Christmas Day in 1999 was on a Saturday. I preached at the three Christmas Services on Christmas Eve, then at the two Christmas morning services. Then I preached at the two Sunday morning services on December 26. I was pretty tired by Sunday afternoon – and a little glad that at least that part of Christmas was over.
That Sunday morning was the first time I noticed something. As I was driving into town to get to the church, I went past about a half dozen houses that had their Christmas trees lying at the curb of the streets.
It struck me as more than a little sad that people were throwing out their Christmas trees so soon after the presents were opened and the dinner was digested.
As the years have gone by, however, I feel a little more empathy to this idea. There is a sense of “being done” with Christmas – especially after such an early Thanksgiving. Our tree had to come down this weekend. Not because we wanted to be over and done with Christmas, but out of necessity. We cut down our tree at Richardson’s tree farm in Spring Grove the day after Thanksgiving. That was back on November 23! This past week –even though we’ve been diligent in watering the tree – it was dropping needles like crazy.
After the gifts have been unwrapped, after the visits are over with, after the leftovers are slim pickings, there is a sense of completion with Christmas by this weekend.
But even though we are mostly done with Christmas, something feels left undone.
This is the First Sunday of Christmas. Yes, Christmas is more than a day. It is a season. It is a short season – only 12 Days (hence the song) – that comes to a close with the Celebration of Epiphany on January 6.
In reality, we are only half-way through Christmas. Yet, the trees are coming down. Extended family is going home. All the movies have been watched – It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Most of the radio stations that have been playing Christmas music have gone back to regular programming.
I was sitting up last night reading in the glow of the Christmas tree lights and I felt that even though – for all intents and purposes –Christmas was over, I felt something has been left undone.
The Christmas story is glorious while at the same time familiar. Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Angels, Shepherds, and Gloria in Excelsis!
But that isn’t all there is to Jesus’ story. If all we do is listen to the Christmas story, by the time we get to the Shepherds returning to their fields and making plans to tell others about what they have seen, we really have only the beginning of the story.
It isn’t over, people. Christmas is just the beginning. If all we hear is the Christmas story, then we are left with a sense of “is that all there is?”
The answer is, “no, there is more!”
After Christmas comes Epiphany – the time we remember the presentations of Jesus. A better, more liturgical word would be “manifestations.” These manifestations are how Jesus was revealed as the Messiah, as the true Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world.
This short season of Christmas quickly turns to Epiphany.
And this year, Epiphany quickly turns to Lent.
Epiphany will begin with the Wise Men seeking Jesus, then quickly move to the Baptism of the adult Jesus and then, just as quickly, finish with the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Yes, there is more, much more, to this story of Jesus than just His birth that we celebrate at Christmas. After the Christmas story, about a month and a half after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought Him to the Temple and there met an old man named Simeon.
He was an old man by the time Jesus was born. He had been waiting for Christmas His whole life. That’s something to think about when we get impatient with the coming of Christmas in early December – as I remember being when I was a little boy! I couldn’t wait for Christmas to get here when I was young, feeling that the last two or three weeks were an eternity.
But Simeon had been waiting for possibly 70 years for Christmas to come.
He knew that it must be soon as he was getting up in years. He had the Lord’s promise that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).
After waiting so long, his story was nearing its end.
Finally, finally! It comes to completion for Simeon. The Spirit moved Simeon to be in the Temple the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in 40 days after His birth – to fulfill Mosaic Law.
Simeon’s response is glorious! It is a song the Church has been singing for centuries – usually after receiving the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. The song is titled “The Nunc Dimittus” – and we will sing it as most of us remember it being sung at the end of this worship service.
But let’s take a look at what Simeon says to Mary after this glorious song.
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
Simeon celebrates his first Christmas! But already he understands that there is more to the story!
Simeon is talking about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Simeon is fulfilling his role as a prophet – foretelling that this child will grow up in order to fulfill God’s plan.
The wording is interesting. I think that the usual way of saying this phrase would be “rising and falling” – because you can’t fall until you rise. But Simeon – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – reverses this. He starts with falling and concludes with rising.
This tells us that Jesus will “make all things new.” He will tear down the established religions of men – all the false religions and traditions of people that only lead away from God. He will cause these to fall. He will bring it all down to the foundation and build anew.
As Jesus rises from the dead, He will raise us up as well. Yes, on the last day all will be raised – some to everlasting life and some to everlasting condemnation. But even now, Jesus is raising up a new people for Himself.
This is the Church, built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles – which is to say on God’s Word.
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection – His own “falling and rising” – we, too, will be made anew.
We make a lot of new things out of old. We call it recycling. This Christmas that quickly turns into Epiphany which will quickly turn into Lent, let’s recycle the wood we have used.
The manger that Mary used as a first crib for Jesus is no longer needed. Just like our Christmas trees that held the promise and hope of gifts and light and a glorious season are no longer need.
Let us recycle them, using the wood that once held the Promise into something – also wooden – that will hold the Promise again.
The manger – and our trees – can be recycled into a cross. For this Baby, whose birth we have celebrated, was born to be our substitute under the Law – fulfilling what was demanded of us but what we couldn’t do. He grew up to live the perfect life demanded. Then Jesus suffered and died on a cross – again, fulfilling the promise made “in the beginning” to Adam and Eve.
The cross – like the manger before it – held the Promised Messiah.
But the wood of the cross is also no longer needed. Jesus died “once, for all.”
So let’s recycle that wood yet again. We can use it build a vessel. An ark, if you will.
The Church is now being built – in each generation – on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. The manger once held the Promise. Then, too, the cross. Now the Church holds the promise of Jesus. But we also share the promise of Jesus with others.
Parts of Christmas may be over – the gift-giving, the trees, the leftovers, the visits. But the story is not yet complete.
And we still have a part to play in this story of Jesus – we are called to share the Good News of Jesus through our lives. Let’s do just that, in Jesus’ name. Amen.