When I was a child, the beginning of the month of December brought with it the selection of our annual Christmas tree. We would make our way to the Christmas tree lot and my dad would hold up a series of trees until we found “the one.” We would proudly take the tree home, set it up in our living room, and then begin the annual tradition of lighting and decorating the tree.
Now about twelve years ago, my family and I decided to invest in a quality artificial tree. It’s more costeffective over time. It’s creates less of a mess. And, after all, artificial trees are manufactured to be essentially perfect. The trunk of the tree is exactly straight. Each branch is evenly spaced around the circumference of the tree. The shape of the tree is perfectly balanced with no extraneous, protruding limbs. And, of course, most importantly, it doesn’t drop its needles. Now for someone like me who likes symmetry, balance, order, and consistency, an artificial tree is ideal. So, for more than a decade, an artificial tree has adorned our house.
But this year, the Jupiter High School Band department was selling Christmas trees as one of its major annual fundraisers. Since my son is a part of that program, we, of course, wanted to support him and the program, so we bought a tree. We picked up the tree on Friday night and spent last night decorating the tree as a family while we drank hot cocoa.
It’s a beautiful tree. We had a fantastic time. And I am actually very excited to begin the tradition of having a real tree again. But here’s what I noticed – real trees aren’t perfect. The trunk is bit crooked. There are some gaps between branches. The tree is wider on one side than the other. And, of course, it drops its needles. All of that has got me thinking about the differences between the fake and real trees.
The fake tree is essentially empty and lifeless. The real tree is full and alive.
The fake tree is the product of a manufacturing process in a distant factory. The real tree is the product of growth and endurance and adaptability.
The fake tree is stored safely in a cardboard box in the protection of my garage. The real tree has faced the elements of wind and rain, heat and drought, and the unpredictability of simply existing.
Ultimately, the fake tree is a symbol of the perfectionism of our manufactured world. The real tree is a symbol of the imperfections, the blemishes, and the flaws of life.
Last Sunday, we reflected on the season of Advent as a time when we are challenged to live more fully into the present moment, to engage the reality and complexity of real life. This morning, I would like to invite us to reflect on the season of Advent as a time when we are challenged to recognize the imperfections of our world and our lives, and to reflect on our deep need for healing and renewal.
It doesn’t take very long and you don’t have to search very far to see the imperfections, blemishes, and flaws in the world around us. Just turn on your television, read the newspaper, or scroll through your Facebook newsfeed. We see imperfection all around us. We see inconsistency. We see injustice. We see inequality. We see war. We see violence. We see brokenness. We see people hurting. We see pain. We see despair. We see the imperfections of this world.
But, of course, one of the hardest things to do is to recognize those imperfections within ourselves. It’s difficult for us to acknowledge our own complicity in the imperfection of the world, our own brokenness and sinfulness. And this is hard for us to do, because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to cover up our imperfections. The dominate message of our cultural context is to deny our imperfections, to cover up our brokenness, to make sure everyone thinks we have it all together. Over the last decade, the rise of social media has fueled this perfectionist mindset. Facebook is plastered with images of the perfect family, the perfect vacation, the perfect dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect house – every image is cropped and filtered and edited in such a way as to remove the imperfections, to eliminate the flaws, to cover up the blemishes, to deny the inconsistencies. And as a result, we live in a cropped, filtered, and edited world.
Yet the season of Advent is a time when we are challenged to confront our imperfections, to confront the injustices in our world, to confront the sinfulness of our lives. John the Baptist came preaching a message of repentance, a message that called people to account, a message that was brutally honest about the imperfections of the world. I mean, he calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers.” You don’t get more brutally honest than that. The very leaders who were charged with shepherding God’s people are confronted with their own issues, their own brokenness, their own need for repentance and renewal. The message of John the Baptist is to “get real.” Advent is a time when we are challenged to confront our imperfections.
But even more than that Advent is also a time when we discover that God actually works through our imperfections to bring about the perfection of his kingdom.
Our OT reading from the prophet Isaiah begins with the image of a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David. Jesse was the starting point of what would become the great Davidic dynasty. But, guess what? Jesse wasn’t perfect. David certainly wasn’t perfect. The sons of David weren’t perfect. Their children, and their children’s children weren’t perfect, and so on and so forth. There was brokenness and shame and pain and hurt. And what was once a towering tree of spiritual and political leadership was ultimately reduced to a stump. Everyone looked at the stump and thought – it’s over, it’s done, it’s finished.
But Isaiah looked down the road a bit, he looked with the eyes of faith, and he declared, “Out of that stump, there is going to come a shoot. Out of that brokenness, out of that disappointment, out of that imperfection, something great and glorious and majestic is going to come forth and it’s going to change the world!”
And centuries later, long after prophetic words of Isaiah were uttered, that shoot came forth. Out of the messiness and brokenness and imperfections of Jesse’s family tree, a baby would be born in a manger and that baby would turn out to be the Savior of the world!
My friends, whatever the imperfections are in your life – whatever the blemishes and flaws and brokenness – our God is a God who redeems and restores and makes all things new. Our God is a God who works through the imperfections of our lives to bring about the ultimate perfection of his kingdom.
One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book is a collect that is prayed on Good Friday, at the Easter Vigil, and at every ordination of a bishop, priest, or deacon – and part of the prayer goes like this – O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, let the whole world see and know that things which were cast downare being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.