Between The Trees [Hebrews 11:8-16]
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Between The Trees – 12.04.2022
[Hebrews 11:8-16, Revelation 22:1-5]
One of the greatest and most easily recognized Christmas traditions is this giant thing standing behind me. The Christmas tree. Every piece of it has an origin, from the type of tree to the lights to the thing on top, and everything else we put on it – everything has a reason that it is the way it is. What I want to teach you today is that the story of Christianity is actually tale of life between two very important trees – there’s a tree in Genesis (the first book of the bible) and a tree in Revelation (the last book of the bible). And life on this earth, we live this life between the two trees. Now, some of the Christmas tree legends are fact, verified with historical documentation. And some of the legends are legends, myths based on some vague reality that have grown into these amazing stories over the years – centuries, really. So let’s start with evergreens. The reason we use evergreens, actually pre-dates Christmas. Pagans used to bring evergreens into their homes to celebrate winter, as a reminder that Spring was going to come. In order to combat the depression and the fear that came with the winter cold, they had this piece of hope that they would bring into the house to remind them that this winter will not last forever. Spring will come, there is hope for a better future, and so that’s why we use the evergreen tree – hope for a better future. When people say that Christmas is a pagan holiday, it's not really true – but there are pieces that existed before Christianity adopted them.
Now the medieval period where most of these traditions come from is full of these almost fairy tale stories about the Christmas tree. There was one story that once upon a time there was a very poor family, and the Christ child, baby Jesus, took pity on them because they had nothing to decorate their home, and so he turned their cobwebs into silver, and that’s where tinsel comes from. And there’s this other story about this very famous theologian Martin Luther. One winter, Martin Luther was walking through the woods and he saw the stars shining through the pines. And the stars were so beautiful, he came home, and he said we have to decorate our tree with candles, lights like the stars. Now whether he started that tradition or not, I don’t know. But that’s how the story goes. They used to literally melt wax on the bottom of the candle and attach it to the trees that they had cut down and brought inside their house. Now I think it’s fairly obvious why they switched to electric lights as soon as humanly possible. There was actually a fire in Chicago, where the Christmas tree burned down a hospital in the 1800s. Because attaching literal candles to a dried out tree and putting it in the middle of your home is a horrible idea.
And there’s all these stories about how they used to decorate trees with edible things like gingerbread men, and apples, and then glass versions and then into what we have now. Did you know that they used to stick little baby Jesus figures up on top of the tree? But they switched to angels, I don’t know why, except that it probably wasn’t a good idea to encourage hoisting babies way up in the air.
So I spent a little time researching all these traditions that we have in the church – the one that I found the most interesting was the paradise tree. Some people think the Christmas tree came from the tradition of the paradise tree. Apparently, in Europe, a long time ago, Christmas Eve was known as Adam and Eve Day. And they would carve a tree out of wood, and they would parade around town with the tree. And that was sort of their way of announcing that it was time for the Christmas play, or the miracle plays is what they would call them. Now at this time there wasn’t a lot of literacy, and so each year they would put on these plays, skits, depicting bible stories for people who didn’t know them, who couldn’t read them. They knew the bible was important, they knew the story needed to be told but they couldn’t read – and so they would have these skits, on the day before Christmas, to learn about the bible. In a way, the origin of the Christmas tree was a call to better understand this book [hold up a bible].
In Genesis, in the very beginning, with Adam and Eve, they were in a garden, and there was a tree – the tree of knowledge, and that’s the start of the story. And then we go through, and we follow the story of God interacting with humans all the way to Jesus, the creation of the Church, and beyond. And then we get to the end, to Revelation. And it tells us, in chapter 22, the last chapter of the bible – literally, I’m on the last page of my bible, it shows us a picture of heaven, [read 1-3a]. This is a picture of what paradise will look like. I love the imagery, crystal river, with the trees along the banks of the river. The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. There’s a lot of good stuff on this earth. Especially around here, we see some amazing things in nature. But there’s always something wrong. You have to ignore a lot of bad stuff to get excited about this world. But it says that in the end, in heaven, nothing will be accursed. It’s the beauty of earth, perfected. No more hatred, or pain, sorrow, all the broken things of this life, washed away. But one of the fundamental pieces of Christianity is recognizing that we are not there yet. We started in the garden, and we’re headed on to paradise. We move from one tree to the next, but right now – we are caught in the middle. We are living between the trees of life. God promised paradise. It says he has prepared a city for them. A crystal clear river flowing from the throne with the tree of life on the sides. Nothing accursed will be found. We’ve talked about this before. We don’t know what heaven will look like. We don’t know what’s a metaphor, and what’s concrete – but the important part is no more evil, no more pain, and we will all experience the presence of God. That’s the gift, that’s the promise.
Now our scripture lesson today is Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11 is all about faith. It starts out, verse 1 [read it]. Faith is believing that there is something more, something better, something worth going after. And then the whole chapter goes on about all these people in history who have had great faith. Abraham and Moses, and all these, you know, heroes of the faith. And then we get to verse 13. [read it]. What it is saying is that all of these heroes died, without seeing the end. Without getting what they were promised – but they saw it, they knew it was there, from a distance they saw it. I want you to think about that, because in this life, we don’t get what was promised yet. We believe in something we can not see. [Read verse 16]. It says, they desired a better country, therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. Now, they desired a better country, and God was not ashamed. And I think if you flip the phrase, the other side of the coin is disturbing. If we are comfortable with this world, if we are okay with all this darkness – then you might say that God would be ashamed to be called our God. We use his name all the time, but do we have our hearts set on a better life, a better world.
And the problem I see so much in our world, in our nation, in our town, is that people have learned how to settle. We look around and we think, “eh, good enough.” You know, it’s like a football team that shows up to the game. And they look around and they think, we dressed up, we showed up, that’s enough right? But that’s not how you win the game. That’s not how you chase perfection. Improving with every drill, every practice. With football and with church, it’s not about dressing up and showing up. There is a picture, an idea, that we are chasing. Something we work to achieve, and we are not there yet. In your life, do you look around, and think – this is good enough? Or do you have a desire for something better? Do you look at the stories on the news and think – I can’t wait to get to a world where that is gone. Are you content in this life? Now, I’m not talking about like, getting more stuff or living more comfortably. I’m talking about, do you have this discontent in your heart, do you feel uncomfortable in a world full of evil? Okay, this is a silly example – but you ever sit uncomfortably, like, your leg is weird or you’ve got an itch or something. And you just have to move, you cannot stay the way you are. What I’m trying to ask you is do you feel that way about evil in the world? Do you find yourself bothered, can’t stop thinking about the injustice and the hurt and the sorrow and evil that’s in the world? Now, I’ll use myself for an example. I don’t feel that way very much. I am very comfortable with evil in the world. I’m so desensitized to it, I hear the stories, and sometimes it barely moves me. I hear horrible stories, and I barely shrug anymore. There were mass shootings 2 weeks ago, there have been something like 40 this year in our country alone, and even more if you look at the whole world. And I scroll past the news story as if it’s not remarkable. Have we given up? Have we given up on the idea of a better future? Are we settling in? Are you comfortable with this world?
Or maybe we think this is what we deserve. Hebrews tells us, [read 13b-14a]. I think that’s why we try to get comfortable on this earth. We think this is where we belong. Broken people for a broken world. That makes sense in our minds, right? So often in situations with people in poverty, or drugs, or homelessness – people are there because they want to be there. No, that’s not the right way to say it – people are there, because they believe they deserve it. It’s not hard to give a homeless guy food. What’s hard is convincing that man that he deserves better. To encourage someone, empower them, to get off the floor, to stand up and receive the gift of life. We look around, and this is all we’ve seen, this is the life we know. We’ve made our mistakes, we’ve made the bed, and now we lie in it. That’s why is so vital to pour love and dignity and respect in those people’s lives. It’s so challenging to convince someone that they were made for something more than brokenness. They say your homeland gives you values, goals, relationships. So ask yourself - where do you make your bed? Where is your home? Where do you get your values from? Is it this world? Is it the United States of America? Is it Flushing? What if we began to believe in something more? What if we started reaching for the kingdom of God, rather than the kingdoms of this world? Verse 15 tells us [read it]. If you want to go back, to make this world all there is, you can. But they desire a better country, a heavenly country. The first step towards eternity is recognizing that you are built for that eternity. God made you with forever in mind. We are strangers in this world, we are seeking a homeland and we are not there yet.
So the first step is realizing that there is something better waiting for you out there. God has bigger and better plans than this world. And so our job, our response to all this is simple – don’t get too comfortable. Don’t settle for this life. It seems obvious, but I want you to look forward to the future. Don’t look around when trying to figure out the future. God has promised a better future. That’s the core of faith, assurance of things hoped for. Confidence of the things we haven’t seen yet. Faith is not just believing that God is here, in our lives right now but also trusting God to reward those who seek him, trusting that God is moving us towards eternity and perfection. Evil lives where you let it. The future starts in that moment when we sit forward, we look around and think – this is not good enough. We can do better, and then we do it. We are so comfortable in this life. And this bleeds into everything we do. We are always waiting for someone else to solve our problems. In most churches there are lots of suggestions, but very few willing to enact the change. There’s no shortage of good ideas, there’s a shortage of people willing to make a difference.
In that story about Martin Luther, with the stars and the trees, he was walking one night and he saw the stars through the trees. And he came home, and they put lights on the tree. But what struck him that night was the realization of where God was coming from. He looked up at the stars, and the magnificent expanse of our universe and it hit him. Jesus came to us from heaven. God loves us so much, that he was willing to step away from the stars, away from heaven to show us that love. The lights on the Christmas tree represent what Jesus walked away from so that he could bring us home. I think that’s an example for us in our lives. Jesus stepped out of his comfort, out of heaven, to teach us the way. In our lives, we have to get out of the comfort zone. We have pick ourselves up off the couch, get uncomfortable, to teach others the way. I think empowerment, helping others, begins when we stop handing them things, and we start partnering with people. I think, in this season, there’s this temptation to just be generous – give a gift, give money, whatever, just dump good things on people, and let them sort it out. But that’s not what God did for us. He didn’t just dump good stuff on Mary and Joseph. You know, like gifts and money and help. He stepped into their world. He gave himself. This church has done and continues to do incredible ministry, and I am so proud of you guys. Thousands of dollars, toys, gifts, food, clothes, I mean, we’ve got the bases covered. We do a lot of good in our community. But I think the next step is that we need to get a little uncomfortable. To step into their world, partner with the needy to get them out of that mindset. And I won’t lie, that terrifies me. This is out of my comfort zone too. I’m good at reading my bible, and talking a lot. I even like donating time and money. But to sit down, to talk to people that I don’t know, about coming to Church, about putting God in their life, about making their life better? That’s a new level for me.
I’ve always loved Christmas trees, and I just didn’t know that there was so much that went into that symbol for us. We live life between the trees. We are not done yet. God promised us paradise, and he wants us to want it. He encourages us to chase the dream, to go after a higher standard. Don’t look around and think – this is good enough. Don’t look around and think – this is what we deserve. I think God stepped into our world to show us, to teach us, how to get uncomfortable with evil. And like Jesus stepped into our world, we can step into the world of those around us – partner with them, to raise them to a higher standard of love and life. And so I’ll leave you with this, May you rejoice in how far you’ve come. May you realize h