Advent 4 2021 Rorate Coeli
December 19, 2021
Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of Go. He will come and save you.” Isaiah 35:1-4
This morning, our children recounted part of the Christmas story. Herald out the news as surely as the angels, as John the Baptist, as the shepherds, and magi. A symbol in the sense that the confession of the lips are a sign that points to Jesus, that Christmas is about the Mass of Christ, that is to say, the Divine Service focusing on the incarnation of Jesus Christ who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man.
Throughout our midweek services this year we focused on many of the symbols for the coming Christ found in the Old Testament, many of the images and foreshadowing of God’s promises to His people: the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire, Gideon as the mighty man of valor. This morning we consider another one of these symbols, both in prophetic promises of Isaiah and in current tradition.
Consider the prophet Isaiah as he poetically describes the Messiah’s coming from Isaiah 35 in this way:“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” Most of the Holy Land was arid desert wasteland: dry, dusty, desolate. Very few animals, very little vegetation, and virtually no trees. The prophets often use this image of desert wasteland to symbolize our sin and its consequences: dreadful, doom, death, damnation. But, opposite of this, the coming of the Messiah is often pictured by the Old Testament prophets like a miracle in the desert, symbolic of spiritual renewal and rebirth in the desert of our hearts.
Like streams in the desert, God sent his Son into our world, and He works faith in your heart to trust in Christ as your Savior. Where there was once dread and death because of sin, He give you hope, for your sins are all forgiven, and everlasting life with Christ in heaven. The coming of the Messiah into our world, into our hearts and lives, of faith blossoming abundantly leading to rejoicing and singing over everlasting life, is like the desert bursting forth in bloom.
Probably one of the most popular and common symbols of this in our culture is the Christmas tree. According to tradition, it was Martin Luther himself who invented the Christmas tree. One evening in the winter, the leader of the Protestant Reformation took a walk in the woods to compose a sermon, saw the stars through some pine trees, and rushed home. This reminded him of how the “glory of the Lord shone round about” the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth. To capture this beauty, he cut a tree down, set it up indoors, and decorated it with candles, fruits, and nuts.
No one knows for sure if this traditional story is factual, but it sounds like something Luther would do. Whether or not Martin Luther himself actually invented the Christmas tree, it was first used among German Lutherans, both in Europe and here in America as a symbol during the Christmas season. Decorating homes with evergreen is a practice that goes back at least as far as the Romans and the Druids, but German Lutherans are credited with bringing the tradition of candle-lit Christmas trees to settlements in Pennsylvania as early as the 1747. At that time, New England Puritans viewed Christmas celebrations outside of church—namely Christmas trees—to be a form of "pagan mockery.” Indeed, pagans were into the evergreen thing, too, just like they still are today. And though today almost all American churches of every denomination have a Christmas tree, it is a fact of American history that the very first Christmas tree in a church anywhere in North America was in a Missouri Synod congregation. In downtown Cleveland, Ohio is a historical marker with this inscription:
On this site stood the first Christmas tree in America publicly lighted and displayed in a church… On this site stood the original Zion Lutheran Church where in 1851, on Christmas Eve, Pastor Henry Schwan lighted the first Christmas tree in Cleveland. The tradition he brought from Germany soon became widely accepted throughout America...
That first year the Christmas tree was such a new and controversial thing that there were scathing editorials in the Cleveland newspapers about those awful Germans worshipping a tree. This prompted Pastor Schwan to launch a life-long campaign promoting and gaining widespread acceptance of the Christmas tree as an appropriate symbol of the Biblical account of Christmas. It would be decorated at the beginning of the Christmas season, on Christmas Eve, and left up throughout the 12 days of Christmas until Epiphany, January 6. As a result of his campaign, within five years Christmas trees were being erected in homes and churches all across the country. There had been previous Christmas trees in America, especially among Germans immigrants. But, because of his efforts to popularize this German custom in the new world, Pastor Schwan is known as “father of the Christmas tree” in America. Not only that, but Pastor Schwan later served as the LCMS Synodical President from 1878-1899. He also was the author of several of the questions, explanations, and Bible proof texts appended in the back of Luther’s Small Catechism, which we still use today.
So, the Christmas tree is a uniquely German invention; a uniquely Lutheran contribution to the Christmas season; and, to a large extent, a uniquely Missouri Synod contribution to American culture. But, the Christmas tree is more than just a beautiful decoration to brighten up our homes and make our church festive at Christmastime.
The evergreen itself, which stays green, full of life, throughout the long, dark, cold winter, is a symbol of life and of faithfulness: God’s faithfulness in keeping his ancient promise to send the Savior; and the faithfulness of the prophets and people of old, who proclaimed and believed the promise, and looked forward in faith, waiting for the coming Messiah who was to come. The evergreen is also a symbol of our faithfulness, trusting in Messiah who has come, and the eternal life we have in the wilderness of this fallen world.
The lights on the tree stand for Christ, the light of the world, and the light of faith which the Holy Spirit works in hearts through the Word and Sacraments. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “[He] made his light shine in our hearts.” The lights on the tree also stand for the good works that we do, prompted by our faith in Christ. As he said, “You are the light of the world… let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”
The beautiful ornaments on the tree are not just any ornaments, but are chrismons, or Christ monograms - decorations that represent Jesus. Various forms of crosses, chi rho, a manger, alpha and omega, baptism, communion, the Word, and all topped by a star. Just as God used the star to light the way of the Gentile magi to Jesus, so He continues to light our way and gather to Himself a holy and a righteous people. Sometimes an angel is used for the same effect, announcing as they did so long ago to the shepherds the good news of great joy that Christ has been born.
And lastly, the Christmas tree also symbolizes the tree of life – both that tree that Adam and Eve were banned from in the Garden of Eden, but even more importantly, the cross upon which Jesus died for the salvation of the world. As Peter also writes, “Surely he bore our sins in his body on the tree.” And as Peter says in the book of Acts, “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead.” It’s common when real Christmas trees are used in the church that after they are taken down, branches are cut off and trunk is fashioned into the shape of a cross to be used in the procession on Good Friday.
As you give thanks to God for adorning the lives of our children with the ornaments of faith they confess, as you admire the beautiful Christmas trees in our church, in your home, and elsewhere, remember that these things are more than just a beautiful decoration to brighten up our homes and make our church festive at Christmastime. The Christmas tree, decorated with lights and ornaments, topped with an angel or star is truly a Christian symbol to draw our attention to the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.
Portions of this sermon were adapted from a sermon by Pastor Kevin Vogts, Trinity Lutheran Church, Paola, Kansas, First Sunday after Christmas—December 29, 2013