A Tree and a Branch (180)

[Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36]

Have you head of Big Lonely Doug? He lives near Port Renfrew. Actually he lived there when the town was still called Port San Juan. Authorities had to change the name because the mail kept ending up in the San Juan Islands (USA). Port Renfrew is on Vancouver Island. Big Lonely Doug doesn’t live in town. He’s something of a hermit. Even so, he’s had thousands of children, and outlived most of them. Big Lonely Doug has been part of political campaigns and he’s been featured in magazines. Now he gets some visitors. Here are some of the basic facts: Big Lonely Doug is old, probably 1000 years old. He’s tall, 66 meters (216 feet). He’s well-rounded, 3.79 meters in diameter (12.4 feet). He’s also a record-holder: Big Lonely Doug is Canada’s second-tallest Douglas fir.  

Big Lonely Doug is famous for being tall and for being old, but also for being tough. Ecologists think that he has survived at least two hurricane-like storms that flattened his neighbours. Most recently he survived a logging operation. The forest technician that laid out the cut block tied a long strip of flagging tape around Big Lonely Doug and wrote on it: “leave tree.” And so he was left, alone, all 66 meters of him, in the mists and fog of Vancouver Island—now among slash and stumps.

Hold that image in your mind as we recall a few of a lines from the gospel of Luke: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. . . . the powers of heaven will be shaken. . . . Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” Ominous images.

In the season of Advent we anticipate the presence of God in our midst. We wait for the Anointed One. We often think of this in warm terms: candle light, comforting colors, the gentle lowing of cattle, a baby that doesn’t cry, a gift that is exactly what we want.

If that’s what life gives you this year, enjoy it. God knows, as do we all, the value of warmth and serenity.

It’s important to realize, though, that this isn’t the whole picture of Advent. Look around, the trees have been cut. Listen to the scripture readings. Reflect on your life. Consider the news. All is not well.

Earlier this year the United Nations High Commission for Refugees released a report that said 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. . . . changes in climate, governments unable to contain local violence and war, mostly war. The 68.5 million includes 40 million people displaced within their own countries, 25 million people with official refugee status and an additional 3 million asylum seekers. The math is rough but the UN tells us that as we speak someone is forcibly displaced every couple of seconds. All is not well.

And things are not necessarily peaceful or serene in our own lives. Each of us lives surrounded by good people and . . . well, others. Our neighbourhoods and our families are afflicted by diseases of despair. And each year many of us celebrate Christmas without people we love.

And then there’s Big Lonely Doug. Canada’s second tallest Douglas fir, standing sentinel over the repercussions of our economy.

The scriptures often give us what we need, even if it isn’t what we want. And one of those things is the reminder that the arrival of the Anointed One is disruptive and disturbing. We think we know what we want, but God’s presence gives us something quite different. Listen to these bitter lines from Amos 5:

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, [God says]
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Like Amos, the prophet Jeremiah was given a message that nobody wanted to hear. Few could probably even fathom it. What Jeremiah said was that his people would be taken away from their land.

Nobody wants to be separated from their homeland. We should always be careful not to blame victims. However, for the people to whom Jeremiah spoke, the impending exile was brought on by a disregard for their holy calling. God had called them to be an example of respect for life’s sacredness, yet they had shed the blood of the innocent. They had embraced a religion, or a way of life, that required them to offer up their children. They sacrificed the vulnerable to preserve their way of life.

If Jeremiah would have asked the people what they wanted—something the pretend prophets did—they would have asked for comfort. They would have wanted to know that they could carry on with life as usual. They would have wanted to know that God would protect them from the natural consequences of their actions. They would have wanted prophecies sweet as candy canes and Christmas cookies. But what they needed was something different.

Change your ways, God said through Jeremiah. Change them or you will be treated like a malformed work of clay in a potter’s hands. You will be pushed down and reworked into something useful. You have been obsessed with your own power, but you are like a dying shrub in the desert. Through Jeremiah, God said, I made the whole world, but you, you chop down a tree. You shape it with an axe. You worship it. You think that your own work is of ultimate importance. You think that it will save you.

So sure is the coming destruction that God tells Jeremiah not to bother getting married or having children. Those born in this land, Jeremiahs says, “shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground” (chapter 16). Their behavior was worse than their ancestors: “Therefore [God says] I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your ancestors have known.” The indictment goes on and on through Jeremiah. It is deadly serious.

The point is this: when God gets involved in our situation the result isn’t necessarily high-fives and affirmation. God showing up in our midst might be more terror than cute, more horror movie than Christmas special. What’s in order from us may be confession, not preparation for a victory parade. The path forward might lead through a clear cut or past bears and lions. In the case of the ancient Jews the path went through exile and occupation. . . .

But it’s here, in the devastation, in the disappointment, in the event that is not of our choosing—it is here and nowhere else that God offers hope, saying:

The days are surely coming . . . when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

A branch. A sprig of new life out of a sawn-off stump.

We wait for God, questioning ourselves, trembling and full of hope.

 

 

 

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