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!

ďTrees for LifeĒ

Message preached March 29, 2015
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Mark 11:1-11

Order of Worship

  Listen to this sermon or the children's message (.mp3)

             It just sort of "happened." Thatís how scripture portrays the crowdís response to Jesus coming into Jerusalem. There was no announcer telling people what was happening, no choreographer mapping out each step beforehand, no special activities coordinator getting everyone into place, no prop manager handing out palm fronds. Like most things in life, it just sort of "happened." Not that God didnít have a hand in it all. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all indicate there was purpose and meaning behind these things that just "happened." At the time, however, the line between celebration and mass confusion was probably pretty thin. Isnít that how it often is?

             Imagine a spontaneous parade heading down the road in front of your home. All of a sudden the crowds start stripping the branches off the trees on your lawn, to wave in the air or to carpet the street ahead of some returning hero. How would you respond? Iíve often wondered where those branches came from that the people made use of on that original "Palm Sunday." Remember, this is a region which gets much less rain than we do. Trees were not all over the place in the Jerusalem area. And those branches belonged to somebody.

             By the way, itís only Johnís gospel that portrays these green branches as being from Palm trees. Iíve read that Palm trees do not grow in Jerusalem but, rather, several miles away in the valley of the Jordan river. At a different time of year, around the Feast of Tabernacles (another Jewish holy day) they would be brought up for people to use in making booths for that festival. Because of this, some have suggested that Jesusí entry took place then and not at Passover. Iíll stick with the Biblical accounts. Still, I wonder, where did those branches come from? It is interesting, though, that we call this day, "Palm Sunday." What other so widely observed holiday is named after a tree?

             A tree. Whether we follow the gospel storyteller Johnís account of "palm branches," or the othersí mention of just plain "leafy branches," itís appropriate that trees were and still are a part of this celebration. The apostle Paul wrote that Godís creation is "waiting with eager longing" or, as one translation puts it, is standing "on tiptoe" (Phillips) to see what is happening and what will happen with the children of God whom Christ came to set free, knowing that the future of this creation is connected to the future of humanity (Romans 8:19-22). When I think of creatures patiently standing "on tiptoe," the tree comes to mind. How about you?

             Some of you know by heart that old poem by Joyce Kilmer, having memorized it in grammar school. If so, recite it with me.

                                "I think that I shall never see
                                A poem as lovely as a tree

                                A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
                                Against the earthís sweet flowing breast;

                                A tree that looks at God all day,
                                And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

                                A tree that may in summer wear
                                A nest of robins in her hair;

                                Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
                                Who intimately lives with rain.

                                 Poems are made by fools like me,
                                 But only God can make a tree."

             Allow this "fool for Christ," just now, to briefly run through the Bible, remembering the role the tree has played from creation to redemption, from death to life. In order to do so, we need to travel back to the very beginning. In the very first chapter, God created trees on the third day. And there it says, "behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:11-13) In the garden of Eden, in which God placed Adam and Eve, two special trees stood tall - the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Remember Godís commandment to the first couple? "You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat it you shall die." (Genesis 2:16-17)

             The tree has great symbolic value for our Jewish friends, who see in it the very Law of God, the Torah. Speaking of commandments, we recall how that first one was broken - how Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how life since has never been the same. They were expelled from the garden, and God "placed a cherubim and a sword flaming and turning, to guard the way to the tree of life." (Genesis 3:24)

             Within the Torah, the Law passed down through Moses, trees played a significant role. "When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food," the Lord commanded, "then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the LORD." (Leviticus 19:23-24) That is - plant, protect and nurture them, then harvest them in joy - seeing their fruit as a gift from God. Iíve already mentioned the Feast of Tabernacles. This celebration was commanded by God, and trees - "the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook" - were involved in the rejoicing. (Leviticus 23:40)

             Three more commandments from the Torah need to be mentioned. "You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for the LORD your God." (Deuteronomy 16:21) In other words, while trees are an important part of creation, donít worship them. Another law forbids the destroying of trees when making war against a city. "Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under seige from you?" (Deuteronomy 20:19c) The King James Version has an interesting take on that verse, recognizing the value of a tree in relationship to humanity, "for the tree of the field is a manís life."

             One more commandment pertains to the events that we remember (especially) during this week between Palm Sunday and Easter. "When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse." (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) When the disciples of Jesus told the story of his death and resurrection, this verse was in the background, for they recalled how our Lord was put to death "by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29) But, then, God raised him on the third day, no longer under a curse. In so doing, humanity also was no longer under the curse which plagued it from the beginning. Iím getting ahead of myself, however.

             Trees play significant roles in stories told (Judges 9:6-22) and dreams interpreted (Daniel 4). Even Job, the original bad luck guy who would not accept platitudes for his great suffering, thought of the tree amid his grief. "There is hope for a tree," he said, "if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its shoots will not cease." (14:7) Of course, Job saw his own life as disconnected from this "hope" of the "tree." That is, he did until the whirlwind of God blew past at the end.

             The Psalms (not to be confused with Palms) have some marvelous verses that bear remembering. Happy are the (righteous)... "They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither." (1:3) "Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth." (Psalm 96:11-13, see also 1 Chronicles 16:32-33)

             I donít have time to travel this path thoroughly... Wisdom "is a tree of life," according to Proverbs (3:18). So is righteousness, as opposed to violence (11:30). The prophets make extensive use of trees, both as symbols of judgement (Ezekiel 17:24, 20:47) and of hope (Isaiah 44:23, 55:12, 65:22; Jeremiah 17:7-8). In the same way, the New Testament pulls on the branches of the tree. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah whom he saw coming in judgement to cut down those trees which do not bear fruit, those of Godís people who had lost track of the source of their life (Matthew 3:10). Jesus himself later echoed these very words of judgment (Matthew 7:17, 12:33 and parallels).

             He also lifted up the tree as a symbol of hope. Remember the tiny mustard seed, which grows into mighty bush, a tree even, a home for the birds. The kingdom of heaven is like this, he said. (Matthew 13:31-32) Remember also the fig tree, the signs it reveals about the seasons, learning from it the need to watch and wait for Godís new season which lies just ahead. (Matthew 24:32)

             Yes, it is appropriate that trees were and still are a part of that original "Palm Sunday" celebration, when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They certainly played a significant role later on in the story as we have received it. Of course, wood was a necessity, especially so back then, for the fire used to cook meals or the table at which people sat to eat their food. Iím not thinking of that use of the tree, though, which really goes without mention in the gospel account.

             No, Iím thinking of that other symbol which is so central to our understanding of Jesusí mission. The original cross was made of wood. Whether it was freestanding or part of a larger scaffolding, we donít really know. We do know, however, that it came from a tree. Consider, then, the leafy branches used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, and then the trunk-wood used to usher him out. Which spoke judgment? Which revealed hope? "Mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?" So asked Job, in comparison with the tree which, "if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its shoots will not cease." (Job 14:10, 7)

             The central message of our faith is a reversal of Jobís logic. The disciple Peter later said, "we are witnesses to all that (Jesus) did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day..." (Acts 10:39-40) The apostle Paul later wrote, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" - in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to (everyone), so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Galatians 3:13-14)

             We could say that a tree pointed the way. We could say that this creature which, like the rest of creation stands "on tiptoe," waiting for the sons and daughters of God to come into their own in Christ, is itself a part of the story of redemption. We could remember that, as the Bible begins with the tree of life in the garden of Eden, it ends with a similar picture of that same tree planted in the middle of the city of God, the new heaven and new earth, with its fruit and its leaves "for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22:1-2ff)

                                "Poems (like sermons) are made by fools like me,
                                 But only God can make a tree....."

             Some of you may remember that 15 years ago, on Palm Sunday, we planted a "Y2k tree" in front of our meetinghouse in celebration of a new millenium. On that day, this "fool for Christ" preached a variation of these words... I invite you on this day to again lift high your simple palm branch and wave it as we sing our final hymn. As you do so, remember the tree which bore the One whose death answered our cry: "Hosanna" ... "Save us."

©2015 (revised from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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