Central to the passage we are looking at today is a metaphor, a mind picture…The metaphor of a healthy tree. I wonder what picture comes to mind for you when you heard that metaphor. Is there a specific tree or trees that come to mind? Perhaps a childhood memory… my wife Kris thought of the plumb tree in her back yard, where she would sit to read a book, the branch where she sat worn smooth from hours of use… or somewhere special in your life, in the past or now.
For me when I think of Oaks, the tree mentioned in Isaiah 61 two pictures come to mind…So real the sound of the wind rustling leaves plays through my head like a soundtrack. I envisage the oak trees at the Hunua Falls Camp: The one behind the cook house and the ones along the bank of the Hunua River. I even see Ralph Blair holding on to one of the trunks for support as he laughs so hard, at people falling into the water off some dastardly contraption he had made for group building games.
The other is the oak that provides the backdrop to McLaurin chapel’s reading room. In spring and summer it too fills the chapel with the sound of wind rustling through leaves, so much so that the ever present sound of central city traffic can be banished for a brief moment. It filters dappled light into the building. As autumn comes you have to be careful walking up the hill to the back of the chapel because you can easy roll your ankle on all the acorns it drops. It reminds me of beauty for ashes, as its branches criss-cross over each other in the middle, at some stage it was damaged and broken but it has been lovingly cared for and now is a wonderfully beautiful and healthy tree, that misshapenness accentuates its uniqueness.
The passage we had read out to us today in Isaiah 61 is a prophecy which has as a central metaphor trees…Oak trees that because they are healthy and strong produce good seeds that cause seedlings to grow up round them. They are the hope filled starting point of the recreation of a garden, of a reforestation of the nations. The trees that are mentioned are planted by the LORD and called into being by the ministry of one filled by the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD and anointed by God, a figure whose ministry Jesus says he fulfils: Jesus who pictures his life and death as a single seed falling to the ground and dying to produce new life.
We are working our way through the E100 essential Jesus Bible reading Challenge, and at the end of this week we’ll be a quarter of the way through. In fact by the end of this week we will have finished the Old Testament section. My hope is that as we are doing this that it isn’t simply an exercise of leafing through a book, but that as we open ourselves up to the scripture narrative that there is that rustling of leaves sound as the spirit wind blows a fresh through us.
The use of the tree metaphor which seems to book end Isaiah reminds me of growing up in Titirangi. Way before my time the hills used to be covered by forests of mighty kauri trees. As a child I often went to a friend’s house to play. He lived on the slopes of Mt Atkinson and in the bush down the back of his section was a huge log of a kauri tree that we used to climb up and run along. It was massive and it seemed sad that there were no trees like this standing. Years later I got a holiday job doing some gardening for people who lived across the road from that house. Down their back boundary was a whole gully full of adolescent Kauri trees. It seems there as a fire there at the beginning of the twentieth century and the ultra-hard Kauri seeds germinated in the burned soil. There is hope that again the hills will be crowned by these majestic trees.
The first forty chapters of the book is a book of judgment, and deals with Judah and Jerusalem going into exile because they had continually and repeatedly refuse to live in a way that reflects their covenant relationship with God. Isaiah’s opening oracle finishes with the metaphor of an Oak tree, in Isaiah 1:30-31 the prophet says Judah is like an oak tree whose leaves had started to fade, that was in a garden without water. It is an unhealthy tree, in not paying attention to their relationship with God they had cut themselves off from the very thing that gave them life and vitality and while throughout the first part of Isaiah there is mention of God tending his garden there comes a time when the old tree needs to be taken out and burned to make way for something new and healthy. What does Kauri die back say about the health of the environment? And you know that tree removal can be a painful process.
In chapter 40 the tenure of the book changes so much so scholars wonder if this isn’t a different Isaiah writing, it becomes a book of comfort for the exiles a promise that God will restore and rebuild, bring back and renew. It’s a book that picks up the tree image and says that again God will plant his people like oaks that they will be a reason for praise and righteousness to rise up like seedlings from the nations.
But the new tree is not planted so much through spade work but voice work, it is proclaimed into life. The first three verses of Isaiah 61 are spoken in the first person. It is the voice of the person who is called to do the work of restoration. It’s a voice that seems out of place with the preceding chapter, some have thought that it is the prophet themselves speaking of their call to ministry, but that does not totally fit the setting. In the second half of Isaiah there is a person who is referred to as the servant of the LORD, we know them from the servant songs like the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53, that we use of Jesus most Good Fridays. The servant of the LORD is the one who brings about the restoration of God’s people, and that fits what the voice is saying here. The speaker talks of God’ Spirit and anointing being on them to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom and release to the captives, to comfort those who mourn, to give beauty for ashes and bring praise in the replace of despair. Their ministry is to bring about wholeness and newness for God’s people.
Wholeness and newness both on a personal level and also on a societal level. The year of the lord’s favour invokes the year of jubilee spoken of in Leviticus 25 and Ezekiel 46, a time when all debt will be forgiven and wealth redistributed so that there will be no needy in Israel. It is a picture of God restoring the righteous and just society that Israel was supposed to produce in response to God calling them to be his people. Such a different way of living that the nations would come and see that God is good and so worship him and be transformed as well. Those wondrous oaks that were so healthy they would spread seed and new trees into the nations. A new creation of God’s garden.
In verses 7-8 of Isaiah 61 we have God speaking, and proclaiming that this ministry and restoration and new life are a result of God’s character that God indeed indorses the speaker, that God will restore and release and comfort and bring back and make new because God loves justice and hates injustice. We often think of a just God in terms of punishment, but here it is about renewing and restoring, having to remove the diseased trees to make room for a healthy tree. While this passage can be seen to be fulfilled partially in the return of the people of Israel from exile, the scope of the hope of a new tree a new community that displays the righteousness of God seems to look for a future fulfilment.
In the narrative of Luke’s gospel right after Jesus baptism, where John the Baptist had seen the Spirit of God descend on Jesus and had heard him called “my beloved son” an affirmation of his being anointed as heir, Luke tells us Jesus was invited to read the scripture at his home town synagogue, and he gets up and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. The very passage we had read to us today, and after Jesus had read the first three verses he sits down and says “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your sight.”
Jesus uses this passage at the beginning of his ministry almost like a mission statement, he claims to be the anointed one which is what messiah means, filled by the spirit of God to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD. Jesus mission is to bring about that renew, that wholeness that Isaiah had talked about. To set free those who are held captive, not in this case by the Babylonians, but like the original tree in Isaiah by their brokenness and sin. To plant a new tree that would show the righteousness of God, that would see a new creation rise up in the nations.
The passage in Isaiah finds in fulfilment in Jesus. In Jesus there is good news to the poor, both as in Matthews Sermon on the Mount, good news to the poor of spirit that theirs is the kingdom of God, and in Luke’s sermon on the plain that the poor are blessed theirs is the kingdom of God. It’s interesting that this Good News message has been spiritualised to mean Good News to the poor and marginalised that they can receive salvation and new life in Jesus. But in the Isaiah passage it also points to the fact that they should receive justice that it is a redistribution of wealth as well. The summary of the early church as a community filled by God’s spirit in Acts 2 emphasises that as it says they willingly shared what they had, they held all things in common, being prepared to sell possessions so it was said that none of them were in need. The wholeness and restoration Jesus brings is not just at a personal level but a societal one as well, we are called to live in the Kingdom of God, to show to the nations the righteousness of God.
What for us today from this passage.
First is the offer of newness and wholeness in Christ, there is Good News, there is comfort, there is restoration in Christ, there is new life, there is sight and hope. Some have thought that Jesus applying this passage only referred to his ministry of teaching and proclamation of the Kingdom of God. But in the midst of this oracle of God re-establishing a good news garden there is another tree. The one who proclaimed liberty and good news lived that out and made it possible for us to know this by dying on a tree, on the cross, in that we can have that wholeness and renewal. Today do you need to hear that and see the seed of that new life be planted in your lives. Where does God need to bring that new life, good news restoration comfort and liberty?
Secondly, when we think of the good news as a means of bringing new life we hold in our minds the image of a seedling or a fresh sprout growing up out of the soil from the seed that has fallen to the ground and died. But the passage Jesus quoted finishes with the image of trees planted by the LORD. Not just fresh shoots but big mature strong and stable trees. The tree for the desert people was a symbol of life a symbol of a stable and steady water source, as in Psalm 1.The image behind me is of a st Jude pine, which starts it new growth with a cross just before Easter.. The Good News Jesus brings, the wholeness he speaks into our lives is not a one off rejuvenation but that process of growing to maturity. It is the life long process of growing following Jesus of trusting God through times of pruning and seasons of growth and fruit and also of barrenness and seeming no life. I wonder if today what ways is the wind of the spirit blowing through your leaves and calling you to continue and grow on that journey.
Thirdly, the tree in Isaiah 61 was to be a source of reflecting the righteousness of God: To show the splendour and justice of God. Trees in the ancient near east were places of shade from the harsh life sapping sun, We use them as shelter belts from the buffeting storms. I wonder today where are you being invited to display the good new you’ve received… where are called to provide shelter, to be part of God planting new seeds?