Friday, December 24, 2010

Of Trees and Ornaments

+ The Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Eve, 2010 +
Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Grace Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ + Amen.

Where I grew up – in the Great NW – people are very particular about the kind of tree they bring in their home at Christmass. Scot's Pine and Douglas Fir are "nice," but nothing beats a Noble Fir, evenly spaced, firm branches. And don't even mention the words, "artificial tree," that's pretty close to heresy.
And yet the tree isn't the only thing that matters; you've got to decorate it. Colored or white lights, LED or those big old fashioned lights. Red Wings Hockey ornaments or cute little angels, a dozen nativity scenes and a picture or two of your children with glitter and macaroni noodles. Yes, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they decorate.

The same is true for the church – everything she does –and not just at Christmass – confesses something – the question is, what – or better yet – who are we confessing?
Sad as it is, alongside our devotion to Christ and His birth runs a parallel version of Christmas–started in November and ends tomorrow – you can only take so many drumming drummers and milking maids. In spite of the best attempts at putting Christ back in Christmas – out there – it will never happen, because He's not there, at least not the way He is with His Church.
And that's why our Lord has brought you here tonight. Christmass isn't ours to save. It's the other way around. Tonight – as always - God does the saving. That's what this is really all about: Jesus born to die. Jesus born for you. Christmass comes to save you from darkness and death for life and salvation with Him. We confess and rejoice with Joseph at the angel's announcement: His Name is Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. That's the joy of Christmass.

This is why the preschoolers call that Christmass tree behind us, the Jesus tree. They're right. There're a lot of ornaments on that tree, but they all point to Jesus. We don't have time this evening to go through them all – we'd be here until the midnight mass if I tried to explain everyone to you. So, we'll just stick with two: the manger and the cross. Put the two together and you've got everything you need: Jesus born, Jesus died for you.

For as beautiful as Christmass trees are – in our homes or in our church - they're not the best tree around. God does one better. He searches out the one tree that is cursed and dead in order to decorate it with His Son for the life of the world, for your life. That tree – and all its ornaments – points to this tree (the crucifix) and it's most blessed ornament: Jesus.
Because when it comes down to it, our Lord doesn't care what your house looks like at Christmass. He doesn't care how nice your presents are or what the tree looks like.  He doesn't care what you have for Christmass dinner or whether Aunt Matilda is going to make it out from Minnesota this year. Don't misunderstand. He does care, just not in the way we would have Him. Christmass traditions are fine – even fun, after all, we don't want to deny the very things of this creation that God came to restore – but it's not what our Lord means by rejoicing in Christmass.

Maybe this isn't how you expected Christmass to be. God's eternal gifts at Christmass are anything but expected. Look at Joseph. From our perspective it looks like Joseph's year was ruined: his fiancé is pregnant; he's not the father; but being a just man, Joseph resolves to quietly divorce the woman he loves.
What a strange sense of justice Joseph has. It's not the Law. The Old Testament sentenced adulterers to death by stoning. That would be justice, at least according to our perspective. But Joseph's sense of justice was not his own, it was merciful. But even then, Joseph almost did the right thing for the wrong reason.

But Thankfully, God intervened: "Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).

And that's the way our Lord works. Not in mysterious ways, but in unexpected, hidden, seemingly foolish and weak ways, Word made flesh and dwelt among us ways. For us to know His ways, God must come and reveal them to us – as He did for Joseph. Not by our own reason or strength but in the wonder and mystery of Christ's incarnation and the humility of God made man.     Nowhere in the world is there a greater wonder than the Lord Almighty who comes to dwell in a feeding trough with the smell of cattle in the air. He who dwells in unapproachable glory in heaven can now be touched and seen and heard in the glory of the Holy Child. In His tiny clinched-up newborn fist He upholds the existence of all creation. He comes as a child knowing nothing and yet He is the One from whom no thoughts are kept and no secrets are hid.
And if you do not recognize this kind of lowliness, then you will never understand what God is doing in that stable. For what appears to us to be merely a baby is the permanent dwelling of God. He comes to cast out fear and sin and doubt. In this child, all fear of God is hidden beneath His human flesh.
Christmass is only terrifying and gloomy and fearful for those who would cling to their sins and refuse to have Jesus take them. That was Herod's problem. That was Joseph's problem – at least until the angel sorted him out. And that's our problem too. We do not – in fact – cannot find God apart from the man, the baby, Jesus Christ. Outside of Jesus all our thoughts about God are speculation. Those who sit in darkness can only grope in vain for the light. Prisoners can not free themselves from their chains. And the dead will never raise themselves.

Thankfully, God intervenes. Joseph's 1st Christmas begins in unbelief and ends in faith and in Christ, so does yours. He places in that manger exactly what you need: a baby in whom you take refuge. God becomes an 8 pound, 6 ounce squirming child kicking in Mary's lap. It is a great honor, of which the angels in heaven cannot even boast: Christ becomes man. The Lord of all lords becomes the Servant of all servants. God becomes a helpless baby to help the helpless. He is born to save those who could never save themselves.
He is born pure and holy, for you who were born sinful and unholy. He is born a servant for you who were held captive to sin, death and the devil. He is born in darkness for you who sat in the darkness of your sin. Jesus is born, flesh and blood, because you are flesh and blood. That's the kind of Savior you have in Jesus – the God who loves you enough to soil His hands, bleeds and dies.
It all leads to His cross – the place where God's justice and love are both poured out for you in His Son - where all of your sin, your death, your guilt, and fears are laid in Him…drown in the blood of Jesus –your life is found in Him. Your life in the manger – your life on the cross. In the baby boy, God made flesh for you. God on the cross for you.
    O cursed tree, o blessed tree, how lovely are your fleshly branches. The tree of life is decorated with one sacred ornament. His tree bears fruit: the fruit of your redemption, the cup of salvation, the font of forgiveness, the word of pardon.
He is everything you need – a baby in a manger, a body on the cross. God made man and man made children of God.
His Name is Jesus and He saves you from your sin.
You call Him Savior because Joseph called his Name Jesus.

A blessed, holy and joyous Christmass - In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

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