Rev. David Holwick                                   First Sunday of Advent
First Baptist Church                     
Ledgewood, New Jersey                               
November 30, 2003                               
                                                     Deuteronomy 21:22-23

                            HANGING THE GREENS


  SERMON SUMMARY: This message was much better received than I expected.
     The conclusion even brought tears to people's eyes.  I thank Rev.
     Bucher for much of the material.


  I. Hanging of the Greens tradition.
      A. How many of you have your Christmas tree up already?
          1) (note that they probably have FAKE trees)
          2) Christmas trees are a big deal - 25 to 30 million are
                sold each Christmas.

      B. Our special service tonight.
          1) Potluck dinner with all the fixings.
          2) The church tree is decorated by members as we sing carols.
                We call it "Hanging the Greens."
          3) It all fits in with advent, the four Sundays of preparation
                for Christmas.  

      C. Trees have a long history of spiritual significance.
          1) They are also controversial.
          2) Are they symbols of paganism or honoring of Christ?

 II. A history of Christmas trees.                                #26152
      A. Martin Luther can't take the credit.
          1) Many sources say the German reformer came up with the first
                Christmas tree.
          2) Most likely a myth.

      B. However, the Germans do get credit for the tree idea.
          1) Christmas trees are mentioned in Germany in the 1500s.
          2) By the 1700s, early German settlers (like my ancestors)
                brought them to eastern Pennsylvania.
              a) (It is said that the Hessians in Trenton were singing
                    around their trees when George Washington attacked
                       in the Revolution at the Battle of Trenton.)
          3) Through royal marriages, the tradition spread to England
                and the rest of Europe.

      C. The tradition is not that ancient:
          1) England's Queen Victoria had her first tree in 1841.
          2) Boston had the first public tree lighting in 1912.
          3) Calvin Coolidge lit the first national tree in 1923.
          4) Rockefeller Center's tree?  1931 (workers) 1933 (official)
          5) Today you even find them in non-Christian countries like
                Japan and China.

III. Digging deeper.
      A. Christmas trees have always generated some controversy.
          1) In 1650 a German theologian commented:

             "The Christmas or fir tree, which people set up in their
                houses, hang with dolls and sweets, and afterwards shake
                   and deflower...
             Where this custom comes from, I don't know; it is child's
                play.
             It would be far better to point the children to the
                spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ."

          2) Some modern Christians quote Jeremiah 10:3-4:

             "For the customs of the peoples are worthless;
                they cut a tree out of the forest,
                   and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
              They adorn it with silver and gold;
                 they fasten it with hammer and nails
                    so it will not totter."

              a) We all know about tottering Christmas trees!
                  1> (We had a cat who brought down one tree twice in
                         the same season.)
              b) But you didn't know God condemned them, did you?
                  1> Actually, from the context it is apparent that
                        wooden idols are being condemned.

      B. Are the original roots of Christmas trees purely pagan?
          1) From ancient times, evergreens have been symbols of rebirth.
              a) A symbol of spirits too - that is why you knock on wood
                    for good luck.
              b) You don't want the wood demons mad at you!
          2) In many ancient cultures you brought greenery into your home
                at the winter solstice.
          3) Germans had a feast of Yule which involved bringing a live
                tree into their house in November.
              a) This was called a Yule log.
              b) But it is quite different from a Christmas tree.

 IV. The real origin of the Christmas tree comes from the Middle Ages.
      A. Religious plays called "mystery plays" in the eleventh century.
          1) The most popular was called the "Paradise Play."
              a) This play showed the story of the creation of Adam and
                    Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise.
              b) The play would end with the promise of the Savior coming
                    to earth.
          2) The only prop on the stage was the "Paradise tree," an
                evergreen tree adorned with apples.
              a) From this tree, Eve would take the apple, bite it, and
                    give it to Adam.

      B. From stage to home.
          1) Mystery plays got out of hand and were banned in much of
                Europe.
          2) But people were so used to Paradise trees that they brought
                them into their homes.
              a) They did this on December 24, the feast day of Adam and
                    Eve in the Catholic Church (at least in some parts of
                       Christendom).
              b) It symbolized a tree of sin and a tree of eternal life.
                  1> It was decorated with apples (the fruit of sin).
                  2> It also had communion wafers (eternal life).
                  3> Later, candy was added.

      C. A parallel development - the Christmas light.
          1) A large candle called the Christmas Light was lit on
                Christmas Eve.
          2) In Germany, many small candles were placed on a wooden
                pyramid and lit.
              a) Glass balls and tinsel were added, and a star at the
                    top represented the star of Bethlehem.

  V. Our own Christmas tree is born.
      A. It combines the Paradise tree and the Christmas Candle of Light.
          1) For many Christians in the world the symbolism remains.
          2) It is Adam and Eve's tree of sin, and the tree of eternal
                  life we are striving to return to.

      B. The Bible provides further symbolism.
          1) The New Testament calls the cross of Jesus a tree.
          2) Galatians 3:13 -

              "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by
                  becoming a curse for us, for it is written:
                     'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'"

          3) This is an allusion to a curse in the Old Testament.

              "If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death
                  and his body is hung on a tree,
               You must not leave his body on the tree overnight.
               Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is
                  hung on a tree is under God's curse."
                                                     Deuteronomy 21:22-23

      C. This curse was a big stumbling block for early evangelists.
          1) The Jews could not accept a crucified Messiah.
          2) God wouldn't use a cursed man!  (or a criminal either)

 VI. The Apostle Paul's insight.
      A. Jesus was indeed cursed - he was cursed for us.
          1) Our sin carries a penalty, separating us from God.
          2) We are all under a curse.
          3) By dying on the cross, Jesus pays for our curse himself.

      B. Is God this harsh?  Does he demand to be appeased?         #2938
          1) Modern people have a real problem with this kind of
                theology.
          2) How come God can't forgive us the way we forgive each other?
              a) The answer is to be found in the kind of God with whom
                    we have to deal.
              b) He is not a sinful person who takes wrongdoing lightly
                    and can therefore forgive lightly.
              c) He is holy and he takes sin with dreadful seriousness.
          3) The shedding of Christ's blood on our behalf is God's
                solution to a dilemma.
              a) On one hand, he loves us infinitely and desires even at
                    infinite cost to accept us into his loving
                       fellowship and kingdom.
              b) On the other hand, he must uphold his own moral law and
                    the righteousness of his sovereign rule over the
                       universe.

VII. God on a tree answers our deepest needs.
      A. We live in cursed times.

            Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Prize winner and survivor of Hitler's
               Holocaust of the Jews.
            He tells of his time in a concentration camp, when he was
               forced, along with a few others, to witness the hanging
                  of two Jewish men and one Jewish boy.
            The two men died right away, but the young lad struggled on
               the gallows.

            Somebody behind Wiesel muttered, "Where is God?
               Where is He?"
            Then the voice ground out the anguish again, "Where is He?"
            Wiesel felt the same question irrepressibly within him:
               "Where is God?  Where is He?"
            Then he heard a voice softly within him saying,
               "He is hanging there on the gallows, where else?"

            Can any faith other than Christianity answer that question
               in its fullest sense?
            As we see so many atrocities we wonder, "Where is God?"
            And the answer comes: He is right in the middle - at the
               receiving end of evil, hanging on the gallows.
            The Cross invades us as the only reasonable symbol for a
               wounded world.
            God is on the gallows Himself so that we might come near.

            From this truth follows a very significant personal
               challenge.
            When we come face-to-face with the Cross, we have a choice:
               We either recognize its implications and bring all that
                  we are to Christ so that we might live near Him,
               or we walk away from the Cross and live feeling alienated
                  from God.

            But this is where the lie comes in - believing that we can
               be close to God without dying to ourselves.
            We think that by walking away we are whole.
            The truth is that by understanding His brokenness we are
               truly mended.
                                                                  #17973
      B. Don't just gather around a tree but kneel before his Cross.


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SOURCES FOR ILLUSTRATIONS USED IN THIS SERMON:

# 2938  "Why Is Easter Unattractive?" editorial by Kenneth S. Kantzer,
           Christianity Today, March 18, 1983, page 7.

#17973  "On the Receiving End," Ravi Zacharias, A Slice of Infinity:
           Ravi Zacharias International Ministries;
           http://www.gospelcom.net/slice/; September 4, 2002.

#26152  "The History of the Christmas Tree," Rev. Dr. Richard Bucher,
           Evangelical Trinity Lutheran Church; Clinton, Massachusetts;
           http://users.rcn.com/tlclcms/writings.html; November 2000.
           Most of the historical material in my sermon comes from
           Bucher's excellent article.  Also see his "There Is Nothing
           Wrong With a Christmas Tree."  Many other well-researched
           articles are on his site.

These and 25,000 others are part of a database that can be downloaded,
absolutely free, at http://illust.holwick.com
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"Pastor Holwick's Sermons"

Copyright © Rev. W. David Holwick, 2003

First Baptist Church; Ledgewood, New Jersey

This document last modified December 4, 2003