Thursday, December 23, 2010

Four Christmas Trees

Over the next few days, I'll be posting five sermons---a four part series called "Four Christmas Trees" plus my Christmas Eve message.

First, from November 28:

Advent Series: Four Christmas Trees

Part One: The Eden Tree

Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17; 3:1-7, 15

When I was a kid, I loved our Christmas trees. We got what was really hot in the 60s, an all-aluminum tree with a projector thingy that made the tree change from looking red to green to blue to gold. I’d crawl under the tree and just stare at it as it changed colors.

Of course, a big chunk of my fascination was based on the stuff that I knew would soon be under the tree. I was a very enthusiastic Christmas materialist!

Now, I never questioned where the tree came from. Well, I knew it was from Penney’s; I mean I never wondered why we had a Christmas tree. Everybody had one. You just did.

Where did the Christmas tree come from? I did some research. Centuries ago in Britain, the pagan Druids used evergreens during the winter solstice. They used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.

In the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the spring to come. Our modern Christmas tree seems to be derived from these early traditions.

Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth.

The Christmas tree tradition then came to the United States with German immigrants to Pennsylvania. The Christmas tree tradition spread from there to all of America and then back to Europe and around the world. It took a very long time to take hold, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the Christmas tree was common in American homes.

Now you can find Christmas trees used in Tokyo and Hong Kong and South Africa. It’s just an accepted part of celebrating Christmas; we don’t even question it.

Now there were many Christians who resisted it. The Puritans resisted it, and they often opposed celebrating Christmas at all. It didn’t help that in Britain and Germany, Christmas was associated with heavy drinking. That’s one of the reasons that Washington could cross the Delaware and beat the Hessians at Trenton on December 26, 1776. Or at least that’s the story they tell.

So this whole Christmas tree thing sure doesn’t go back to the Bible, and yes, some of the elements of it are connected to pagan ideas. But I kind of like the idea of taking pagan stuff and redeeming it, and I think that’s what Martin Luther had in mind. I mean, even the date of Christmas is probably set more by being after the winter solstice than anything about the actual time of year Jesus was born.

So I was thinking—what are the Biblical Christmas trees? I mean, can you tell the real story of Christmas—of Jesus coming into the world—by talking about the trees of the Bible? And I realized, yes you can, if you back up and look at the whole story of the Bible.

You see, when you ask the question, what is Christmas about, you’re really asking the question, why did Jesus come into the world? And when you ask that question, you’re really asking the question, what’s the whole Bible about? You’re really asking the question, what’s the whole world about? It’s a huge question.

I do think you can hang the whole story on four trees that you find in the Bible:

· The Eden Tree: how we got into this mess

· The Family Tree of Jesus: the plan of God moves forward

· The Calvary Tree of Jesus: The Cross

· The Tree of Life: God’s Plan is fulfilled

So today, we look at the first tree, the Eden Tree. We need to read the word of God and see all about this tree. Let’s look at two passages, one where the tree is introduced, and the second where we see what went wrong.

The garden and the tree

Look at Genesis 2:8-9:

8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Eden means “delight.” God plants a garden—a grove of trees, and then He plops down Adam in the garden. It’s a good place, and happy place, but not a place where there are no responsibilities. The man was given a job. In vs. 15-17, we read,

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Man was told, work the garden and take care of it. So this wasn’t vacation, but it was still paradise. So we have a garden, a grove, of all kinds of trees. And there are two trees in this grove that stand out: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That tree is forbidden. That’s what I mean by the Eden Tree, the first Biblical Christmas tree.

Now, I’m not going to get into questions like, “Where was Eden located?” Truth is, it’s hard to say. Maybe the world’s geography was a lot different then. Maybe it was in modern Iraq or even Armenia. I don’t know; I wasn’t there and there aren’t enough clues to be sure.

But this is definitely the first Christmas tree, the first stop on the road to Bethlehem. God’s provision was wonderful: a garden of food-bearing trees. God’s command was simple: take care of the garden. God’s prohibition was also simple: there is one tree that you can’t eat from: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Why not? What’s the big deal about this tree?

OK, let’s paint the picture again: you can eat from any tree, but not that one. That was God’s way of saying, “Some things are right. Some things are wrong. And I’m the one in charge of determining which is which.”

Others place in the Old Testament use the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” as a way of saying that a child was so little; he didn’t know the difference yet.[1] That’s the age you can tell what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s when you start exercising moral choices on your own.

So that helps us understand what the Knowledge Tree is all about. It’s not a tree that magically gives you knowledge; it’s the tree of I’ll Decide for Myself What’s Right and Wrong. God says don’t eat from the tree. What happens when they do? What happens when they decide, “I’ll make up my own mind; I’ll decide what’s right and wrong; I don’t need God telling me what’s what”?

Well, you know what happens. But I have to read it anyway.

The fall/breaking the covenant in Eden

Now what the tempter does here is that he is slandering the character of God, all the time suggesting that the smart person disobeys God, ignores God and rebels against God.

Genesis 3:1-7:

1Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

First slander: God doesn’t want you to enjoy the garden. He doesn’t want you to enjoy life. He’s mean, you know. Hey, are their times when you feel like you’re getting a little whisper in your ear, “God’s not on your side. Following Him is a pain in the neck. His rules aren’t fair. Do what you want to do. Follow your bliss”?

2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "

4 "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Now a lot of people seize on the mistake Eve makes when she adds that God said not even to touch the fruit of the knowledge tree. It sounds like the tempter is just getting her flustered.

But the key thing is that the serpent keeps slandering God’s character. He’s already said that God is a killjoy. Now he says that God is just plain lying: “You will not surely die.” Then he says that the reason that God has banned them for eating from the tree is that He wants them to be ignorant and powerless. Eat, he says, and you too can be like God, and you can decide for yourself what good and evil, right and wrong. You can go from being God’s little puppets to being like God yourself.

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Like a sheep to the slaughter, huh? She fell for it, he fell for it, and all they get out of the deal is shame. Their nakedness here isn’t just that they looked down and said, “Whoops.” They were feeling something they’d never felt before: shame. All the feelings they’d ever experienced before were based in their bodies, so they did something with their bodies to express their feeling that they needed to cover up. They felt exposed toward God.

Sometimes I think what we miss about the whole thing here is just how deceptive and manipulative the first man and first woman became in about ten seconds flat. I mean, they’re our ancestors, and we sin just like them, so I think we’re attuned to kind of feel sympathy for them. But let’s not get fooled: they broke the covenant God had set before them. They’ve joined in the devil’s rebellion against God. They turned—we turned—into rebels against God.

It kind of reminds me of a story. An older lady gets pulled over for speeding.

Older Woman: Is there a problem, Officer?
Officer: Ma’am, you were speeding.
Older Woman: Oh, I see.

Officer: Can I see your license please?
Older Woman: I’d give it to you but I don’t have one. Officer: Don’t have one?
Older Woman: Lost it, four years ago for drunk driving.

Officer: I see...Can I see your vehicle registration papers please.

Older Woman: I can’t do that.
Officer: Why not?
Older Woman: I stole this car.

Officer: Stole it?
Older Woman: Yes, and I killed and hacked up the owner.

Officer: You what?
Older Woman: His body parts are in plastic bags in the trunk if you want to see.

The Officer looks at the woman and slowly backs away to his car and calls for back up. Within minutes five police cars circle the car. A senior officer slowly approaches the car, clasping his half drawn gun. Officer 2: Ma’am, could you step out of your vehicle please! The woman steps out of her vehicle.

Older woman: Is there a problem sir?
Officer 2: One of my officers told me that you have stolen this car and murdered the owner.

Older Woman: Murdered the owner?
Officer 2: Yes, could you please open the trunk of your car, please.
The woman opens the trunk, revealing nothing but an empty trunk.
Officer 2: Is this your car, ma’am?

Older Woman: Yes, here are the registration papers.
The officer is quite stunned.
Officer 2: One of my officers claims that you do not have a driving license.
The woman digs into her handbag and pulls out a purse and hands it to the officer. The officer examines the license. He looks quite puzzled.
Officer 2: Thank you ma’am, one of my officers told me you didn’t have a license, that you stole this car, and that you murdered and hacked up the owner.
Older Woman: Bet the liar told you I was speeding, too.

Clever, huh? Lie after lie after lie, self-justifying and self-serving.

Now you know what happens next. The man blames the woman; the woman blames the serpent. It’s a mess. Now we don’t have time to go into all the effects of the fall of man—it would take hours. What we can do though is see the little bit of Christmas hope that God puts here.

Christmas hope

When God rebuked the serpent—the devil—in this passage, we get the very first hint of what God was going to do to make things right.

In every other religion, that faith says that it’s up to you and me to make things right with God. You have to say the right prayers, do the right penance, give alms and do good and then, maybe, God or the gods or Karma or whatever will turn your way and things will get better.

But God says, “I’m going to make things right.” Look at Genesis 3:15, which is addressed to the devil:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.

“Enmity” is hostility. After the fall, even fallen, sinful people know that sin and evil is real, and that it’s a bad thing. God says, there’s a war on.

Now, there’s a funny thing here. God says that the war will go on between the devil’s offspring and the woman’s offspring. The devil’s children are all those who take the devil’s side in rebelling against God. But who are the woman’s offspring?

Now there’s a sense that the woman’s offspring are those who side with God. And God would, by the power of His grace, call out people who would side with God and against Satan. But there are two things that are kind of peculiar about the way this is stated here in Genesis 3:15.

The first is that the one who crushes the serpent’s head is called the offspring of the woman. That’s very unusual. Children, in the Old Testament, are always called the offspring of their fathers. Somehow this Offspring is only the child of a woman.

The second thing is that the verse seems to anticipate a final reckoning. There’s an end coming to the war, and it’s described this way: the woman’s child will crush the head of the serpent (a death blow), but in the process, the child is wounded (the serpent strikes at the child’s heel).

You know where I’m going with this—right to Christmas! Isaiah adds to this when He speaks of a virgin-born child (Isaiah 7:14):

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Christmas is the arrival of the woman’s Son to do battle with the Serpent and all his evil works. In 1 John 3:8b, John writes,

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

I want to show you something. My brother found this in an online Navy archive. It’s my dad’s LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry). The date is June 6, 1944, and the place is Sword Beach, Normandy. The war in Europe would go on for ten more months, but this was the beginning of the end.

Christmas—the birth of Jesus—was the beginning of the end of the war against sin, Satan and death. Jesus fought again and again: in the desert, at Gethsemane and especially on the cross. But Christmas is where it started. Christmas is Normandy. It’s where the victory began. And you can enjoy the fruits of that victory already.

I have good news:

Are you confused? He’s the Wonderful Counselor. Do you need direction? He’s the Mighty God. Do you need hope? He’s the Everlasting Father. Is your life in turmoil? No peace of mind, no peace of heart? It’s OK. He’s the Prince of Peace.[2]

The story starts with the Eden tree, but it comes through the cross to right now. Reach out to Him now, and He’ll reach out to you. Merry Christmas!

[1] Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:15-16.

[2] Isaiah 9:6.

No comments: