Sermon: How big a tree is God growing out of that stump?
(with thanks to Rev's David and John Shearman for their background analysis of the texts)
In ancient Israel, the king was anointed as Yahweh's representative, responsible in his time for upholding the social order and serving the well-being of God's creation. Two particular ways in which any king proved his divine appointment was by taking care of the poor and weak (always a priority at the heart of God's will for the world) and by building temples (where all people can be reconciled with God and learn God's way).
Q: What might change today if we tested the rightness of our leaders by examining how, in and through all their work and decisions, they do three main things:
a) serve the well-being of God's creation,
b) take care of the poor and weak, and
c) provide ways and places for all people to be reconciled with God and learn God's ways?
In ancient Israel, even when the last king of the royal line is led off to captivity and the kingdom comes to an and, there remains the hope that from the "burned-out stump" of the royal house (not only cut off, but burned out of the ground!!) God will yet raise up an ideal king to recreate the kingdom and the world as God desires it to be.
Centuries later, when Jesus is raised from the dead, the early church attaches this hope to him. There is some debate, though, about whether Jesus ever claimed this vision for himself, or whether it is something the early church pinned to him.
Did Jesus have a different view of the ancient hope?
The preaching of Jesus's cousin, John the Baptist is interesting in this regard. On one hand, he clearly sees Jesus as messiah. But on the other hand, when he talks about trees being cut down to the root so they can grow up again anew, he refers not just to the royal line and household, but to all the people of the kingdom. Is it more than just a new king being raised? Is it a new kind of people? New kind of community? Is Jesus a different kind of messiah -- not a king, but a community-builder?
It's tempting to think this might mean the Christian church is now the divinely appointed community ... that we as followers of Jesus are now raised up by God to be God's representative for the well-being of Earth. But can we be that self-centred and self-important any longer, in this age of inter-faith dialogue, respect and co-operation?
Q: Can it be that God's desire for the well-being of Earth, the care of the poor and the weak, and the building of temples is not just the work of anointed or elected leaders, nor just the work of the Church, but the work of all humanity -- or at least the work of a universal community of spirit? If so, what is our role and calling as a church?
By the way, this last image is also, like the two before, a depiction of the Sermon on the Mount.
And...one last thing that may in fact turn out to be the focus of our worship this Sunday ... when John the Baptist says the axe is already laid to the root of all trees not in keeping with God's will, there is an immediate shiver of judgement that we are tempted to feel. But remember this is spoken in the context of a tradition that believes in God's power to bring new life out of cut off stumps, and in a God who prunes back that new, more abundant life may come.
Q's: If we believe any of the above, what signs of "trimming back" and "getting back to the roots" do we see in the world, that we can celebrate and encourage? What kinds of overgrowth and false growth are being disposed of? Is there a return to the root purpose of life in our time? And how do we as a church share in this time of pruning our overgrowth, and encouraging new life from the real roots of our life as a community of faith?