Thursday, December 24, 2015

Upside Down

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas Eve   

Christmas is a time for stories, right?
Each and every year,
we hear stories about Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch.
Most important of all,
we hear the story of Mary and Joseph
and the birth of the baby Jesus.

I wrote a story myself many Christmases ago,
and told it right here a few years back—
but when someone asked me about it the other day,
I figured it might be time to tell that story again.

Boy and girls:
How many of you have a Christmas tree at home?
Just as I suspected!
And how many of you have those trees hanging upside down?
Just as I suspected again!
I’m sure that sounds like a pretty silly question.
But did you know that, once upon a time,
that’s how people decorated for Christmas—
with an evergreen tree hanging upside down from the ceiling?

Let me read you a little story
about one of those first Christmas trees…

Long, long ago,
         in a land far, far away,
                  there was a big and beautiful forest
                  very near to a tiny village.
And growing beside each other in that forest
         were three different trees:
                  there was Ollie, the oak tree,
                  whose wood was very strong;
                  there was Alice, the apple tree,
                           whose fruit was very sweet;
                  and there was Peter, the pine tree,
                           who was youngest of them all.

The three trees became good friends
         since they spent all of their time together.
But Peter always felt unimportant next to the others.
It was hard enough to be younger and shorter.
But Peter’s wood was soft,
         not hard and strong like Ollie’s
And Peter’s branches didn’t produce any fruit
         like Alice’s delicious apples.
Peter was sure he had a purpose…
         …he just wasn’t sure what that purpose might be.
Now, in that tiny village there lived a little boy
         who often played among the trees of the forest.
He loved to climb in Ollie’s strong branches.
He loved to eat Alice’s sweet apples.
And he loved to lie down under Peter’s thick, green branches,
         where he would spend hour after hour
                  dreaming fantastic dreams
                           and asking life-sized questions.

His mother and father
         had told him there was a God
                  who had made this vast and wonderful world
                           and everything in it.
But the boy wanted to know more
         about this God he could not see.

So the boy asked Ollie what he thought about God.

“This God must be very strong,” replied the mighty oak tree,
         “stronger than anyone or anything else,
                  if he can set up the mountains
                           and dig out a place for the sea.”

Then the boy asked Alice what she thought about God.

“This God must be very rich,” replied the fruitful apple tree,
         “richer than anyone or anything else,
                  if he can provide enough food
                           for every hungry creature.”
Finally, the boy asked Peter what he thought about God.

“I’m not really sure,” said the pine tree.

Looking at Peter’s green branches
         pointing straight up like an arrow to the sky,
the boy said,
         “All I know is that this God must be very far away—
                  way up in heaven above everyone and everything else—
                           if he can watch over the whole world.
That must be why no one has ever seen God.”

And the little boy would lie there
         imagining journeys to distant lands
                  where he would look for people who could tell him
                           if God were indeed very strong,
                                    or very rich,
                                             or very far away.

And that’s just what the little boy did.

When he got older,
         he said good-bye to his mother and father
                  and to his friends in the forest,
                           promising them all that he would come back some day
                                    and tell them about everything
                                             he had seen and learned.

So Ollie, Alice, and Peter waited.
And they waited.
And they waited some more.
And after a few years
         the little boy—now a fully-grown man—
                  came back to the tiny village where he has been born.
He called together all the people to the center of town
         because he had some wonderful news to tell them.

He had met some people who could tell him about God.

Now, the three trees could see
         that there was much excitement in the village,
                  but they could not hear a single word
                           of what their old friend was saying.
It wasn’t long, though, before they saw him
         coming into the forest carrying a saw.
He walked up to Ollie and said,
         “I want to build a house for God—called a church.
But I need wood to build it.
Oak tree, may I have some of your strong branches?”

“Why yes, my friend,” said Ollie.
“I want to help you build a strong house for God.”

When the church was finished,
         the now-grown boy came back to the forest,
                  carrying a huge basket.
He walked up to Alice and said,
         “I want to have a great festival for God—called Christmas.
But I need food for the feast.
Apple tree, may I have some of your sweet fruit?”

“Why yes, my friend,” said Alice.
“I want to help you have a rich celebration for God.”
And when all else was ready for the festival,
         their friend returned to the forest one more time,
                  but this time he was carrying an axe.
He walked up to Peter and said,
         “I want to decorate God’s house for the great feast.
I want to share with everyone the amazing story I have heard,
         but I’m going to need your help—
                  even more than I needed Ollie and Alice.
Pine tree, may I cut you down
         and bring you into the church for Christmas?”

Peter was very much afraid,
         but he mustered up all his courage
                  and managed to answer, “Yes, my dear friend:
                           I want to help you point people to God.”

Afraid that the axe might hurt a bit,
         Peter closed his eyes real tight
                  but by the time he opened them again
                           he had already been brought inside.

“I have a very special place for you, my friend,” said the boy.
And with that,
          he tied a rope around Peter’s little trunk
                  and raised him—upside down—
                           to the rafters made from Ollie’s branches,
                                    hanging high above the floor of the church.

“I don’t understand,” said Peter,
         now more confused and dizzy than afraid.
“I remember when you were little,
         how you would lie down
                  and dream beneath my green branches
                           and think about how they pointed like an arrow
                                    straight to God up high in heaven.
What have you learned, my friend,
         that you now need to hang me upside down?”

“I nearly forgot to tell you,” said the boy.
“I used to think that God
         was stronger than anything—and that’s true.
But Christmas has taught me
         that that same God chose to be weak—
                  born as a little baby boy, just like I used to be,
                           who needed a mother and father to care for him.

“I also used to think that God
         was richer than anyone—and that’s true.
But Christmas has taught me
         that that same God chose to be poor—
                  born in a tiny village, just like mine,
                           with only a manger for his first bed.

“And I used to think that God
         lived far away in heaven, watching over the whole world—
                  and that’s true, too.
But Christmas as taught me
         that that God chose to come live with us
                  right here on earth.

“And that’s why I’ve hung you upside down, little pine tree:
         to point like an arrow, for all people to see—
                  pointing to the wonderful news that because of his love
                           God has come down from heaven
                                    to be very close to us.”

Now Peter understood the great excitement
         he has seen spreading throughout the village
                  and the reason for this grand celebration called Christmas.

No longer feeling unimportant,
         no longer afraid or confused,
                  he proudly hung up there, high in the rafters.
Peter has finally found his purpose:
         it was to be a Christmas tree,
                  helping everyone who would see him to remember
                           the most wonderful news of all—
                                    that God is with us.

So, boys and girls,
before you crawl into your warm beds tonight,
I want you to look very carefully at trees in your homes,
and to picture them hanging upside down!

And when you do that,
remember how again each year
Christmas points down like an arrow from heaven
to tell people that God loves us so much
that he didn’t want to stay far away,
but he chose to be born—weak and poor—
as a little child…just like you!

The end.

Merry Christmas!

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