’t make new.”
What will you do? This is what I do: I get out the electric trains, I know it makes no sense, who plays with trains in their 60’s? I give my oldest daughter, who is 41 a Barbie just to remind her of when she was nine, I refuse to ask people what they want for Christmas because I am much more interested in surprising them than getting them what they want. I want that surprise: I want that moment of wide eyes, of pure joy, of hearing through the clatter the notes of eternity’s song. I want to see not by the headlights of the cars on errands but by the star of eternity. I want to see through to this great, inexpressible true thing: that as John says, the true light is coming into the world. I don’t know where your trains are or what will make that light shine for you.
I hope, I pray that this Christmas, that light will light your life and you will hear not the clatter of this day but the song of the angels which is the music of the peace of the Lord. May the peace of the Lord be with you this and every day.