Scripture: Romans 15:4-13 (NRSV)
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;
10 and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
11 and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;
12 and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I know that we didn’t use the peaceful kingdom scripture, but I am in the enviable position of being able to see what is behind you all - an entire pew filled with woodland creatures, some of whom would normally eat the others with great joy, but because it is Advent, because it is the peaceful season, these natural enemies co-exist in peace, in honor of the birth of the Christ Child.
There’s a story I love to tell during Advent that talks about this season, the time when all the world is at peace with each other, even predator and prey. Some time back two children were hand raising a orphaned baby lamb. On Christmas Eve there was a terrible snow storm, and the children kept running back and forth to the barn to make sure the baby was ok. On the radio they heard that a ferocious lion had escaped from the circus train just a mile or so away and that made their worries even more intense. Just around midnight they went to the barn one more time, and much to their horror, a giant lion was curled up in their barn, with the lamb nestled between its paws. Before they could do anything or even call for help, the lion spoke. “Please let me stay with my small friend and keep her warm tonight. For we are both alone, and need comfort.” And the lamb said, “May Peace be on everyone’s heart, for this is the night when Peace came into the world.” There are so many stories about animals talking at Christmas. It is said that God gave the gift of speech on Christmas Eve to animals as a reward for being in the stable when the Christ Child was born, worshipping him even before any humans knew who he was.
And so, here we sit, with a whole pew full of woodland creatures watching and perhaps, participating in our worship. Including a Santa Bunny . . .
There are those of us who tend to think of Christmas decorations as rather frivolous, maybe even sort of irreverent. Last week I noted that Advent Purists might object to some of the decorations we see in and around our sanctuary and promised I would tell you about the symbolism behind some of these decorations this week. What I didn’t tell you is that I have been one of those Advent purists until now. I realized last Sunday, as I looked at the beauty that Jeffrey and his helpers have created in this space, which is so far beyond what I considered “appropriate” for church that I really needed to re-think my previous position. Why not celebrate this gift of beauty inside a church? Part of the reason I promised to tell you all about the symbolism of the decorations was to remind myself that all of it reminds us of the Holy, not just some few pre-approved symbols. So here we go.
Evergreens - As the only trees that do not lose their leaves in winter in cool climates, evergreens symbolize perseverance and resiliency to adversity. They remind us of Jesus' words, "The ones who persevere to the end shall be saved." We use evergreen trees and branches to decorate our homes and churches and stores and streetlights. Candles that smell of various evergreen trees fill our houses with the smells that mean Christmas to most of us.
Garlands. In ancient times, holly and ivy were considered signs of Christ’s passion. Their prickly leaves suggested the crown of thorns, the red berries the blood of the Savior, and the bitter bark the drink offered to Jesus on the cross.
Ornaments. People used to hang apples and other fruits in their Christmas trees, to symbolize the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Round ornaments came to replace the actual fruit, but continue to remind us of those blessings we receive as a result of our faith.
Christmas Trees. For those who wonder, yes, Christmas Trees began life as pagan symbols during their midwinter celebrations. But when St. Boniface converted Germany to Christianity, he also converted their solstice trees to a symbol for paradise because they were always green, a reminder that in Christ they have eternal life. It wasn’t until the 16th century that they began to see these trees as specific to the celebration of Christ’s birth. There is a story that Martin Luther, while walking home one night in Advent, noticed his torch light reflecting off the ice on a pine tree’s branches. It reminded him of Christ’s birth bringing light into a darkened world, so he broke off a branch and carried it home, where he adorned it with candles. Whenever you see a lighted Christmas tree, let it call to mind the One who brings light to our darkness, healing to our brokenness, and peace to all who receive him.
Wreaths. Because the needles of pine and fir trees remain green from season to season, the ancients saw them as signs of things that last forever. Isaiah tells us that there will be no end to the reign of the Messiah. Therefore, we hang wreaths of evergreens shaped in a circle, which itself has no end, to signify the eternal reign of Jesus, the Christ.
Candy Canes. The candy cane is shaped like a shepherd's crook, reminding us that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came into our world at Christmas. The red stripe symbolizes Christ's sacrifice and the white background His purity. It may have been invented by a candy maker in Indiana, or a priest in 17th century Germany, or have some other origin entirely. Sadly, snopes.com says this isn’t true. But I have decided to ignore Snopes in this particular instance, because …Christmas legends don’t have to be entirely factual, do they?
Gingerbread men. Just as we create Gingerbread men in more or less our own image, they serve as a reminder that God created us in the image of God.
Tinsel. There is a tale about a poor family who wanted to decorate a tree in honor of the Christ Child, but had no money for apples and other ornaments. During the night spiders came and covered the tree is beautiful webs, which Christ turned to silver as a reward for the family’s great faith. Tinsel reminds us that even when we think we have nothing of value to offer, Christ will accept us just as we are. He values the gift of our hearts more than anything else.
Bells. The High Priest of the Temple wore a blue robe with bells sewn to the hem under his ephod, which was worn only when conducting sacrifices to God. Bells hung in our trees and rung everywhere are to remind us that Jesus is our High Priest, the one whose sacrifice to God is most holy.
Advent wreaths. The story I heard is that once long ago, a German priest became annoyed at the school children asking constantly, “How long is is till Christmas?” So at the beginning of Advent he put candles on a cartwheel, one for every day between that day and Christmas, and lit one candle every morning when the children came to school so they could count the days for themselves and stop asking him. As time went on, the Advent wreath got smaller, just four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent. We light purple candles the first three weeks, and a pink one on the fourth Sunday to symbolize joy. On Christmas Day we light the white Christ Candle in the center of the wreath.
And finally . . . my personal favorite, the giant Toy Soldier Nutcracker. I am sorry, folks. As hard as I tried, this one just doesn’t seem have any particular religious significance. The closest I can make it stretch is that the nutcracker toy soldier has been so popularized by The Nutcracker ballet that it eventually became a symbol of Christmas. And, it is true that the toy soldiers did fight on the side of good in the great battle during the ballet, so I suppose we can stretch that into a sort of religious meaning - good triumphing over evil. But that’s kind of a stretch. Some of our decorations are simply decorative, I guess. But if they make us smile, if they bring peace into our hearts for just one moment, I think that might just be reason enough to include them.
Researching and writing this message was a learning opportunity for me. The thing I am learning about Christmas, well, about life I guess, is that there is always an edge that I need to stretch toward - a learning edge, if you will. If I am so rigid in what does and doesn’t belong in church as decoration, especially at this joyful time, then I will also be rigid about other things that are very important to other people. When we are rigid in our stances, whether it is about what decorations belong in the church, or any other thing, we cannot learn. We cannot open our hearts to those things that have great meaning to other people in our lives. I have learned from these decorations, and from the great joy that we all receive just looking around at them, that I have a great deal still to learn, about a great many things. Thank you, Jeffrey, for being my teacher in this.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If we are to live in peace with each other, if we are to be like those woodland creatures on the back pew, and the lion and the lamb in that story I love to tell, if we are to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, if we are to be truly Christian, then we must open our hearts and minds to new and different. We don’t necessarily have to agree, but we have to be willing to listen, and try to understand where the other is coming from.
When we leave this place today, let us go out willing to do our very best to live in harmony, to seek to understand the other, to openly share the love we receive from Christ with all those we may encounter. Let us go out willing to learn new things, and to embrace new concepts, expanding our idea of what this Season is supposed to mean, so that we may all glorify God together.