His house is far out. Farther out than you can imagine anyone living. It’s small and clean and white. Most summers it’s cool; most winters it’s warm. It is a good house for a man alone. The man himself is a small man and skinny. He has never married. He has no one. And each year he grows older. He didn’t know he would live his life alone. When he was a boy, and his name was Garnet Ash, he lived with his family on a street in a town not too big. He was a regular boy. He played football and he fished and he camped out in his backyard. But because he loved being at home most of all, he had few friends and spent most of his days with his parents. Each night he fell asleep listening to their soft voices moving from room to room.
When we think about where the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, you would not think of it as a house. Eating locusts and wild honey in the wilderness is a far cry from a convection oven and a granite top kitchen island and a plate of arugula with balsamic vinegar. But like the Christmas Tree Man, John the Baptist lived far from civilization. And when you live away from people you often become a little … strange. Since we only meet the adult John the Baptist in the Bible, we only know him as being a bit strange. But he once had a family … a mother and father with whom he ate supper … a nephew named Jesus with whom he no doubt played. John the Baptist was once an ordinary person … just like Garnet Ash.
But before Garnet Ash had barely grown up, quite suddenly, his parents died. And Garnet Ash didn’t know what to do with himself, with them gone, his family. He hadn’t had time to find a wife. And with suddenly no family to whom he could bring a wife, with suddenly no father who could build a nice kitchen table for her, with suddenly no mother who could give summer roses to her … with suddenly no one at all, Garnet Ash didn’t know what to do except go on having no one at all. He couldn’t live in town any longer. He missed his father and mother too much. So he found a small white house far out, and he moved away, farther out than you can imagine. And he found an occupation that kept him living, that has kept him living so many, many years.
We don’t really know why John the Baptist was called out into the wilderness. He certainly wasn’t sellin’ Christmas Trees. We presume God had something to do with it, maybe confronting John with the call to preach a baptism of repentance. What we do know is that just as Garnett Ash found a home out in the country … the isolation of the wilderness was also good for John … it helped him to clarify his message and distill it into a pretty clear call to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and to “Prepare fruits worthy of repentance.” And it created an occupation for him (can we call being a whacky prophet an occupation?) that drew people to him from all over the countryside. Garnet Ash also had an occupation that demanded that people come to him, too.
Garnet Ash is a Christmas Tree Man. Now, few people know him by his real name. They know him only as the Christmas Tree Man. All around his small white house grow those Christmas trees. Garnet Ash plants them and he raises them like children. Some fat, some lopsided, some strong like rocks and others too weak to try anymore. Like anything else, his trees bring him joy and sorrow.
John had to have had joys and sorrows, too. We mostly see the sorrows, of course, as he blasts people out of their socks for being sinners. But there must have been some success stories. People came out to be baptized … confession was made … we know from later parts of Matthew’s Gospel that John even gathered some disciples. John’s blood pressure was off the chart evidently when the Pharisees and Sadducees arrived, but even Jesus had his moments with them. Is that the challenge of life? … recognizing the rhythm between the joys and sorrows, the highs and lows?
At certain times of the year, Garnet Ash will drive his old truck out and into the towns to get groceries and fertilizer and kerosene and saplings. But apart from these few trips into the world of grocers and farmers and nurserymen, Garnet ash lives out each of his years alone. In March when the purple crocuses spurt up through the snow, he stands and admires them alone. In June, when hornets build a nest under the eaves of his house, he stands and worries alone. And in October, when the moon is giant and orange, he stands and whispers to it alone. He often thinks of his parents. And all this time, his children are growing. But Garnet Ash, who spends his birthdays alone, who eats Thanksgiving dinner alone, who watches the beginnings of each winter and spring and summer and fall alone – come December, he will be surrounded. They drive out from the towns in their cars to find him. The cars are shiny and white or red or yellow. In them there is always more than one person and usually there are three or four or five. They are families. They need a Christmas tree. And they have come looking for the Christmas Tree Man.
Need … ah, the things we will do when we think we are in need. The needs in our story are not only those of the families that travel out into the country to find the perfect tree. Garnet Ash also has needs … he needs a family to love … he needs someone to love and care for. We don’t know much about John the Baptists’ need. The compulsion of a prophet is to live out the needs that God has identified … demanding repentance … calling people to baptism … a call to the examination of one’s life. Each of us here has needs … real and imagined ones. Sometimes those around us help us identify what those needs are. Because typically, the deepest needs we have intersect with the needs of those around us.
Garnet Ash expects them. Every year. And even after all these many years of seeing them drive up to his small, clean white house, he has not grown tired of them. On the first day of December Garnet Ash is full of anticipation. He trembles with it. He stands before his mirror and trims his hair, combs his beard, plucks his brows a bit. He reaches into the back of a drawer and pulls forth his best red reindeer scarf. He is looking forward to the company. The people park their shiny cars and the doors open and out they climb, mothers and fathers and children and grandparents, and they are filled up with life, with hope, with wanting a tree. The Christmas Tree Man in the red reindeer scarf welcomes them and they say hello, how are you, getting cold isn’t it, do you have a good crop this year? And Garnet Ash gestures to his fields, he introduces his children, he says, “I have a good crop.”
It is a reminder that we live in a world defined by abundance. The potency that God has woven into the very fabric of creation resists every attempt to diminish it. Pave a field with cement, and eventually, something green will grow through the seams and the cracks. Raze a forest with a careless fire, and in time saplings with grow and foliage will return. It is not only trees that can be defined as a “good crop,” but the same can be said of the children of God. In spite of all the things we do to suggest otherwise, we are God’s good creation, brought to life in this world universe that God has made.
So the men and the women and the children and even sometimes the dogs they have brought with them will hurry into the rows and rows of sleeping green trees, quiet green trees. The snow will crack under their boots and the mist of their breathing will rise up to the sky and they will prowl through the fields of the Christmas Tree Man. Garnet Ash is happy. He is proud. He says, “Merry Christmas!” and he waves to them as they drive off, their shiny cars sprouting bushy pine tails. Sometimes a boy will lean out of a car window, waving, and the eyes of Garnet Ash will soften and his smile will slacken and he will think he is waving to himself. To himself and his family driving off in that car. The cars will keep coming, every day, and at night, too. Everyone looking for the Christmas Tree Man. And when all of his best trees are gone and there is nothing to offer but a lopsided tree, a skinny tree, a short tree, Garnet Ash will give people bags of hot chestnuts to ease their disappointment. Eating chestnuts, they’ll decide a lopsided tree isn’t so bad, really.
Of course, the meeting up of our needs with the world’s abundance, does not always result in blessing. For there is brokenness in the world, too …. An aging man who lives alone out in the woods … a prophet who is beheaded for speaking a word of truth … and people who … well, you know better than me where the brokenness in your lives is The companionship of friends helps. The resiliency of the human spirit can be a blessing in and of itself. The promises and assurances of God are healing. And I guess … chestnuts don’t hurt either.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, there will be only one or two cars. Then, Garnet Ash will be alone. Very late in the night on Christmas Eve, he will walk through his fields, among the stumps and the trees left behind. “So, not pretty enough for them, eh?” he will say to one of his children. “Well, lucky for you, I’d say!” He will walk through the stumps and the trees, and the moon will be large and white and the sky clear and deep, and the rabbits will watch him from the edges of his fields. Garnet Ash will walk until he finds the weakest tree among those left to stand, the sorriest tree. And he will unwind his red reindeer scarf from around his neck and he will drape it on the top boughs of his ugly child. Then very late, Garnet Ash will walk back to his small, clean white house and he will smile to himself and think what it is to be a Christmas Tree Man.
Reflecting on who we are is often a healthy practice. … whether you engage in such reflection through the lens of your life journey … or through the invitation to repentance, a la the Baptist … or in moments of quiet solitude like the Christmas Tree Man. We live our lives with the hope of being of service to others … while also being true to our own identity. And we live our lives in a world whose brokenness stymies our best efforts as often as not. So … whether you are more like Garnet Ash, or John the Baptist … whether you find yourself alone in the world, or smothered by those around you … whether a fire rages within your spirit, or a still quiet voice speaks to you … in short, no matter the rhythm is that puts its stamp upon your life …. The season of Advent, and the expectation of God’s arrival into our world and your life … Promises surprises … blessings … challenges … and the privilege of seeing the world in a new way … a different way … a way characterized by grace and God’s arrival in a transformative way. Amen.