You’ve seen them, the posters and t-shirts that say, “Advice from a…bear, a rock, a mountain, a lake. If you go to the nature store at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, you’ll see “Advice from a Tree.” The t-shirt or coffee mug will say: “Stand tall and proud; Go out on a limb; Remember your roots; Drink plenty of water; Be content with your natural beauty; Enjoy the view!” And that’s good advice as far as it goes, but if you want to go a little deeper, you might want to dig into the Bible. You can’t put it all on a throw pillow or a mouse pad, but you can learn a lot more from trees, and we have a forest of them in the Bible, beginning in the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.
In light of how suspicious the prophets were about sacred trees, it’s surprising to learn how important they are in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, God puts the Tree of Life at the center of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Lord appears to Abram at the Oak of Moreh in Shechem. [12:6] And Abram builds an altar to God by the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron. [13:18] Later, under those same sacred trees the angels of the Lord come to tell Abram, now Abraham, that he will be the father of a great nation. [18:1] And a few chapters later, in Beersheba, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree to mark the place where he calls upon the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. [21:33] And on it goes. God keeps making history with trees, right up to the day that the Son of God saves the world on a tree at a place called Calvary. You have to wonder: is this just a coincidence? Why are there so many stories about God and trees?
So, I’m driving along, listening, and it strikes me that all of our talking about God, our aiming at God, suffers from the same problem. With all the limits of our human knowledge and language, we can’t fly directly at God. And if we try, we are bound to miss. The folks who try the hardest to convince us that they are absolutely right about God are usually the farthest off from God. The Bible seems to know this instinctively, which is why the Bible uses metaphors for God. Metaphors don’t fly straight. In the words of Emily Dickinson, they “tell it slant.” Metaphors use indirect ways to get closer to the truth of God than our most precise definitions ever will. Which is why we can call God, “Father.” It is a metaphor, an indirect way of talking about God that recognizes that our inner-space, our God-space, is slanted just as outer space is curved. Pretty cool, huh?
The problem is that we often don’t know it. Though the Spirit was called down at our baptism, we don’t feel it. And though she whispers to us, “you are beloved,” we can’t hear it and we have a lot of trouble believing it. That’s our perennial challenge isn’t it? To believe we are beloved. Because we only get baptized once, it’s a important that we celebrate Pentecost every year. Also, because we are so good at what we might call ghosting ourselves, we need some Holy Ghost-ing at least once a year.
The cycle of ascending and descending is not just the theme of this story. It is the theme of God’s story. It is the pattern of God’s interactions with the Creation. The life of Christ follows this pattern, too, and it is captured in an early Christian hit song included in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. First, Christ came down, emptying himself of his God-ness, humbling himself down into human likeness, taking on the form of a servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8] Then, in reward for that obedience, Christ was lifted up. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God…” [2:9] Can’t you just hear the praise band playing?