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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The Real Christmas Tree

By Scott Harrup
Dec. 23, 2012

During the weeks leading up to Christmas 1968, the 6-foot evergreen sat in our small Virginia living room. I could smell the effervescent needles, could reach out and burn my 4-year-old fingers on the multicolored lights, could grab strands of itch-inducing fiberglass angel hair. The narrow trunk rested in a metal stand where water was added periodically (and carefully, lest any spill on gifts placed under the tree and cause fragile wrapping paper to dampen, tear and reveal the contents prematurely).

In 1971, our family celebrated the holidays in Africa for the first of eight Christmases there. No evergreen glory that year. Our tree was a folding paper tree about a foot tall. During our years in Sierra Leone and Kenya, we used a variety of small artificial trees with a humble array of ornaments. Christmas Day was usually hot and sunny, so even the holiday weather seemed artificial by American standards.

Jodie and I married in 1986. That year we decorated a sturdy 7-foot manufactured tree she found at a 1985 day-after-Christmas sale. This year marks the 27th Christmas we have assembled its branches, one or two of which are now broken and must be wedged loosely between the others.

What are your memories of family Christmas trees? What childhood dreams did they inspire? How have they marked the passage of your years?

An examination of the biblical Christmas story — the narratives of Jesus Christ’s birth recorded in the opening chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels — reveals no mention of a tree. But all four Gospels pay close attention to a “tree” at the end of Jesus’ life, the Roman cross on which Christ was crucified. Everything in Jesus’ life, including the details of His birth, pointed toward the cross.

Where a traditional Christmas tree’s lights and decorations and attendant gifts amplify the joy of the season, Calvary’s tree is a somber reminder of much that is not joyful. Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary if there was to be a remedy for humanity’s sin.

Though available for all people everywhere, that remedy must be applied individually. Each of us must take ownership of our sins and see them in all their darkness. Christ’s atonement, offered under brutal conditions, did not limit itself to the “seven deadly sins” or to any list of grievances we might identify in others while giving ourselves moral hall passes.

Each of us stands in need of God’s mercy as desperately as any rogue in history. Calvary addressed a thousand realities in our lives no one else may ever see.

Calvary’s tree confronts the secret hatred that motivates whispered slander, the flirtation that silently compromises a marriage. Its shadow falls across unspoken satisfaction when ethnic neighbors move away, self-congratulation for surface righteousness, silent envy over a co-worker’s promotion.

We need Christ’s atonement for every debased thought we would never dare to act out, for every secret act we excuse but never reveal. Whenever we show wanton interest in others’ sordid past, or no interest in others’ impoverished present, the forgiveness obtained on that tree becomes our only hope.

But forgiveness and atonement tell only the first part of this story. Coupled with the Resurrection, the cross becomes an emblem of new life. The cross confirms our sins are behind us, but also that new life is God’s gracious gift to us.

The story of Christmas is the story of a new identity ready and waiting for anyone who will give up the old persona and be born again. When the Babe in the manger grew up to fulfill His earthly ministry, He shared this truth with one of Israel’s religious teachers.

John 3 records Jesus’ meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus with deep and perplexing questions. Jesus’ answers were equally perplexing. When Jesus spoke of being born again, the Pharisee could only imagine the impossibility of physical rebirth; Jesus wanted to stretch Nicodemus’ faith to encompass a new creation through the work of the Holy Spirit.

To help Nicodemus picture this redemptive miracle, Jesus spoke of the very “tree” from Israel’s early history that served as a precursor to the cross. During Israel’s desert journey to the Promised Land, the people rebelled against God. Venomous snakes invaded the camp as a result of God’s judgment. Moses, obeying God’s command, placed a bronze serpent on a pole. As the people looked toward the serpent, they were healed after being bitten (see Numbers 21:4-9).

The equation was the same for the Israelites as it is for us today. Sin inevitably results in God’s judgment, but God’s love insists on offering a way of salvation as well. Jesus Christ is that Way.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14,15, NKJV).

Christ’s prediction of His impending personal sacrifice creates the immediate foundation for John’s next statement, perhaps the best-known passage in all of the Bible.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Jesus looked ahead to the day He would give His life for our redemption. Nicodemus had no idea what measures would be required to make possible this new birth that so mystified him. Jesus knew full well that the cross was waiting. That journey had been in motion even at His birth.

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you,” the angels proclaimed to the shepherds near Bethlehem (see Luke 2:8-12). Just days later, when Joseph and Mary brought the newborn Savior to Jerusalem’s temple, elderly Simeon prophesied the Child’s mission would be as painful as a sword to His mother’s heart (v. 35). Did Mary think back to Simeon’s words when she stood at the foot of the cross looking up at her battered Son?

Calvary’s tree speaks of the immeasurable price paid for our redemption. May we never forget it. But each year, as families decorate myriad Christmas trees, there are new reminders of the immeasurable joy made possible because our Savior endured the cross and triumphed over the grave.

Those bursts of colored light? If you have made Christ your Savior, you join a multitude of believers who are shining His light throughout a dark world. “Do all things without complaining and disputing,” Paul told a group of early Christians, “that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16).

Those life-colored boughs in the midst of winter’s chill? Every Christ-follower is a testimony of the promise of eternal life to those who are spiritually perishing. “This is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11,12).

The gifts arrayed and waiting to be opened? God’s gifts to us address every need we will ever encounter. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31,32).

This Christmas, as you and loved ones enjoy your own traditions around your tree, may you rejoice anew in salvation’s gift made possible on Calvary’s tree. May you discover new reasons each day to offer thanks for new life. And may your life shine as a beacon to a world still perishing.

SCOTT HARRUP is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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