On 17th November the residents of Rustlings Road were woken up at 5a.m.. “Move your cars” said the police. Then the men with the chainsaws moved in. Several mature trees were chopped down. Trees that had stood for decades. Three protesters tried to prevent it happening and were arrested. It made the national press. The council argued that it was essential for street maintenance and that double the number of replacement trees would be planted. Whatever the merits of the case, the situation could have been better handled.
There is something about a big mature tree that arouses deep emotions. Perhaps it’s the size, or the fact that some trees are many times older than any of us. Trees provide a haven for birds and other wildlife. They make use of carbon-dioxide and produce oxygen in return and are aptly named the lungs of the planet. They can provide shelter from the rain and a playground for children. No one really likes to see a tree chopped down, however necessary it might be. It’s sad to see a stump where a mighty tree once stood.
But sometimes that stump fights back. Sometimes in the months following the felling of a tree you see shoots sprouting from the stump. They generally look untidy as they spring up en masse in all directions. But you can’t deny that they’re stubborn. That tree wants to live. It will not go down without a fight.
The image of a felled tree is a powerful one. The people in Old Testament times knew this too, which is why it appears in the prophetic literature. In this evening’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, it is used to describe the royal line descending from Jesse, the father of King David. The kingdom has been thrashed by another, more powerful nation. The last king and his sons have been killed. Jesse’s royal line, once a mighty tree, is now but a stump.
And yet Isaiah tells the people to have hope. There is life in this stump yet. A shoot will emerge from it. A shoot which has been given the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might. A shoot which will judge the poor with righteousness.
This shoot is not fully grown. It is fragile. With enough determination, frequent use of the loppers and copious amounts of weedkiller it could be killed off. But it took 10 years worth of attempts to eradicate a self-seeded sycamore that was growing out of our house! That shoot is stubborn. It grows where it is not expected and where it is not wanted. It will never become the mighty cedar or oak or plane tree that once stood there. It will not take the same form or shape as its parent tree even if you let it. This new shoot is going to grow in a new and unexpected direction.
Powerful imagery. And there was more imagery to come from our reading. Before we move on to that, I’d like to share a little lateral thinking problem with you. Some of you may have heard it before – it’s even older than some of our trees:
A man is on a journey. With him he has a wolf, a goat and a cabbage. They come to a river. There is a boat, but only room for the man and one passenger at a time. If he leaves two of them unattended, the wolf will eat the goat or the goat will eat the cabbage. The wolf is not interested in eating the cabbage. The cabbage isn’t hungry. How does he get all three across the river safely and intact?
Verses 6 onwards reminded me of this puzzle. In Isaiah’s mind, the problem would not exist, at least as far as the wolf eating the goat were concerned. Because the prophet envisages a time when hunter and hunted will lie down together. As in the very opening of Genesis, there will be a time when creation is once again vegetarian. So the wolf will live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, and a little child will be in charge. The little child will play near poisonous snakes and no harm will come to it.
This situation may not happen literally any time soon. The traveller will still need to use his wits to get his 3 passengers across the river without eating each other. It seems as though this very much an “in your dreams” passage.
And yet. Isaiah speaks of a royal child leading the not only the domestic animals such as the oxen, but the dangerous wild ones such as the lions. He lives among them and leads them. It was more usual for such a prophecy to have him fighting and killing the lions – as David once killed the giant Goliath. The reign of this new royal child will not be like that of the old order. It will be different.
When Jesus came to earth, he came as a small, fragile baby. When he became a man and became known for his healings and teachings many who followed him thought he would be the warrior Messiah that they were expecting. They were expecting a leader in the old style – one who would, to paraphrase a certain American, “make Israel great again”.
But Jesus wasn’t like that. He lived among the lambs of his people and he lived among the wolves and lions. And because it wasn’t the right time for Isaiah’s prophecy to come to completion in its entirety, the lions and wolves were provoked and retaliated. He was arrested, tried and executed. Once again it seemed as though the tree had well and truly been felled. But we know that this was not the end of the story. The shoot was stubborn. It lived. It grew. It continues to move and grow in mysterious ways. And it will continue to do so until the time is right for the lion and the lamb to lie down together. A time when the whole earth will know the Lord and the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the nations.
Sometimes in our lives it feels as though a large and beautiful, powerful and majestic tree has been felled. Many feel like this about the Sheffield trees. Many feel this way about Brexit or Donald Trump, about Syria, about the recent plane crash in Columbia. Or about something that has happened in their own personal lives.
Sometimes all we feel able to do in times like this is to sit on the stump of despair. That’s ok. And God will sit there with us. But we need to be alert to when God is nudging us to look at that little shoot that’s growing just there! At some point the time will be right to stop counting the rings of the past, but to see where this new little shoot might be leading us!
Catherine Burchell – Reader
(Some ideas used here come from Barbara Lundblad’s post for this passage on December 8th 2013 on the workingpreacher.org website)