Mary Had a Little Lamb

sermon on John 1:29-42

 

Here’s some Dr. King to get us going:

I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. He worked as a carpenter. Then for three years, he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness…He just went around serving, doing good.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. He was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.*

Take that portrait of Jesus from Dr. King with what John the Baptist didn’t say: Behold! The lion of God greatly to be feared, who repays all for their iniquities!

Behold the shepherd of God who protects the flock and guides lost sheep!

Behold! The spacious oak of God, standing steadfast and immovable, overshadowing nations!

Behold! The key of God, unlocking all mysteries!

Behold! The soaring eagle of God, fast to rise to the heights of heaven!

Behold! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle of God who fights crime with hip attitude!

Behold! The genie of God, for whom your every wish is his command!

Behold! The Avenger superhero of God, who with superpowers defends the innocent!

Behold! The judge of God, who examines and decides critically from on high the fate of all!

With a couple exceptions, those are not only possible images but biblical ones for how we might behold God. We could have both desire and reason to see God in all of these ways. So it is striking that we’re introduced to God today not in any of those ways.

Again, this season of Epiphany is about God in Jesus being made known to us. This morning we pop over to John’s Gospel for Jesus’ first appearance there. Last week we heard his first words in Matthew’s account, about a Lord in humble service, revealing peace rather than ferocious destructive leadership.

So as Jesus goes casually strolling by in his first entrance in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points him out and indicates who he is. To be clear, he might’ve said any of those big Beholds! The Lion! The Judge! The Superhero Savior! John could’ve even more basically said, Behold! It’s my buddy Jesus. He’s a decent carpenter and not bad to have in the boat if you go fishing. Or Behold! It’s Mr. Goody-Two-Sandals, and you better watch your mouth around him because he’s holy. Maybe most obviously, John might’ve announced, Hey! I dunked this guy in the river and a dove rested on him!

For any of the possibilities, the way Jesus might have been introduced, the first reaction to him meandering by, John the Baptist declared “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

So let’s try to figure this out with some associations. Look at the lamb on the cover of your bulletin. Granted this is A lamb and maybe not The lamb. But if John thinks lamby things about Jesus, what do you think when you look at this little lamb?

lamb

Maybe Jesus was cute.

Maybe he was cuddly.

Maybe he was soft.

He might’ve liked grass.

But it seems to me that the main thing is that a lamb is small and fragile and helpless. There has probably never been a superhero lamb with a bestselling action figure, right? And we’d be pretty clear that if a lion and a lamb picked a fight, the lamb would annihilate the lion. ? (Just testing.)

Dr. King would point out that it shouldn’t stand up to kings or armies. Yet this Lamb did that, and has influenced life on earth more than all the others put together.

Jesus did it by being particularly lamby. I looked through the 196 times the Bible mentions lambs, and the most notable characteristic is not just that they are weak and vulnerable. They die. In the Bible, lambs are constantly getting killed. There are lambs as offerings for sin and Passover lambs marking deliverance from death.

From his first appearance, Jesus is pointed out by John the Baptist as one who is going to get killed. That’s an odd place to put our hopes for life. He is the Lamb of God, God’s offering or sacrifice to us, delivering from death, taking away the sin of the world. With sin and death separating us from God, God bridges the divide and draws you in. There is no longer anything that can disconnect you from God. In this way that we wouldn’t even want to imagine, God comes to us, to set it right. When we want to Behold God blazing in on our terms, by our standards, God shows up all sheepish as the way to come to us.

Because this victorious Lamb of God over our stubborn isolation reappears with our liturgical song, I want to share from the book of Revelation. I especially want you to hear that even there when the triumph is expected from the kingly lion in this heavenly throne room, all of a sudden a slaughtered lamb is there instead. He doesn’t change into a fierce Lion to kill others; he remains always the Lamb who was slain. A special treat from Revelation, here you go:

“Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.” Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (from Revelation 5:5-6, 11-13, 7:9, 12)

That was written for suffering people, feeling cut off and wondering whether their faith was right. They probably wanted a lion, a mighty king, some superhero. They get proclamation reassuring that the Lamb is indeed revealing a God who conquers by dying, that he is the answer for us and for all the world.

For any of your suffering, for anything that feels like it’s been inflicted on you or that you’ve done wrong, for all that you fear would cut you off from God, this final vision of the Bible and the weekly practice of our worship service knows that you join in the hymn of all creation, gathered around the Lamb who died to give you life.

If you feel like nobody, you’re invited to the party. If you feel you’re special, you’re invited to join the party. If you long for things to be different, you’re invited to the party. If you want to party and celebrate life, you’re invited to the party. If you’re a troublemaker, if you have too much, if you wish you had more, you’re invited in. If  you are climbing into the back of an ambulance, you’re invited to the party. When you need help, or when you’re ready to serve, you’re invited to the party of the Lamb. It’s a big party.

As Dr. King also declares for us, the fact that this new age is emerging reveals something basic about the core and heartbeat of the cosmos. It reminds us that the universe is on the side of justice. It says to those who struggle, ‘You do not struggle alone, but God struggles with you.’ This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant drum beat of Easter.**

Though, I’d remind Dr. King if I could, that Easter doesn’t undo the slain Lamb. He’s still Jesus. And it is his way of sacrifice and suffering and love that triumphs for you. The Lamb of God is vindicated and opening the party doors. With that, you join the angels and archangels, saints past, present, and future, earth, sea, sky and all their creatures in singing: “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!”

* “The Drum Major Instinct” in Testament of Hope, p266

** “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” p141

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Baptism of Our Lord

sermon on Matthew 3:13-17

 

Watch This!

With my childhood, as I prepared to do something stupid, that phrase was accompanied by the reminder that show-offs always get hurt. On this day when we’re looking forward to a summer Boundary Waters trip, the phrase makes me think of teaching our young people to leap off of rocks and cliffs. Watch This! And then comes a big splash.

John the Baptist didn’t want to make waves, but Jesus would have none of it, saying Do it! It’s proper to fulfill all righteousness. John gives in and dunks Jesus. Making a splash with a different outcome of show-offs getting hurt as it points toward his death, Jesus leaped into the water of the Jordan River shouting Watch This! Though technically his phrase is less succinct; his Watch This is that it’s “proper to fulfill all righteousness.”

These are the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew. First words are important to pay attention to, just as the final words of Jesus are how this Gospel ends: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And remember I am with you always, to the end.” So these first words serve as a grand Watch This to everything that will follow.

To know what we’re supposed to watch from Jesus, I did some word searching this week with the “fulfilling all righteousness.”

Fulfill is a word that Matthew likes to use. Though we’re only a couple readings into this year of Matthew, we’ve already heard fulfillments as part of the formula quotations that Matthew uses at least ten times about Jesus. The first was before Christmas, that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’” (1:22-23). Just after Christmas, we heard three more details Matthew saw as fulfilling Scripture (2:15, 17, 23). Most everywhere Jesus was going or what was happening to him seems viewed by Matthew as a fulfillment, all the way up to his betrayal, arrest, and death.

Matthew wants us to know that this is how it’s supposed to be, that this goes with who God is and what God wants. That’s a helpful reassurance when Jesus is killed—that it wasn’t a complete interruption or defeat of what God wanted, but was in line with it. Jesus fulfills God’s vision.

My word search found that fulfillment wasn’t only about old bible verses that Matthew says applied to Jesus, not only that the prophets were predicting Jesus or something. It’s also just a word for “full.” Nets are full of fish (13:48), and holes are full of dirt (Luke 3:5), and children are full of wisdom (Luke 2:40).

So that’s also saying that the full meaning is found in Jesus. He fills up biblical understanding. He fully shows what God wanted. He has all authority. Jesus is how God says Watch This.

But what about righteousness? Being full of righteousness doesn’t usually sound good to us. It sounds like being totally self-righteous, though that doesn’t clarify much of what Jesus and John were wanting us to watch while splashing in the water.

It is helpful to know that the same Greek word can be translated either as righteousness or as justice. Matthew sees Jesus coming to set everything right, to make it fair, to make it just as God wanted.

Of the seven times Matthew uses the word, five are in the Sermon on the Mount, so we’ll come back to them in a couple weeks as Jesus tells us in Beatitudes that those who hunger for righteousness or for justice are blessed, and you’re blessed when you’re persecuted for striving after it.

Which may mean Matthew is saying to us that even if it’s proper to fulfill all righteousness, all justice, maybe it’s not easy. This is the show-offs getting hurt aspect of when Jesus tells us to Watch This. Things going along with what God wants may still lead through tough times, through confrontations, even through death. Striving for God’s justice can be hard. Yet as horrible as it may be, what God is doing is not defeated or even very ultimately interrupted.

That may be a main part of what Jesus is saying here and what we watch for in his whole story. Eventually, even though Jesus is crucified, God is still working in it. As Jesus does things that challenge popular culture and maybe even would seem religiously or ethically dubious, still he is fully showing God for us, and showing us how God is striving to set things right, to include outsiders, to reach out to all nations, to heal the sick, to break down the barriers that would keep us from each other. What’s God want? Watch This!

Today, as Jesus says it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness, a very basic part of what he’s asserting is that he needs to be baptized by John. This is what’s right, John. So do it, even if you don’t like it.

Just before this, John had anticipated that the Messiah would arrive thundering with blazing fire to strip the forests bare, clearing the unrighteous out of his way, like an ax to clearcut with sharpened ferocity. The coming Messiah would be so powerful, John predicted, that John wouldn’t even be worthy to stoop down and tie his shoelaces.

It’s revealing to set that image alongside the Jesus who, in another Gospel, himself stoops to wash his disciples’ feet on the last night of his life. Still at that moment, the closest disciple Peter was protesting, saying he should be washing Jesus’ feet and not the other way around. Watch This can seem like something stupid is about to happen.

Here the greatest forerunner, John the Baptist, says he wouldn’t even be good enough to get near Jesus’ feet. John expected chainsaws and fire power. Instead Jesus shows up with a gentle dove. That is what God wants. Rather than taking charge and pushing others around, rather than clearing them out of the way, Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized by John, submits to John, humbles himself.

Now, a first reaction of ours is likely to be similar to John or to Peter: that Jesus is doing something stupid. We expect God to come blazing in. If what God wants is justice, then why doesn’t God blow away the oppressors? Why would God be subject to persecution? If God wants life, then why does God die?

These questions don’t get answered for us. They just get countered. If you predict that the powerful God will wipe out enemies, will hack away at foes, will ferociously eliminate what stands in the way, then you need to be reoriented to the God of the Bible, to the God known in Jesus, to the God marked by a dove and by love.

It is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness. This is the right way fully to display what God wants, to embody it, to bring it to pass. Watch This.

Though this is about what we’re supposed to watch for in Jesus, it also offers a reminder in our own lives. When we are hankering after achievement and wanting to prove ourselves, when we wonder how well we measure up, we are met by Jesus, wading out into the water to take a dip and telling us to Watch This. It shows that righteousness isn’t self-righteousness, not about being show-offs in the old way, not about how rightly we live or how right you say things are going in your life.

With a splash of water and with all authority, Jesus declares that righteousness is fulfilled. We want to argue and make it different, but God says in baptism it’s all right. It is all fully right.

That is the declaration to you with a splash, too, in baptism, that there is nothing ultimately wrong, that you are filled up with everything right. Or, as the very voice of God declares in the story, in baptism you are directly called a beloved child of God. With you, God is well pleased.

As you emerge from the water, filled with that promise of new life, of things made right, you dive in to follow Jesus’ wet footprints through the rest of his story. You see the way of justice, of setting things right with and for others. As Jesus goes through death, you see that even those sufferings and obstructions of goodness won’t ultimately overwhelm the declaration of God’s blessing for you, God’s efforts on behalf of life.

You can take the leap and take your risks, and even if you always get hurt, you have assurance on the other side. And we keep returning for another splash of this water, to be reminded of that connection to Jesus, of his connection to and work for you, of that perpetual promise of love. Watch This: he makes everything fully right, and he is with you always, to the end.

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1st Sunday of Christmas

mini sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

 

I get criticized if I mention the crucifixion at Christmas. Even though it seems like an easy play on words. Crucifix-mas? Christma-fixion? Anyway…

You may not be as much troubled at it now, feeling Christmas is somewhat past, though we’re only on day 5, less than half done with Christmas. It may not have struck you intensely this morning, but Pastor Sonja and I still felt this was a jarring reading that needed a few words, even if it took a couple minutes away later from the pleasant carol singing of your favorites.

But that’s actually exactly where I want to start. See, when Christmas feels like it’s supposed to be a favorite-filled pleasant diversion of holiday cheer to distract you from whatever variety of other feelings or current events, that’s a watered-down mediocre Christmas. Christmas and incarnation need to be God’s answers to all of our life. Not just a different story, but something that changes the story we know too well. If it’s going to be powerful, it needs to confront the powers that rule over us.

Just as Luke’s Christmas story situates the birth in and against the Roman Empire—giving Jesus titles like Savior and Lord instead of Caesar—Matthew also deals with the realities of an oppressive and hostile government. This story is brutal. Herod kills all the babies, infants, toddlers, children under two years old, furiously trying to maintain his position. And because he’s mean.

It’s important to realize Matthew is echoing another story, of Old Testament patterns. While Jesus is fitting into our human story, he’s also fitting into God’s story, since God’s story always needs to meet and speak to our human story.

Particularly the slaughter of the innocents, as this Bethlehem killing is called, happened in the book of Exodus, when Pharaoh in Egypt started killing babies, and Moses escaped by being hidden in a basket in the river. Standing for the whole “let my people go,” with Jesus the escape was reversed, fleeing to Egypt, eisodus instead of exodus. Matthew is hinting that Jesus, in part, will be a teacher like Moses, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. And we expect him to lead his people to freedom.

You might like to know the slaughter of the innocents is frequently figured to be Matthew’s story-telling device and not a historical event. Nobody else writes about it, though it seems like it would’ve been kinda worth reporting.

But even if the fiction makes you feel a little better, it’s not to brush it aside. One instance might not have happened, but there are still people and even little children killed because of religious persecutions and vindictive rulers and because some people are mean, who would rather destroy than help life.

Again, Jesus having to flee to Egypt is an important identifier for Palestinians and many others, that he also was a refugee, since too many have to face that reality.

For God meeting human reality, in our own much smaller ways, we don’t ignore the bad things. We need God to deal with them. Even, eventually in Jesus’ life, dealing with our death.

We need to be saved from such. Christmas can be sweet and tender, but it has to matter, to make a difference.

It’s within this context and not apart from it that we receive this good news, the tidings of comfort and joy, the one who brings peace to earth, the only way we say all is calm, all is bright. So, still: Merry Christmas

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Christmas Eve sermon 2019

Six weeks ago I was there. In Bethlehem.

It’s certainly not to brag, nor to compare myself or our group to Mary and Joseph, because it’s quite incomparable. For example: no angel chorus for our trip. Another example: I didn’t give birth to the Messiah, the Lord. Actually, I didn’t give birth at all.

But some then-and-now gives perspective. So in other divergent details, I was coming up from contemporary coastal Tel Aviv, while the betrothed wayfarers journeyed south from ancient Nazareth.

The Bible doesn’t indicate anything about a donkey, you may be surprised to observe, yet we may safely hunch that the expectant couple didn’t travel on a coach bus with WiFi.

One constant is military occupation. Imperial threats prompted the original risky trek 80 miles through Palestine for the burstingly pregnant young woman and her caring fiancé, while we witnessed confrontational soldiers at checkpoints who would harass or maybe totally preclude their travel.

When they made it to Bethlehem, the precarious parents-to-be were on the hunt for a place to stay. My group’s accommodations were pre-arranged by the tour company, and not only was the bed in my room plenty comfy but I had a lovely evening view over the lights of the city, which is still at heart that same little town of Bethlehem with dark streets where the laboring mother and descendant of David could find no room in the inn.

Ironically, the crowded place while I was there weren’t the hospitable hotels but was, in fact, the little cave under the Church of the Nativity, for centuries claimed as the spot of Jesus’ birth. With bustling back-to-back worship services, bowing and chanting, the line stretched on for three hours or more. The old stable that hosted the unstable family, the out-of-the-way outpost for the outcasts had become the center of attention and most popular place in town, so buzzing and busy we couldn’t even get in, as if it were an A-list club hot spot and not a last resort.

But with attention on the ancient labor and delivery venue amid the manure of a cave with its bassinet filled with saliva-saturated hay—that such an odd place could draw attention!—maybe rather than distinctions between Mary the mother of God and myself, maybe the more obvious match is with the shepherds.

That association isn’t so much for my claiming responsibility for this flock, nor prompted by personal hygiene, nor for sleeping outside yesterday, since the only thing I was keeping watch over by night was the inside of my eyelids.

The shepherds did come flocking (indeed!) to the unlikely maternity ward, not bearing gifts, not bothering to use hand sanitizer on the way in, not asking permission or taking turns or lowering their voices for the tuckered tot and exhausted mother, jostling to elbow in on a view of the holiness, a little encounter with God.

That still serves as a description of what happens at the Church of the Nativity.

I’d also suggest it’s why we arrive here tonight, our own local pilgrimage to meet baby Jesus and witness the divine.

So as we’re assigned the part of shepherds in this pageant, one more detail struck me in Bethlehem, not then-and-now but there-and-here: for a town at the very center of Christmas, it didn’t feel like Christmas there. For twice that long our stores have been decked out up to our elfish ears in holiday décor, but Christmas decorations weren’t much around Bethlehem at all. A few lights and stars, but not evergreens or Santa hats or dazzlingly-wrapped packages. Mostly life seemed to go on. The farmers’ market had stacks of fruit. Students kicked soccer balls. Bus drivers smoked and talked with each other.

We, far from Bethlehem, are so invested in Christmas preparations, while they barely bothered. We sense this time as set apart, as removed from regular life. It’s a lot of what we long for! We may not be trying to go back in time, but our traditions can still feel like it, including as we reenact or re-erect manger scenes.

So we don’t prefer the ornate structure of the Church of the Nativity and its thronging diverse devotees obscuring the story. We want a quaint cave. We want it to feel quietly pastoral, even though that one-time stable had sheep squalor and a bawling baby. We want idyllic, cozy, picturesque—neither like a crowded gaudy church nor like scary unhygienic childbirth and the forlorn loneliness where shepherds were surely no substitute for the absence of Mary’s mother to help in the early days. We cherish this time of year for being serene, for some of you even the rare wishing for snowfall, for things that are beautiful and pleasant and dear.

While we might not wish ourselves off to Bethlehem now, neither should we dream back to bygone Bethlehem. With shepherds’ perspective, we notice that witnessing the birth really is what this is about, what is essential, and not ambience, or a certain place or time, or what comes before or after.

Clearly, the shepherds hadn’t prepared for Christmas. They didn’t have notice to deck and dazzle and dress up and clean up. They didn’t get their shopping done or carefully plan menus. So preparation or lack of preparedness isn’t the point.

Afterward, the shepherds didn’t leave with a to-do list. They just celebrated. They didn’t rush off as if sent to work for justice or plan any other missions. Such may show we’ve gone away distracted in our own thoughts and not focused on the baby, the angels’ song, the joy and praise and holy pondering at this good news of what God is up to.

We arrive for Christmas here tonight not to imagine warping through time and space to Bethlehem. We don’t come to escape normal life or ignore reality or pretend into some frame of mind. We know the world as it is, with things that go right and that don’t, with its good traditions and its constant change, in regular days and with what’s beautiful and memorable, with what we wish would stay just as it is and all that we long to be different, with our sharp lack of blissfulness but also recognizing we do have and share happiness.

That is to say, we come as modern shepherds. Folks who live in the world, who aren’t perfect, who won’t be. We come because we heard there’s a birth. A birth that is good news for us and for all the world. Behold! to you is born a Savior. We come because this birth exclaims that God is not someplace apart, not waiting for our lives to be in order, not only when we’ve cleaned up our act, not restricted to special places or exceptional occasions that shine with a tranquil glow.

God is not cut off from us, from our lives, from where you’ve been and where you’ll go. That is where God is working, transcending, enlivening. With you. For you. For peace on earth. Salaam. The shalom that means all is right. Ready or not, we come here to witness this good news, news we need, news we can barely believe. Then we go on our way, glorifying and praising God for all that we’ve heard and seen. It’s not because suddenly everything in the world is all right. And it’s because it is.

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Tough Ax to Follow

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

 

Let’s think about trees.IMG_1103

We’ve got the benefit of a visual aid. Earlier in the week, I was trying to figure out how you could rotate your chairs and get to stare out the windows. But then conveniently the great group of decorators Tuesday evening established the visual aid for you with scarcely a craning of the neck muscles.

And so what do you notice with these trees? Or what do they cause you to think of? I’ll give you a moment to reflect, then would be eager to hear and have you share.

 

Trees usually make us think of life, not least because we even have Bible stories featuring the “tree of life.” We picture growth, and hold them as an abode for creatures, a shelter for not only these red cardinals but squirrels and grubs and mosses and more. With this reason, the kingdom of God is even portrayed as a tree, harboring us all. It’s sort of like a family tree, realizing we branch in various directions and progress or digress from each other, but are all still held together.

We conceive of trees as steadfast, for past and future, changing only slowly with small growth rings marking years and decades, like the “good oak” Aldo Leopold and his chief sawyer spouse cut down, and deeper rings to centuries or even millennia, like 5000 year-old bristlecone pines. That firm, unbending, solid presence and tough trunk calls to mind Psalm 1 and the tune “like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”

But about such solid strength, I also heard that inside the Biosphere 2, a closed dome system in Arizona meant to replicate Earth’s environments, the trees weren’t replicating. The trees had to be propped up with posts. It turns out that without air movement and wind pushing against the trees, they don’t learn to stand firm. Of course it’s not a surprise that creatures adapt to and respond with their natural environment, that no tree is an island. But it is a reminder of rugged resiliency as a benefit, that calm, quiet isolation isn’t necessarily best.

Another for odd ironies and paradoxes: we use evergreens at this time of year as a symbol of eternal life (paired with the circle of the Advent wreath as another unending symbol), but these nice wispy pines turn out to be very limited life as we’ve cut them down and they’re drying out and before too very long will be tossed out.

It happens again at Easter when we have blooming flowers with the fragrance of new life (and usually an early glimpse before they’re ready to bud outdoors), but those bright colors quickly wither, and—zip—there goes the sense of new life. Easter’s eternal freshness lasts not quite a week.

I guess that means there’s always a theological yes and no to symbols. Anything we use to represent God or faith is inadequate and incomplete. And it reminds us we can read from God toward nature, seeing in the world signs of the God we know, but it’s much more difficult to extrapolate from nature to God.

So today we’ve got the image of a stump, of a tree cut down, even of an ax lying at the root of the tree. We’re actually, then, reflecting less on the tree of life than the tree of death.

For trees cut down, we’ve already seen they might be trying to indicate eternal life, even if it’s in a temporary or momentary way. These evergreens are intended not only to be beautiful and to invite creation to worship with us, but also make us recall even in the cold of winter that life persists, a marker from God, too.

Then we’ve got this big trunk chunk up in front here. This came from the crabapple tree, formerly outside the upper entrance. It might be a marker for us of gratitude or grief, the tree having provided our best kid playground around. It is also a marker of disease, of things not going right, of the rot that was splitting it apart and resulted in Jim Muehl’s chainsaw being applied to it.

That may be similar to this dead remnant of the Burr Oak tree that Lindy Wilson preserved. It was included in our All Saints service, remembering those who had died and whose legacy has shaped us. It is a memorial. Other parts of that Burr Oak wood have been crafted and reshaped around church to serve other purposes; this knotty unearthed remainder just testifies to former life.

While we’re thinking of stumps, I have in mind these days those in arid Palestine. On the trip, we heard plenty about people cut off from their trees. I’m not sure if any of the rest of the group noticed, because one set went by in the bus I didn’t get to point it out, but there is a heart-wrenching scene of a grove of olive trees wiped out.

non-olives

Barren clear-cuts are always a sad and desperate view, I’d say. But these tend to be ancient groves, farmed by the same family for hundreds of years, part of their livelihood and certainly their identity and culture. From Palestinian families, the Israeli military comes in and saws them all off to stumps. They say, again and ever that it’s about security, because somebody could hide in those trees, but it really seems about pestering persecution. Those remnant olive tree stumps are meant as markers to convey power and powerlessness, about who has potential.

That’s still not exactly our Bible reading, with the cut down stump. It would seem to stump the future itself. (It wouldn’t be worthwhile to have a sermon like this if there weren’t any puns. Where would the tree-t be in that? Okay…now I’ll leaf you alone. Except to point out the sermon title.)

Anyway! In the words of the prophet Isaiah, the stump is an alleged symbol of lifelessness awaiting a surprise. It is called the stump of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father. David was the highpoint of the Hebrew kingdom in ancient Palestine. The most power. The most territory. Then things quickly fell apart. This is saying that the family tree has been cut off. There won’t be more branches. It won’t continue to extend and reach to the heavens. By this time of Isaiah a couple hundred years after David, it was pretty bleak. The mighty tree had been hacked away at by enemies. It was no longer flourishing and maybe even seemed like its life was over.

But Isaiah sees a shoot, a tender leaf coming up from the lopped off stump. It may not yet look like the verdant foliage stretching out, but it comes from the same source, the same stock, right out of the stump. The life of David’s kingdom may make a comeback. So in that case, the tree that seemed dead was only mostly dead.

That contrasts rather strongly with the image from John the Baptist. It doesn’t seem to hold out much hope it’s only dormant, that after a bare season things may green up again. For John, it’s not oppression or persecution or enemies that have done the pruning and slashing, but God. God’s will was to get rid of that tree. What’s chopped off is thrown into the fire. Not much apparent life left there.

But that’s maybe the clearest place where our symbols don’t line up with the reality of faith. For these wispy pines, for the logs up here, for what we may get to sprout or leaf and live again, if we pitched any of these slabs of dead wood into the fire, that would be the end.

Yet even when cut down, thrown in fire, God pulls out from death, out from destruction new life. The ashes of our past are not representative of what awaits us to come. Ashes to ashes? Not for God. Not just from decrepit stumps, but even from a burned up pile of soot, God can breathe in the breath of new life, raising from the dead.

That is the promise of baptism. You are a tree planted by the water. In the water. Not just when things look good and life is green and abundant. Even when you’re withering and wondering, still comes the promise of life, of breath, of wind to reinforce and sustain, to kindle not just purging fires but the living fire of life. You are a burning bush. You hold the promise spoken in baptism from the prophet Isaiah, that God’s Spirit rests on you, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in God’s presence now and forever.

Since we started with a pause, let’s end with one, too.
As a tree of the Lord, what do you expect of growth?
What do you wish were pruned away, purged, burned off?
Where are the areas that feel like life’s goodness has been carved and whittled away?
What are the memorials of old growth?
Where are signs of hope?
And what is new life, even beyond expectation?

 

 

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