November 27, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Sometime you should take a day to look at a tree. Not that you’ve never seen a tree before—they’re all around us. But take some time to seriously look at a tree. You could spend an entire day just looking at one. It’s a marvel of natural design. Its shape is defined not in a classical geometry of circles and polygons and polyhedra, but it’s governed by fractal geometry. It’s the mathematics of chaos, where seemingly random branches all form a cohesive whole and a beautiful order. And the smallest leaflet is connected to every other part of the tree by an intricate path through three dimensions of space.
There was a tree in the triangle at Concordia University in River Forest (we had a triangle instead of a quad, maybe because a fourth side was too expensive). I’ve talked about this tree before. It was iconic—until the sad day that they finally cut it down—because the tree was nearly completely dead. In the spring of the year when the students came out of their winter hibernation, the tree looked like it was still stuck in late fall, bare of all leaves, with the exception of one branch with one cluster of life. It was exceptional, and the stuff of college legend. One branch on the dead tree that knew the right thing to do when spring came.
When branches of a tree die, you have to cut them off for the life of the whole tree. Jesus uses this as a metaphor for repentance and renewal in the Christian life and judgment for rejecting Christ. If anyone doesn’t stay in Me, he’s thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (Jn 15:6 AAT).
For the overall health of a tree, it’s necessary to get rid of the unhealthy, unproductive branches. But sometimes that’s not enough. Tree branches can be felled by heavy wind or ice, but sometimes they fall without warning on a calm, sunny day. And, although rare, falling trees and branches have caused injuries and even death. According to a report by arborists, there are a number of hidden diseases and infections that can lurk under an otherwise normal looking tree. Casual observation does not reveal the internal disease, but only with close inspection can you discover what branches need to come down.
The metaphor works individually or corporately. For you as an individual, you can’t discover your sin and your faults by casual observation. It takes close inspection, guided by God’s Law, to find where your disease lies hidden. The Ten Commandments offer a convenient summary of the Law, but it’s necessary to use them in their fullest sense—not just to see if the outward acts are being observed, but to find out if you’re just a hollow observer of the Law.
It’s not enough to claim that you’ve never murdered, or never committed adultery. The Law also governs your heart and your desire to break the Law as well. The heart of the matter is not the acts you perform, but love. If I speak the languages of men and of angels but don’t have any love, I’ve become a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. Even if I speak God’s Word and know every kind of hidden truth and have every kind of knowledge, even if I have all the faith to move mountains but don’t have any love, I’m nothing. Even if I give away all I have to feed the hungry and give up my body but only to boast and don’t have any love, it doesn’t help me (1 Cor 13:1-3 AAT).
But it’s also a metaphor for a community of believers as well. In one word, it’s excommunication. When a person is overcome by his sin, and no longer desires to be forgiven, but to root in his sin like a pig, he is removed and cut off from the Christian congregation. This is not because he is a worse sinner or less worthy of God’s grace. It’s because God’s means of grace for someone who refuses to examine himself and identify his disease and rot become means of judgment. And in the community of faith, the disease can spread from branch to branch as it did also in the Corinthian Church, infecting the whole body. In that case, like that tree at Concordia, it might be better to just cut the whole thing down.
In an even broader sense, this metaphor refers to the entire human race. Branch after branch of Adam’s family tree is infected with the first sin, which is despising God’s Word, misusing His name, and trusting in anything but God. The history of the world, when viewed through a theological lens, is the history of God cutting off these diseased branches. But the infection is so far reaching that would probably be better to cut the whole thing down and grind it to a stump.
But God is not interested in saving Himself from the hard work and suffering of cultivating a dead tree back to life again. Like that tree at Concordia, there is found among the withered, dry, dead branches, one that is full of life. “The days will come,” says the LORD, “when I will raise for David a righteous Branch Who will rule as King and act wisely. He will create fairness and righteousness in the land. When He comes, Judah will be saved, and Israel will live safely. This is the name that He will be called: The-LORD-Our-Righteousness (vv 5-6).
There is a Branch in whom is found life.
He Is Called “The Lord, Our Righteousness”
Twice this Branch is called righteous. The life and health that springs from the dead stump rises isn’t biological or emotional or mental health. It’s spiritual health. It’s righteousness. It’s freedom from the sin that infects the rest of the tree.
Jesus’ birth is the sprouting of a new branch of humanity’s family tree. In the midst of death, life springs forth. But like that tree at Concordia, the live branch is sacrificed and cut down. But unlike withered and dead branches, The Lord Our Righteousness is not cast into the fire, but planted in the ground. Rooted in the empty tomb, Jesus becomes a Tree of Life.
This new family tree doesn’t grow in a typical way. It’s not the will of man, or the desire of the flesh that causes the growth, but the will of God. New branches are grafted into the trunk, and not just from the original family. You don’t have to be a descendent of David to become part of David’s family tree. “And so the days are coming,” says the LORD, “when they will no more say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought Israel out of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up Israel’s descendants and had them come from the northern country and all the countries where I had driven them. And they will live in their own country (vv 7-8).
From every country and every nation, from branches that were long cut off, the Lord constructs a new family tree. Branches that look dead and destined for the fire are reconnected to the True Vine by Baptism. I am the Vine; you are the branches. If you stay in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing (John 15:5 AAT).
Jeremiah does not have a narrow view of the fruits that result from becoming part of this new family tree. Good works certainly flow from faith, but good works in this life only last at most 70 or 80 years—the blink of an eye in God’s sight. Good works like patience and joy and gentleness are only the buds of the eternal fruits that you will enjoy. Because this Tree of Life is found in a new country.
The Branch who has become the Tree is found in the New Jerusalem, the heavenly country that is being prepared and which will be revealed in the coming of our Lord Jesus. It is a tree planted by the river of life. This righteous Branch from David’s family Tree is your Lord and your Righteousness. And therefore, He is your Life.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard