I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, in one of those sprawls of postwar houses that turned farms on the edge of a city into communities of families. The builders knocked down the trees but there was a little wood lot a few blocks away. I call it a little wood lot now but in those days, to small boys, it seemed an endless primeval forest where trees loomed and shadows held secrets. Later, I moved to Michigan, with its rolling hills and trees and still later to Massachusetts and then Washington, places where trees were as common as grains of sand,, part of the canvas on which lives were painted. Perhaps you also grew up where hills define a horizon and trees are scattered, so you may understand the shock of my first encounter with the desert. A few years ago, Jacquelyn and I flew to New Mexico and drove north through the great southwestern desert and I was overcome by the space and light. Flat, reddish ground spread out and neither sight nor sun were limited. Wherever you looked, the trees were small and struggling or absent. It was shocking, it was stunning, to be without towering trees and when we finally reached the forests of the Colorado mountains, I was happy to embrace them again.
All this is simply introduction, an invitation to the vision of Genesis we heard this morning. Because it may be that you also have taken trees for granted, have passed green gardens without noticing. But the people for whom Genesis was written were desert people, people more familiar with the flat, treeless wastes of wilderness where the presence of an oasis and a garden was not only remarkable but miraculous. Come listen to Genesis with their ears; come see its story with their eyes.
Genesis means origins or beginnings: it’s the story of where we come from, told with a purpose: so we will understand better where we are going. Long ago, according to Genesis, the Lord God made a misty rain fall on the desert and, as deserts do, parched and waiting forever, the desert bloomed and everything that is was created. There were flowers and fruits and bugs and bunnies and things we can hardly name. And God, wanting to share creation, made a human being, breathed in the soul of life. Then, seeing the human was lonely, God made another, and created the possibility of love, mirroring the way God loved the creation and the beings. God placed them in the garden, in a garden where the central feature was a wonderful, huge tree, the tree of life.
The Genesis story wanders off to another tree, the tree of the experience of good and evil and its choices but I want to stay with the tree of life today. Do you know about trees? Have you ever laid in the shade of a tree in the summer? Have you climbed a tree, making the branches into a ladder that becomes ever more precarious the higher you climb until someone stands at the bottom and calls, “Come down from there!” Genesis says the garden was full of things that were beautiful to look at and good to eat: trees produce both.
For eight years, I lived in a part of northern Michigan were the principle business is growing trees, cherry trees mostly. All of life revolves around those trees: when they are pruned, when they blossom, when they are sprayed, when they bear, when they are picked, how well they are doing. A cherry orchard takes about five years to reach maturity and then it bears for another five years and begins to die off. Cherry farmers pluck the trees then and burn them and plant new trees. I left that place in 1995 and it’s amazing to think that none of the orchards I used to see and enjoy both for their beauty and their fruit still exist. In 20 years, they have borne and died and been plucked and new ones planted who in turn are perhaps now being plucked.
For gardens have a rhythm and so does creation. It’s easy for us, gathered in cities, to forget this; it’s easy to imagine the monuments we have built, unlike the garden’s trees, are permanent and everlasting. Jesus’ disciples are from small, rural places, and Jerusalem is the first great city they have ever seen. They are dazzled by its towers and the shining, golden dome of the temple King Herod had recently built. Yet its narrow streets and its plazas were a simmering cauldron of conflict. Less than a decade after this gospel was written, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people scattered after a great war.
In today’s reading, Jesus has describes the terrible violence he sees coming, the destruction of this great city, the suffering of its people. He goes on to offer this image about a tree.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. [Mark 13:28-30]
We live in a rhythm of creation; we look to creation to tell us where we are, in the season of blossoms, in the time of harvest, in the season when we, like trees, seem to lose life. Yet even in that time, there is something permanent, something that can sustain our roots and it is the tree of life, which is the word of life he brings.
God creates a garden, a place: we are meant to care for it and learn to care for each other. Robert Frost says in his poem Birches,
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
If earth is the place for love to flower like a fruit tree blossoming, then indeed we should take our cue from the tree, just as Jesus said. The Shakers, one of the great spiritual communities of Christian history, were captured by the image of an arching tree. For the Shakers, the Tree of Life reminded them that we are sheltered by God’s love like a traveler pausing to sit under a tree. The Shakers believed passionately in the nearness of God, in the presence of God in moments. They knew God the way a cherry farmer knows trees: not as a distant principle but as a living presence. The United Church of Christ has a slogan that God is still speaking; the Shakers lived that reality.
Jesus invites us to something much harder than action. To act, to do something, that’s always our instinct isn’t it? Fix the problem, right the wrong, fight the good fight. But see what Jesus says at the end of this long story of violence. There is no call to take up arms in a fight, even a fight for justice. Instead, he calls us to awakened waiting. He doesn’t tell his followers to hide or choose a side; he tells them to live in the rhythm of creation. Like someone watching a fig tree get ready to blossom, he says, the collapse of the world in violence is a time for awakened waiting because God is near.
Awakened waiting means living day to day aware that we are sheltered by the tree of life. It means listening to God each day, hoping to hear God’s direction, believing that God has cared for us, will care for us but most importantly cares for us today. This is the hardest, I think. It’s easy to look back and see where we’ve been; it’s harder but still possible to chart a course forward. But now, right now, what about now? Can we live in faith right now, this day, this moment? Can we remember to appreciate how our lives are lived in the shelter of the tree of life?
This is Advent faith: to believe we live in the shelter of the tree of life, to believe we live in the arms of a loving God, to believe that even in death we are held firmly by a love that will not let us go. This is the word of life: like a tree that blossoms and then gives up its leaves, yet continues to give life, we are living in the shade of the tree of life, in the creation of the loving God. This is the season of Advent, a time when we are invited to live like the tree of life, getting ready to blossom, getting ready to wake, waiting in faith for the cry of a baby as God comes into our lives anew.
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