Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday - Second Sunday in Lent

The big news at Philo Pres is that we are receiving a new member, and adult, by profession of faith.  First profession of faith.  Ever.  This is the gold standard for the vitality of a congregation, and we're one of very few Presby. churches who will do this this year.  The vast majority of congregations can not even remember when they last got a new believer.   (I remember the last one, too, but it has been a few years.)  Thank God for prevenient grace and for a welcoming community when the time is right.  So excited.

The "message" is the second one in our "Tree of Life" series.  I'm preaching on a little-read passage from Daniel, in which Nebuchadnezzer (I learned how to spell his name - that should count for something) dreams of a tree that represents his empire and his life.  I'm not saying this in the sermon, but I think that I felt prompted to use this pericope by a comment from some economic analyst on the radio.  He said, 100 years ago, Britain looked west, across an ocean, and saw a new power rising at exactly the time that the British empire was beginning to wane.  And now the U.S. is in the same position.  I just think there ought to be some theological reflection on the historical moment in which we live.  And this passage is, in a way, a hopeful one for people of faith. 

Daniel 4
The Dream Tree of King Nebuchadnezzer
Tree of Humility

The Cross is the Tree of Life and we are journeying toward it this Lent.  But what trees do we pass on the road?  Last week we thought together about the Tempting Tree in the Garden of Eden.  

This week let’s examine a more obscure tree - the dream tree of King Nebuchadnezzar found in the mysterious book of Daniel:  Our question is “what does this tree tell us about ourselves as human beings and about the God we long to know?”

Listen children, let me tell you a story from the Epic Tales of Nebuchadnezzar. 

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia ruled over all the world - or at least all the world that mattered back then.  Babylonia was a beautiful place, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - where Iran is today.  It was an agricultural showplace, where irrigation and cultivation produced huge crops of grains, vegetables, and fruit.  Fertile farmlands made large and beautiful cities possible, and King Nebuchadnezzer lived in the largest and most cultured city, where every day he was able to enjoy every luxury, including the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was enormous!  The King lived in a large and ornate palace where he was waited on hand and foot by servants of every color and race, who had been brought from every corner of his far-flung empire as prisoners of war.  When the King’s army went out to battle, they so dominated their enemies that they often they evacuated whole cities, bringing back with them every leader, every learned person, every beautiful woman and every bright young child to serve the King. 
    This is how Daniel - a young man from Jerusalem, of Judea, had come to be part of the King’s court.  Daniel was a Jew, one of the people who had been transported to Babylon after their kingdom, weakened by internal strife and lax living, had fallen to this powerful enemy.  It was the Jews in Babylon who wrote and sang the lament, “By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.  For our captors required of us a song.  But how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” 
    Daniel struggled to remain true to his Lord in this strange land.  And his struggle was complicated by the fact that he lived and worked in the center of power and luxury, the palace of the King.   Daniel was very valuable to the King, for the young man was possessed of remarkable insight and intelligence, gifts from God. 
    Well, one day, Nebuchadnezzar called for Daniel to appear before him.
    Daniel, the King said, I wonder if you can help me interpret a powerful dream that I had last night.   In my dream I saw a magnificent and beautiful tree, the trunk of which grew straight and strong and so tall that it’s top could not be discerned from the ground.  It seemed to grow right up and touch the sky.  The branches of this tree grew lush and full, and in them all the birds of the air made nests, and raised their young.  The sound of their songs and the flashes of colors from their wings enlivened the scene.  The tree flowered and blossomed and bore fruit, all at the same time.  The fragrance was intoxicating, and drew creatures of the forest and the plains, who feasted on the fruit and rested in the shade.  There did not seem to be any limit to the tree’s bounty or beauty, and I marveled as I beheld it. 
    Then, I heard a voice from heaven say to someone I could not see, “Go cut down the tree.  Fell it, and let the birds of the air and the creatures of the field scatter.   It will be no more.  And when there is nothing but the stump remaining, cap it with a great cap of iron, level with the grass around, so that no one will even be able to tell that it was there.  When you are done, let it be like a pasture, where oxen will graze, and not trace of grandeur remains.”
    My wise men tell me they cannot tell me what the dream means.  But it was so vivid, so real, I know it must have a message for me.  What do you think it means, Daniel? 

    And Daniel, who had advised the King for almost all of his young life, said, “Dear King, I hope that the dream is not meant for you.   But the meaning of the dream is not hard to see:  The tree is your empire.  It is large and beautiful and spreads over the whole world.  But, like all empires, it too will fall.  And you, great n, will fall as well.  Only when you are completely humbled, having lost all your power, your prestige, your position - everything you believe makes your life worth living, will you remember what I have said.  But when you do, and acknowledge God as the one worthy of worship, your life will be returned to you.  Like a shoot that rises from the stump of a great tree, you will live again.  Put not your faith in empire, but only in the God of the whole earth, who sees empires rise and fall.”

    As you might expect, Nebuchadnezzer did not heed Daniel’s advice.  He could not imagine the world without his empire.  It is a failure of imagination that has repeated itself in empires from Babylon, to Assyria, to Greece, to Rome, to the Ottomans, the Byzantines, the French, the British . . . well, you get they idea.   Yet Daniel’s words were true.  And his counsel was sound then, and sound even today:  Put not your trust in empire, for like majestic trees they rise and flourish and fall.  But happy are those who put their trust in the Lord, who lives and reigns forever. Like saplings, vigorous and full of life, those who trust first and foremost in Him rise from the ruins of the empires which have fallen and bear witness to the Lord of Life. 

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