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Sermon: Remembrance Sunday Evensong

Sunday 11th November 2012
Isaiah 10: 33 - 11: 9
John 14: 15-29

Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low’ (Isaiah 11.33)

So is there a connection between dead and dying trees and the US Presidential election? Well, the opening verse of our Old Testament reading this evening grafts together two themes that speak directly into human society and politics at the moment. The image is very striking of a sovereign power with axe in hand felling even the most powerful and biggest of trees. Our politicians seem feeble in comparison as they bicker over when a ban on the import of ash trees should or should not have been introduced to prevent the spreading of Chalara fraxinea, the fungal condition that causes dieback in ash trees. But also on Remembrance Sunday, and in the wake of the US election, and the election of the ‘World’s Most Powerful Man’, the implications and consequences of earthly power and the nature of God’s authority are thrown into sharp relief. Matters arboricultural and theological!

Trees and sovereignty seem to be intimately linked in our scriptures. The tree set at the heart of the garden is a motif of the sovereignty of God whose fruit is snatched at and consumed by human disobedience; something we are all prone to. That act in the garden is an image of the usurpation of the authority and sovereignty of God by believing that we may take it in to our own hands; that, somehow, by plucking the fruit of the tree of God’s sovereignty, we grasp autonomy and sovereign authority over our lives: we become, with that, our own tyrants.

In the book of Judges there is the intriguing ‘Parable of the Trees’ which playfully reflects on the way in which the exercise of power can suppress other valuable gifts:

The trees once went out
to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree,
“Reign over us.”
9 The olive tree answered them,
“Shall I stop producing my rich oil
by which gods and mortals are honoured,
and go to sway over the trees?”
10 Then the trees said to the fig tree,
“You come and reign over us.”
11 But the fig tree answered them,
“Shall I stop producing my sweetness
and my delicious fruit,
and go to sway over the trees?”
12 Then the trees said to the vine,
“You come and reign over us.”
13 But the vine said to them,
“Shall I stop producing my wine
that cheers gods and mortals,
and go to sway over the trees?”
14 So all the trees said to the bramble,
“You come and reign over us.”
15 And the bramble said to the trees,
“If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,
then come and take refuge in my shade;
but if not, let fire come out of the bramble
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” (Judges 9.8-15)

Trees: and reflections on the nature of sovereignty. What is to be gained; what is to be lost by taking authority over others, and what might that sovereignty look like?

Zacchaeus was famously short in stature but economically and politically powerful, and he climbs a tree both to view Jesus and physically to raise himself above the common herd, the crowd. ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down’ says Jesus, and, as well as asking for a dinner invitation, is implicitly saying come down from the position you have snatched from which you exploit others. (Luke 19.1-10) In coming down from the tree, Zaccheaus gives Jesus hospitality and his power, economic and political, is recast.

In the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13.31-2; Mark 4.30-1; Luke 13.18-9), almost a particle of dust, grows into the most noble of trees and topples the edifice of power and sovereignty. The smallest seed grows into a great tree, but Jesus’ account of that tree is one that becomes a haven of generous hospitality, housing those who seek shelter and cannot find that shelter in the ways of the sovereignty of the world.

In scripture trees are surprisingly associated with God’s sovereignty and power. It is the hacked down stump that issues forth a branch which is full of Messianic promise and endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the LORD with delight. It is the tree of the cross from which Christ reigns. The cross is the sign of the ultimate degradation and rejection of gifts of the Holy Spirit, the sign of a brutalised, brutalising regime that denies the sovereignty of God; but it is also the place of the ultimate declaration of the defeat of evil and the triumph of the Advocate, the one who pleads our cause.

A Remembrances Sunday thought: there is something rather noble and yet poignant about the felling of a tree.There was little more devastating a sight for those people who remember the great storm of 1987 as trees lay strewn like matchsticks. The national memorial to the fallen is an arboretum.

The sovereignty of God topples human certainty and notions of authority. For the answers that human society seems inclined to provide is about dominance, war, oppression, ostracism, and a rejection of the pursuit of what is good. Those answers is not sustainable under God’s sovereignty and so we are called to cultivate a way of living and responding that holds before us the vision of that city, where ‘the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.’ (Revelation 22.2)