Yay Trees!

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

This week, we celebrated Ayuba turning six months old. We’re often asked how parenthood is treating us. My response has always been, “Delightful and exhausting.” It’s getting a little less exhausting and always more delightful, especially as we see his curiosity grow and interests develop. We’ve been trying diligently to develop Ayuba’s sense of delight and wonder at the world around him, especially for the natural world. Child development research teaches that parents should regularly narrate their daily lives to their babies, facilitating language development as well as curiosity and knowledge. As we take our family walks each day, we talk about flowers, shrubs, weather, and trees.

Ayuba was born in late spring, when the leaves on the trees were lush and full, giving us shade from the sweltering DC heat. We’ve noticed him look up and stare on our family walks, especially at some of the tallest trees in our neighborhood. When Autumn arrived, we pointed out the shimmering red maple leaves lining the walk to his daycare and the yellow gingko leaves carpeting the ground on our block. On Friday, we stopped so he could touch the sweet gum tree leaves that persistently remain on their branches—some of them yellow and some of them steadfastly green.

When Autumn began, I spoke to Ayuba about how the leaves were falling off the trees. I said, “The trees look like they are dying. They are losing all their leaves. It feels sad, but the trees and plants are only sleeping. Winter comes and there is beauty even when everything seems dead, like when it snows. Thankfully, Winter is followed by Spring, when the trees and all the plants all wake up, everything begins to grow, and there is so much beauty and new life.” I will admit that I had a few tears in my eyes. While I’m one of those people who very much loves winter, my favorite time of year is spring.

Trees symbolize what God is doing

My sermon title and our theme for the first Sunday in Advent is “Yay trees!” This came out of an email thread where I listed a few images from different Advent scriptures. Jacob—not looking at the contexts per se—went with them to create themes for each Sunday that could work with our overall Advent 2018 theme, “Let Your Face Shine.” “Yay trees!” represents some of the Advent joy that the Worship Planning Team thought should characterize our preparation for Christmas.

Trees tell us the seasons. In our northern hemisphere, the differences between seasons is starkly seen on trees. Yet even tropical trees vary by the season, in terms of fruit or flowers, depending on the rains or temperature. Two of today’s scripture passages utilize tree imagery to symbolize what God is doing in the world. In each of them, if you want to see what’s going on in the grand scheme of redemption and reconciliation, look at the trees.

A Sobering Fig Tree

In our Luke passage, Jesus gets pretty dark. He foretells a time of trial and tribulation for his disciples, for the Jewish people, and for Jerusalem. It’s a tricky text to interpret. Commentators historically apply it to both an application in Jesus’ day (Roman destruction of Jerusalem, persecution of the early church) and to a future eschatological event, something of the last days (or eschaton, which is the Greek word for the final event). We see cosmic signs, distress among nations, confusion, roaring of the seas and waves, people in a panic: it’s a time characterized by national or global anxiety. Jesus explains that such a time will characterize the Son of Man’s return.

He says to his disciples, “when you see these signs, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near!” In other words, don’t be afraid—stand tall and trust that God is both with you and will lead to through the tribulation to the final redemption. Jesus instructs the disciples to use the fig tree as an example. Just as we can see that leaves on a tree indicate that summer is here, so we too can look around at signs to see the Kingdom of God at hand. Though there may be anxiety and global turmoil, Jesus’ followers are to stop and recognize that God oversees the final outcome.

Jesus ends our passage by warning his disciples to “stay alert!” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

Jesus calls us to “Stay alert!” What aspects of this holiday season, as celebrated within US culture, can cause our hearts to be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and worries? Are there practices in our holiday festivities that make us forget that the Kingdom of God is at hand? How can we celebrate the holidays while also using Advent as a time to “stay alert” to God’s Kingdom at work in the world?

God’s Branch

Our passage in Jeremiah also mentions a tree. If you haven’t read Jeremiah (and, I admit, I haven’t read the whole book for a while—which makes me want to re-read its entirety), the Prophet has a rough time. Things are not going well for the people of Judah, so Jeremiah needs to use all sorts of strange object lessons to send a message: Yahweh will judge Judah, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, and take the people into exile. This is a rather weighty burden for a messenger to bear.

Yet Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. There are oracles of judgment offset by glimpses of hope. Chapter 30-33 are hope-filled chapters. In chapter 31, Yahweh promises a New Covenant. In 33, we see a vision of restoration and return from exile. The LORD will not abandon his people but will raise up a righteous Branch out of the tree of King David. The Branch image is the agent of God’s deliverance, God’s renewal, and God’s hope.

While there were some good kings and some kind of okay ones, David’s heirs had basically trashed the kingship and helped lead the people astray with idolatry and injustice. Since the people of Judah broke their part of God’s covenant with that idolatry and injustice, Yahweh took away the covenant’s protection. The Babylonians then came and destroyed everything. The people of Judah and even the last King were taken into bondage. Our passage’s context is one of profound loss.

Yet Jeremiah speaks of a promised leader who will not lead God’s people astray but will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. These words together (justice and righteousness) are codewords for harmony, social justice, and devotion to God. In that day, Jeremiah says, the city and the country will be renewed. It won’t be about the people’s righteousness (or their failure to do what is right), but the city will be defined by God’s righteous reign among them. The place in the last days will be called, “Adonai Tsidkeinu,” or The LORD is our righteousness.

Through the New Testament’s revelation, we interpret the Branch to be Jesus of Nazareth. Jeremiah speaks of the Branch as a message of hope in the face of hopelessness. Against all odds, all grief, all devastation, there is God’s promise of renewal, transformation, and resurrection.

All the music and movies tell us that Christmas time is “supposed to be cheery.” Culturally, that happiness expectation runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Yet for many, this season is marked by heavy hearts, mourning loss, dealing with grief, or burdened down by conflict or broken relationships. For many people, Christmas is not an easy time.

The Advent message here is that—amid great pain, sorrow, and unbelievable brokenness—God promises to bring future restoration. Where the NRSV says, “The LORD is our righteousness,” the Message translation paraphrases it, their motto will be, “GOD has set things right for us.” The hope of Advent is not plastering on a smile or pretending to be cheery. Rather, the hope of Advent involves trusting in the God who promises to set things right for us, the God who comes and enters into our broken world to shine the Light of God on our brokenness. Jesus, Immanuel: God with us.

Remember the Fig Tree and the Branch

Today we have two tree images. One is a fig tree sprouting leaves, a sign that our world of injustice and horror will one day have God’s dramatic intervention. This image tells us to be prepared and to use Advent as a time for centering, being on our guard for the distractions that make us forget God’s Kingdom of love, mercy, justice, and peace. The second tree is the image of a branch sprouting out of a tree thought to be dead. It’s an image with hope that God renews the broken, exiled, and devasted, giving a future of new life and restoration.

One tree is sobering and a call to action, the other reminds us that God brings life and hope out of that which appears dead. Each tree has a message for Advent that needs to be told; we might need to hear one message this year and the other message in the next. Perhaps we must hold them both in tension throughout all the weeks leading up to Christmas. Which Advent message do you need to hear today?

Sisters and brothers, remember both the fig tree and the branch. Find that balance between keeping alert and finding solace in God’s hope. Be on your guard for too much feasting or drinking or gifting, that you don’t

lose sight of God’s Kingdom and your role in it. Find solace in God’s hope, in the face of brokenness and loss, trusting that sorrow is not the end, and that God is at work—renewing both this world and you. AMEN.

JOY

Psalm 126   Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Jeff Davidson

The third Sunday in Advent

Happy Gaudete Sunday! What, you didn’t know this was Gaudete Sunday? Nobody told you? You may even ask, “What is Gaudete Sunday anyway?”

Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent. The word “Gaudete” is from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Traditionally we spend most of the Advent season thinking about preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s about repentance and fasting. Advent is in some ways a Christmas version of Lent, where we examine ourselves and our lives and clear away the peaks and valleys of sin and make straight the path of the Lord. At one time Advent was a period of fasting and penitence. 

Gaudete Sunday gives us kind of a break in the midst of those things. It’s a time to rejoice, to embrace the good news that is coming, to celebrate the blessings of God in our lives and the opportunity that we have to share them with others. Gaudete Sunday is why the third candle in the Advent wreath is pink. The other three are purple, but the joy of Gaudete Sunday is so great and so important that the Sunday gets it’s own special Advent candle.

So, real quick, what are some of the things that bring you joy this time of year? For me, some of it is the music. Sunday afternoons growing up we would listen to Christmas songs at home by Johnny Mathis or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians or Bing Crosby. We’d sing songs at church that we really only got to sing once or maybe twice a year. There was Christmas caroling, where the kids and their parents would visit the homes of shut-ins and the elderly and sick in the congregation to sing. There was a special Christmas Eve service, usually mostly music. Every couple of years Dad would sing “O Holy Night” and I would accompany him on the piano. There are a lot of good memories attached to the music, a lot of fun and a lot of happiness.

Sometimes, though, I pause a bit about all the Christmas music this time of year. One of our radio stations in the car is set to 97.1 WASH-FM. Most of the year they play upbeat music from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the last couple of years. Not rock, or at least not hard rock, but Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams. It’s a station that aims at people my age or maybe 10-15 years younger, probably skewing a little towards women.

But after Thanksgiving, WASH-FM declares itself Washington DC’s official Christmas music station, and it’s all Christmas music all the time. I’m not sure how “official” that really is; I don’t think it requires a Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The Christmas music has no rhyme or reason to the selection – you may hear something secular like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed by a traditional arrangement of “O Holy Night” followed by David Bowie and Bing Crosby doing “Little Drummer Boy” with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to wrap it all up. Some instrumentals, some vocals. Some old recordings from the 1950s by folks who died twenty or thirty years ago, some re-makes of classics by contemporary artists. It is a very, very mixed bag of music.

The other day I was in the car going to work, and a 1960s version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Johnny Mathis came on, and I got a warm feeling inside and sang along. Then “O Holy Night” by Josh Groban – the arrangement I used to play to accompany my dad. That music really made me feel good.

And then I thought about Kelly. Kelly isn’t the real name. Kelly is a Jewish friend of mine at work. Kelly really doesn’t like all the holiday stuff we put up at work. We have trees, and silver garland, and ornaments of various kinds. We have some big cardboard candy canes and stocking and things like that. There’s nothing overtly religious, and we are as clear as we can be with our language at least that it is a holiday time and not a Christmas time, since we are a government agency, but Kelly doesn’t buy it. We can talk about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and New Years all we want, but Kelly’s not fooled. The holiday we are celebrating is Christmas.

Kelly and I have talked about this a couple of times. I’ve tried to say that from my perspective there’s the cultural Christmas, the secular Christmas if you will, and the sacred or the religious Christmas. There’s the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” kind of Christmas song, which has nothing to do with Jesus or faith, as opposed to the “Silent Night” kind of song, which is explicitly about Jesus as the savior of the world.

Kelly’s not buying it. For Kelly, the whole thing is Christmas. The whole thing is about Jesus’s birth. Rudolph and Santa are just as Christian as the angels that appeared to the shepherds and directed them to the manger. I look at it from within the Christian faith and see distinctions between sacred and secular. Kelly looks at it from the outside, and sees is a Christian celebration of a Christian savior in whose name some of her ancestors were persecuted. A savior in whose name some Arab Christians are happy to participate in bombings and missile attacks on her spiritual family in Israel.

I don’t know what radio stations Kelly listens to, but she’s at least ten years younger than I am and she is the target demographic for WASH-FM. That station is designed for people like Kelly. I found myself wondering what it would feel like to be Kelly or someone like her, and for 11 months of the year you enjoy a particular radio station and you relax with particular on-air personalities and you become accustomed to the timing of the weather and the traffic reports, and then come Thanksgiving they take it all away from you. I wonder what it’s like feel that something you rely on and trust and enjoy for 11 months of the year all of a sudden turns into something that celebrates what you perceive as oppression and anti-Semitism. 

I thought of that when I heard those two explicitly Christian hymns played in a row, and how I would feel is I was a minority in a place where my favorite radio station played music praising Mohammad, or the Buddha, or the leader of the dictatorship in which I lived. And I had to pause.

Our Old Testament readings both talk about joy. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 126, talks about our tongues being filled with shouts of joy and of returning from the harvest carrying sheaves and shouting for joy. And what is the cause of this joy? What starts the joy? Verse 1 – “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

The joy that the Psalmist sings of, the joy that the worshippers feel, is as a result of God’s action. In this case it’s the restoration of the fortunes of Zion (Jerusalem) but the important part isn’t what specific act of God causes joy. It’s that joy is caused by the Lord.

The same thing is true in our reading from Isaiah. In verse 10 Isaiah says, “I will rejoice in the Lord” but everything that comes before and after is filled with joy and thanksgiving. Those who mourn receive a garland instead of ashes. They receive gladness instead of mourning. All sorts of good things happen: good news is proclaimed, the captives and the prisoners are freed, the broken-hearted are healed. No wonder Isaiah rejoices in the Lord!

And what causes all of this? The Spirit of the Lord being upon Isaiah. God’s word welling up within him and pouring forth from his lips. The love of justice is a gift of God. The hatred of robbery and wrongdoing is a gift of God. Joy comes because of God’s action and God’s anointing, and in the end, just as the earth brings forth it’s shoots and a garden causes what is in it to spring up, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Even the examples that Isaiah chooses show that it is the Lord that causes the joy, for who is it that made the earth to bring forth it’s shoots? Who is it that made gardens which have plants that spring up? It was God. The joy that Isaiah speaks of is joy that comes from the Spirit of the Lord within us. That joy is a gift of God.

And of course our reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with the admonition to “Rejoice always.” How is it that we are able to rejoice always? The last verse of our reading tells us: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. God is faithful. God will do this.

As I was putting this sermon together I read something that I liked. I couldn’t find it again so I can’t tell you who said it, but it was essentially that happiness is something that comes from the outside and that joy is something that comes from the inside. Peanuts says that happiness is a warm puppy, and The Beatles say that “happiness is a warm gun.” I tend to lean towards one of those more than the other, but they are both externals. They are both things that come to us from the outside.

It is possible that a kitten or a puppy or a piece of music can create joy, but not on their own. There has to be something inside that responds to that external stimulus. A love of puppies has to already be in you for a warm puppy to lead to feelings of joy. I can lose myself in a piece of music and feel joyful, but only if God has given me the gift of appreciation for music. I can lose myself in a movie and identify so strongly with one character or another that I feel joy when they succeed or survive, but I can only do that if I have the gift of empathy that has been given to me by God.

So I had to think about whether when I heard “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” back to back on the radio if I really felt joy, especially in light of how my friend Kelly and probably millions of others like her feel.

And after I thought about it I realized that I wasn’t feeling joyful because of those songs. I was feeling joyful because of the gifts inside me that various things trigger. Maybe it was those songs on that day, but on another day something else could have triggered the same things. I’m joyful because God gave me the gift of adoption at my birth by a family who loved me. I’m joyful because God provided me a family that loved music and shared that love with me. I’m joyful because God allowed me to have opportunities to develop my talents of music, limited though they may be, and to share them with others. 

And those songs triggered one more thing for which I am joyful. I’m joyful for God’s gift of empathy, which reminds me of people like Kelly, and hopefully makes me humble and makes me sensitive to the things that I do or say or take for granted that cause them pain or hurt or worry.

So happy Gaudete Sunday. Take note of the things around you. Let them stimulate the gifts of God that are within you, and let those gifts bring forth joy. Let them cause you to consider others who may not have the same reaction, and let them lead you to consider what it is you can do to help bring joy to them, to help proclaim, release to the captives and to bind up the broken-hearted, to help those who sow in tears to reap in joy. Rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.