Editor’s note: The following is a condensed version of a sermon delivered prior to Christmas by the Rev. C. Renee Edwards, pastor of Mt. Hermon and Woodland United Methodist churches.
If ever there were a Christmas carol that gets us in the spirit of decorating, “Deck the Halls,” is definitely the one. Think about it: “Deck the halls with boughs of holly…. Don we now our gay apparel. … Strike the harp and join the chorus. ... While I tell of Yuletide treasure….”
You know, we’ve recently been chatting away about “messes”: who made them (us) and who needs to clean them up (us). So it seems only natural we spend some time chatting about getting into the Christmas spirit. Of course, getting into the Christmas spirit can mean any number of things to any number of people.
As a kid growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, some of my fondest memories include traveling to Petersburg to Christmas shop at Walnut Mall, making the haul to Richmond to visit the “real” Santa Claus at Miller & Rhodes; better yet, making our annual trip to Coleman’s Nursery in Portsmouth. If ever there was a winter wonderland, that was it. And how could I possibly forget all the Christmas parades down Main Street Boykins or the lighting of the Chrismon tree year after year at Boykins United Methodist Church? All were such memorable moments of my childhood, forever etched in my mind’s eye.
But you know there is just something about pulling out all those Christmas decorations, listening to Christmas carols and drinking hot cider that gets me in the Christmas spirit. Maybe it’s because while pulling out each Christmas ornament and placing it on the tree, I am reminded of how and when I received it and the person who gave it to me.
I recently traveled to Manteo to shoot a children’s sermon with my 4-year-old great-nephew Max. When I arrived, I was greeted with a piece of artwork Max had made for me while he was at school earlier in the day. It is a picture of the nativity constructed out of paper and popsicle sticks and colored with his favorite Crayola Crayons. Truly it is a work of art: something I will hold on to and put up each Christmas going forward. To tell you the truth, this is the best gift Max could ever have given me, because he made it out of love and with his own two hands.
In reading Old Testament and Gospel scripture lessons for this sermon, I was drawn to this idea of preparing (decorating, if you will) for something that is to come. For we find the Spirit of the Lord has moved in the Old Testament text and is moving and will move in the Gospel. These two readings are, no doubt, filled with action that has taken place, is taking place and will take place in the future.
Our recent readings from the Prophet Isaiah have reminded us of just how far down the wrong path the people of his day went and quite frankly, the desperation they were beginning to feel as a result of not loving God and not loving one another as they should. It’s hard to miss the connection between what they were experiencing and what we are going through in the here and now.
However, in today’s readings, I find great hope, as Isaiah and John speak of the in-breaking, if you will, of God’s Kingdom. In Isaiah 61: 1-3, the prophet says, “He has sent me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead a spirit of despair. ... They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”
This almost sounds like a litany of blessing, does it not? God is about to pour out his blessing on his people, and by holding on to hope, they can be assured help is on the way. Another way of putting it is to say, “We work because we believe. We build because we hope. And because we hope, we are blessed.”
Even over in John’s gospel, though John the Baptist is a gift to God’s people, he is not The Gift. Instead, he simply points to the One who will come after him. Speaking of that gift to come, John the Baptist says, “I baptize with water. … But among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who come after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
A couple of weeks ago, before the first Sunday of Advent, I decided to put up my Christmas tree. I didn’t do it because I needed a little 2020 cheering up; I did it because the seasons of Advent and Christmas seem to come and go so quickly. They’re gone so fast I never really get the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the tree, the twinkling lights and ornaments that have been passed down from generation to generation. At the conclusion of my sermon that first Sunday of Advent, I remember saying, “After reading the words of Isaiah, I’m not so sure that I don’t need a reminder that God is ever-present with me as he was with the people of Isaiah’s day, and that maybe, just maybe, I need to be surprised by Him once again.”
It’s interesting that I implied I didn’t need any 2020 cheering up. So, maybe it wasn’t cheering up I needed, but rather hope — hope in the one who has come, is come and promises to come again and again in power and great glory.
If you look around this sanctuary, you see symbols of hope. You see it in the Bible, the candles, the Advent wreath, the Chrismon tree, and even the gathered body. They are all reminders of our Christian heritage, but more importantly, of who and whose we are. They help to ground us in our faith and in these most uncertain times we find ourselves. The Holy Scripture is God’s living, breathing word to us: the candles signify Christ is the light of the world; the evergreen tree and wreaths remind us of the promise of everlasting life; the Chrismons serve as Christ’s monograms and depict the story of his life; and the gathered body are the family God called and set a part for mission and ministry. To some, these things are just that — things; but for us, as Christians, they are all a reminder that our hope is not in ourselves, but in Christ Jesus, the one who has come, is come and will come again.
I don’t know how much decorating you do in your home for Christmas, whether you erect a Christmas tree in your living room or not; whether you hang a wreath on your front door or not; whether you trim your banister railing with garland or not; whether you set out a nativity scene on your coffee table or not; whether you buy a poinsettia or a Christmas cactus and place it on your kitchen counter or not; whether you adorn your front yard with inflatable snowmen or affix a Santa and his sleigh on your roof top or not. But what I do know is this: no matter how much or how little decorating you do at Christmas, any is significant because it’s a reminder that there is one for whom we wait in great anticipation, and He is Christ the King.
Prior to going to see Max, I made angel ornaments for him and my two other great-nephews, Micah and Spencer. The ornaments were just like the ones we gave to all the children who came through our drive-thru Christmas featuring Santa Claus. Max, Micah and Spencer each received their angel ornament on Thanksgiving Day. Max, being the oldest, told his mom he wanted to put his angel ornament at the very top of tree, while Spencer, the youngest, hung his down low. And I suppose Micah hung his on the tree somewhere in between.
My point is: each of these children over time will come to know the significance of the angels in the story of Christ’s birth. The angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, then to Joseph in a dream, and then to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flock. Gabriel and the host of angels played a significant role in the nativity story. They still do to this day. And for many of us, I would dare guess they are as much a part of our Christmas home décor as the Christmas tree. I know they are for me, because they whisper words of comfort to Mary as she ponders her pregnancy, speak words of encouragement to Joseph as he sleeps, and sing a song of adoration to the shepherds — that the hope of the world has been born in Bethlehem.
You know, decorating for Christmas may never have been a big deal to you, or you may have even gotten to the point that it seems more trouble than it is worth. But may I remind you, decorating for Christmas holds more significance than you might think, as it is our way of proclaiming to others that we wait patiently and peacefully and in anticipation for the coming of the Christ child, the Hope of the world.