Season of Creation Worship Series, week 4 — HARVEST SUNDAY: Trees and Fruits
September 23, 2018
To help gain an understanding of trees, I reached out to Dr. J Matthew Sleeth, cofounder of Blessed Earth and author of Serving God, Saving the Planet and 24/6. His upcoming book, due out in April 2019, is titled Reforesting Faith. This book addresses the importance of trees in the Bible. Sleeth offers these quotes from his book:
“With the exception of God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing.”
“If I had to pick one subject other than Jesus to corroborate the inspired origin of the Bible, I’d pick trees. Why? Because while the Bible was written by many people over numerous centuries, the consistent use of trees throughout points us to one author.”
“I’ve come to understand that one of the most important reasons God chose trees is that at every stage of their lives, trees give.”
“One of the reasons I believe God blazed a tree by every important character and event in scripture is because of trees’ nearly universal presence. There are trees virtually every place that humans live on the planet.”
“You, me, earthworms, ants, bees, tigers, sloths, and aphids: we all run on trees.”
“By definition, planting a tree is the only thing that you can do in your backyard that can make the whole world better.”
“Most of us spend far more time sitting in the glow of a screen then the shade of a tree.”
“Trees are the only things from our childhood that get bigger when we go back and visit them as adults. Our faith should be like that.”
These are just a few insights from Sleeth’s upcoming book; he contends that trees map God’s story of redemption. Sleeth will cause readers to pay more attention to trees, noting, “from this point forward, when you spot a tree in the Bible, you’ll know (even though the character in Scripture may not) that heaven is just around the corner.”
Consider the Text
In Psalm 1, the psalmist compares a righteous person to a tree, firmly planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season; its leaves do not wither, and in whatever it does, it prospers. This is a recurring set of images that draw us to the importance of the work of God. The description in Psalm 1 is similar to the description of the tree in Ezekiel 47:12 and the tree in Revelation 22:2. In all three descriptions, we see the following:
- A tree firmly planted by water
- A tree that yields fruit
- Leaves that do not wither
- A tree that is prospering
Let’s look at each component of this description:
1. A tree firmly planted by water — The two key components are (1) firmly planted and (2) by water. Both are critical for long-term survival of a tree. The root system of a tree is key for its obtaining the necessary nutrition, but it is also the structure that anchors the tree solidly to the ground, so that it will not be shaken or “uprooted” when storms come. Having a steady source of water is integral for long-term survival of trees. The imagery, though, is not just any water source. The source is a river that is life giving. Revelation describess the water as unpolluted, crystal clear. The Ezekiel text offers a good description of this “river of life”: It begins at the temple and flows out toward the Dead Sea. The farther out it goes, the river gets wider and deeper and fiercer. When it opens into the Dead Sea, the sea comes alive with all sorts of living things: fish and the fisherman who come to catch them. Hence, the salty Dead Sea becomes fresh and alive. It reminds us of what the woman at the well asked of Jesus: “tell me more of this living water.”
2. A tree that yields fruit — We know that Jesus often says that a tree is known by its fruit. He also says that if branches do not produce fruit, they will be cut down and burned to make room for branches that will produce fruit. Jesus curses a fig tree for not producing fruit (a judgment on Israel) and then tells a parable about the importance of fruitfulness in Matthew 11. In all three of these texts and their imagery, the fruit is used to feed others. Fruitfulness, for followers of Jesus, is always for the good of others. Fruit sometimes is literal fruit for hungry people. Other times, fruit is companionship for someone lonely or hurting or in prison. Still other times, fruit is a word of hope and good news. There is no shortage of the types of fruitfulness. The point is that fruitfulness is non-negotiable. An apple tree is known because of its fruit, as is an orange tree and any other type of tree. Trees are known by their fruit. If an apple tree never produces apples, then it is just a tree. Without bearing fruit, followers of Jesus are not fulfilling their purpose, and risk being cut down to make room for others who will.
3. Leaves that do not wither — Leaves that do not wither signal something that is eternal, never ending.. They are a constant presence throughout time. The Ezekiel and Revelation imagery also notes that the leaves serve for healing (of the nations in Revelation). My mind turns to the medicinal leaves of the aloe plant. However, the imagery of unwilting leaves in the Bible symbolizes the far-reaching impact that Jesus’ death and resurrection holds. The effects of sin are overcome. The eternal life offered by God is always available; it will sustain and cure eternally every former sin.
4. A tree that is prospering — If we are to be righteous in the sight of God, then we will be people who seek to prosper. Prospering is the result of being firmly planted near water, producing fruit and leaves that do not wither— for the healing of the nations.
Consider a Sermon Direction and Application
This week preaches itself. Psalm 1 is a key creation-care text. It brings us back to the beginning in the Garden of Eden, and it points us to the end with a new heaven and earth. It reminds us yet again what this book we call the Bible is all about — life and our journey toward righteousness. Creation always points us in that direction. We just need to be aware of our surroundings.
Consider using this week’s sermon to launch an initiative to plant trees. The fall is a good time to plant trees, allowing their roots to grow deep through the dormancy of winter to help sustain them through the heat of summer. Oftentimes in the fall or winter, organizations arrange for mass plantings of native trees. In Tennessee, that organization is the Tennessee Environmental Council. In February, the council organizes a tree-planting day, where 250,000 tree saplings are planted throughout the state. At the very least, it could be a powerful statement on this day to plant a tree (or multiple trees) on the church grounds or out in the community. Something to notice most wealthy communities have large, grand old trees. The poor communities and subsidized housing areas have few trees or no trees. There is a missional opportunity and evangelistic opportunity here. While planting trees, people may have the opportunity to share the story of God’s redemptive love. What a powerful image of a follower of Jesus heading into the community with a tree in one hand and God’s word in the other!
Rev. Ryan Bennett is an elder in The United Methodist Church and Senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lebanon, TN. He also works with Blessed Earth and Blessed Earth Southeast helping clergy and lay persons practice Sabbath. Heather Bennett earned her M.S in Sustainability from Lipscomb University in 2014. She started the first chapter of Blessed Earth in 2015. Blessed Earth Southeast inspires and equips Christians to become better stewards of the earth.