Date: March 4, 2020
Festival: Lenten Midweek 2
Text: Psalm 96 (antiphon vv. 12b-13a); Genesis 18 and 23
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #427 In the Cross of Christ I Glory
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the fall of 2018, a mass shooting left a dozen people dead at a country music bar and, just a day later, a wildfire raged through this same community of Thousand Oaks, California, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate. The mayor of this city, Andy Fox, said the people of Thousand Oaks would show their strength through their resilience just as their city’s namesake is one of the world’s strongest trees.
Whether or not we have faced such crimes and threats, all of us also live among the Bible’s trees, such as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we heard about last week, and now the oaks of Mamre near the Machpelah for this week as we continue our Lenten sermon series, “Living among the Bible’s Trees.”
The Trees We’ve Lost through Sin
Our text begins with Genesis 18, “And the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre” [v. 1]. With a number of different original Hebrew words in use, instead of “oak” trees, translators sometimes call them “great trees” or “terebinth,” which are these extremely thick, large trees native to Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey. Perhaps we could say these trees are the Sequoias of the Middle East.
At some point, Abraham had moved his tent by these trees of Mamre near Hebron, and as he settled there he also built an altar to the Lord [Genesis 13:18]. In Genesis 18, the Lord’s appearance to Abraham in the midst of those great trees of Mamre told us, among other things, that the Lord reiterated His promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah, this time in Sarah’s hearing [cf. Genesis 17:15-21].
In Genesis 23—our second reading—we heard Abraham’s acquiring the land just east of Mamre in a typical negotiation under Hittite law. This land near Mamre was called Machpelah, and Abraham wanted to purchase the land—with its trees and the cave—initially as a burying place for his wife. Later, it would be used to bury Abraham himself [Genesis 25:9-10], as well as their promised son Isaac [Genesis 35:27, 29], then Isaac’s wife Rebekah and their son Jacob, Jacob’s wife Leah [Genesis 49:29-32; 50:13], and perhaps also Jacob’s son Joseph [Genesis 50:25; Exodus 13:19; Hebrews 11:22; cf. Joshua 24:32 and Acts 7:15-16].
It’s been thousands of years since the burials of these patriarchs and their families, so these trees are long gone. As sad as the loss of these oaks or any other single tree might be, sadder still is humanity’s loss of access to the whole garden of trees that, in the beginning, God created for our first parents and for us. Even sadder is the death of our first parents that we ourselves shall also experience, which we deserve because of our disobedience to God.
You may recall God Himself had driven out Adam and Eve and, to the east of the Garden of Eden, God placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life, preventing human access to it [Genesis 3:24]. For Abraham and his household, the great trees of Mamre were an oasis in the desert, respite from the sun and heat, and a place to rest; but these trees were also a reminder of the better garden lost through sin.
Before the Fall, there was no oppressive heat and, therefore, no need for an oasis in the desert; the warmth of the sun was always and only a welcoming thing and did not cause heat injuries like heat strokes and hallucinations due to severe thirst. Much worse, in the time after Abraham, the shady oases under similar large trees became sites of sin, especially prostitution in the fertility rituals of pagan worship [Isaiah 1:29; 57:5; Ezekiel 6:13; Hosea 4:13-14].
You and I may not participate in such rituals of pagan worship, but we do sin in other ways—thoughts, words, and deeds against the 1st Commandment and the others that follow; thoughts of other men or other women; words of sexual harassment, emotional abuse, or gossip; and deeds of hurting our neighbour, profaning God’s name, and disobeying our parents. Not only deeds we have done, but also deeds planned and schemed but left undone.
Because of our disobedience, we have lost access to the Garden of Eden’s trees, but worse than this is the fact that our first parents died and we, too, shall die and return to the dust from whence we came, which we deserve because of our sinful nature and all our sins. Like our first parents, we try to hide our sins from God, thinking we can get away with it if only we can devise some rationality against the Word to justify our favourite sins that God condemns; but it is a feckless endeavour. God knows our sins and He does not hide His judgement of sin.
In the first reading, God did not hide His judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah from Abraham for their many sexual sins like fornication, incest, and homosexuality. Neither did God hide His judgement of the sins of the Canaanites who sacrificed infants, children, and young adults to their false gods. His judgement was so severe against these Canaanites and Sodom and Gomorrah that we have yet to find any archaeological evidence of their existence. And God still does not hide His judgement of our sins and the sins of others. As Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, he confessed his own origin from dust and his return to ashes [Genesis 18:27].
Enabled by God, we do well to do the same: repent in dust and ashes this Lenten season and all the days that follow. For when we repent, God forgives our sinful nature and all our sins. God forgives our sins against His Commandments. He forgives all our sins, whatever they might be. He forgives us for the sake of Abraham’s greatest Offspring, Jesus Christ.
The Tree of Abraham’s Greatest Offspring
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh descended from Abraham; Jesus Christ is the Offspring of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. Jesus was born, lived, and died on the cross in order to save every person from his or her sins, including you and me. Out of His great love for you and me, Jesus gives His perfect life in place of our imperfect lives; Jesus died the death we deserve because of our sins so that we do not have to die eternally—so that we do not return to dust and ashes for all eternity.
And Jesus rose from the dead and thereby accomplished His victory over sin, death, and the power of the Devil for us. Abraham’s intercession and mediation for Sodom and Gomorrah led to the saving of three lives among the greater multitude of iniquity—his nephew Lot and Lot’s two daughters [Genesis 19:15-16]. Similarly, Jesus’ intercession and mediation for us leads to the saving of the small multitude of Christians amidst the greater multitude of iniquity as we repent of our sins and receive His forgiveness through His means of grace in the Word and Sacraments.
Remember in the first reading when Abraham provided unleavened bread for the Lord and those who were with him? That especially points us to the Sacrament of the Altar where unleavened bread is the body of Christ given for you and wine is the blood of Christ shed for you, giving you the forgiveness of sins as well as life and salvation. Better than the meal Abraham served the Lord under the oaks of Mamre, at this altar under the tree of the cross, the Lord Himself serves you.
Here He has fellowship with you who are brought into His household. This house of God is the oasis in the desert of our lives, for here under the great tree of the cross that covers your sins, you have rest, refreshment, and respite from the wilderness of the world, just as Abraham had with the Lord under the great trees at Mamre. Considering the great trees of Mamre near the Machpelah, we realise that, though we deserve to be deserted by God, instead we are blessed in Abraham’s Offspring, Jesus Christ.
The trees near the cave of the Machpelah no doubt helped located the cave where Sarah and the others were buried. Abraham’s purchase of that burying place was the result of his faith in God’s promise not only to give the land to his descendants but also to raise the dead on the Last Day. God similarly gives us faith to live out our callings, including our callings as faithful spouses and relatives burying our loved ones not with a grief that has no hope, but a grief that bears witness to the sure and certain hope of the resurrection [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18].
God also gives us faith to serve in our callings as faithful employees and students and in all the others areas of life. God makes us to be what Isaiah referred to as “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified” [61:3]. And after the resurrection of the dead, our access to the tree of life is restored in the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down from Heaven at God’s behest [Revelation 21:2; 22:1-2], no evidence to remain of the greater multitude of iniquity that now surrounds us.
Conclusion: To Rise from Dust and Ashes
Months after the shooting and fire in Thousand Oaks, local high schools participated in a marching band showcase because the shooting and the wildfire had cut their regular marching band season short. The event was much more than a marching band showcase, however. For the Thousand Oaks community, it was a commemoration of everything they had been through and a celebration of all they could do together.
Music is also part of our celebration when God brings us through this Great Tribulation. For example, the antiphon for our appointed Psalm today describes the trees of the forest singing for joy because the Lord comes to judge the earth. While that judgement will mean eternal condemnation for the unrepentant just like those in Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the Canaanites, by God’s grace for the sake of Jesus Christ, that judgement also means eternal salvation for those few of us who repent and trust in Christ’s promise to raise us from dust and ashes into the new life eternal.
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Abraham’s Offspring in whom we are blessed. Amen.
Allen, Ronald B. “1670a Tree, etc.” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Ed. R. Laird H arris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Vol. 2. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.
Gold, Victor Roland. “Machpelah.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick. Vol. 3. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962.
The Lutheran Study Bible. Genesis 18:27 textual note. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Miracle, Veronica. “Thousand Oaks Community Bands Together after Mass Shooting, Woolsey Fire.” ABC7.com. December 1, 2018. https://abc7.com/society/thousand-oaks-bands-together-after-recent-tragedies/4803770/. Accessed February 26, 2020.
“More Than 200 People Are Unaccounted for in California Wildfires.” National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. November 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/11/12/666870936/more-than-200-people-are-unaccounted-for-in-california-wildfires. Accessed February 26, 2020.
Wolf, Herbert. “45i Terebinth, oak.” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Vol. 1. Chicago: Mood Press, 1980.