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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 02/17/2019

The phrase “Who do you trust?” comes to mind looking at this week’s lessons. Some of you might remember the old “Who do you trust?” TV quiz show from back in the late 1950’s, early 60’s. I didn’t remember much except that a young Johnny Carson was the host before he took over the Tonight Show, but of course these days you can look up and watch anything on YouTube and doing so I found out that “Who do you trust?” was really less of a quiz show and more Johnny Carson interviewing the contestants, always a husband and wife, and using his quick wit in the back and forth dialogue with them. Eventually a category would be presented and Johnny would ask the husband if he trusted himself to answer a question related to that category or if he trusted his wife; who do you trust?

I digress though as none of that really has anything to do with today’s lessons, just a little trip down memory lane to perhaps get your attention. Today’s lessons aren’t about trusting yourself or your wife, they’re about trusting in God. In Jeremiah it’s put very directly with a contrast made between those who trust in mere mortals and those who trust in the Lord. In Psalm 1 there is a contrast between those who follow the advice of the wicked and those who delight in the Lord. The gospel reading with Luke’s blessings and woes is less direct, but it’s not a stretch to understand the blessings as having to do with trusting that God is in control, the woes as trusting in the things and ways of this world. As is usually the case, the verses from Corinthians aren’t intentionally connected to the other lessons but even they could be said to be about trust, trusting in the proclamation that Christ has been raised from the dead, trusting that as it’s true for him it’s also true for us.

Jeremiah, the psalmist and Jesus all indicate that trusting in the Lord will make you happy or blessed and that probably underlies what Paul says as well. What I kept coming back to though as I thought about this is what do those words, trust, happy and blessed mean in this case. They’re all familiar and you feel like you know what they mean until you start to try and put words to it. How do you explain what it means to trust in the Lord? Can you put into words what it means to be blessed? Is blessed the same as happy? You feel like they’re questions that should be easy to answer until you try to do it. What you do know however, is that when it comes to happiness and blessings what Jeremiah, the psalmist and Jesus are getting at is not the same as what the prevailing wisdom of the world would have you believe, but then explanation gets more difficult without just resorting to clichés and bland niceties.

For that reason it’s perhaps better to follow the lead of Jeremiah and the psalmist and talk about trees. Jeremiah says those who trust in the Lord are “like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought in its not anxious and it does not cease to bear fruit.” He contrasts that with a shrub that shrivels in the desert. The psalmist uses similar words saying that those who delight in the Lord are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither,” and that image is opposed to chaff that the wind blows away.

There’s a definite Middle Eastern dry, arid Bible times slant to those verses, one that is quite different from way we think about trees. We have an abundance of them; one of the things you notice when you fly over the UP is that what you mostly see are trees, maybe causing us to take them for granted or even to be annoyed by them when leaves have to be raked in the fall. Flying over the Middle East I assume would present a different picture and a different perspective. In an area where water is much more scarce, trees are also more scarce but also perhaps more appreciated as symbols of life that are able to endure despite heat and drought.

Despite our different perspectives though, the imagery works in both contexts because there are things that are true about trees wherever they are. With any tree, what is visible is the trunk and the branches and the leaves which provide it with beauty, but the life of the tree depends on what can’t be seen: the roots that reach deep into the earth finding moisture and nutrients and also providing grounding and stability that help to enable the tree to withstand even against the wind and snow and ice of a UP winter.

Despite the harsh weather we’ve experienced over the past couple of weeks, while there has been a lot of bending of branches and sometimes trunks of trees, there has been surprisingly little breakage. The trees are rooted and grounded and resilient. The psalmist and Jeremiah weren’t familiar with UP winters but if they were these past couple of weeks would have given them a lot to work with in their description of trees.

Metaphorically, for the psalmist, the roots represent trust and delight in the law of the Lord or better put, trust and delight in the teaching of the Lord; in Hebrew law and teaching are the same word. It’s that teaching though that roots us and grounds us enabling us to prosper in good times but also enabling us to persevere when we experience dryness and drought in our faith and in our life, enabling us to hang in and hang on when life throws storms our way. The question then is what is the essence of that teaching in which we trust?

The psalmist was undoubtedly referring to the way of life described by the teaching of the Old Testament. In general terms that’s part of the answer for us too insofar as the Ten Commandments are at the heart of that Old Testament teaching and Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The Commandments were an important part of Luther’s catechism which we still use and if everyone followed those commandments our life together would be blessed and happy.

For us then, that’s part of the teaching, part of the law in which we trust and delight but as Lutherans we are not just people of the law but we are people of the gospel as well and as Lutherans grace is at the center of gospel teaching. We trust that we are loved and forgiven not because we deserve it because a lot of the time we don’t; we’re loved and forgiven and accepted as we are by the grace of God, an undeserved gift revealed in and the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As Paul gets at in today’s Corinthians passage, it’s what is revealed in Jesus that roots us and grounds us. We trust in the proclamation that says that Jesus has been raised from the dead and the truth of that proclamation provides us with new life and new possibilities; it provides us with hope, announcing as it does that reality is now different, life and death are now different. Jesus embodies the grace that grounds us. Being rooted in the truth of the grace revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean that life is free of hardship, but like the trees, we can weather the storms.

The roots of the tree then help us to get at the trust described by the psalmist and Jeremiah, the trust implied by Jesus, but what about being happy or blessed? The tree metaphor provides some insight into that too. A tree is not worried or anxious about what it is, it doesn’t worry about where its water will come from. There is a sense of peace and contentment, dare we say happiness and blessedness?

At the conference I attended last Sunday and Monday the speaker talked a little bit about how money and possessions aren’t what makes people happy which is what the wisdom of the world would have you believe. He didn’t talk about trees, but maybe trees can teach us something about what it means to be happy. Even in the face of our recent bouts of ice and snow, the trees, while stressed, have taken on spectacular beauty especially when the sun has shined like last Wednesday after the storm with bare ice covered branches shining and looking like they were made of glass.

What Jeremiah, the psalmist and Jesus in Luke 6 all have in common is that they offer two ways: blessing or woe, well watered trust or shriveled fear. Again we’re reminded that in the Bible, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s fear with the frequent refrain of “Do not be afraid.”

We probably all view Amish people as being a little strange and out of step with the modern world but their approach is…start early, work hard and then rest and take delight, knowing that it’s all in God’s hands. They may be out of step with the modern world but it sounds like they have figured out how to walk in step with Jeremiah and the psalmist and Jesus.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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