Did You Forget the Tree?
As the festive season approaches, it is good to ask why we engage in celebration? What is the real reason for the season?
For certain, this is a time, when most professing Christians, of almost all denominations, recall the incarnation, Virginal conception, edict of Augustus, road trip to Bethlehem, birth of Christ, swaddling infant clothes and a host of other Infancy Narrative stocking-fillers.
Magi, Shepherds and Angels all have walk on parts. Old Testament Prophets feature prominently even in the "Messiah" linked with Handel. The Benedictus, Magnificat, Simeon, Anna, and even evil villain Herod, all get stage time.
Last, but not necessarily least, comes lots of other tacked on stuff - a mysterious little donkey, trees of Norwegian Spruce, baubles, tinsel and crackers, as well as sleighbells, scarlet-snouted reindeers, traditional carol-singing, wassailing, along with chimneys, snow and eggnog, Elf, Central Park Rangers, the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink.
What a far cry from the real reason for the season - missional failure, national guilt and the hypocritical formalism of Old Testament Temple rites. Abraham had been called to bring blessing to the world - instead, through sin, Israel invited covenant curse upon itself.
Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged - Isaiah 1:4
As the prophet spoke, Northern tribes were on a precipice & about to be carted off after brutal. repeated, prolonged, Assyrian attack (BC722). If chosen throne Judah escaped by the skin of its teeth, Hezekiah's sigh of relief only signaled momentary reprieve - foreign envoys were foolishly given a glimpse of Judah's crown jewels which they would finally smuggle off to Babel (BC586).
Being cast off into exile by the LORD was the just desert for violating the Covenant Bond by breaching Ten Commands: worship would never work as whitewash for wickedness or as a substitute for repentance. Evil deeds must be put off by broken-hearted mercy-seekers.
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause - Isaiah 1:11-17
Yet just as Yahweh is about to indict the sons of Jacob for crimes of whoredom, homicide and theft, a ray of hope flickers in the dark night of disobedience: first degree sins of deepest dye, that ought to make God's shame-faced Image blush, through repentance and faith, are going to be wiped clean. If flakes of virgin snow are the whitest natural element of which the prophet can think, the blanket of forgiveness, used as gloss for human guilt, is even more luminescent, brilliant and spotlessly radiant. Israel's sore-ridden carcass would become a spotless fleece - redeemed by the blood of the to-be-born Servant King & sacrificial substitute.
Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool - Isaiah 1:18
So if the attire of Christmas outfits serves any useful function, perhaps it should remind us of blood-red guilt & cottonwool-white washing provided by Christ's death - of the innocent slaughter of divinely-human majesty who was honored by Magi, adored by shepherds, hymned by angels, sought by Herod, predicted by prophets and crucified by Pilate.
Let us weep with joy for THIS Tree on which God-Man Messiah was exiled for our guilt - this wooden trunk was not an evergreen with baubles but one which was excruciating & blood-drenched. If Jesus has taken the hit for all elect hell-bound guilt, penitent believers, by grace, can hide in the pledge of being washed snowy white & decked in His pure spotless woolen fleece.