When the Trees Go To…Worship?

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Photo taken from here (a worthwhile post to read , fellow pastors!)

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the title of this post might surprise you.  You might have been expecting, “When the Trees Go to War.”   There is a scene in the 2002 movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Two Towers.”  The Ents are an ancient race of trees, who go to war with the wizard Saruman, who destroyed trees to build provide fuel for the fires of war.

In teaching out of Isaiah 55:1-13 this past week, I was struck by an image of trees, mountains, and hills clapping their hands and singing.  War is in the background of this picture, but it is now in the past.  Here, the trees, and mountains and hills…go to worship.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

It’s a beautiful passage, really.

Invitation to a Feast.

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, inviting people to come to a feast.  “Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price!…delight yourself in rich food.”  This is an invitation to come to a feast without cost, and it is clear that those without money–the poor–are invited as well.  This is a gift.  Isaiah points out in the opening verses of chapter 55 that so much of what we all work for costs money.  We work to make money to buy lots of things.  And we find that none of those things last.  God says something remarkable through this passage:  that if we will do one thing, we will feast abundantly and live.

Invitation to Listen.

The feast is a different one.  Instead of just eating food and drinking water, wine, and milk, we are invited to listen to the words of God.  (Isaiah 55:2-3)

One of the things I’ve noticed about the life of trying to follow Jesus is that no one really has taught much about how we do that–listen to God.  I’ve only really read one book that addresses that topic in earnest:  Hearing God by Dallas Willard.  That was a vital book for me.  I have learned to try and listen to God speak through the stories, histories, laws, prophets’ words, songs and psalms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, parables, and letters found in the Bible.  Sometimes, when it is a familiar passage, I find myself saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know this one.”  Occasionally when I do that, I get this gentle nudge telling me, “Slow down.  Read that again.”  When I do, I find new meaning in the words.

I’ve also learned to listen to others who teach me:  pastors through their podcasts, speakers at conferences, TED talks, reading blogs, articles, etc.  Have you ever had that experience of listening to someone, and feeling like they are speaking right to you?  I pay attention when that happens.  I usually don’t fully trust that, so I find that if God really wants to say something to me, I get the message another way.

God can use the circumstances in our lives to speak to us. God can use friends and community around us to speak to us.

I know some of this sounds pretty touchy-feely for some of you.  Let me say up front that I believe that we need to “test” these things with each other, and hold it up against what the Scriptures are saying.  I also know people have all kinds of different interpretations about what the Bible is saying–and unfortunately, the Bible has been used to endorse all kinds of wickedness.  But I’ll continue to trust that God chose to reveal His character through these ancient writings, and trust that God wants us to be in community centered on those writings so we don’t go off the deep end.

Invitation to a Different God

The next part of the passage is an invitation for the “wicked and unrighteous” to find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness of God (Isaiah 55:6-9).  As I was studying this, I remembered that at the time of this writing, Isaiah was speaking to a people either still in exile, or just coming out of exile.  Exile was often seen as the punishment from God for not listening to God.  I don’t know what you picture God is like.  One common conception is that God always is looking to punish those that do wrong. “Cosmic policeman,” some might say.  To be clear, I believe God will make the wrong things right one day.  But here, God says that even those that are wicked and unrighteous will find themselves abundantly pardoned.  God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God is different than what we expect. That becomes abundantly clear to me when I think about people that have said something hurtful to me or maligned me in some way.  To be honest, do I think pleasant thoughts all the time about those people?  No.  But my heart is softened when I read this passage in Isaiah, and understand that God thinks about people differently than I do, and deals with us differently that we would deal with each other.

Invitation to Trust

The next part of the passage speaks of how God has ordained creation (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Snow and rain comes down to earth (some places more than others, right, Sacramento-people?), seeds respond to that water and burst to life through the ground.  In the same way that process is locked into the created order, so too does God’s word accomplish its purpose.  God speaks–it happens.  We read that in the beginning of the Bible:  “Let there be light!”  And there was light. We can trust this.

That’s why I think it is important for us in our journey of knowing God to study what God says.  I’m not saying that because it’s my job.  It’s because I know that I need to listen to messages from a true source, because it is getting hard to know what messages are true out there.  The things that call out to me that are promising me happiness and pleasure aren’t always true.  The things I think about myself aren’t always true.

Invitation to Worship

The last part of this passage (Isaiah 55:12-13) speaks to the beautiful restoration that God will accomplish.  God’s people were once led out of their home in humiliation–now they will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  And the trees, mountains, and hills–they all go to worship, singing, clapping their hands.

There is a transformation that takes place:  thorns become cypresses; briers become myrtles.  I was reminded that in the Garden of Eden, we first learn about thorns when Adam and Eve first don’t listen to God, but listen to the evil serpent.  Thorns will infest the ground and make work hard.  But here in Isaiah, thorns are replaced by strong trees.  Briers are replaced by the beautiful myrtle–a symbol, I’m told, of life, fertility, and marriage.

It’s the trajectory we’re on, according to what God says in the Bible.  The curses will be reversed.  All creation will be renewed in a new heaven and new earth.  People from every nation, tribe and tongue will sit down at a wedding feast.  And we’ll be going to worship with the trees.

 

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Making Gardens out of Deserts

One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places.  This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5. Highway Tomato Plant

For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer.  At all.  I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week.  How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?

Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing.  Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.

God loves to take deserts and make gardens.

This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35.  It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled.  I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare.  Imagine that happening to your city.  One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees.  It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita.  (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees.  You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks.  Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?

While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles.  We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God.  We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement.  A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.

Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings. 

Exile can lead to a beginning again.  A starting over.  A new time to plant.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places.  Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands.  Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.  These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing.  Carmel, for example, literally means:  “garden-land.”

 

What are those places for you?  What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?

The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

A stream in the desert.  Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.

zion-national-park-stream in desert

I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah.  People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is.  I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place.  But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.

We are like those trees.  We need water.  For me, that water represents a community.  Let me explain.

How is a community like water?

A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls.  When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.

Community is also what sustains us.  We need it to survive.   Sometimes it is underground.  Supporting us.  In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.

I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship).  Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.*  Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community.   A community that exudes trust, grace, humility.  Affirms one another.  And is committed to growth together.  A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone.  Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives.  A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.

It is the intention of God to grow us.  To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls. 

 

*I love that definition from Bobby Harrington, Executive Director of Discipleship.org.