Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Not by what his eyes see"
an advent walk

Message preached December 9, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Isaiah 11:1-10

Order of Worship

         At this point in Autumn, the landscape has fully changed. The leaves, for the most part, are off the trees. Itís interesting to see what those leaves hid at other times of the year. I find myself noticing things I never paid attention to before. "When did they put that house back in there?" ... "Since before we moved here, dear." ... "Oh!"

         With the branches of the trees now exposed, with the dominant color of the season shifted from green to brown, and with daylight reaching its lowest ebb, the final days of Fall may find us thinking about how all things must end. "To everything there is a season ... a time to be born and a time to die..." (Ecclesiates 3:1-2a). We can chose to be depressed by that thought, or we can allow it to flavor our walk through life with a new sense of appreciation. I invite you to take a moment to put aside the hurried rush toward wherever you are headed right now, and just "be"... Walk through the woods with me and, with your mindís eye, watch and wait.

         That tree over there, so bare against the sky, seemingly exposed to the elements, hardly clothed for the colder weather ahead, what do you see when you look at it? Does it remind you of something in your life - perhaps a loved one who is growing older, or maybe yourself? Do you think of "bare limb" times, when life seems very fragile, unprotected, exhausted? ... On the other hand, instead of seeing whatís on the surface, maybe you perceive that which is beneath. The sap continues to flow, in such a way that the cold winds of winter will not freeze it. Slower, yes, but no less alive. Waiting for Spring and new life, ready to blossom again, to provide color, oxygen, fruit to the world. Is this what you see?

         Or, what of the leaves under your feet? Once full of color, now more like a stain upon the earth. Once high in the sky, now fallen to the ground. Once flexible, able to absorb and pass on the Sunís energy, now brittle and cracked, nearing the consistency of mud, useless. Yes, "useless," is that where your thoughts dwell as you consider these leaves below you. All that waits is for the wind to blow them away, or the work of raking them up and getting rid of them. Considering life in the context of these fallen leaves may be a frightening prospect. Then, again, maybe not. The soil, to which all flesh returns, is what all earthly life grows out of. In the larger picture, nothing is useless or wasted. These leaves will replenish the earth.

         As we continue our Advent walk through the woods, we come across an old stump. From the size of it, once upon a time a mighty tree grew in this spot, reaching towards the heavens. Now, however, it has been cut down. All that remains is a flat space, good for sitting - perhaps - but little else. The canopy of other trees overhead has gradually taken the place once occupied by the branches of this tree. Soon there will be no evidence that it even existed. The creatures of the ground will eat away at this stump until it will one day be just a rise in the surface, leading no one to wonder about what once stood here. No one will stop and see. For now, though, it seems a nice place to sit and think...

         Once upon a time, Israel was just such a tree. Maybe not as tall as some trees, mind you - but mighty in Godís eyes. From a band of wandering sons of Abraham, to a people traveling toward a promised land; from a loose confederation of tribes to a nation united by the youngest son of a fellow named Jesse, Israel was Godís special project. David was a King after Godís own heart, or so it is said. Not perfect, mind you, but willing to follow as he led.

         Under Davidís guidance, and that of his offspring, Israel grew into an awesome tree. Forget the lightning strike that cracked it down the middle, dividing these branches here from those over there, the tribes in the south from those in the north. Still, like the cedars of Lebanon, this tree was beautiful to behold. Okay, so some of the limbs bore a strange fungus, such that with the passing of time the fruit it once bore grew less and less. Even so, God loved this tree, and spent time and energy pruning and grafting and watering and otherwise caring for it.

         Of course, this tree eventually thought it had outgrown its creator and caretaker. That happens when you get big. You can touch the sky, after all. So what if you pay less attention to those who shelter under your branches. Who cares about them? Let them take care of themselves. Thatís what the grandsons of David thought as they governed the land. The rich grew richer, the lot of the poor became bleak. When they looked at the widowed, the homeless, the hungry, they saw branches needing to be cut off for the sake of the tree. If only they couldíve looked in the mirror. It was their own branch which bore the disease gradually killing the tree.

         These kings, all high and mighty, brushed shoulders with the other tall trees in the forest. Never mind that they were not in the same league as these huge sequoias and redwoods. Israelís strength had never been in its size, but rather had always been found in the hands of its creator and caretaker. Eventually, when the winds of empires shook the forest, Israel learned the truth. Without the caretaker, it was but a pawn on a huge chessboard. It was really just a small tree surrounded by giants.

         However, what even the giants could not see was that the caretaker of Israel was the creator of the entire forest. In reality, it was the hands of that caretaker which continued to shape the earth. Empires come and go, massive trees grow toward the heavens - but even they eventually fall. It is the caretaker whose hands govern the forest.

Tree branch, Jerusalem - from stained glass window in St. Lukes Lutheran Church  
Water, Dove - from stained glass window in St. Lukes Lutheran Church
Tree stump, Pomegranate - from stained glass window in St. Lukes Lutheran Church
Wolf and Lamb - from stained glass window in St. Lukes Lutheran Church
Swords, Plow, Raven - from stained glass window in St. Lukes Lutheran Church
Thorns, Ruins - from stained glass window in St. Lukes Lutheran Church

         And this tree called Israel - which had grown so tall, but in reality was so small ... This tree - whose kings foolishly disregarded the hand of the caretaker and carelessly mistreated the poor and the weak ... This tree began to die. Its leaves fell before the Autumn winds blew. It began to rot from the inside. And the caretaker, who loved this tree - with tears running down his cheeks, he lifted his axe and felled the tree.

         Oh, history records what happened as the actions of this Emperor or that Pharaoh, but those who spoke for the caretaker knew the truth. They sounded the warning. They cried with the caretaker. They spoke for the tree, pleading with the caretaker who loved the tree. The caretaker, however, was not heartless. He wielded his axe, not to cut off the tree forever, but to make room for a new tree to grow from the old. From that stump would grow a shoot, a fresh start, a new Israel. A king would come to rule with justice and righteousness.

         As we sit upon this stump, along the way of our Advent walk through the woods with our mindís eye, we think about these things, remembering the story as we have received it. From this point our Jewish friends recall a different story, and they find strength this very month in a menorah which looks very much like a tree as it holds its candles, lit one by one, day by day. A new tree arose, they believe, even though they still await the fulfillment of that promise of a Messiah - the offshoot of the stump of Jesse.

         For us, though, who sit upon this "stump" in this place, we believe that this "King" has come, this "Messiah," this "Christ" is the promised One. From the stump of Jesse, this branch has grown. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon him. With the wisdom, understanding, counsel, power, knowledge and awesome awareness of the creator and caretaker, he leads us. Oh, how he leads us. Not like others, who canít see beyond the tip of their noses, who look upon the weak and see only damaged branches needing to be cut off for the sake of the tree. No, this One who rules as a servant not a king, this Jesus sees whatís really real.

         Those who look upon themselves and see an ugly, barren tree against the late Autumn sky, this Messiah sees in them the blossoms of Spring, the fruit they will bear in the new forest that is coming to be. Those who look upon themselves and see fallen leaves, crushed underfoot into the soil, in these persons this Christ beholds beauty - a rainbow of color yet to be. Those who look upon themselves and see a stump - cut off, dead - thatís not what this promised One knows to be true. Like him, out of that stump will also grow a new shoot. Resurrection ... new life.

         No, it is not by what his eyes see that this offspring of Jesseís stump leads. No, he guides with the gentle yet firm hand of the caretaker himself, for he comes from the very heart of the creator. It is the remembrance of his birth long ago that we are getting ready to celebrate once again this month, shortly after autumn changes into winter. It may be helpful to recall that on the other side of this globe, what we might call "down under," their celebration of this event takes place as Spring shifts into Summer - a different kind of Advent walk, thatís for sure, a reminder that there is so much more in the bigger picture of things than what our own eyes can see.

         This Advent walk, though, is about more than preparing for Christmas - as important as that is in itself. Along the way, we are watching and waiting, and realizing that there is more than what we can see here and now. The promise of long ago is not fully realized. There is more coming. The forest around us is still blown around by the winds of empires, but a day is coming when a new wind will blow, in fact it is already blowing, we just canít fully feel it. A new forest will grow, a new heaven and earth will come to be.

         We can sense its advent even now. Watch and wait. Prepare. Be in awe of what the creator and caretaker can and will do. Seek to see the world around you, not through your own eyes, but through the eyes of faith. That bare-limbed tree, those ugly leaves underfoot, that stump ... that country torn asunder by war, the as-yet mangled mess of "ground zero," that homeless person begging at the intersection ... that older person crippled by arthritis, that snotty-nosed kid, that couch potato ... yourself? ... seek to see them all through the eyes of what will be.

         Blessíd be the creator, the caretaker, the God of Israel. Amen? Amen!

The stained glass window scenes above/left are from St. Luke's Lutheran Church (ELCA), Gales Ferry, CT. 
See the marvelous presentation of all these windows in their sanctuary, of which these are the prophecy portion.

For commentaries consulted, see Isaiah.

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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