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.