According to an NBC news affiliate which aired a few years ago leading up to the Christmas season, well over half of us prefer an artificial Christian tree instead of a real one. According to this report, only 18% of us are old school when it comes to our Christmas trees.
My brother happens to part of that 18% and he proudly reminds me of this every single Christmas. He knows that Penny and I sold out a long time ago when it comes to buying real Christmas trees. We think we have a very beautiful Christmas tree, but all he can see are the metal tubes and the fake pine needles.
I must admit that I’m envious every time I see his 12 foot tall authentic Christmas tree that has been freshly cut down and always includes the delightful smell of pine throughout his house. That’s something you just don’t get with an artificial tree that gets stored in a box year round.
In one of the churches I pastored, the young adult Sunday School class invited me to a Christmas decorating party that was held in their classroom where they met at the church. When I arrived, they had punch and cookies and after about ten minutes, somebody said, “Let’s start decorating.”
I watched as a couple of the class members walked to a nearby storage closet and carried out an artificial Christmas tree that still had the lights and the decorations on it from the previous year. They stood up the tree in the corner of their classroom, plugged in the lights, and someone yelled out, “That should take care of it! Help yourself to some more punch and cookies.”
I guess there is something to be said for real Christmas trees.
Whether you have a real Christmas tree or an artificial one isn’t really the point. The real question is if our faith is real or not.
The Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is all about keeping it real. The gospel writer reminds us that God risked everything by sending us Jesus.
The one who would be given the title the King of Kings was first born in the shadow of the mighty Roman Emperor Augustus who claimed this title for himself.
The one who would go on to heal the sick, calm the storm, and feed the multitude would first be placed in a feeding trough of all places upon his birth.
And the one who would face rejection and betrayal, would be turned away at his birth because there was no room in the inn.
Yes, the Christmas story itself is a story that helps us to keep it real. It doesn’t get any more real than this. Real people. Real animals. Real fear. Real risk.
Over the past several Sundays here in church, we have been lighting the Advent Candles. Traditionally, these candles stand for hope, peace, joy, and love. When we shine these lights, it helps us to keep Christmas real, not fake.
During the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at how we can keep Christmas real by lighting the candle of hope. George Iles once said, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” A little later in our service, we will be doing just that. We will be lifting our lights in the dark of the sanctuary and the hope of Christ will bring light to this place.
To help make hope more real, some of us have been doing some fridge journaling where every time we open the refrigerator we jot down on a note pad, a time when God got us through what seemed at the time like a hopeless situation.
And then we were given the challenge to share some of these experiences of hope with the people around us. Sharing hope with others is a way to keep Christmas real.
On the second Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of peace. When we put our focus on Christ, rather than only on the sentimental surface meaning of Christmas, we experience a deeper sense of God’s peace in our lives.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” One of the ways we can keep it real this Christmas is by seeking peace rather than division. We will discover that it’s when we are actively seeking peace, that we will experience a peace that passes all understanding.
On the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of joy. That’s why one of the candles around the Advent wreath is pink and not blue like all the others. Blue reminds us to patiently wait for the coming of Christmas, but the color pink reminds us that we can experience joy along the journey.
The pink candle represents the third Sunday of Advent leading up to Christmas. The church refers to this Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means “Rejoice.”
Helen Keller once said, “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.” If you want to keep Christmas real, just look around at how God is at work in our world, and you this will lead you to a Gaudete moment of rejoicing.
And yesterday which was the fourth Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of love. It’s when we share the love of Jesus that we experience the deepest kind of love there is. This love is an unconditional love that accepts us for who we are and loves us just the way we are.
Morrie Schwartz once said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and let it come in.”
I see so many examples of people sharing God’s love through our church and it’s all because God’s love is just too incredible to keep to ourselves. It’s the kind of love that fills us and we can’t help but to share it with the people around us.
If you are looking to keep it real this Christmas, just remember to always light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These Advent Candles remind us of how we can keep it real this Christmas and beyond.
One year leading up to Christmas, the church I was serving at the time donated Christmas gifts to several needy families in the community much like we do here. It’s a wonderful thing when churches do this.
One of the people we helped for Christmas that year was a man in his 50s who shared this letter with the church. If anything can help us keep Christmas real this year, it would be this man’s letter. Here’s what he wrote and these are totally his words:
“I receive disability and both kids live with me right now. Me and my wife separated a year ago.
My wife had a mental breakdown and had to stay in a hospital for a while and we both agreed that it would be best for the kids to live with me but while my wife was in and out of the hospitals, me and the kids were homeless and we stayed in a shelter for a couple of months and recently received help to get me and my kids into an apartment.
From April to July, me and the kids have lived in a tent, took baths in creek water, cook food over an open fire. Community Action helped us get into an apartment.
In September, I had a heart attack and found out I have a big blood clot in my heart. They say I have not got much time so I hope that this Christmas will be a good one for me and the kids. The kids and I don’t have much but at least we have a home thanks to people who have helped us.”
I called this dad to let him know that I received his letter and that our church was glad to help them for Christmas. I offered him words of support and shared in a prayer with him, reminding him that God was with him and that God loved him. He kept thanking our church over and over again during that phone call.
After I hung up the phone, I remember thinking that Christmas never felt more real to me than it did in that moment. And I know it had something to do with our church lighting the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love in helping this family.
I was on the phone with my insurance company a couple days before Christmas one year. As the person on the other end of the line was pulling up my policy, she noticed that I was a minister. So she said, “So Rob, are you ready for your Christmas Eve services? I mean, this is a really busy time of year for you.”
Now, this happens occasionally when someone calls me Rob or Bob even though I go by Robert. I didn’t think too much of it.
And so, I answered her and told her that I was close to being ready. And she said, “Well, that’s great, Rob.”
Since her computer was slow in pulling up my information she asked me another question just to pass the time. “So, I imagine it would be really hard to preach on Christmas Eve? Don’t you ever run out of something new to say?”
Now, up until that very moment, I had been feeling pretty good about my Christmas Eve sermon. All of the sudden, I wasn’t so sure anymore. This insurance person on the other end of the line was reminding me that it really is a challenge to think of something new to say about something we have already heard many, many times.
So I said to her, “Yeah, it’s a challenge, but I think I’m ready again this year.” She said, “Well, that’s good to hear, Rob.”
As I think back to that conversation, she’s totally right. Never mind that she didn’t call me by my real name during that long and drawn out conversation, but she was so right when she said to me, “So, it must be really hard to preach on Christmas Eve. Don’t you ever run out of something new to say?”
And the truth is, we preachers are uneasy about Christmas Eve. What can we possibly say that is new and insightful and memorable? What can I possibly say to all of you even though you have probably already heard your share of Christmas Eve sermons?
And then it dawned on me. I actually do have a fresh message to share with you even though you have heard the story of Christmas a zillion times, most likely.
Here’s my super insightful and genius thought to leave with you tonight. Are you ready for this? This is going to totally blow you away. Here’s my genius thought for you to remember, fresh from the Holy Spirit.
This Christmas, just remember to keep it real.