By Pastor Glenn Pease
Back in October of 1948, a young pastor and his wife took on the challenge of repairing and restoring an old church. Their goal was to have it done by Christmas Eve. But just two days before Christmas a storm dumped over an inch of rain, and the roof leaked, and right in front of the church the plaster got soaked and crumbled leaving a gaping hole in the wall.
The pastor and his wife were discouraged, and all their efforts seemed to be in vain. They were really down as they went to a benefit auction for the youth that afternoon. One of the items put up for bid was an old ivory and gold colored tablecloth. It was nearly 15 feet long. The pastor got an idea and he bid until he got it. He took it to the church where he used it to cover the wall where the hole was.
The day before Christmas he noticed a woman standing at the bus stop by the church. He knew the bus would not be coming for at least a half an hour and it was cold. So he invited her to come into the church to keep warm. He learned she was not from that neighborhood, but was in the area to interview for a job as a governess, but she had not gotten it. When she saw the cloth on the front of the church she rushed up to it and said, "this is my banquet cloth." She told the shocked pastor its history and even showed him her initials she had embroidered in one corner.
She and her husband had lived in Vienna, Austria. They had to flee from the Nazis before World War II. They went separately so as not to be conspicuous, for they were opposed to Hitler. They never found each other again, and she heard that he had died in a concentration camp. The pastor was touched and he offered her the cloth. But she had no need for it now, and liked the fact that it was doing some good right where it was. She left the church and her cloth, and the pastor thought he would never see her again.
In the candlelight of the Christmas Eve service, the tablecloth looked even more magnificent. The lovely lace was so pretty in the flickering light of the candles as the golden thread woven through it stood out. As the people left the church they commented on the attractiveness of the church. One older gentleman lingered and admired the tablecloth. He said to pastor as he was about to leave, " It's strange-many years ago my wife and I owned such a tablecloth. She used it on special occasions when we lived in Vienna."
Goosebumps raised rapidly on the pastor's skin, as he told him about his experience with a woman in the church that very afternoon. The old man began to cry. "Can it be that she is alive? How can I find her?" The pastor remembered the name of the family she had visited to get a job. He called there and got her address. Together they went to the home and he witnessed a reunion like he had never seen in his life. They had been separated for over a decade, each thinking the other was dead. Now because of a common possession, they were reunited, and able to celebrate Christmas with great joy.
History is filled with stories like this where mere commonplace things play a major role. The experience of one pastor is repeated, I am sure, by millions every year. Coming into church one Christmas morning, he asked a little boy what he got for Christmas. His face lit up as he replied, "I got a whole lot of stuff." Stuff is a rather vague term. The dictionary says it means any kind of matter whether solid, liquid, or gas. It covers the entire universe of material things, and believe it or not, it is a Biblical word. In the King James Version it is used 13 times in the Old Testament, and once in the New Testament. It is used to refer to all of one's household possessions. It is used to refer to all the equipment, weapons, and baggage of an army. Stuff covers all kinds of stuff. Anything that is not in the animal kingdom is included in the term stuff.
Shakespeare who wrote at the same time that the King James Version was translated used the word stuff more than all other authors in history. One of his most famous lines is, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of." Benjamin Franklin is famous for his line, "Do not squander time for that is the stuff life is made of." When we come to the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus we discover that by becoming a man he entered into a relationship with the world of stuff.
There is not a lot of the mineral kingdom referred to in the Christmas story, but the few there are, are major items. The star above and the gold below that the wise men brought are of the mineral kingdom. One example each of heavenly and earthly stuff. Jesus identified with these things by taking on such names as, The Bright And Morning Star, and The Star of Jacob. And for valuable earthly matter he is called The Pearl Of Great Price. Other mineral names of Jesus are Rock Of Ages and Stone of Stumbling.
The vegetable kingdom is referred to more often. In our text, here in Luke 2, the manger is mentioned three times. Then there is the frankincense and myrrh the wise men brought, and the house the holy family lived in when they came. Wood stands out as the dominant stuff in the Christmas story. Even the decree of Caesar was likely made from the plant kingdom. The only other thing connected with our Lord's birth was the cloth He was wrapped in, and that could have been from either the plant or animal kingdom. The point of all this is that Jesus came into a world of stuff. Jesus acknowledged the value of all this stuff by taking on Himself names relating to the vegetable kingdom.
Root of Jesse
Root out of Dry Ground
The First Fruit
Rose of Sharon
Lily of the Valley
The Plant of Renown
The Apple Tree
The Bread of Life
The Tree of Life
Jesus created all of the stuff of this material universe, and in His Incarnation He became personally involved with the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdom. His goal is to redeem all of His creation from the effects of the fall, so that even stuff is a part of the plan of salvation.
Stuff is sort of a crude word, but then, so is the Christmas setting. The stable was not the equivalent of a modern delivery room. The stable had stuff that was not all pleasant, and could have made Mary and Joseph wish they had some frankincense perfume at that time, and not later when the wise men came.
The stuff that stands out most is wood. The manger is mentioned three times. In His birth, this future carpenter was surrounded by wood put together by another carpenter, and selected by His supposed father, Joseph, as being the safest place available. This infant carpenter came into the world laid on wood, and went out of the world the same way, as they laid Him on the wood of the cross. He was born with wood, lived and worked with wood, and died with wood. Wooden stuff played a major role in the life of Jesus.
Christmas and the tree is still a central part of our Christmas. Many times Christians are led to believe that the Christmas tree has a pagan origin. So they refuse to have a tree, or put branches of holly in their homes and churches. If they would read what the Bible says about the Messiah and His relationship to the tree, they would not be duped by such nonsense.
Jesus made the tree, and it is Him that we are to praise for all of it's values and uses. Do not let anybody tell you that what Jesus has made is not appropriate to glorify Him. Pagans have always used grape juice and bread also-are we to cease obedience to Christ and give up these elements as means of remembering Him? Of course not, and so also with the Christmas tree. If the old pagans worshiped the evergreen, their folly does not become my guide. I go by the Word of God which links the Messiah and the tree, often. Listen to some of the prophesies that concern the branch- "Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a Righteous Branch; for behold I will bring forth my servant the Branch; at that time I will cause the Branch of Righteousness to grow up unto David; there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots, which shall stand for an ensign of the people." There are many more you can find by looking up branch in your concordance.
The point is, long before any pagan mythology, the Messiah of Israel was connected with the tree. There is not a lot of stuff more appropriate for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah than a Christmas tree. Add some lights to symbolize that He is the Light of the World, and decorations to symbolize He came to beautify everything He touched, and you have a beautiful and Biblical symbol of Jesus-the Tree of Life.
The Christmas tree is evergreen, a fitting symbol of the everlasting life Christ came to give. The poet who sees the Christmas tree through Biblically enlightened eyes writes,
O Christmas tree! Fair Christmas tree
A type of Life eternal.
O Christmas tree! Fair Christmas tree!
Your boughs are ever vernal.
So fresh and green in summer heat,
And bright when snows lie round your feet.
O Christmas tree! Fair Christmas tree!
A type of life eternal.
O Christmas tree! Fair Christmas tree!
Alight with love and splendor:
O Christmas tree! Fair Christmas tree!
True praise to Christ you render.
In steadfast faith you flash with light,
As stars of God glow through the night.
O Christmas tree! Fair Christmas tree!
Alight with love and splendor!
You might just as well try to get Christians to stop kissing because the pagans kissed before them, as to try and get them to give up the Christmas tree because some pagans worshiped it. The Bible is our authority for faith and conduct, and not what pagans did or did not do.
Not only did Jesus create all the trees, but He made them a major means by which He blesses the human race. From trees we receive the oxygen we need to breathe. From trees we build the homes and churches in which we live and worship. From trees come the tables at which we enjoy the abundance of the rest of the plant kingdom as well as the animal kingdom. From trees comes the paper to print Bibles, and books, and tracts, by which the message of God reaches the world. The Word that became flesh spreads His Word all over the world by means of trees.
If you can find a better symbol by which to celebrate the birth of the Savior, by all means use it, but don't knock the tree. "Poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a tree." The devil never made a tree. Any and all trees should be used to magnify the name of Jesus their Creator. Violet Storey writes,
Oh, lovely way to celebrate your birth
Whose birth star glistened through Judea's trees;
Whom Joseph taught the skillful use of these;
Who, on a Tree, once overcame the earth!
Grant then your blessings, Friend of Trees, we pray
On those who deck green boughs for Christmas day!
This American tradition was almost lost because of a conflict in the White House. President Franklin Pierce entertained the entire Sunday School of the New York Ave. Presbyterian Church with a Christmas tree in the White House. He was followed by President Benjamin Harrison, who also made it a point to have an old fashioned Christmas tree. But when Theodore Roosevelt became President, he was concerned that promoting the use of Christmas trees would damage our natural resources, and so he banned the use of the Christmas tree in the White House. He was very angry when he discovered that his two boys, Archie and Quentin, had smuggled a tree into their room. The boys appealed to their father's good friend Gifford Pinchot, who was America's first professional forester. He convinced the President that a wise cutting of evergreens would be helpful rather than harmful. So the boys were allowed to keep their tree, and ever since, the White House has had a tree.
Those Christians who grew up in America can hardly imagine a Christmas without a tree. When Billy Graham's oldest daughter and her husband lived in Jerusalem, she told of how she would look up into the December sky, and watch the stars over Bethlehem only a few miles away. Yet it did not seem like Christmas to her, because it was impossible to purchase a tree in Israel. A couple of days before Christmas her Jewish neighbor asked her if she would like a Christmas tree. She told her they would be given away in the center of town by the Jewish Tourist Agency. They gladly got one and searched for lights and balls, and then popped popcorn. Soon their apartment looked like an American apartment at Christmas. Here they were, only a few miles from where Jesus was born, but not until the Christmas tree was set up could they feel the joy of Christmas. Listen to Gigi"s closing words as she writes of this experience, "I stood back and looked with satisfaction at the glowing tree. Here, in the land of Jesus' birth, among His people, experiencing my true roots, I realized that this special tree reminded me not only of Bethlehem, but of Calvary. From a cradle to a cross-for me and for all His "chosen" people. My prayer was answered. Joy to the world, the Lord is come."
It would be easy to be critical of her for needing Christmas stuff to get in the spirit. It is all so subjective and so culturally conditioned. That is true, but the question is, is the cultural conditioning based on the Bible? If it is, then the Christmas stuff is legitimate. If you can imagine the Christmas story without the stable, the manger, the cloth, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, then congratulations on your capacity to experience a super-spiritual Christmas. But for the rest of us, we need stuff. We need Christmas stuff to aid the spirit, and God gave us stuff in the Christmas story because He knew it was important to convey the reality of the Incarnation.
People have different stuff that makes Christmas special to them. Dr. John R. Rice in a Christmas sermon tells of how important oranges were in his Christmas. He lived in Texas where they didn't have oranges then. They all came from California, and were rather expensive. The only time they got oranges was at Christmas. The early growers of oranges in California made a quick fortune. But then invading insects began to kill the trees, and the business was in deep trouble.
C.V. Riley, the chief entomologist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, devoted his life to finding a solution. He discovered the problem did not exist in Australia, and so he worked out a plan to study the natural enemies of the insects that destroyed citrus trees. He found one and brought it to America. The results were phenomenal. These imported bugs ate the larva of insects, and they multiplied rapidly. They were so valuable that the citrus industry built insectories where they raised them by the billions. They were sent all over the world, and have changed the world economy. Without these little friends the fruit growers of the world would suffer great loss.
So what does this little bug have to do with Christmas? It made oranges possible for those who considered them a special Christmas food. But the more interesting connection is the name of this little bug. It is none other than the lady bug. I was taught as a boy never to kill a lady bug. I push them away but I do not squash them as other bugs, because they kill insects. But I never knew why they were called lady bugs. Now I know. They are so called after the first lady of Christiandom-the mother of Jesus. There was no other bug on the planet so universally connected with the Virgin Mary. In Sweden it is known as The Virgin Mary's Golden Hen. It is the most honored bug in nature. Not only does man treat it kindly but so do the birds and animals. That is why it can multiply so rapidly. It does only good and no evil, and thus, adds to the food supply of all the world. Every time you enjoy an orange for Christmas or any other time, remember the lady bug, named after the Lady whom God used to bring the Savior into the world.
This is all trivial stuff, but that is the point of this message. Trivial stuff is a part of the Christmas story, and because it is, it is no longer just trivial stuff. Because the Son of God touched it, and was touched by it, all this commonplace stuff takes on significance. Everything in one way or another takes us back to its Creator, and that Creator is the Christ of Christmas. Christmas stuff is to be a reminder to us that God can and does use anything and everything to accomplish His will in this world.
Mary Warren in her book, Let The Earth Bring Forth, tells of losing her faith when she lost her husband. She felt hopeless and cared about nothing. God used nature to bring her back to Himself. Listen to her testimony-
If the proper definition of angel is "messenger from
God," we are naive to limit the use of the word to those
filmy apparitions with wings and halos found in old
pictures and Sunday school plays. At times when we
cannot be touched by pastor or family members or
friends, God is able to employ a total stranger as His
messenger, perhaps a grocery clerk or a passenger on a
bus, even an author or composer from another century.
I know of no law stating that an angel must be a
human figure. In my case, chickadee and tulip,
ladybug, cricket and worm may have been His angels
watching over me in love.
She is saying that God used a lot of stuff to communicate with her. God uses stuff from the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdom to speak to us and give us guidance.
Christmas is a very materialistic celebration, and rightly so, for it is the celebration of God, who is Spirit, entering into the material world as flesh. It is the most radical material act in history. In creation God made matter, but in the Incarnation God was made matter. From that point on all that is matter has the potential of being used to glorify God. Christmas stuff is to lead us to praise God for His glorious gift of Himself in Christ. You can get stuff oriented and miss the best of Christmas, but you can also use stuff to help you see the closeness of Christ to you, in that he too came to live among all the same stuff, and use it for His Father's purpose. May God help us to enjoy and use wisely all of our Christmas stuff.