The Long View
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
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.
This is a sermon about trees.
Because it all started with a tree.
Well, it started with God, but once God began creating, the trees came soon after.
The story goes: Darkness and light. Earth and sky. Land and animals and plants were created, God breathing life into the universe. Within the first moments of creation, in that garden, there were trees.
And they were good. They grew and flourished. When the humans came along, the trees provided food and sheltered them when the sun was too bright or wind too strong. The trees were there in humanity’s first moments.
And yes, a certain tree offered temptation. But even after the humans toed the line, the trees were still there, even offering up their leaves when the humans felt most humiliated.
But creation started with a tree.
Somewhere in Nevada, there is a tree that may not have been the first tree, but it has seen a lot of history.
Called Methuselah, it is a bristlecone pine tree. Its trunk is gigantic and gnarled, twisting in on itself, and scientists date Methuselah as 4,852 years old. Similar to its biblical namesake who is the oldest human named in the Bible, the tree is thought to be the oldest single tree in the world.
I warned you that this is a sermon about trees.
But 4,852 years old. That’s a number difficult for us who have far fewer years on this planet to comprehend.
Some news stories write attention grabbing headlines saying: “Meet the tree that is older than Christ.” Though on a different continent, this tree was standing during the first century when Mary, pregnant with Christ, sang her words of hope for the world her child might bring.
But even that date— two thousand years ago— is a bit of an understatement for this giant. Methuselah has been around way longer than Christianity.
In fact, this tree was likely alive, rooted and growing, before our text for today was ever first proclaimed. If this scripture from the prophet Isaiah was written in the 4th century BCE, about 400 years before Christ, then that means Methuselah was already in its second millennia of life when Isaiah proclaimed the good news to the oppressed.
Isaiah’s words are spoken against a backdrop of exile for the Israelites. The first invasion that results in the loss of their kingdom. And even before that, the kings of Judah haven’t always acted with mercy and justice at their center of their governing, so things are not going well for God’s people.
Isaiah looks around and sees captives and prisoners; ruined cities and devastated generations. He sees wrongdoing and injustice.
He sees a world that looks nothing like the world God created, a world with those first trees, a world Methuselah might have seen as a young sapling. And so Isaiah writes with hope that justice will prevail, that God’s will raise up the broken, cause celebration and joy for the grieving. God will bind up the oppressed, right the wrongs of Isaiah’s world, and all will be well.
But the truth is, as inspiring as these words are, they don’t come true in Isaiah’s lifetime. The Hebrew people remain exiled and oppressed and heartbroken for generations to come.
And perhaps, this vision has not been fulfilled in Methuselah’s watch since then as well.
Because this tree has seen the world Isaiah prophesied against many times over.
On its own soil, this tree has witnessed empires rise and fall. Wars fought countries formed, borders redrawn— all with a high human cost.
It seen exile and genocide of Native Americans. It has been here for our country’s entire violent and sinful history of slavery and segregation. Methuselah has seen multiple pandemics, economic depressions, political strife.
In its long lifetime, this tree has seen the worst of what humans can do to each other over and over again.
This tree has seen more than we could remember because humans are not very good at looking beyond what is right in front of us.
It’s a good thing then, that God has a better vision than we do.
God’s vision of the world in time is not like ours.
What we see as monumental, as the way things are, as unchanging, God sees as a moment — not an unimportant or meaningless one— but a moment, nonetheless.
God sees the moment we are in, the moment Isaiah proclaimed these words, the moment the garden started to grow, and God sees all the moments yet to come.
Which means the justice God promises in Isaiah requires a long view of future. Longer than any timeline we can create as humans.
Dr. Cindy Rigby, who taught me theology, once said that human perspective is like standing on a sidewalk corner and watching a parade pass you by. You see everything, one float after another.
But God is standing on a roof somewhere and God can see the parade at its beginning where the floats are lining up, God can see the end of the route, and all of it in between.
All of us see the whole parade, but the vantage points are slightly different.
Like an aerial view of a parade or a 5000 year old tree, God’s promise of justice doesn’t abide by our limited perspective. It is more expansive than anything humans can imagine, and will outlast any human predicament that feels unending.
God’s justice will prevail. We might just need to take longer view than we are accustomed to.
And by taking the long view, we might begin to see how God’s justice is already rising up through the cracks in our world.
Because in Methuselah’s lifetime there has been pain and violence, but there has also been justice and joy.
There have always been helpers. The ones who are first to offer aid and support, no questions asked.
There are innovative and creative thinkers who make the world a better safer place for all people.
There are artists and poets and musicians who create things that stir something inside us.
And despite all that humans endure, there will always be brave ones who continue to pursue justice for the oppressed—-even when the victories feel small. We should never forget that in the 5000 years that Methuselah has stood watch, there has always been people who will not let anything less than justice abide.
It would be easy to look at Methuselah, with its towering, expansive trunk, that it could (and has) survive anything. But Methuselah, like us, is a living thing, a growing thing which means it is not as impervious to destruction and death as it may appear.
And in addition to the natural causes of death for trees, deforestation of old growth forests has made this tree “one in a million” rather than one in a forest. And even now, the National Forest Service does not provide the exact location of the tree for fear that too much attention from tourists, even well-meaning ones, could harm it irreparably.
This tree, though it will likely outlive us all, is impacted and changed by human action— in both positive and negative ways.
Perhaps Isaiah’s words about God’s justice that will spring forth are similar. God will do the justice work. God will restore God’s people; will judge based on what is good and right for the meek. God will turn our sorrows into joy. God is in control, not us.
But that ’s not to say that we are powerless, that our actions do not help or hinder God’s justice in this world.
Instead of using our power to destroy, we can use it to cultivate new shoots of righteousness.
Isaiah tended to that vision of God. He saw the shoots of what could be even in a barren, desolate land. He created something through his words, when all around there was destruction.
And Mary tended to this vision as well. Not only through her song, but through love and care of her son. She raised Jesus, taught him what right and wrong looks like. She passed on to him her dream of a world that would be different, a world Jesus would cultivate in his life and death.
People like Isaiah and Mary see the bad things of our world, the things that feel too big to change, like an invading empire or a society that exploits the poor, and helps us all see that none of that is as powerful as God’s justice.
It started with a tree.
Creation started with tender saplings that grew into timeless giants like Methuselah. The creation of this good world started as a garden, with shoots rising up out of the earth, and if we are not careful, we can trample them. But if we are like Isaiah and Mary, we can participate in their growth, with the hope that God’s justice will grows like trees: tall and strong, and ultimately outliving us.
We just need to take the long view to see it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.