In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we come to the last Sunday of the Church Year, you might very easily look at the world in which we live and be tempted to tell it all to go to Hell. These are days of which our ancestors likely could not have conceived. It’s hard to read or watch the news anymore. If elementary school kids can rape and kill and we’re actually debating about whether they should be tried as adults, something is seriously wrong. If it is all but impossible to keep young girls from measuring themselves against androgynous and anorexic models, what can parents do? If adults medicate themselves to keep from dealing with their problems, what will their children do? If teachers and priests and other authority figures abuse that authority and the trust of children, what will children learn about their world? “If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry” (Luke 23:31, ESV)? Jesus asked that question two thousand years ago as He was on the road to His crucifixion. Well, it seems pretty dry now. Ready to burn, in fact.
You may not feel like this now, but there are days when you’re pretty sure you could leave it all behind and be done with life. You’re not suicidal, but it all gets to be a little much and you’re just tired of all the garbage that has to be sifted through to find anything of value in the world. You’re tired of fighting with the culture and with your own flesh. You’re tired of trying to stand in a fallen world (P. Pettis). If you’re not a little-or a lot-frustrated, you are probably not paying attention. And sometimes that’s easier. It would be easier to ignore the world, shut yourself up in your house, and order everything off the internet and the Home Shopping Network. Or, if you’re a little more ascetically inclined, you could go hide in a cave like that cult in Russia. Some people do. But Christians know that that is not an option. We’re not here to sit back and wait it out until Jesus returns. Though we live in a culture so often defined by death and its long reach, and though sometimes you just have to turn off the television and get out of the mall, this world is still God’s world. I know it’s hard to see sometimes. It is a very real temptation to tap out and go into fortress mode. Sin runs deep in this creation and it can very easily obscure anything good. All of this means that Christians cannot be optimists, looking for the good in everything and everyone–sometimes sin strangles the life out of good. But neither can we be pessimists, and tell it all to go to Hell. Christians are realists. We know that there is real evil and that things can be very bad. But we also know that God remains God and that He is still on His throne. The Christian life is about not falling into either the ditch of eternal optimism and positivity, or the ditch of eternal pessimism and negativity. Things are probably worse than they seem, but in the eternal will of God, things will turn out far better than we can imagine. We are so weak and fickle; sin does not only run through the whole creation, it runs through the middle of our very being. You and I are worse sinners than we will admit, but God has a plan to make us far better than we can imagine.
Jesus knew what this world was like. He knew what darkness was in the human heart. What He said to the mourning women lining the Way of His Sorrow, He says to you, “[D]o not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28, ESV). The proper response to this world is mourning. Sometimes that means anger at its destructive tendencies. Sometimes it means a healthy fear of the possibility of being corrupted. Sometimes it means tears shed at the loss of relative innocence. But it always means repentance. It is very easy to look at the numerous tragedies of our age and forget the tragedy of sin in our own bodies and souls. We don’t want to know that the wages of sin in death are coming due for us as well. At one time some people told Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish'” (Luke 13:1-5, ESV). And so it is for you and me. Whatever God may be doing in the world, and whatever good He may bring out of evil, our response is always the same: repentance. “Weep for yourselves and your children.” Do not let the dryness of these days make you think more or less of yourself than you ought. You and I are dry wood that is fit only to be burned. Our sins may not make the 5 o’clock news, but they are no less shameful than those that do. In God’s forest, the only thing to do with dry wood is to burn it.
But, lest God be left with a clear-cut forest of stumps and broken branches, a green shoot grew out of the stump of the people of Israel. From the womb of a virgin, who was barely more than a girl, came the Savior of all people. From this single young, green tree, the salvation of the entire forest came. Those among whom He grew up tried to cut Him down. They tried to throw Him into the fire. But like the bush that Moses saw, He could not be consumed. He sent out roots from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And the day is coming when this Tree will cover the entire earth, and the birds of the air will find their shelter in its branches (Matthew 13:32).
Dry wood! There is only one tree from which you can find your life, and you have been grafted in to this tree. You have been watered and fed and His life makes you live. “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly” (Psalm 104:16, ESV). I have no answers for the devastation we see in this dry and dead world, but I do know that the tree of life grows in this place. His fruit was plucked roughly from Him as He hung on a cross, but death has no hold on Him. The life that He gave for the sin of the world is here for you to eat and drink so that you may have life in the midst of a dead world. Here is the Body broken for the damage you have done. Here is the Blood shed to wash away the dust of your sin. At the coming of the Lord, all dry wood will be gathered and burned. But the branches that have been grafted into the true vine will live on forever beside the river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1-2). In that holy city is the tree of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2). But we have been given to eat from the tree of life here, and those who eat of it will live, even though they die. Those who live and believe in Jesus will never die (John 11:25-26). Take and eat; take and drink. It is the very flesh and blood of Jesus with the bread and wine, and it is here for you as a pledge and seal of His promise to return for you some day and remake this old world.
He promises: “[A]ll the trees of the field shall know that I am [Yahweh]; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am [Yahweh]; I have spoken, and I will do it” (Ezekiel 17:24, ESV). Jesus Christ, the green tree conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, was dried up on the cross and forsaken of God so that He might make you, dry tree that you are, flourish in His courtyard. You may not be able to see it now, but know that He is Yahweh, the Lord; He has spoken, and He will do it. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, ESV). There is no doubt: the day is coming when you will be with your Lord in Paradise. And when He returns in glory, Paradise will give way to the full glory of the resurrection: green and flourishing trees reborn out of dead, dry wood. And the Lord will go before His people into the New Jerusalem. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12, ESV). “[T]he ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10, ESV). Amen; come quickly, Lord Jesus!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/21/07