This season before Christmas we’re focusing on the theme Listening for the Promise. Each week, we’ll explore different promises associated with Advent. Our readings this week speak of God’s promise of hope, and of what it means to live with hope in a world that seems to lack it.
I’d like to tell you a story about a tree. This is a true story; perhaps some of you know it. A friend of mine was born and raised in Chico, California. He told me once about how the central landmark in the city was a gigantic oak tree — the “Hooker Oak,” named after English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker. It was said to be the biggest and oldest oak tree in the world. Tree experts said it was perhaps 400 years old, and the trunk was so thick it took seven or eight adults holding hands to get all the way around it. The beauty of that tree is deeply engraved in the psyche of anyone who ever lived in Chico. It was a symbol of stability, of strength. The closest parallel I can think of in our area would be the giant redwood trees at Sequoia or Yosemite.
Well, one day in 1977, in the middle of a rainstorm, Hooker Oak collapsed. Apparently its roots had been dead for some time, and in the pressure of a small storm, the tree just fell over. This was a severe shock to the community. The newspapers spoke of crowds going out to the park to see, of people openly weeping to see that centuries-old tree, which once reached its lofty branches to the heavens, now lying in the dirt.
What happened was natural, of course. Trees cut off from their roots die. They may look all right for quite a long time, but in the end they collapse. We see it each year with our Christmas trees, don’t we — trees that are so fragrant and green when we bring them into the house soon grow dry and brittle. We enjoy them for a while, and then they are cut up and tossed into the fire. And like Hooker Oak, they die because they have no roots. No matter how diligently we keep water in the stand, the truth of the matter is that the tree is already dead when we bring it inside.
The prophet Isaiah used the image of a tree to say something about the Messiah. His image was a powerful one, so powerful that it was used by John the Baptist, by Jesus himself, and then by the church. I suppose we don’t often think of trees as a major Biblical image, but there are two kinds of trees mentioned fairly often. One is the cedar, a tree that was bountiful in Israel, in the mountainous area of Lebanon. These majestic “cedars of Lebanon” were used to build Solomon’s temple — the best wood available in the ancient world.
The other kind of tree mentioned often is the oak. This grew primarily in the southern kingdom, Judah. Under an oak tree Abraham first built an altar to God. And the people of Judah were every bit as proud of their majestic oaks as were the people of Israel of their “cedars of Lebanon.”
These two trees symbolized the greatness these two nations — much as we sing about our “purple mountain majesties” in this land “from sea to shining sea.”
In the time of Isaiah, Israel and Judah had just passed through a time of great prosperity, but were entering a time of turmoil and distress. The powerful Assyrian Empire was arising in the north; and according to the prophets, God was using Assyria as an instrument to punish Israel and Judah for their sins.
Isaiah pulls no punches in describing those sins: the people are haughty and proud, they spend lots of time and money on armaments and weapons, they refuse to trust God. They worship God with noisy ceremonies, but their hearts are not clean.
Because of all this, Isaiah says, God will punish these two kingdoms. Isaiah makes his point by speaking of those beautiful trees:
The Lord of hosts, has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high, against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan. (2:12-13)
The Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall. (10.33-34)
And the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2.17)
Well, you can imagine that Isaiah’s words didn’t go over very well with the people, but that didn’t stop John the Baptist from using the same images. When he began preaching, he warned that all the splendor of Israel was about to come crashing down. “Repent,” he cried. “Change your hearts and minds.” “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Both Isaiah and John were making the same point. As a tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and destroyed, so will God cut down his people if their fruit is not good. The fruit God requires is justice and mercy, not pride and haughtiness; it is love and kindness, not arrogance and power.
That is a message that we, too, need to hear in this season. We need to hear it always, but especially in this season. We so often get carried away by our celebration. We spend more, and party more, and go on a binge of extravagance as we buy gifts for those who really need very little. But those who really need our love and our gifts — well, we plunk a quarter in the Salvation Army pot and hope they’ll buy a turkey with it for some family.
Others will huddle in the cold, and have peanut butter for Christmas; we will be warm and cozy with our families and gather with joy around our beautiful Christmas tree.
In a way, I suppose, that tree is an apt symbol for us. That tree, which we make so beautiful, is dead. It is still green, and we make it beautiful to look at, but it is dead. How often we are like that — outwardly beautiful, but inwardly dead. How often we are filled with Christmas spirit that feasts on Santa and sleighbells, but neglects a poor and hungry child, born in a manger because there was no room in the inn.
Isaiah’s message, John’s message — they are difficult! I don’t imagine they’d qualify as a “Hallmark moment.” Can you imagine sending out a card like this
During this Christmas season, the Schoonover family wishes you and yours the very best wishes captured by John the Baptist: “REPENT!! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”
I can’t imagine Thomas Kinkade has painted very many paintings featuring John the Baptist in the wilderness. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing he focuses on other subjects.
The message from Isaiah and John say that God has definite ideas about how we should live, and his ideas call for justice, mercy, love, kindness, humility, faith. If our lives don’t include those things, they say, God cuts us down — cuts down everything that is high and lifted up, everything that is proud and haughty. “Even now,” John cries, “the axe is laid to the root of the tree.”
So where is the hope? After all, that’s what I promised a few minutes ago when I said:
Our readings this week speak of the promise of hope; of what it means to live with hope in a world that seems to lack it.
These harsh words of Isaiah’s and John’s contain a promise. I told you about mighty Hooker Oak, but I didn’t tell you the best part. Passersby who went later to see where the tree had fallen, found that right in the middle of the rubble was a little sprout, reaching up from the ground. That’s the way oak trees are. When one dies, one or more new saplings grow in its place.
And that is what Isaiah said.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. . . . With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (11.1,4)
Out of the dead stump, a shoot. Out of seemingly dead roots, new life! From death comes resurrection! That’s what Isaiah promised. That’s what God delivered in Bethlehem: the righteous branch. Our friend St. Paul picks up the theme:
The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations, and in him shall the nations hope. (Romans 15.12)
For in Christ, we find our hope.
When we look to the world for signs of hope, we come away disappointed. For the world is too full of despair, like mall shootings, to provide the hope we need.
When we look to our own feelings for signs of hope, we come away disappointed. For our feelings are fickle. They change depending on the dinner we had last night, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, or the experiences we had growing up. None of these are a very stable foundation for our hope.
When we look to others to be a sign of hope, we come away disappointed. For no matter how well others behave, at some point we’ll be let down. No matter how consistently I’ll try to behave as a parent, one of the first phrases I’ve had to teach my children is “Daddy goofed.” Human consistency or dependability is a poor foundation on which to rest our hopes.
That’s why scripture proclaims a consistent message that God is the source and ground of our hope.
Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:4)
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psalm 18:2)
Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you,the Lord, the spring of fresh water. (Jeremiah 17:13)
The gospel message this Advent is one of judgment, a declaration that God will cut down the proud and arrogant, those who care only for themselves and not for the needy, and that God will do some serious pruning in our lives.
But it is also a message of hope, a message about a righteous branch, the sprout that comes from dead roots. We know God can, in this marvelous season, cut from us that which is not pleasing to him, and in its place put new life, a new branch, a branch of righteousness and love. We know that God can, and we know that God will, as God has promised.
May it be so for us as well. Amen