December 13, 2020
Third Sunday in Advent
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Ole and Sven vent out in da woods lookin’ for a Christmas tree. And ya know, after about a couple of hours lookin’, dey finally decided to take vun vit out da decorations. Later on, Sven vas decorating da tree vit his son. After a little bit, his son said, “Dad, can’t ve use tinsel like efery von else? Dis is really uncomfortable. - decorating with son….
Here at Frankfort Congregational, we have declared this Advent to be the Year of the Tree - focusing our thoughts and hearts around all the trees that surround us. Of course, Christmas trees take front and center at the moment. But as 21st century Christians, we have another important tree - that of the cross on which Christ died. Last week we took a gander at the Tree of Life, as it connects us to beginnings and sustenance. The very first day in the Advent devotionals we’ve been using gave us part of the scripture passage we are reading today from Isaiah 11:1-10.
Isaiah 11:1-10 NIV
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean.
We don’t know this passage all that well these days - as a culture. Some of us might recognize one of the over 60 different versions of Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” and we might recognize the phrase the “stump of Jesse” from Christmas Eve readings, but after that, this passage is probably rather distant. And yet it is still so relevant.
Jesse was the great king David’s father. In fact, sometimes David’s “alternate” name is just “Son of Jesse.” He was the son of Obed and the grandson of Ruth and of Boaz, and get this, he lived in Bethlehem. You can check out the rest of the lineage in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. So the shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse would, of course, be Jesus.
With this third Sunday of joy in Advent, I have an extra one, in that after waiting 23 years, I finally get to use a story that has been patiently waiting on the shelf - literally. It may look like and read like a children’s book, but it is really a story for everyone.
The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt, Illustrated by Tim Jonke
Once upon a mountain top, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up.
The first little tree looked up at the stars twinkling like diamonds above him. “I want to hold treasure,” he said, “I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I will be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!”
The second little tree looked out at the small stream trickling by on its way to the ocean. "I want to be a strong sailing ship," he said. "I want to travel mighty waters and carry powerful kings. I will be the strongest ship in the world!"
The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and busy women worked in a busy town. "I don't want to leave this mountain top at all," she said. "I want to grow so tall that when people look at me they will raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world!"
Years past. The rains came, the sun shone, and the little trees grew tall.
One day three wood cutters climbed the mountain.
The first wood cutter looked at the first tree and said, "this tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining axe, the first tree fell.
“Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest,” thought the first tree. "I shall hold wonderful treasure.”
The second wood cutter looked at the second tree and said, "This tree is strong. It's perfect for me." With a swoop of his shining axe, the second tree fell.
“Now I shall sail mighty waters,” thought the second tree. "I shall be a strong ship fit for kings!"
The third tree felt her heart sank when the last woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the woodcutter never even looked up. "Any kind of tree will do for me," he murdered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the third tree fell.
The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought him to a carpenter’s shop, but the busy carpenter was not thinking about treasure chests. Instead his work-worn hands fashioned the tree into a feed box for animals.
The once-beautiful tree was not covered with gold or filled with treasure. He was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry farm animals.
The second tree smiled when the woodcutter took him to a shipyard, but no mighty sailing ships were being made that day. Instead the once-strong tree was hammered and sawed into a simple fishing boat.
Too small and weak to sail an ocean or even a river, he was taken to a little lake. Every day he brought in loads of dead, smelly fish.
The third tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard.
“What happened?” the once-tall tree wondered. “All I ever wanted to do was stay on the mountaintop and point to God.”
Many, many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams.
But one night golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feed box.
“I wish I could make a cradle for him,” her husband whispered.
The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and sturdy wood. “This manger is beautiful,” she said.
And suddenly the first tree know he was holding the greatest treasure in the world.
One evening a tired traveller and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveller fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake.
Soon a thundering and thrashing storm arose. The little tree shuddered. He knew he did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely through the wind and rain.
The tired man awakened. He stood up, stretched out his hand and said, “Peace.” The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun.
And suddenly the second tree knew he was carrying the King of heaven and earth.
One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry, jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands to her.
She felt ugly and harsh and cruel.
But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God’s love had changed everything.
It had made the first tree beautiful.
It has made the second tree strong.
And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God.
That was better than being the tallest tree in the world.
I would say, “The End,” except it is not the end of the story at all. In my study for today’s message, I came across a super interesting article that was posted on a nytimes.com page about Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology and teacher at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her ground-breaking (no pun intended) work brought to light - how trees communicate, interact, and help each other through threadlike fungi in soil - even trees of different species. (picture)
She figured out that the oldest and biggest trees send resources like glucose and carbon to younger and smaller plants and that “Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger” and “if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.”
Because of Ms. Simard’s research, she sees forests as intricate societies - ancient republics - that occur in prairies, grasslands, and even the Arctic tundra. She found that nutrients and water didn’t only flow one way, but sometimes back and forth, depending on the season. “When Douglas fir seedlings were stripped of their leaves and thus likely to die, they transferred stress signals plus a substantial sum of carbon to nearby ponderosa pine, which subsequently accelerated their production of defensive enzymes.” Ferris Jabr, the author of the article, ended it this way: “As I knelt beneath that white bark pine, staring at its root tips, it occurred to me that my whole life I had never really understood what a tree was. At best I’d been aware of just one half of a creature that appeared to be self-contained but was in fact legion. I dare you not to think about that concept the forest you drive by.
It occurred to me that we can think of joy being like trees. We may not be cognizant of all the joy in the world, and sometimes joy can seem buried in what is in reality rotting vegetation. But that doesn’t mean joy is gone or dead. In fact, it takes joy a little further from the word “happy,” with which it is so often confused.
There is more to joy than it’s hidden life-sustaining and healing properties. It is the breath that keeps us going, like the slightest of breezes on a smooth, still lake. It goes back and forth between us and God like nutrients in trees and like branches, it emanates out from us to bring relief and healing to those who pass by. We are surrounded by, immersed in, wrapped up with and permeated with joy - the joy that comes from love - the love that comes from God.
Even in the dead-looking cross, there is a reverent and maybe even sorrowed joy because it represents salvation to eternal life. And that joy has been - since before the beginning of time and throughout the ages. It is joy on a different plane than merely that of humans, coming at us from all different directions. That is the gift we celebrate - even when it seems like the craziest thing to do. And so we should pray.
Heavenly God of Time and Reality and Joy, sometimes this life can feel overwhelming. You know well the worries and fears and sadness that can track with us like the dirt of the Snoopy character, Linus. And yet, the cross leads our eyes to look up, not at what what is temporary, but at what is eternal and life and hope and joy. So we pray for extra patience, extra attention, extra awareness to the way in which we are all connected to you and each other - even those who have gone before us. Help us to be mindful that the joy we lift up this day is not silly or insipid or even unreasonable, but that it is deeper and stronger and more miraculous than we give it credit. So thank you for your Son, who gives us a glimpse into the depth of your love for all of creation, including us. And all your people joyously say, Amen