Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for The Sunday Next Before Advent, November 25, 2018
“BEHOLD, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
NEWCOMERS to Chico like myself—I’ve only been here 27 years—have only heard of it, and never saw it except in old photos. It was a living monument, a landmark, and a source of pride for Chicoans. There it stood: majestic, spreading overhead like some friendly giant bestowing its blessing on all, the Hooker Oak Tree. Its silhouette became the symbol of this city, central to the seal of the City of Chico.
This massive oak was named Hooker Oak by Annie Bidwell in 1887 in honor of English botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. It was acclaimed to be the largest valley oak in the world. 326 years old, its height at 105 feet, and outer perimeter measuring 481 feet, this behemoth tree stood throughout the lives of many generations of Chico residents. Mechoopda Maidu Indians resting against its trunk that was 28 feet around, were shadowed under its outstretched limbs of 112 feet, centuries before white men came into this valley. The shade of the Hooker Oak covered 18,000 square feet, about twice the footprint of our whole church building.
The Hooker Oak died and fell over on May Day in1977. Only then was it discovered that it was actually two trees, growing so closely together that they were thought to be one. Today the only remnant of that great tree is a stump, or the place where a stump used to be, and its only reminder: a city park and playground, a residential street, our city symbol, and an elementary school named for the tree that once was.
The scriptures use a tree to describe great rulers who, at one time, spread over their nations like the invincible branches and limbs of a massive oak. Sometimes these oaks are cut down, sometimes in the power of their youth, as was Alexander the Great. Another one was Assyria. Isaiah prophesied this fall, even while the Assyrians were carrying off the people of Israel’s northern kingdom. “Behold, the Lord of hosts shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down...” Isaiah 10:33-34
God established a monarch of His pleasing in Jerusalem just over 3,000 years ago. This man, once a shepherd, once the slayer of the giant warrior, Goliath, once a general in King Saul’s armies, once a poet and songwriter, David was now a king after God’s own heart: David, son of Jesse. This was a man. He stood for righteousness. He stood for justice. He stood for the God of his people. Never would he raise his hand against King Saul, even though Saul was trying to kill him. And even when King David sinned greatly, his repentance and humility brought him back into God’s good graces: so that God promised him that forever a son and heir of his would be seated upon the throne of his kingdom: “And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.” 2 Samuel 7:16
In time, however, the heirs of King David brought an end to this line of kings. First Manasseh, and then Jehoiakim, each led Judah into idolatry and thus brought the judgment of God against Jerusalem. The Babylonians overcame and destroyed them. The line of David itself became a tree cut down. Its stump—his descendants—went into Judah’s exile like a cruel joke, a reminder of its former glory, a bitter sign of the people’s sins and rebellion against their God.
The words of prophets began to ring upon the ears of the people. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah all spoke of a branch that would come out of Jesse, David’s father, and that branch would restore the glory to the children of Israel. This branch would be a supreme king who would rule and reign over his people in righteousness. His kingdom would excel those of David and Solomon: in fact it would encompass the entire world. And of that kingdom there would be no end.
That kingdom has been described as one of universal peace. Even nature’s animal brutality will be pacified. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” A baby might safely play with a poisonous adder and a child may put his hand on a viper’s nest. Isaiah 11:6-9 Restored nature, where there is no killing or violence, is nearly impossible for us to imagine. What would mosquitoes do? Nevertheless, such a world is preparing for us, and we haven’t yet seen it. It’s in our future as it was in theirs.
But the king who was to come did in fact come. He was to remain unknown to most of His people during his own day, and even to allow Himself to be killed for their sakes. This was also foretold. That mighty life was told by God 700 years before it happened, the life of a righteous servant being cut off from His people, “from the land of the living: for the transgression of my people...” Isaiah 53:8 And on the third day, He rose again.
We live today in a strange time in history. A.D. Anno Domini. The Year of Our Lord, 2018. Eighteen years ago began a Third Millennium from the time we began counting years from the Incarnation of God the Son—that Righteous Branch. He grew, as a tender new shoot, out of that old stump of David’s line. Long thought to be dead and over, the glory of David shone in his Descendant, and with it another kind of Glory, the Glory of God, Glory that existed before David, for even before Abraham, This was the I AM. And in the height of His youth, at age 33, He was killed. We remember His death—inhumane, unjust, yet glorious, an act of ultimate love—the image of the crucified Christ. This young Branch was, as it seems, cut off from the land of the living as well.
But He rose again. He ascended into heaven. His kingdom continues and shall have no end. The Church is His Body on earth. His Spirit indwells believers who today number 2.3 billion, 1/3 of the world’s people. We are His Body. As He lives, so we live also. In heaven, a crown awaits our heads, to wear with Him, to bring glory to Him, as bearers of His glory in this world and in the next.
We live in a time when the King who reigns over all the universe is not seen, but is recognized in most of the world in some fashion or other. More has been prophesied than has occurred. A golden age is coming, a time of peace, of perfect tranquility, when Christ shall reign over all the earth. No one shall be able to object when the rightful heir of David seats Himself in majesty on earth to rule over the affairs of all people.
Jesus spoke of being a branch, even the trunk of a new tree. He said that He is that trunk, the vine, and we are His branches. If we are connected to that Branch we too shall draw from His life and ultimately bring abundant fruit. Whatever we might do in this life without Him will be done away. We might be cut off suddenly, even fall dead in a field, as did the Hooker Oak, and have no lasting effect in this world. But if, here in the year 2018 A.D., we live in Him, then He lives in us. We are mighty branches of that great tree, a tree whose trunk you can’t see with physical eyes, but a tree nevertheless, a tree that grows here mightily, undying, unable to be killed, for He has already died and risen. He cannot be killed again.
Jesus said, “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.” John 15:8-9 We bear His image and likeness, we are growing up in Him and we are becoming strong enough to bear fruit to the Father. A redeemed and restored humanity is not just taken from badness to neutrality. We don’t only become innocent babes. As REDEEMED HUMANITY, taken literally from the fire, smoking like sticks snatched out of a roaring fire, the heat is quenched and we are grafted into the living Branch, the Ancient Trunk, who died and has been made alive again. We draw new and vital nourishment from Him, His life courses through us, and we feel ourselves begin to grow. Twigs sprout from us, and leaves, and finally buds and flowers and fruit—even in the first days of winter weather. If we are redeemed and saved from the fire, we are restored into a righteous humanity, of which Christ was its first member, a new mankind.
A lot of trees were burned in the wildfire that ripped through Paradise and Magalia 2½ weeks ago. So much destruction, so many lives displaced by a heedless violence, the Camp Fire will remain in all our memories. In its aftermath, thousands of people are homeless. Food and clothing and healing arts and shelters have had to be provided. Liken this to a day on a Galilean hill where Jesus asked His disciples how to feed 5,000 hungry seekers. Philip set the problem beyond any reasonable answer, no amount of money they had would buy such a party its dinner. Andrew offered a small boy’s lunch, but admitted that five barley loaves and two fish could hardly even start feeding even the apostles, let alone 5,000.
We face a problem far larger. People lost not only homes but jobs, jobs that will not be there this winter or even next, perhaps. We can shrug and say it’s beyond us, or we can suggest government or large agencies. Make it someone else’s problem. The few loaves and fishes were enough, however, when Jesus did the needed thing. He gave thanks. His faith was enough to activate 12 men to start passing out the little boy’s food, and as it was broken, it grew. Nobody could see how it was done. Yet, when everybody out there had eaten and couldn’t eat another bite, there were 12 baskets of left overs, and Jesus taught them all to preserve the overage. Gather it and count it. There will be too much, and for that we bless God. So may there be too much for Paradise, as Butte County rises like that great oak in God’s grace and faces its worst crisis in love, faith, humane concern, and compassion. We have the chance, even here at St. Augustine’s, to do more than we know.
The LORD lives. He also reigns. He bestows life, He gives grace, He acts powerfully in every life. It is not enough that we merely live. We are called to be His hands and His feet, His mouth and His loving heart in this dead cold world. We have been grafted into an eternal tree. In Him, this Anointed One, we have been given “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that [we] might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified [in us].” Isaiah 61:3
The Hooker Oak is dead and gone, but wood from that tree was fashioned into a cross. It’s the second larger cross that can be seen behind our altar crucifix, different in color than the one in front. Do you see it? That’s Hooker Oak. The Cross is life to us, a Branch out of David’s line, into which every one of us have been grafted and in which we must now grow strong to bear much fruit, the fruit of good works, a legacy that will last for generations in the city whose symbol is the tree. Does that stir you up?
STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.