Fourth in an Advent series on Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
One of the more interesting and, for me sometimes, inconvenient tasks of the Christmas season is the whole putting up the Christmas tree thing. While I like having a Christmas tree in the house, it’s the whole process of getting it out of the basement and putting it up that I’m not thrilled with. It can be a frustrating process…
It’s like the two blondes (ok, we’ll call them “Hittites” instead) who went deep into the woods searching for a Christmas tree.
After hours of subzero temperatures and a few close calls with hungry wolves, one Hittite turned to the other and said, “I’m chopping down the next tree I see. I don’t care whether it’s decorated or not!”
When I was a kid we used to get our tree every year from the Lion’s Club lot down by the YMCA, where we’d select some Charlie Brown-ish tree with the needles falling off, strap it to the roof of the station wagon, cram it through the door and water the heck out of it to keep it alive. I remember the trees being pretty when all dressed up (my mom had a thing for those artificial icicles, you know – that you throw on the tree and then pick up for the next six months). But then, the day after Christmas, you began to notice that it stank and was getting brown and then you’d have to take down all the ornaments and get it out of the house where it would sit in the driveway for a couple of weeks until the garbage man came to haul it away.
Now we have an artificial tree, do in part to my allergies, and we have to assemble it, making sure the right branches go in the right slot. Hauling the box out of the crawlspace, getting down all the decorations, untangling all the lights…now we have teenagers for that. Then there’s the ornaments…I have to admit that it’s kind of cool to see the evolution of family traditions through those – ornaments celebrating the birth of the kids, different stages of our lives, traditional ornaments that we brought to our marriage.
But then there are other ornaments that you wonder why you have…the “filler” ornaments – you know, the plain colored Christmas balls, candy canes, etc. For years at our house we had a box of ornaments that I never really understood…it was a bunch of plastic apples. Don’t know where they came from, don’t know why we had ‘em, but every year, there they were, until one year I decided to get rid of them. What do apples have to do with Christmas, anyway? (The Grinch strikes again!) Well, being the historian, I was doing some research recently and it turns out that my apple ornament aversion was actually incorrect. Actually, apples have actually been associated with Christmas trees since the evolution of the Christmas tree itself. Indeed, the apples may be the most important part of any Christmas tree.
The tradition of putting up a tree for Christmas, of course, has to do with a kind of merging of both pagan and Christian spirituality in the early days of the church. You may have heard this before, but the story goes that in northern Europe in the middle ages evergreen boughs were considered to be devil-proof shields against the evil forces of the universe. The belief was that demons fear the color green – the color of summer and life – and thus to have a tree that was ever green in your house was a way of keeping evil at bay.
There’s another tradition, however, that you may not know about. In the medieval Christian church, December 24 wasn’t only Christmas Eve, it was also known as “Adam and Eve Day”. On that day, common people playacted the story of Adam and Eve in a kind of morality play in preparation for Christmas Day. But before the play would begin, the actors would parade through town with “Adam” carrying the Tree of Life on which were hung…apples.
Those medieval Christians knew that the Bible itself begins with two trees…the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – a tree that was sacred, representing God’s holiness and goodness and sovereignty. God had told Adam and his wife Eve that everything in the garden he’d made for them was theirs…except this one tree. But they wanted desperately what they couldn’t have and chose to make that tree their own, grabbing after it’s fruit (which may or may not have been an apple, but you get the point). They decided they knew better than God and, in effect, cut down the tree of life through their own sin, leaving nothing but a withered stump.
Seems that there’s a human tendency to always want to cut down what God has given us and build monuments to ourselves. That’s really the nature of sin…it leaves us in a barren place devoid of the shade and fruit, refreshment and fresh air of God’s love and grace.
And, theologically speaking, the biblical understanding of sin is that it’s endemic to all of human life. John Wesley and many others in church history have called it “original sin.” It’s one of the foundational doctrines of Christian faith. The pattern of sin gets passed from generation to generation and all we need to do is look around to know that it’s true. None of us is untouched by it. We see it at work from the time we’re very small—it’s the reason that one of the first words most babies learn to speak is “mine.” It’s no wonder that the writer of Psalm 51 could say, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5).
But while the doctrine of original sin is foundational to Scripture and evidenced everywhere in human life, many humans want to deny that it’s a problem. Indeed, there are plenty of people, even in many churches, who believe that sin is an outdated concept. For them, life is all about self-fulfillment, about the rights of the individual to do whatever he or she wants to do. “I’m OK, you’re OK” is the mantra. What’s right for me may not be right for you. Everything is relative. Sin? Well, we don’t talk about that—too much guilt. It’s like a lady in one of my former churches who came up to me after service once and said, “I wish you wouldn’t put that prayer of confession in the service. I don’t like it. I don’t think we really need that. It makes me feel bad.” It’s the natural human proclivity to believe that sin is someone else’s problem.
But Scripture reminds us that we aren’t ok—that we haven’t been from the beginning. And despite our denial and self-deception, sin is still what binds us and we can’t shake it on our own. The story of Adam and Eve, the story of human history, is a story of sin in which all of us participate. Our human interconnectedness means that my sin always has consequences for those around me, despite our culture’s “no harm, no foul” way of thinking. Patterns of sin are passed down in families today, just as they were in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are genetically predisposed to repeat the sins of the past and, as a result, we’re also predisposed to death. Adam’s likeness is stamped on all of us. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
It ‘s no wonder, then that when Charles Wesley wrote his “Hymn for Christmas Day,” one of the verses (which isn’t in our hymnal) says this: “Adam’s likeness, Lord efface. Stamp your image in its place.” The truth is that, as the medieval Christians displayed, we’re still carrying around the reminder of sin in us and we need to have the burden lifted. We need someone to replant the tree.
That’s the word and image from our Old Testament lesson in Isaiah… the image of a shoot, a new branch that grows out of a withered stump…a sign of new life, a sign of hope. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit…” (11:1). New life springs up in the midst of human sin and death.
That shoot, for Isaiah, is a different sort of tree, a different sort of human being than the children of Adam—one on whom the spirit of the Lord rests. Instead of being governed by the worldview of sin and death, this new branch has “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Isaiah sees him as a righteous judge, who gives justice to the poor and the weak, while striking the wicked with his breath. Because of him, Isaiah imagines, the world will be set right. The whole creation will find renewal. The wolf and lamb will live together, as will the cow and the bear. Even the lions won’t roar for the blood of prey. Indeed, God says, “They will not hurt of destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (v. 6-9). And a little child shall lead them all.
The New Testament writers looked at Isaiah’s image of the peaceable kingdom and the righteous shoot through the lens of Jesus—a new original human in whom original sin is replaced by perfect obedience to God, which we might call original righteousness. In Romans 5, as well as in I Corinthians 15, Paul describes how the coming of Jesus, God in human flesh, reverses the curse of Adam. “Therefore…sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread because all have sinned,” says Paul in Romans 5:12. Paul describes Adam as the archetype of the human sin that plagues us all and Jesus as the new Adam, the type of the one who has come to set us free.
In Romans 5 Paul gives us the contrast between the first Adam and the second Adam.
The first Adam brought death. Jesus brought life (v. 17).
The first Adam brought condemnation. Jesus brought justification and life for all. (v. 18)
Through the disobedience of the first Adam, many were made sinners. Through the obedience of Jesus, many were made righteous. (v. 19)
In the first Adam, sin exercised dominion. In Jesus, grace exercised dominion through justification, leading to eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. (v. 21)
Paul’s point here is that even though the first Adam began a massive movement of human sin, the arrival of Jesus began and even more massive, God-ordained movement of grace (we’ll be looking at this some more in our upcoming January sermon series on Romans) And because of that grace we can be renewed into the humans God created us to be from the beginning. As Charles Wesley put it in verse 4 of his hymn, we can be “reinstated” in God’s love, and we can “regain the life, the inner man” that is marred by sin.
All of this, however, is accomplished because of another tree – a tree of death. The life of the second Adam reached its fullest expression on the barren tree of the Cross – what G.K. Chesterton called “that terrible tree which was the death of God and the life of man.” We celebrate the birth of Christ by decorating trees with the apples of life, even while we remember that it was also a tree that served to crucify him—a tree of death for one man turned into a tree of life for all.
This is the tree that Jesus told his disciples they need to learn how to pick up if they are going to follow him. Dealing with sin in our lives and in the world isn’t going to be an easy business. To deal with sin and death, we have to learn how to die ourselves—to die to our old lives, our old patterns of sin. We have to learn the way of suffering, realizing that the world doesn’t tend to reward those who don’t follow its sinful ways. As German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bohoeffer put it,
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die…In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, means both life and death. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of his participation in the cross of his Lord.” (from The Cost of Discipleship).
The cross is the tree to which Jesus calls us. It is both our salvation and our mission. It’s also our commission to confront sin and death wherever we find it, using Christ’s sacrificial love and grace as the means. As Christ has given his life for us, reversing Adam’s curse of sin and death, now we are to give our lives to a world bound by sin, joining the crucified Christ in proclaiming that sin and death have had their day, and living lives that reflect the stamp of his image on us. Only when we die with him will we truly find life.
What is it that needs to die in you today? Which tree are you carrying? On this eve before the eve before Adam and Eve Day, Christmas Eve, we are called to turn our gaze toward the only tree that gives us life. This is the answer to original sin. This is how God is saving the world and saving us.
So, now I’m actually understanding why a Christmas tree might be festooned with apples.It’s a reminder of our sinful nature, but it’s also a reminder that God has done something about our sin. No matter how withered we feel, how barren, how sin-scarred and dry, a shoot of new life can break forth in our lives because of what God has done in Jesus. Adam and Eve Day is always followed by Christmas.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the New-born king!”
So, maybe decorating the Christmas tree isn’t such a hassle after all. In fact, it might be a form of worship. With every branch and every ornament, we recognize the incredible life-giving power of God who has overcome sin and death.
That’s a message worth carrying with us everywhere…