In the classic movie “A Christmas Story” Ralphie notes that the entire kid year revolves around Christmas. True. What I want for Christmas, what I got for Christmas, and what I want next Christmas. As we grow into adulthood we learn the joy of buying gifts for others. Seeing their faces light up as they tear – or very carefully and slowly remove – the wrapping. The tree is the thing – it’s where the action is. The Christmas tree is actually a Lutheran thing. In the early days of our nation, some places actually forbid taking today off work. Christmas was looked down on. It was the Lutheran immigrations that brought most of what we think of as Christmas traditions. The first Christmas tree in America was at Zion Lutheran Church in Cleveland Ohio. Pastor Heinrich Christian Schwan introduced it. He was a missionary in Brazil, and would go on to be President of the LCMS. He also edited the Small Catechism what later became the German-English edition. The symbolism of a tree that is always green – never going through that period of death that we see with leaf trees. Evergreens in a sense, can not die. We light them because our Lord Jesus is the Light of the World. That’s our Gospel reading today – Jesus as the light of the world. “In him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The true light which lightens every man was coming into the world.
Jesus brings light into darkness. Darkness is not its own thing. It’s the absence of light. We are told in Revelation that in the new creation there will be no night. There will be no need of the sun, for the Lord will give them light. Darkness exists where God is not.
This time of year is marked by a lack of light. The cold is because we just don’t see enough of the sun. Darkness. The darkest day of the year was a few days ago. Now, just as the cold arrives, we are already on the way out of winter. More light each day. And in the manger, our light. Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
The twinkling lights on the tree, beautifully lit, stand as testament to the light that shines in the darkness of our hearts. We were made in the beginning to serve God. But instead we chose the darkness. We chose sin and death. Jesus comes to redeem us, to lighten the darkness of our hearts by his gracious visitation.
All of this in the Christmas tree. We see symbolized for us the promise of the savior fulfilled. The light shining, even in the darkness. Historically, light is not that easy to come by. We just flip a switch. But if you look at things historically, it wasn’t quite so easy. What about candles? You’d have to work about 6 hours to earn enough to get one hour of candle light. Actually only the well off likely had them. You could cut down a tree – no chainsaw – and dry the wood, and light a fire from that. That would give a bit of heat. Still a lot of work. The lightbulb changed it. Now, an hour of work would get you a bit more than an hour of light – the new technology is always expensive. Today, with LED’s lasting so long, and using so little electricity, and electricity being so cheap, you can run a light bulb for years on one hour’s work. Light is a lot easier than it used to be. Perhaps we don’t appreciate it so much as we should. Last night, we turned off the lights, and sang by candle light again. A novelty. But one that reminds us of the importance of the light of the world.
All of this sounds so ethereal. Trees symbolizing life vs death. Strands of light symbolize the light vs darkness. For children – the tree is where it is at. There is a very specific and real thing that the tree gives. Wake up Christmas morning, you look at the tree for the gifts. You don’t look under the bed, you don’t look outside in the garage. The tree. That’s where you go. Because that’s where the goods are given.
Today’s Gospel reading would be easy to dismiss as a lot of high-minded philosophy, a lot of out there thinking, if not for one phrase that brings it all crashing to earth. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It is the presents-under-the-tree moment. The moment when all the talk about light and darkness and cosmic things beyond our understanding become real. A baby. A real baby. Little fingers and toes. The baby would grow. The baby – now a man – would teach, heal, preach the good news to the poor. And then he would die. Jesus is the baby, as you know. And he really is God come to earth for your salvation.
On the one side we have high-minded rhetoric about eternal things, about struggles between light and darkness, between life and death. We have that symbolic tree. But on the other side we have Word made flesh. Now one of us. The hard reality that this is where salvation is found. Christmas can be the celebration of hearts and wishes and thoughts and intentions and dreams – right up until the moment that word becomes flesh.
Now, Jesus is where it is at. And Jesus promises to come to us through the washing of water and the word, through the preaching of the Word. Through the Body and blood, given and shed for your for the forgiveness of your sins. The hard reality of God coming to you with forgiveness and with life. You are no longer trapped in your sin, trapped in a dying world, in a dying body, with a heart that is already dead to God. Now, Jesus comes and lightens the darkness with his Holy Word. He calls you out of this world through Holy Baptism – that is where you are joined to his death on the cross. That is where you are given a new life. He has promised it. He has done the work himself. He baptizes. And then, he feeds – yes with his own word as we gladly hear and learn that word. But also with his body and blood. Where do we find Jesus this Christmas day?
Not in thoughts and intentions and wishes and dreams. We find him where he promises to be – the hard reality of his body and blood for your to take eat and take drink as he has promised.
On Christmas morning the kids know where to look – under the tree. That’s where the promise of presents is fulfilled.
In the church we go where God has promised to be. In the water and word. In the Bread and wine – joined to word so that Jesus is really present for your to eat and drink and so be strengthened and given the life that he is, and to have your heart enlightened by that life. We don’t need to go other places – we know where the promise is. And God keeps his promises.
The patriarchs and prophets waited for thousands of years. They did not get to see this day. We do. We have seen, we have heard. The reality of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins – given to you this day in the body and blood. Where there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation. Come, receive the gift of life from the one who is life. Enlighten your hearts with the one who is the light. Not just pie in the sky talk. The Word who was made flesh for you. The Son of God come into the world.
Rejoice, Rejoice this happy morn, a Savior unto us is born!