Sunday, December 11, 2022

High Tree, Low Tree, Wet Tree, Dry Tree: Sermon for Advent 3

Fifty-seven years and two days. That feels rather like a long time, doesn't it? I mean, it does to me: that long ago, I just didn't exist. But the same isn't true for most of you, I remind myself. So let's rewind the clock to 1965, shall we? By December 9, the oldest among you here this morning was 31 then, I do believe. A few of you guys and gals were in your late twenties, in many cases married with small children. One or two more of you were in your early to mid-twenties. And still more of you – okay, a lot more of you – were teenagers in those days. Then there were those rare few of you who were just a bit younger still. Thursday, December 9, 1965. Given your backgrounds, I'm sure some of you didn't have a TV. But for those who did, were you among the fifteen-million-plus American households listening on CBS as the children sang: “Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all the children call their favorite time of year...”?

But maybe you didn't know what to look for. It may not have meant that much to you. Back in December '65, the funny pages of our county papers didn't run Peanuts. They preferred to reserve space, I suppose, for more enduring cultural properties like Fritzi Ritz and Captain Easy. Yet maybe – just maybe – some of you were nonetheless at home, glued to the screen, the very first time they debuted that half-hour special: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now, whether that was you in '65 or not, I'd wager a good number of you have seen the seasonal re-run. So let's see a show of hands: who here has ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas?

Now, those of you with hands up – (you can put them down now) – no doubt remember the most famous scene: the image of Linus taking the stage, not for his own glory but to recite a seven-verse stretch from the Gospel of Luke – a major faux pas even then, on network TV. “That's the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown,” concludes he. And, of course, he's absolutely right, and we'd best never forget it. I wonder, though, if you remember the scenes just before Linus takes the stage. The kids are getting ready for some kind of Christmas play, and Lucy has sent Charlie out to go bring back “a great, big, shiny aluminum Christmas tree,” of the sort in vogue in the early sixties. But when Charlie returns from the tree yard, what's he got instead? A frail natural sapling, perhaps less a spruce than a sparse! He sets it atop Schroeder's little piano, and at once – in true Peanuts fashion – faces the withering mockery of his peers. “What kind of a tree is THAT?” asks one girl. Lucy, per custom, chastises him fiercely: “You were supposed to get a good tree! Can't you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?” At once is Charlie laughed to scorn, even by Snoopy, and consumed with regret.

But let's pause the TV there, and take a needful detour to what, even from 1965, must have seemed a very, very distant past – back over twenty-five hundred years to, oh, around 590 BC, let's say. And there, meet a young man in a work camp in Babylonia. He's the son of a priest, and himself of the age where he ought to be brought into holy service in the temple, but you'd hardly know it here as he labors clearing silt from the canal. He's had to leave all he knew and loved behind. This young man's name is Ezekiel. And he's got a story to tell.

Ezekiel was born under the rule of righteous King Josiah. And Ezekiel was just a teenager when Josiah rode off half-cocked against the Egyptians and got himself killed far, far too young. After a three-month stint on the throne by his hapless son Jehoahaz, who got carted off to Egypt, Josiah's elder son Jehoiakim got put in charge instead – and began promptly running things into the ground (2 Kings 23:29-37). It was under Jehoiakim's tyranny that Ezekiel grew to young manhood. He was in his mid-twenties when Jehoiakim managed to start a war with a superpower, Babylon (2 Kings 24:1-2). Then, with Jerusalem surrounded, Jehoiakim shuffled off this mortal coil. With little choice, into this sad situation stepped his 18-year-old son Jeconiah (2 Kings 24:6).

Compared to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the reign of Jeconiah was a lot less fun to curl up with your family and watch unfold. He found himself trapped in his capital city as it was surrounded and besieged by troops who'd been provoked not by his own decisions but by those of his late dad. For three months and ten days, he had to figure out what to do and how to hang on. Now, he was no great man. Unambiguously, Jeconiah “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD in this short time (2 Kings 24:9).

Yet, as the siege wore on, it became clear to Jeconiah that only one thing could save the city from destruction. In spite of all his evil, he had to do the noble thing, the self-sacrificing thing, the marching-to-Calvary thing. So, in March, the teen king surrendered himself. He surrendered with his mom Nehushta and all his wives, with his servants and officials. Along with them, too, were taken carpenters, metalworkers... really, all Jerusalem's best and brightest, by the thousands (2 Kings 24:12-14) – and 25-year-old Ezekiel had fit the bill. Ezekiel still remembered looking across that captive crowd to King Jeconiah, seven years his junior, as together they walked away from home, wondering if they'd ever see it again. In Jeconiah's place, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Jeconiah's 21-year-old uncle, the last living son of Josiah, as King Zedekiah – or so many said. Ezekiel, for his part, said, “Not my king!” To him, Zedekiah was only “one of the royal seed” (Ezekiel 17:13).1 But Zedekiah assumed power in Jerusalem and in Judah, swearing an oath in the LORD's name not to rise up against Babylon.

That was seven years ago or so, and now that Ezekiel's been seeing visions these last couple years, he's grasped for himself just how much of a disaster Zedekiah's treacherous ways have been creating for Jerusalem, all while the true king Jeconiah with his growing family of sons languish under arrest in Babylon. And so Ezekiel now gathers his neighbors together to tell them a riddle (Ezekiel 17:1-2). In this clever parable, Ezekiel casts Nebuchadnezzar as a big, beautiful eagle who flies all the way to the mighty cedar forests of Lebanon, and there finds the biggest, tallest cedar tree – the House of David – and plucks off its crowning twig, which of course is Jeconiah (Ezekiel 17:3-4). And the colorful eagle flies that twig away to a city of merchants in a land of trade – that, of course, is Babylon. Ezekiel's riddle then moves on from the twig as unresolved and forgotten, leaving his neighbors in suspense – but the phrase Ezekiel picked, “land of trade,” is spelled exactly the same as the phrase “land of Canaan” – as in, not a land of exile, but a land of promise (Ezekiel 17:4, 12).2

Cryptically leaving that mystery aside, Ezekiel tells how the big Babylonian eagle plants a seed beside abundant waters, and it grows into a mighty vine which has everything it needs to thrive. That's Zedekiah, and he turns his branches toward Nebuchadnezzar – that's the covenant they make (Ezekiel 17:5-6, 13-14). But then another eagle flies by. It's not as fancy as the first one. And this is the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik II. Suddenly, the vine tries to shift itself to this new eagle, hoping to get more from it than the first eagle gave (Ezekiel 17:7-8, 15). So Ezekiel asks his neighbors: Does that make sense for the vine to do? Is it smart for a vine to uproot itself when it's already well-watered and growing strong? Wouldn't that weaken the vine so that the slightest breeze could make it wither? And shouldn't the vine expect an east wind to blow from Babylon (Ezekiel 17:9-10, 15)?

What God was warning these exiles through Ezekiel was that, rather than think things were good back home, actually Zedekiah was in for a world of hurt. In Jerusalem's fall, Zedekiah would be captured, traumatized, blinded, and at last carried to Babylon in chains to face the judgment of God on his treacherous arrogance (Ezekiel 17:20). Meant to be a low vine, he'd stretched high, desiring to make himself a vine of glory (Ezekiel 17:6, 8). Instead, he'll be plucked up by his roots (Ezekiel 17:9). “In Babylon he shall die” (Ezekiel 17:16).

But remember that cedar twig already taken away, lost king Jeconiah? Everybody listening to Ezekiel spin his fabulous yarn has been wondering about it, ever since the twig got sidelined from the stage. The suspense has been killing us.3 But these suspense-slain bones, too, shall live. God's got a plan for the cedar twig in its new land of Canaan, the prophet says. The LORD will personally take a teensy sprig from its top and plant it on Israel's high mountains. In other words, the kingdom of David would be restored in the unlikeliest of kings, the very smallest, but in the land where it belongs. Yet this kingdom will grow and grow to “bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar, and under it will dwell every kind of bird” – yes, even the eagles of Babylon and Egypt4 – for “in the shade of its branches, birds of every sort will nest” (Ezekiel 17:23). This tree towering over the world will spread its branches so wide that all can make nests in its protection and peace.5

And as he foretells this, Ezekiel is prophesying something deeper about how God works, a general principle by which the LORD delights to dance with history. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD!” God shouts through Ezekiel. But how will they know? How will the world see? They'll see it in the teensy sprig on Zion's hill. They'll see it as they watch the kingdom grow from the humblest start to the vastest reach. What does God do when he works in the world? “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, and dry up the wet tree, and make the dry tree bloom. I am the LORD! I have spoken, and I will do it!” (Ezekiel 17:24).

That's not a message for the nation of Israel alone – not even for these depressed exiles, Judah's cream-of-the-crop now reduced to lowly labors. It's a message for the world to hear. It's for Jeconiah and Zedekiah. It's for Nebuchadnezzar and Psamtik. It's for me. And it's for you. The LORD is the Great Overturner. Make yourself high, he'll bring you low. But make yourself low, he'll grow you high. Boast in your greenness, he'll dry you out. But confess your dryness, he'll water you green. Not only can he do it, but he will – the LORD has spoken!

And to see that, fast-forward through nearly the next six centuries. Let Ezekiel rest his weary bones in the earth – and let Nebuchadnezzar do the same. Nebuchadnezzar's son Amel-Marduk, out of sympathy, frees Jeconiah from prison and honors him at his table (2 Kings 25:27-30). When Babylon finally falls, Jeconiah's grandson Zerubbabel governs Jerusalem, inspiring hope of fulfillment of the promise (Haggai 1:1; 2:23). But in time, power passes to others not of David's line, and as one empire after another lords it over the Jews, it seems harder and harder to believe that Ezekiel's words could ever really prove true.

But “hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5). Meet, then, a gentle girl named Mary, a settler in the new frontier town Nazareth in Galilee, chastely betrothed to a simple carpenter. No one, scouring the world for greatness, would've thought to seek this girl out. She's poor and despised in the world's eyes, utterly forgettable and unheralded, a dime-a-dozen kind of gal. Or so it seems. But she's the premium example of what it means to be God's poor. And she's also descended from the royal house of David. Not only that, her fiancé Joseph is descended from David on every side, including by the line of lost Jeconiah, the forgotten twig (Matthew 1:11).

So when an angel of revelation visited this poor girl in her frontier village, calling out, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28), he foretold her she'd be miraculous mother to the Messiah – for to her holy Son would God give “the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Zedekiah couldn't reign forever, Jeconiah couldn't reign forever, even David couldn't reign forever – but this Child will reign forever. Mary will be his queen-mother, a position of unimaginable privilege. It's scarcely sunk in as she rushes off to the hill country, and hears John the Baptist's mom, filled with the Holy Spirit, tell her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). The baby just beginning to grow in Mary's womb – still a number of cells you could count without getting lost – is truly the LORD God himself, taking on holy human flesh from the woman he's chosen to become his mother.

So is it any wonder Mary starts singing? If the sound of Mary's greeting stirs the unborn John to rejoice in the Spirit, is it so surprising her faith leads her to sing praises out of her own ocean of joy in the Lord? After all, she's a distant daughter of daring David, and even he sang many songs to God – including when he sang to God, “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28).6 So that's what Mary sings about, too. She sings that God is the Great Overturner still, just like Ezekiel said. She sings about how God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (Luke 1:51). She sings how God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). Mary sings how God “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). For it's in the humble, the hungry, the lowly, the poor that Israel most truly and fully subsists. And such especially is Mary, the humble handmaiden in her place of poverty (Luke 1:48). So she was singled out for this greatest of graces, to have such great things done for her (Luke 1:49) and to be remembered as blessed on the lips of every generation to come – even ours, if we'll dare to say it (Luke 1:48). Mary is 'Exhibit A' when it comes to God exalting the humble poor, filling the hungry with good things. And she can rejoice in the relative emptiness of the rich, the overthrow of the mighty, the scattering of the proud, because they are her oppressors, they are Israel's oppressors. They are new Zedekiahs. They are new Nebuchadnezzars. They must fall, by removal or by repentance, if justice is to be done, and if Israel is to step out of the dark into the light of the Lord's mercy.

At the approach of Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the divine shoot in whom Ezekiel and Mary alike bade us hope unashamed. Through this Holy Child to be born in Bethlehem, the little sprig planted in Mary's virgin womb and arms and heart, God was establishing the kingdom of David and the kingdom of heaven, not as two related realities but as one seamless thing. And this twig, this sprig, this baby child who is God with us, was God acting to overturn the world: bringing down the lofty, raising up the lowly, feeding the hungry, saving the lost. In Jesus' adult teaching, he explained that kingdom as like “the smallest of all seeds. But when it has grown, it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). You know, just like Ezekiel said it'd be.

Now, back to 1965 once more. Charlie Brown has been mocked by nearly all his so-called friends over his puny little tree – barely a twig – that he's brought them. Can't he tell a good tree from a poor tree? Poor can't be good. After this mockery, Charlie laments in confusion, wondering what the real meaning of the celebration is. That's what spurs Linus to step into the spotlight and recite the words of life from the Gospel. It gives Charlie strength to dream that there could yet be hope for his sad little tree. Yet it falls to the earth under the weight of a single ornament, driving Charlie away in despair again. Once more, it falls to Linus (that child prophet) to see and say the truth: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” As he leads the other children in bolstering and beautifying, the tree transforms through their ministrations, until even Lucy has to concede: “Charlie Brown is a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree.” That little Christmas tree, once so low and once so dry, is now high and green and decorated with wonder. And as the children and Charlie sing the song of herald angels around it, we who watch hopefully realize what this parable on the screen is saying – and what the Christmas tree is for. Not just Charlie's, but yours and mine.

The Christmas tree brings an opportunity to visualize Ezekiel's prophecy in action. God is a God who takes the high and flourishing, those who take and take in their self-satisfaction, and brings them down low. But God is also a God who takes the poor faithful, those who persevere in their trial and who humble themselves in the Lord's hands – as did the sons of Jeconiah in Babylon, as did wonderful Mary in Nazareth – and he'll make these low trees high, these dry trees green. That's built into the message and meaning of Christmas. Christmas, you see, isn't such a cheery time for the Herods of the world, is it? Herod's not celebrating. Christmas isn't for the self-grown tall trees, thrusting themselves like daggers at heaven. Christmas isn't for the self-pampered green trees, drinking down the raging rivers of prosperity and ease. To them, Christmas means axe and flame.

But Christmas is for those who, like the birthday boy himself, are “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:29). Christmas is for the poor who can't afford it. Christmas is for the tiny, the unnoticed, the forgotten. Christmas is for the weary and the wounded, for the solitary and the scared. Christmas is for those who've been dried out and cracked apart, who've lost their needles, whose bare branches are pointed at with shame. Christmas is for the fruitless, the leafless, the friendless, the loveless. Christmas is for Mary, for Joseph, for the shepherds. It's for the poor in spirit and pure of heart, for the meek and merciful mourners, the persecuted peacemakers; it's for those who hunger and thirst for a justice in the world they've yet to be given (Matthew 5:3-12). That, too, is the real meaning of Christmas. And if it's the meaning of Christmas, it'd best be the meaning of the Christmas tree.

When you see a Christmas tree, then, and gaze at its ornament assortment in all its colorful diversity, think on the kingdom, and how Jesus compared it to a tree growing from humblest start until big enough to nest all the birds in its branches – a kingdom where all of us can find a shelter to nest, if only we'll settle down and keep the peace. This Christmas tree, then, sets before us a promise. It sets before us also a choice. For if we insist on making ourselves high and green in life – be it by commercialism, workaholism, sentimentalism, or whatever -ism is your favored flavor – then God may just have to grab axe and torch to change you. But if you stand before him as Blessed Mary's example helps you – as a low tree, as a dry tree, as a poor tree – then you're a good tree indeed. Maybe you, too, just need a little bit of love. So God has greater gifts of glory in store.

So when you see a Christmas tree, humble yourself. Embrace your lowness. Confess your dryness. Put away all those strategies of making yourself high and green. Know that the LORD is the one who will exalt and feed you, if you'll let him. And to see it for yourself, go to Bethlehem. Kneel low by the manger with the hungry and the humble. Look within at the Great Overturner, and watch in hope the poor kingdom-tree grow. For it is growing great and green indeed even now, and so it shall, world without end. Amen.

1  William R. Osborne, Trees and Kings: A Comparative Analysis of Tree Imagery in Israel's Prophetic Tradition and the Ancient Near East (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), 148.

2  Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 209-210.

3  Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 550.

4  Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 212; William R. Osborne, Trees and Kings: A Comparative Analysis of Tree Imagery in Israel's Prophetic Tradition and the Ancient Near East (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), 150.

5  Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 552.

6  Michael Wolter, The Gospel According to Luke, 2 vols., trans. Wayne Coppins and Christoph Heilig (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016 [German edition: Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008]), 96.

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