Watching Trees

December 8, 2019

Helen Jacobi

Advent 2     Isaiah 11:1-10     Psalm 72     Romans 15:4-13     Matthew 3:1-12

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Watching trees [1]

 

As clergy we are not supposed to have favourite parishioners. But Tom has always been a favourite of mine. Tom can’t make it to church any more and so every month or so I take him communion at home. Home is now a small room at a rest home. His life is getting narrower and smaller he says. He can’t read any more which is something he really loved. “Books were my university”, he has told me several times. Last month when I arrived for our service, he was looking out the window and he said “see that tree, I have been sitting here every day watching that tree and the leaves have gradually come into leaf.” “Did you know”, he said, “that the leaves sprout from the top of the tree and gradually work their way down. Each day another layer appears. I didn’t know that before now,” he said.

“Isn’t it great I can sit here and watch God’s creation at work and learn something new.” Tom, at 96 years of age, modelling for me how to live with positivity and hope.

 

Advent is a season of hope, and writer Hannah Malcolm says “Feeling hopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make, by the decision to live as though we are bringing in a new creation.” [2]

It is not about feelings, but about living.

 

The people of Israel in the 700s BC had little reason to feel hopeful. As Cate explained last week Isaiah begins his life as a prophet preaching in the turbulent times of King Ahaz who has no choice but to collaborate with the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Prior to the more hopeful passage we heard today, in chapter 10 we read that God will destroy the Assyrians and the land of Israel with them: God will wield an axe and “the remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.” (10:19) And that is what it would have felt like for the people as they suffered under foreign rulers and were eventually sent into exile 150 years later in 587BC. Yet from this destroyed forest, Isaiah says, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). Jesse was the father of King David; Jesse was not a king but a shepherd and his youngest son David was chosen as the first king of Israel. The forest of Jesse, the kingly line, has been laid waste – yet from this stump, Isaiah says a new shoot will grow. A new tree. And on this new king, or new leader “the Spirit of God will rest – a spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and fear of God.” The world will be changed so much that even animals will live in peace together. 

 

As Cate said last week we Christians tend to leap forward 500 years and apply these descriptions and visions to Jesus. We claim the description of Isaiah for our own picture of Jesus. This however narrows Isaiah down into one track of thought and can limit some of the vision. [3]

It is true that John the Baptist from Matthew’s gospel picks up the same imagery to describe the coming of Jesus. “Even now” John the Baptist says “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:10) But of course Matthew as a gospel writer has access to the prophet Isaiah just as we do and is inspired by the same imagery. That doesn’t mean that Isaiah was only talking about Jesus.

 

Isaiah was addressing the people and politics of his time and if we can use the imagery to address our time then we also can follow in the prophet’s footsteps along with Jesus.

Walter Brueggemann says “As much as any of the prophets of ancient Israel, Isaiah is the voice of an insistent public theology, an assertion that YHWH’s rule matters consistently to policy and practice.” [4]

The demands of God can or should be seen and heard in the way we make policy in our societies, the way we act towards each other, the way we look after the vulnerable. In Isaiah’s day a calamity or natural disaster was seen as a direct intervention of God into the lives of the nation. If the land of Israel was invaded it was a judgement of God against the people. If an earthquake struck the people must have sinned. We do not see war or earthquakes in this way today. Yet things like storms and rising temperatures which we know are a consequence of climate change caused by human actions, could be seen as a judgement. Our actions do have consequences.

 

There must be many Samoan parents today feeling abandoned by God as their children die one after the other from the measles epidemic. Those children are suffering because of the inaction of NZ as a nation, and the inaction of Samoan leaders too. But I think the judgement falls on us as a nation.

 

How we long for a world where 54 children just up the road don’t die of measles. Where Isaiah’s vision of the wolf living with the lamb and a child playing with a snake would not be a crazy one. Where swords are turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

 

Hannah Malcolm says “I don’t believe that the people of Israel were convinced that lions lying down with lambs – or the end of all war – were sensible things to expect. Prophetic hope insists that a different world must be possible, and then insists we live as though it must be possible, even if it seems totally unreasonable in the present. …. it is also the prophetic task to declare peace while telling the truth about the reality of violence. Realism is an important component of prophetic work, but it can’t end there. We must both express the material truth of the danger we are in and the theological truth of the hope we cling to.

The Church should be better at this unrealistic hope. After all, we believe in the actual, real, resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, despite our overwhelming experience that dead people stay dead.

Feeling hopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make, by the decision to live as though we are bringing in a new creation.” [5]

 

So how are we living with hope this Advent? Nurses and doctors have gone to Samoa to care for the sick and try to turn back the tide of the measles epidemic. Some of you are living with illness and disability and living well anyway. Others of you are missing loved ones this Christmas and looking forward to it anyway. We are changing our ways for the sake of the climate as best we can. The City Mission is getting ready to feed 2000 people on Christmas day.

 

The Housing First programme is housing people who are homeless one person at a time.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference [6] where I went to a workshop led by three men who had been previously homeless. They were part of the design group for the Housing First Programme. They described going to their first design meeting with a number of government departments and staff from Lifewise and the City Mission. They said they were astonished that when they said something or offered an opinion it got written up on the whiteboard like everyone else’s. And that was the moment things changed for them. They felt valued. And now they are housed and working for Lifewise, helping to house others, and could lead a workshop with all the social design jargon you could imagine!

 

So how are we living with hope this Advent?

 

Tom can’t walk very far now, or read, or do most of the things he once did.

Tom lives with hope by watching the tree come into leaf outside his rest home window, and giving thanks to God for what he sees.

 

 

[1] The approach of this sermon was inspired by Barbara Lunblad 

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1940

 

[2] https://youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com/

 

[3] https://bythewell.com.au/a102-advent-2-isaiah-111-10-with-sean-winter/

 

[4] p195 An Introduction to the Old Testament; the Canon and Christian Imagination, Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, 2012

 

[5] https://youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com/

 

[6] https://www.designforsocialinnovation.nz/

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