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“Symbols of the Season: The Christmas Tree”
Isaiah 35:1-2

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Third Sunday in Advent—December 13, 2009

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Germans are a very innovative, creative, and inventive people.  Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press; Carl Ziess, inventor of the microscope; Georg Ohm, the “father of electricity”; Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of the x-ray; Hans Lippershey, inventor of the telescope; Otto Hahn, discoverer of nuclear fission; Werner von Braun, the “father of space flight”; Nicholas Otto, inventor of the internal combustion engine; Albert Einstein, developer of the theory of relativity; Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, inventors of the automobile; Robert Koch, inventor of inoculations against disease;  Rudolph Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine.

But, the greatest German invention of all?  The one German innovation which brings our world the most happiness and joy?   You probably have one in your home; you’re looking at it right now; perhaps the greatest German contribution to our modern world: the Christmas tree!  “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!”  We continue our series of sermons on “Symbols of the Season” with that most familiar seasonal sight: the Christmas tree.

About a decade ago, Grand Central Terminal in New York City stopped erecting an enormous Christmas tree in the center of its famous, cavernous lobby.  Why?  Because officials determined the Christmas tree is a uniquely Christian religious symbol.

The symbolism actually goes back to Bible times.  Most of the Holy Land was arid desert wasteland: dry, dusty, desolate.  Very few animals, very little vegetation, and virtually no trees.

The prophets often use this image of desert wasteland to symbolize our sin and its consequences: dreadful, doom, death, damnation.  But, opposite of this, the coming of the Messiah is often pictured by the Old Testament prophets like a miracle in the desert, symbolic of spiritual renewal and rebirth in the desert of our hearts. 

The prophet Isaiah poetically describes the Messiah’s coming this way: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”

That is the miracle God worked the first Christmas in the dead, desolate wilderness of our fallen world; that is the miracle God works in the desert of your fallen heart.  Like streams in the desert, God sent his Son into our world, and he works faith in your heart to trust in Christ as your Savior.  Where there was once dread and death, he gives you hope and life.  Hope, for your sins are all forgiven, and you will have everlasting life with Christ in heaven.  

The coming of the Messiah into our world, in our hearts and lives, is like the desert bursting forth in bloom.  That is the first symbolism of the Christmas tree.

According to tradition, it was Martin Luther himself who invented the Christmas tree.  Walking through the woods one snowy night, he was thrilled by the sight of the winter starlight twinkling through the ice-covered branches of the evergreens.  This reminded him of how the “glory of the Lord shone round about” the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth.  To capture this beauty, he cut a tree down, set it up indoors, and decorated it with candles, fruits, and nuts.

No one knows for sure if this traditional story is factual, but it sounds like something Luther would do.  He was creative, spontaneous, always trying new and innovative things.  And, while all ages enjoy decorating and seeing the Christmas tree, Luther had a special love for children, and it seems the Christmas tree is especially made for them.

Whether or not Martin Luther himself actually invented the Christmas tree, it was first used among German Lutherans, both in Europe and here in America.  And though today almost all American churches of every denomination have a Christmas tree, it is a fact of American history that the very first Christmas tree in a church anywhere in North America was in a Missouri Synod congregation.  In downtown Cleveland, Ohio is a historical marker with this inscription:

“On this site stood the first Christmas tree in America publicly lighted and displayed in a church . . .  On this site stood the original Zion Lutheran Church where in 1851, on Christmas Eve, Pastor Henry Schwan lighted the first Christmas tree in Cleveland.  The tradition he brought from Germany soon became widely accepted throughout America. . . “

Pastor Schwan would later rise to great prominence in the Missouri Synod, serving as Synodical President.  He also was the author of the questions, explanations, and Bible proof texts appended in the back of Luther’s Small Catechism, which we still use today.  

That first year the Christmas tree was such a new and controversial thing that there were scathing editorials in the Cleveland newspapers about those awful Germans worshipping a tree.  This prompted Pastor Schwan to launch a life-long campaign promoting and gaining widespread acceptance of the Christmas tree as an appropriate symbol of Christmas.  As a result of his campaign, within five years Christmas trees were being erected in homes and churches all across the country.  There had been previous Christmas trees in America, especially among Germans immigrants.  But, because of his efforts to popularize this German custom in the new world, Pastor Schwan is known as “father of the Christmas tree” in America.

So, the Christmas tree is a uniquely German invention; a uniquely Lutheran contribution to the Christmas season; and, to a large extent, a uniquely Missouri Synod contribution to American culture.  But, the Christmas tree is more than just a beautiful decoration to brighten up our homes and make our church festive at Christmastime.  As the officials at Grand Central Terminal concluded, the Christmas tree truly is a uniquely Christian symbol of the season.

The evergreen itself, which stays green, full of life, throughout the long, dark, cold winter, is a symbol of faithfulness: God’s faithfulness in keeping his ancient promise to send the Savior; and the faithfulness of the prophets and people of old, who proclaimed and believed the promise, and looked forward in faith, waiting for the coming Messiah who was to come.  The evergreen is also a symbol of our faithfulness, trusting in Messiah who has come, and faithfully serving him.

The lights on the tree stand for Christ, the light of the world, and the light of faith which the Holy Spirit works in hearts through the Word and Sacraments.  As Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “[He] made his light shine in our hearts.”  The lights on the tree also stand for the good works that we do, prompted by our faith in Christ.  As he said, “You are the light of the world . . .  let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”

The beautiful ornaments on the tree represent joy: the joy of the believers of old, who looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise: “Rejoice greatly and shout for joy . . .” Isaiah says. “For your God will come, he will come to save you.”

And the ornaments represent the joy at Christ’s birth: the joy of the angels, who proclaimed “good tidings of great joy to all people”; the joy of the shepherds, who “came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger, and . . . returned glorifying and praising God”; the joy of Mary, who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”; the joy of the wise men, who “when they saw the start rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

The festive ornaments also symbolize your joy at the Good News of Christmas: “Unto you is born this day . . . a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord.  Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

As you admire the beautiful Christmas trees in our church, in your home, and elsewhere, remember that the Christmas tree is actually a uniquely Lutheran contribution to the Christmas season, and, to a large extent, a uniquely Missouri Synod contribution to American culture.  But, remember also that the Christmas tree is more than just a beautiful decoration to brighten up our homes and make our church festive at Christmastime.  The Christmas tree truly is a uniquely Christian symbol of the season.


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