Lots of people couldn’t go to church today, and many churches cancelled services because of weather. So here is what was preached in Wheatland, in case you still wanted to meditate on the Word of the Lord this Lord’s day:
For the church, the new year starts today. The year of our Lord Two thousand Twenty. It starts today because we have finished looking at the life of the Christian, and we turn our attention, once again, to the life of Christ. Christmas is almost here. The songs are blasted in stores, the decorations, the parties, the travel – we are preparing for all of it. Are you ready? Oh not yet. But ready or not, here it comes.
In the church, we don’t prepare our floors and countertops and cookie jars. We prepare our hearts. The Lord comes! That’s what Advent means – he comes. Jesus is coming. Not Jesus in the manger – we’ll hear in a few weeks those familiar and precious words about how Jesus came with healing and mercy, and love and sacrifice for you for the forgiveness of your sins. During Advent we prepare for the king – Jesus enthroned at the right hand of the Father – who comes again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.
The question arose – when is the right time to put up the trees in the church? Before Advent begins? Midway through? The experts were consulted. The advice was – as close to Christmas as possible. The goal was to make a distinction between Advent and Christmas.
But no tradition can be cited for the timing of the Christmas Tree because the Christmas Tree – especially in church – is a recent thing. Only about 150 years. For an institution that’s been celebrating Christmas for nearly 2000 years, that’s pretty new. 150 years old is still an innovation. We’ll have to see how it goes. But so far, it’s going pretty well. Because the Christmas tree – like all ceremonies in the church – is there to teach us. And it does that quite effectively. (Our trees aren’t up yet – desire for early tree trimming yielded to reality of scheduling a decorating day between Thanksgiving and today. So, after church of Advent 1.)
Ultimately, when the tree goes up is not a tradition so much as a local custom need. The first we really hear of a tree in church is one of our own LCMS pastors – H.C. Schwan. His descendants founded the ice cream company. He was a pastor in Cleveland Ohio, and he brought in the Christmas Tree, explaining how it had been used in Germany as a symbol of life. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas – life. The life of Jesus Christ. At Easter we celebrate that life being given and shed for you, and then raised from the dead. At Christmas we celebrate the life of God being given to the world in Jesus – the Word made flesh to dwell among us.
And this life of God coming into the world comes into a dead world. Which is what we see around us. Flowers, trees, fields, all dead – if they weren’t before the storm already. But one tree stands tall and proud in the midst of death – the evergreen. It does not die, but lives. And so the evergreen praises God even in the midst of wintry death. And so the Evergreen – the Christmas tree – points us to Jesus coming into the this world of death to bring us life.
Back in the day the tree was covered with candles – lit only once on Christmas Eve. The fresher the tree, the better the chance you’d survive the encounter. So fresh cut trees for Christmas Eve. Electric lights, fake trees, they change things. Now we can safely have those lights on day after day as we prepare our hearts. Pointing us to, reminding us of, the king who comes to bring us life.
And so, early trees it is. As soon as we can arrange to have them set up.
And today, as we prepare our holy places for Christmas with decorations, as we begin to prepare our hearts for the Lord who comes, we hear… Palm Sunday.
The Lord comes! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. No palm branches today. It isn’t Holy Week. But boy does it set the tone for the whole church year. We’re going to be hearing a lot about Jesus. We’re going to be hearing that he came to die. That’s the focus, the center of our year. And so we start with the beginning of Holy Week. Because if we’re talking about dead sinful hearts being made alive in Christ, that’s crucifixion talk. The world was dead when Jesus came. Our hearts are dead to God until Jesus sends his spirit into them to establish in us a living faith. So we start the “Jesus is coming!” talk with talk of Jesus coming to die for us.
Because Jesus did not come into this world to judge. He came to save. And we want to prepare ours hearts to hear and receive that good news of great joy which shall be to all the people – that Jesus came into this world to save sinners.
What a wonderful gift – what a wonderful salvation. And, like presents under the tree, we know where to hear that salvation. God gives his holy church during this time of grace, so that all men might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. So that we can hear the word of the angel.
Because this time of grace will not last. There will still come – even for the Christian – a final breath in this world. A final moment to confess Jesus as the Son of God, to receive forgiveness of sins, before we return to the dust. And there will be a final moment for the church in this world – marked by that last trumpet. We’ll hear more of that next week. But it marks the end of the time of grace. Then it will be a time of judgment. The living and the dead will be judged, and then… eternity.
That’s why there is an urgency to Advent. The time is short. The judgment is coming for all. We prepare our homes for Christmas. So let us prepare our hearts for Christ. The king is coming. And yet, even as we hear of the judgment, we begin with mercy and grace – Jesus coming, the crowds cheering, the multitudes worshipping, and the focus of it all – the death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.
Paul summarizes the entire Advent season in our Epistle reading – We don’t go after the things of this world. We hear the word of God, we come before his throne of mercy asking forgiveness for our sins. We cleans our hearts, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Jesus is coming. The time has come for us to cast off the works of darkness, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. And make no provision for the flesh to fulfill it’s lusts. Don’t trust your heart – it is sinful. Trust only the Word of God. That stands as the immovable rock on which all your hopes and desires must be based. Place your trust in Jesus. Turn away from your self, to the things of God.
And so in the church, even with all the decorations and so on, this is not a time of celebration. It is a time to look at your own conduct in light of the Ten Commandments. To repent. To prepare your heart as surely as you prepare your home, meals, programs, visits, presents.
It’s all because of Jesus birth, and he does not need a gift from you. But you can prepare your hearts be hearing and heeding the Word of God.
The Lord comes. Hosanna!