Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Of Shrubs and Trees"

Psalm 1:1-6

Jeremiah 17:5-11

 

      In this morning’s primary text, the prophet Jeremiah is writing specifically to the tribe of Judah;

the southern kingdom of a divided nation.  In the prophet’s view, one of the sins upon which Judah

would be judged was their love of wealth; much of it unjustly gained.  A second was their tendency

to raise up their earthly leaders as if they were deities; considering the words of mortals as having

more power, more wisdom, more authority than the word of Almighty God. 

      (Read Jeremiah 17:5-10)

      It seems the clear meaning of this passage is a simple one:  It is better to trust in God than to

trust in mere mortals.  On the face of it – for people of faith – nothing could be clearer.  We don’t

have to be theological giants to recognize that what is mortal sooner or later passes away, with-

out exception.  Every human has an expiration date.  Anyone who claims to believe in God would

surely want to place their ultimate trust in that which never passes away; in that which is immortal

and eternal.  Yet what seems so clear often does not account for the human heart, which Jeremiah

claims is “devious above all else….who can understand it.”  Many centuries later, the apostle Paul

recognized this in himself when he wrote:  “I do not understand my own actions……I can will what

is right, but I cannot do it….. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I

do.”  How many of us have the chops to make such a bold admission of our human frailty?

      Let’s get into some Old Testament history and theology for a moment.  In Jeremiah’s day, there

were basically two types of religious thinking which competed for the people’s allegiance.  On the

one hand, there were those who believed that God’s covenant of kingship – made with David when

he was king – was unconditional and inviolable.  At the heart of this belief was that God would

never allow Israel to be without a king from David’s lineage on the royal throne, and that the

temple in Jerusalem was their chief security.  Since God had chosen to dwell with them in that

temple, they should never know defeat.  Well, just prior to Jeremiah’s word recorded here, the ten

northern tribes of Israel had fallen to the armies of Assyria, many carried away from their home-

land.  So the two remaining tribes in the south – Judah and Samaria – saw the fall of the northern

tribes, not as a threat to their own security, but rather as a sign of their own invincibility.  They had

their king, their city, and their temple.  That has come to be called the “royal” view of religious

\faith.  Trust in the mortal king, and God will secure and protect Judah no matter what.

      Jeremiah, on the other hand, represented a less popular line of religious thought in Judah.  He

believed that king or no king; temple or no temple, God had called them during the exodus to be

a people of the covenant; of promise; first made with Abram, then with Moses.  If they ceased to

behave like covenant people – that is, ceased being faithful to God and obedient to God’s Law –

then all the kings and temples in the world could not help them.  According to this morning’s pro-

phecy from Jeremiah, to place trust in worldly kings and temples is to be like a shrub in the desert. 

Such trust may have all the appearances of life.  But in reality, it’s just one wind gust away from

becoming a tumbleweed.  But those who place their trust in God’s covenant – in God’s promises –

are like a tree planted beside a stream, so that even in the driest times, it will prosper and know

abundant life.  As far as Jeremiah was concerned, the people of Jerusalem were satisfied to choose

the appearance of life over the real thing; satisfied to be dead shrubs when they could have been

living trees.  In Jeremiah’s estimation, the people’s hearts were devious; stubborn; deceptive;

leading them to do the very things they knew not to do, while not doing the very things they ought. 

Rather than acknowledge their frailty and choose life, they chose instead to run headlong into death.

      Jeremiah’s prophecy seems to present a simple choice.  We all figuratively want to be planted

by a stream, not in the desert.  We all want to be living trees, not dead shrubs.  What is so hard

about such a clear and obvious choice?  The hard part is the heart must choose.  And as Jeremiah

and Paul both make clear, the human heart tends to be devious and deceptive, as well as open to

device and deception; leading us in the wrong direction, even when we know what the right

 direction is.  That’s part and parcel of our fallen condition. 

      So the question for us today is: how do we become and remain living trees rather than dead

shrubs?  How do we plant ourselves by streams which provide life, abundant and prosperous?  It

begins by respecting and responding to the authority of God as supreme, while at the same time

acknowledging that every human institution, and every human leader, is flawed.  It begins by

accepting that the power of God alone is abiding and eternal, while the power of every human

institution and every mortal leader is temporary and fleeting.

      In the case of ancient Judah, their supreme trust was in king and temple.  Jeremiah prophesied

that this sin would lead Judah into the same dry and arid bondage as the ten tribes in the north. His

challenge to the people was that they would place their supreme trust in God’s covenant -- not a

royal covenant of earthly kingship, but rather in a gracious covenant of trust in and obedience to

God’s supreme rule; later articulated by Jeremiah when he brought this divine assurance, “And you

shall be my people, and I will be your God.” 

     This does not mean there is no value in earthly rulers and institutions.  These things are neces-

sary to a healthy and functioning society.  But the value of leaders and institutions ultimately lie in

their faithfulness and response to the supreme rule of God.  If any institution, or any ruler, speaks

and acts contrary to God’s will as revealed in Holy Scripture, legitimacy and integrity are sacrificed. 

Such leaders and institutions – and anyone whose heart is deceived into placing their highest

devotion there --  are in Jeremiah’s view akin to shrubs in the desert; without roots; without water;

without sustenance; without life.

      Along with recognizing the flawed conditions and limitations of human institutions and mortal

rulers – of temple and king – we must also concede in our personal journeys that, in a manner of

speaking, “we ain’t all that.”  So often, we plant ourselves as shrubs when we esteem ourselves the

measure of all things; we the repository of all wisdom and truth; we the ultimate and supreme

authority in our own lives; when we start believing we are masters of the universe.  Despite every-

thing we hear today from our surrounding popular culture, we are not masters of the universe. 

And as much as we are deceived to believe otherwise, we don’t know it all.  Jeremiah says in effect: 

Cursed are we who put all our trust in ourselves, while turning our hearts away from the Lord.  

      Our call as people of faith is rather to place our ultimate trust in the One who alone is immortal

and eternal; to metaphorically plant ourselves by water which nourishes, strengthens, and sustains.

Jeremiah writes, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…… They shall… not fear when heat

comes, and (their) leaves shall stay green.  Again, this is not to say that trust in one’s self, in one’s

knowledge, in one’s wisdom, in one’s talents and abilities is a horrible and sinful thing.  Confidence

and trust in ourselves is one of the keys to success in this earthly journey.  But we are called to tem-

per confidence with humility; to know that it’s not all about us, and that at the end of the day, we

acknowledge and answer to the creating and sustaining Force of the universe, wherein the totality

of knowledge, wisdom, truth, strength and nourishment resides.

      As we are freely invited to be nourished at the Lord’s table, we tangibly demonstrate that it is

our desire to be like trees planted by water, sending out life-giving roots.  The elements of the sac

red meal remind us that there is ultimate sacrifice, ultimate grace, ultimate truth; none of which

comes from us, or from any king, or from any temple, but all of which comes from above.  Our

response in accepting the invitation is essentially an act of submission to the will of the One who

does know it all; the One who is the measure of all things; the One who is supreme authority; the

One who is all that.  So planted and nourished, we will not “cease to bear fruit.”

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102