Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
1st Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
You can tell a lot about a tree just by looking at it. You can often tell approximately how old it is. If you drill into the tree and take a sample through the center of the tree, you can tell exactly. And you can tell which were lean years of drought and cold and which were years of plenty of water. You can tell by branches which have been broken off, if another tree nearby fell on it. You can sometimes tell if a snow or ice storm broke off branches. You can tell by the cones whether it is healthy or not.
God is causing a righteous branch to spring up for King David. This is a family tree that has been grafted onto, been uprooted and moved several times, and has experienced times of flourishing and thriving and times of great suffering and want. At times it has sheltered widows and the poor. At times it has withered under the heat of the day. It has even been chopped down, as the Babylonians moved in and took over, occupying Israel, taking the Israelites into captivity, and keeping them under control.
Now a righteous branch is springing up where everyone thought the tree was dead. I’ve got a few trees that send out these branches in my yard. Maybe you have one, too. One is our cherry tree. Those extra branches have to be cut off every year because they take nutrients and strength from the main tree. But if the main tree ever died, those branches would make sure that it lived on. The other trees we have, come from a neighbor’s tree. He cut it down a couple of years ago because it is an invasive species. But that tree has sent out roots in every direction so that the ground is just thick with these roots. Every so often another tree tries to come up right next to our house. We’re going to have to call an exterminator, or arborist or whatever, because the roots can get under the foundation and destroy our house.
The kind of trees that send out these branches are insidious. They have developed this survival technique and it is very effective. It is very frustrating for us. But we are actually just like these kind of trees, aren’t we? Human kind has become an invasive species. Try to cut down our family tree, and we will destroy your foundation. We do all we can to survive and procreate and populate whether we are welcome or not or whether there are enough resources or not. In our time, we have to work to balance our needs with the needs of this planet. In the time of Jeremiah it was necessary for the mere survival of humankind. Stubbornness was a virtue that meant that your family line would go on, that your bloodline would survive.
So now King David’s line is going to survive because of this little branch coming from what everyone thought was a dead stump. At the time this was written, it was to give hope to a people in despair. You are stubborn. Your line will survive. Do not fret.
This was written with the Messiah in mind. Now we read it and see Jesus in it. Jesus was born in David’s family lineage, in Bethlehem, the city of David’s birth. We’re supposed to see the family resemblance. Jesus is a branch on the same tree of the one everyone in Israel remembers as the best King ever. Will he be the acorn that didn’t fall far from the tree? Will he be just like King David? Or will his people not recognize him and try to cut him down, too? Will they nail him to a tree, trying to graft him to our methods of death and control?
As the little fetus Jesus is growing large in his mother, we read about this tender shoot just peeking out above the earth, a vulnerable sign of life where there had been no hope. But there is something powerful even in the tiniest signs of persistent life, such as these. Life is going on despite despair and suffering. Something new can happen even when it seems that all hope is lost—something powerful and glorious.
Trees not only tell you about themselves and what has happened in the past. They can tell you a lot about the health of the environment around them and what is coming. They are signs telling the future, in a way. Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” The trees are getting ready. If you look at a tree that loses its leaves right now, you’ll see buds of next year’s branches. The tree prepares itself for what is coming next. And you can look at a tree and see damage from beetles and know that a whole forest is about to be wiped out. Right now, trees that grew only at lower elevations are being found further up on mountains. Because of climate change, it is warmer higher up and it is affecting where trees can grow. Trees in this case are giving us a message that our planet is changing. They are signs of what is coming.
Jesus is telling us to pay attention to these signs, whether they are like historical markers, signs telling us of what has happened in the past, or signs of what is coming in the future. Jesus doesn’t want us to be caught of guard. He says that things are changing, but we don’t have to be afraid. Lift up your heads. Look up! Stand up! Get a good vantage point to what is happening.
Those who are afraid look down. It is like the ostrich with its head buried in the sand. If I can’t see them, they can’t see me! God says, it is coming either way, whether you choose to see it or not. Are you going to let yourself be afraid of this change? Are you going to just let it happen and not be prepared? It is better to pay attention and see what is coming so you can be ready. Open your eyes, because even though scary things are happening and people are getting confused and anxious, God is in control. God has the power and glory. It is in God’s hands. It will ultimately be all right.
These readings could partly be about the changes that are going on in our world and the church being ready to meet the needs of the next generation of believers. Will we be anxious about the future and pretend that changes aren’t happening? Jesus says there is nothing to fear about the future. God will be with us as we prepare for what is coming.
These readings could also be about changes in our lives as we age. Do we pretend it isn’t happening because we fear what the future holds? Jesus says that he will walk through it with us. Even though it is scary to lose control and to endure the pains that aging brings, God will be with us and God will ease our pains and give us peace and bring us home. Our tree may look like it is dying, but new life is apparent, and growth is happening.
And these readings also refer to the coming of God’s Kingdom. Some say it is going to get worse before it gets better. I suppose that was true of Jesus’ crucifixion. But God used a hopeless situation to bring life. God can use the really bad stuff, the scary stuff, to bring hope and life. God has got it under control and we don’t have to be afraid.
The tree of life has endured many trials, drought, windstorm, blizzard, ice, pruning and grafting, infestation, fire, flood, and everything else imaginable. Yet we are all branches on this tree. Jesus is the trunk. God is the roots. We are part of each other. We have permanent unity. We have the light of Christ to warm us. We have the water of life nourishing us. We are all in this together, part of each other. So let us go forward with boldness and hope, growing, shading, feeding, healing, and living.