Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What are you so worried about?

I think we received more requests for a recording of the sermon of this past Sunday than any sermon I've ever preached. I'm not convinced the sermon was all that good. It just took up a topic that is a struggle for many people: worry.

Sunday's sermon was the second in a series on the story of a leper named Naaman found in 2 Kings 5. In this installment we focused on verses 4-8 in which the King of Israel received a request that he misinterpreted badly. Naaman was the commander of the military forces of neighboring Aram and he received word that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his leprosy. He went to the King of Israel with a note from the King of Aram requesting healing for Naaman.

Somewhere in the chain of communication there was some confusion because the note from the King of Aram asked that the King of Israel rather than the prophet to cure Naaman. When the King of Israel received this request that he could fill he assumed the worst. He tore his robes in an expression of grief and stated his conviction that this must be part of a plot to start a war.

Well, that wasn't it at all. This was no prelude to war. Naaman just needed some help and he heard that he could find that help in Israel. The King of Israel was very worried about what might happen. He was worried about a threat that did not exist. He thought there was a threat--a very serious threat--but he was wrong.

When Elisha the prophet heard about the King's response to the note, he sent a message to him in which he asked, "Why have you torn your robes?" (2 Kings 5:8, TNIV). Again, the tearing of the robes was an expression of grief and, in this context, it was specifically an expression of the King's worries about what might happen. So, in essence, the prophet asked the King, "What are you so worried about?"

The truth was the King had nothing to worry about.

As we saw on Sunday, this episode points us in the direction of several New Testament teachings that make us aware that the followers of Christ should not be worriers. One of the most significant passages in this regard is this word of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matt. 6:34, TNIV).

Don't worry about tomorrow. Don't worry about what might happen in the future. This is the teaching of Jesus to his followers. He didn't say that we won't have any troubles, for we will have troubles. He didn't say that we won't experience pain in this world, for we will experience pain. But the Lord did indicate that we must not worry about such things. Can we do that? Is it realistic?

Do we believe the Bible?

The King of Israel was worried about what might happen but things weren't nearly so bad as he thought. That's often the way it is with the things we worry about. But the really good news is that, even if things are as bad as we think or even worse, Jesus indicates that we still must not worry.

The thing that really gets me about Jesus' saying that we must not worry about tomorrow is that he was on his way to the cross and he knew it. And the the cross was really horrible. Still he said, "Don't worry about tomorrow." In other words, no matter what you face, don't worry about tomorrow. The promise of the resurrection made Jesus that confident.

Do we trust him? Then what are we so worried about?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A hopeful dead tree?

I saw a headline in the Star News out of Wilmington, NC that the city has nixed the ceremony connected to the lighting of the "World's Largest Living Christmas Tree" this year, a tradition dating back to 1928. Several factors contributed to the decision including construction at the water plant on the site of the tree and budget constraints. But another reality that has been apparent for years is that the Live Oak that is the "World's Largest Living Christmas Tree" is dying, a fact that is readily visible in the photo above. Many years ago a pole had to be added to support Christmas lights that the dying upper branches could no longer bear.

The news of the decision to cancel this year's ceremony aroused a bit of sadness in me. When my daughters were younger, we attended that ceremony numerous times. To this day I try to get by to see the lighted tree every year around Christmas time.

Really I think it is the sight of the tree in the daylight that brings more sadness than the cancelling of the ceremony. I haven't attended the ceremony in years. In the night, when I always see the dying tree, the darkness hides the dead branches to an extent. But the sight of the tree in daylight is a bit depressing. Were it not for the history connected to the tree I doubt anyone these days would choose it to be decorated for Christmas.

But another thought struck me that might remove some of the sadness of the sight of a dying Christmas tree. Perhaps the oak could be viewed in the Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree. Advent is the four-week period before Christmas that many Christians observe as a expectant season of celebrating the first coming of Christ and anticipating his return.
The tradition of the Jesse Tree is based on the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit" (TNIV). Jesse was the Father of David, and Jesus, the Messiah, came from the line of David. Christ, then, is the shoot from the stump of Jesse. The passage is a portrait of the greatest hope arising from what appears to be utter hopelessness.
In keeping with this imagery, a Jesse Tree is a dead, bare branch typically secured in sand or rocks. The ornaments are all based on the Old Testament to symbolize the "roots" of Jesus. So the Jesse Tree is a dead tree adorned with symbols of biblical promises. It serves to remind Christ-followers that, though our world may at times seem hopeless, through Christ, we always possess a living hope (1 Peter 1:3).
I'm sorry to see the World's Largest Living Christmas Tree in its dying state. Yet, even though it may be a mere shadow of its former glory, it can still be a symbol of hope. If the prophet could see evidence of hope in a tree stump, can't a decorated, dying tree help us to remember not only the cross but an empty tomb?
I'm thinking about adding a Jesse Tree to our Advent tradition this year.