sermons by ian banks

The axe woman cometh

My wife has a thing about trees – and not in a good way if you’re a tree. When I said I was talking about trees today she said “Shall I chop one down and you can use it as a visual aid?”

You see she has both means and motive. According to her, there are too many trees, they’re too tall and they grow too close to houses. If they fall down then they’ll damage the roof and even if they don’t then the roots must be undermining the foundations. And they cause too many arguments with the neighbours. Trees are ok – as long as they are small, in pots and answer to the name of ‘bonsai’.

I imagine that we have people here who are tree lovers and tree huggers. So you can take that up with her after!

A tree by a brook

Our readings from Jeremiah and the Psalms don’t share her view and both have very positive, life-affirming pictures of trees planted near to water. If you close your eyes you can picture the scene. A tree growing next to water… Despite heat and drought the trees remain fruitful. And we’re told that a person who trusts in the Lord is just like such a tree.

Trees are important throughout Scripture. The trees in the garden of Eden, trees which made the ark, the tree which killed David’s son Absalom, oak trees, fig trees, olive trees, cedar trees, trees which are fruitful and trees which aren’t, trees which are cursed and wither, the tree from which the Cross was made…

Being Jeremiah

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet whilst still young. Unfortunately for him, his calling was to tell the people of Israel that they would fall to Babylon. He had to tell them that their whole known world would change.

Unlike Jonah with Ninevah, Jeremiah didn’t go down too well and for his troubles he was accused of treason and sedition, beaten up, put in the stocks and imprisoned. He was even thrown into an empty water cistern and left to die of starvation before eventually being rescued. Legend says that he finally died in exile in Egypt, stoned to death by exasperated compatriots fed up with what he was saying!

Jeremiah managed to make enemies of the clergy, the government, the military and the people. So pretty much a clean sweep. We even still have a phrase ‘to be a Jeremiah’ when talking about someone who complains all the time.

But his prophecy was accurate. Israel did fall. Jerusalem was destroyed. Everything they’d taken as being a certainty was turned upside down. Our certainties can be turned upside down too. Health, work, relationships, what we think about God… Jeremiah speaks just as much to us today.  

Restoration

Jeremiah didn’t stand there dispassionately dishing out his prophecies of woe. His whole heart, mind and personality are involved and gripped. Yet, as we’ve seen before, a prophet has both sympathy for God and concern for man. He stands in the middle, pleading and arguing the case of each one to the other. And he talks about restoration as well as destruction.

It’s easy to get caught up in the ranting and ranging but amongst the laments we have some truly wonderful language in the book of Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”; “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” and “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah wrote both poetry and prose – and his poetry is similar to the parables, because poetry, like parables, leaves things open-ended. With poetry you make your own interpretations, take away your own insights.  

Green leaves

From our passage today we have this picture: “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

It’s like what we read in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the Lord That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers.”

Here in Jeremiah the image of a tree by a river bearing fruit is used versus that of a bush in the wasteland from which nothing sprouts. Or in Psalms, it’s the chaff that blows away. Think of tumbleweed in a Western. We’re told that tumbleweed, that chaff, is like a person who trusts in man rather than in God. We have a similar contrast made in our Gospel reading today.

Bad things still happen

There are a number of quick points that struck me from these verses:

Firstly, Jeremiah was a realist. Even if we have deep roots, we will still face challenges and tough times. In the passage it says there will be times of heat and times of drought. Bad things will still happen to us regardless of our faith. Not everything works out the way we want. But those deeper roots do sustain you. They make it more likely you’ll find moisture and nourishment deep down when there’s little that’s obvious on the surface. And those roots give you greater anchorage when the storms and the winds come.

And sometimes our world can be turned upside down. It helps if you have deeper roots.

Una Kroll

Secondly, some of you may have heard of Rev Dr Una Kroll. She had an eventful life and she came to live in our parish in Bury late in her retirement. She authored a large number of books and I was reminded that one was entitled ‘Trees of Life’. The book talks about intercession and she uses the imagery of trees. In her introduction she says this…

For many years I have been reflecting on the significance of trees in relation to the Christian life. They are rooted in God’s earth from which they draw the water that sustains their life. Trees give delight through their variety. They grow at different rates and in myriad of ways. They bear distinctive leaves, flowers and fruit. Each has a specific purpose in God’s creation. Trees grow towards the sky; they stretch high to find the sunlight and air they need to live and do their work of glorifying God. I find in them attributes that echo within my own life and those of other people as they become rooted in Christ, grow through grace and reach toward heaven to find their glory.

Fruitful in old age

Thirdly, slightly tongue in cheek, I was drawn to this section of Psalms 92: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon… they will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”

So, it’s good to trust in the Lord and be righteous. There will be fruit, there will be good things which come from it. We stay fresh and green, even into our old age. There’s hope for us all!

Spring of living water

Lastly, it’s interesting to read on in Jeremiah to verse 13 of the same chapter: “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.”

That caught my eye. The spring of Living Water… Jeremiah also talks about it earlier: “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” A bit ironic, when Jeremiah later ends up being thrown into a cistern himself…

But here we have in the Hebrew Scripture, our OT, God described as a spring of living water. Does that ring any bells? In the Gospel of John, when talking to the Samaritan woman by the well, Jesus describes himself in that same way: “Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

A stream of living water

So, are you like a fruitful tree, with deep roots, planted near a stream of living water? To use Una’s words, we may grow at different rates and in myriad of ways. We each bear distinctive leaves, flowers and fruit. Each of us has a specific purpose in God’s creation.

Or are you more like tumbleweed or chaff with no roots, no base, no fruit?

Depending on the species, the roots of a tree can spread 4 times as far as the branches. How far do your roots extend? How much is going on beneath the surface that no-one can see apart from God, the God “who searches our heart and examines our mind”?

The good news, the gospel, is that it’s never too late for us. Even when your world is turned upside down, trust in Him, the stream of Living Water. And put some roots down, because he’s never far away. Indeed, with Jesus, that Living Water is inside you, welling up.

And we have a promise that with that living water we can still be fresh and bear fruit… no matter what our age! Amen

Let’s pray

Lord, sustain us when life is tough. May we be rooted firmly in God’s earth from which we draw the living water that gives us life. May we each bear the distinctive leaves, flowers and fruit that you have in mind for us, fulfilling our role in your creation, giving delight in our variety. In your name we ask it. Amen

[The ‘axe woman cometh’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood and Four Lanes End Congregational on Sunday 17th February. It’s based on Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Psalm 1. For more by Ian please follow this link. For more on Una Kroll you can start with this piece in The Guardian or, better still, get hold of one of her books.]

3 comments

  1. Thanks Ian. It is true that our lives do fall into a steady routine with home, work, health and faith but then something completely unexpected can happen to change us, or our life. With deep roots we can overcome these challenges.
    I was also drawn to the story of The Vine and the Branches from John’s Gospel, which leads us to bear much fruit.

    1. Thanks for the feedback David. Yes, the Vine and Branches is a good one to look at too. Here it talks about ‘bearing’ much fruit i.e. present tense, a continual action, not just something that happened years ago. But, staying with the gardening theme, it also talks about the trimming and pruning needed to stay productive. So almost a continuous state of reviewing that what you’re doing is fruitful – and stopping it if it isn’t.

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