Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
As an undergraduate, my major was natural resources, with a concentration in forestry. I spent a lot of time with trees. And like most people who spend a lot of time with trees, I have opinions about them. Not opinion about trees in general—all foresters are pro-tree. Opinions about different kinds of trees, opinions which I have sometimes been told (by people other than other forestry types) are a mite strong relative to the importance of topic.
Nevertheless, have them I do and express them I must and so, with all due respect to Isaiah, I have to tell you that I would rather not be an oak of righteousness. Oak trees are dumb. Their crowns look like muffin tops with holes bored through them, you know? With the branches that come straight out from the sides so the crown is all flat on the bottom?
The shade is terrible. It can barely be called dappled; standing under an oak tree is basically just standing in a patch of sunlight with a couple of shadows in it—which is just what you would expect from a tree with spirally-arranged leaves. And acorns. When people aren’t beaning each other in the head with them, they’re falling on them. And let me just say that if the spread and survival of your species is dependent upon animals like squirrels forgetting where they stashed your nuts, then something’s gone wrong with your evolution.
What’s oak wood good for? Wine barrels? I hate oaky wine. If I wanted the taste of wood in my mouth, I would chew on some. So do not make me be an oak of righteousness.
Isaiah, make me a sugar maple of righteousness. If I am to be known as the planting of the Lord, to display her righteousness, then give me a lovely oval crown of upward-reaching branches that blaze in the fall. Give me deep shade and sweet sap. Let my seed be thousands and thousands of samaras for the children and the wind to send spiraling through the air. Let me feed the honeybees on my pollen before anything else has even flowered each year. Let the world make syrup from my blood and violins and oboes from my body. Better yet, let me one day become the neck of a Fender Stratocaster. That’s what I would say if Isaiah asked.
But he didn’t, and so I’m stuck with this metaphor that doesn’t work very well for me at all. Isaiah didn’t ask my opinion, and in his defense, he also didn’t live in the northeast United States; he lived in the eastern Mediterranean, and things are different there. Fewer kinds of trees. Fewer trees, period. A lot fewer, and actually, there oaks are the most common trees of all. They’re also the tallest, if goats don’t get to them when they’re young. And though a tall Palestinian tree looks decidedly shrubby to someone from this part of the world, still each one seems like an oasis, like a little plot protected by the hand of God itself, when one comes upon it in the aridness and the heat of that place.
There are lots of ways Isaiah’s metaphor works, once you get past the oakiness of it. In Palestine, the oaks grow very slowly indeed—above the ground, anyway. Below ground, they are sending down deep, deep taproots looking for water, and they’re doing it fast. The wood of oaks in Palestine, as everywhere, is hard, strong, and naturally resistant to rot. Palestine oaks are evergreen—now you really begin to see why the metaphor works—and they can get very old: there’s an oak just outside Hebron in the West Bank that tradition long held was a descendant of the tree under which Abraham and Sarah once entertained angels. Long a pilgrimage site for both Jews and Christians, often called the most sacred tree in the Middle East, it died in 1996 at an age of somewhere between 300 and 800 years.
But here’s the thing: that wasn’t the end. Two years later, in 1998, the dead Oak of Abraham grew itself a shoot. Small, tender, precarious, and undeniably alive. What will happen next, nobody knows.
Earlier, we sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, and the fourth verse we sang addresses Jesus as the “Shoot of Jesse”. Way back at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, long before what we read today, the prophet says this: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, the first of Israel’s kings; God’s promise through Isaiah was that that chosen, anointed line of leaders, which by Isaiah’s time had been cut down by foreign powers, would one day sprout forth again. The Christian claim, of course, is that it did exactly that in the person of Jesus Christ, the shoot of Jesse. The “Jesse Tree”, an image with Jesse reclining and a tree growing from him with Jesus sitting in its upper branches, has been a staple of Christian art for centuries.
So: evergreen, deeply-rooted, strong, rot-resistant, spots of cool green in the midst of harsh aridity. Shoots springing forth from the roots of dead, ancient trees. That’s some of what Isaiah had in mind when he called us oaks of righteousness. It may not be a sugar maple, but I’ll take it.
I actually don’t think that Isaiah was thinking about the kind of tree that would put forward just one or two shoots at a time coming out of a dead trunk. I think Isaiah had something bigger in mind. You see, I like to think that Isaiah knew about Jurupa Valley, California. He is a prophet, after all, and so I like to think that Isaiah looked halfway around the world to the place that would one day become the city of Jurupa Valley, and that there he saw the Jurupa Oak.
It’s of a species called the Palmer’s oak, just a little thigh-high shrub. It doesn’t look like just one tree, but a bunch of them, some 70 stems spread out in a wide oval. Periodically a fire will rage across the hill where it lives, reducing this particular tree to ashes; the species has evolved in response to the pressure placed on it by these fires, so when one comes through, this normally slow-growing tree, which has been storing up its energy for just such an occasion, regenerates itself, quickly sending up new sprouts. With each fire, the sprouts spread further and further. Because there are no wood rings or old wood left behind, we can’t date the tree perfectly accurately. But scientists can estimate. While some claims to its age are three times as much as this, scholarly consensus is that the Jurupa Oak is right in the neighborhood of 13,000 years old. That’s older than Jesus, older than Isaiah. That’s older than agriculture. If these estimates are correct, the Jurupa Oak is probably the oldest living thing in the world.
For 13,000 years, time after time after time this tree has been patiently growing along, waiting for a crisis to reduce it to ash, and then exchanging beauty for ashes, spreading ever outward.
Generations and generations after Isaiah made his prophecy, the young man Jesus would astonish everyone in his hometown synagogue by standing up, reading today’s passage to them, and claiming that it was fulfilled in him. He was the good news, he said, he the binder-up, the proclaimer of liberty, the comforter. “I am the oak of righteousness,” he said, “and I have good news for the oppressed.
“I will free the captives:
I will free the slaves on plantations in the American South,” he said.
“I will free the sex workers in Boston
I will free the grad students held captive by Sallie Mae and her exorbitant interest rates.
“I will release the prisoners,” he said.
“I will release prisoners held without charge in Guantanamo,”
“I will release the sick ones chained up on one side by hospitals who charge too much and on the other by insurance companies who pay too little.
“I shall raise up the former devastations,” he said,
“They will rebuild St. Bernard Parish,
“I will hand out forgiveness,” he said
and where you create ashes,
I will give beauty.
And loveliness, and gentleness:
these will be the revenge of the Lord.”
He said these things, and they did not happen, and so they laughed at him. But he kept saying them, and so they did what the governments and the corporations always do whenever people threaten them with justice or with beauty, with forgiveness or with mercy: they killed him.
They cut down the last shoot of Jesse, the last branch of David. They cut down the last and only heir of God’s anointing.
But here’s the thing. Maybe once upon a time the Tree of Jesse was like that old Oak of Abraham in Hebron: maybe once upon a time it would put all its hope in one lonely shoot every 500 years, so small and frail it could be snipped off by a child’s safety scissors. But not any more. God had seen the fire roll across this earth too many times, had watched the wars and the famines and the violence too long to not be ready for it. And so you see, by the time they cut Jesus down, the Tree of Jesse had evolved.
When the fire passed over and cut him down, he was like the Jurupa Oak: suddenly, there were 12 of him, all with the same DNA, all with the same heart, all with the same Holy Spirit in them, and they said, “I have been anointed to preach good news: free the captives! Release the prisoners!”
And when they cut them down, 70 times 70 sprang up and they said, “I have been anointed to preach good news: let there be building instead of devastation, peace instead of war.”
And when they cut them down, 70 times 70 times 70 sprang up and they said, “I have been anointed to preach good news: this is the year of God’s Jubilee, the year that debt will be forgiven and persons will matter more than corporations, and we will organize, and we will occupy until every prisoner is free and righteousness springs up before the nations.”
And if they cut them down, he will spring up again and again and again until all the world is a green, rustling grove of God’s own planting, every one chanting, “I have been anointed to preach good news”
They cut down the last shoot of the Tree of Jesse, but he sprang up high, and he was you. And the same DNA, and the same heart, and the same Spirit that was in him were in you. And that, says Isaiah, will be the green, dappled saving of the world.
The Jurupa Oak is the oldest living thing in existence. God’s promises are older still, and they do not rot, they do not crack, they do not die; they will never stop growing back.
“For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.”
Say, “I have been anointed to preach good news.”
Say, “I am the shoot of Jesse.”