The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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Solid as Oak

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Throughout the world, the qualities of the oak tree allowed its wood to be employed for many different purposes. Peasant farmers once used the limbs to hoe the fields and the trunks held the sails of the mighty Tall Ships. Most people do not associate the land of Palestine with the majestic tree but of the 450 species in the world over two dozen grow within the boundaries of Israel. Several are quite old. A journal from the 1500s tells of a rabbi visiting the grave of another rabbi who died in the Second century. The journal reads, ""I prayed over the grave of Rabbi Halafta, which is on the plain, and a large oak tree is over it."1 If that oak tree was planted at the time of the rabbi's death, which was the custom, it is now nearly 675 years old.

Due to its longevity, the tree was used to mark certain historical events and those associated with religious occasions. Abraham went to live near a grove of oaks and built an altar to the Lord underneath the trees. (Genesis 13:18) When Rebekah's nurse died, Jacob buried her underneath an oak (Genesis 35:8) and he called the tree, the oak of weeping. Before Joshua led the people into the Promised Land, he wrote the Law of God on a stone tablet and set the tablet underneath a giant oak to serve as a witness of the covenant that God made with the people. It is recorded that Saul received three signs confirming his anointing as Kind under an oak tree. (I Samuel 10:3) Many years later King Saul and his sons were killed in battle. His men took their bodies and buried them under an oak tree. (I Chronicles 10:12)

For some, this review of encyclopedic facts about oak trees may seem totally irrelevant to the holiday season. I doubt if few of us have trimmed our fireplaces with oak leaves or will be placing gifts underneath a immature oak tree. You may have a few oak logs on the fire but evergreen branches and Douglas firs are the preferred holiday trim. But let me ask you a question, "What would you rather be known as, having the character of oak, or soft pine?" Isaiah offers hope to the people. He is anticipating the coming devastation of the land and destruction of Jerusalem. He knows that the people will not escape the pending judgment but he encourages with a message of future hope by using the symbol of the tall stately, oak. Being a good spiritual horticulturalist, Isaiah understands that such massive trees require the proper growing conditions. The first is the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

The character and nature of the Spirit of God is somewhat easier to state by describing what the Spirit is not. In the Scripture, the Spirit is not the natural abilities, skills, talents, or giftedness of a person. It is neither the entertainer's charismatic aura nor the scientist's intellectual superiority nor the politician's charm. It is not a quality found within a person. We do not posses it, rather, it posses us. In Reformed theology, we say that baptism is a sign and seal of the presence of the Spirit of God. The pouring of the water adult portrays the anointing by God. Neither the child nor the adult has any control, influence, or responsibility in the moment. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a divine act of grace. The wetness of the moment serves to remind us of the seal or promise that God makes to send his Spirit. But that theological description, just does not give just to the occasion when anointing of the Spirit sweeps over a person in an unforgettable, mysterious, nearly indescribable, and completely unexpected moment.

He sat in the kitchen staring at a cup of coffee. He had spent the previous night in jail; arrested and imprisoned for going 25 in a 30 mph zone. A few minutes before someone called. They introduced their remarks with a racial slur and then said. "We are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this two in tree days, we're going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house. In the next room, Coretta was sleeping along with their newborn daughter, Yolanda. In his own words, the Rev. dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described that moment:

And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep.... And I got to the point that I couldn't take it anymore. I was weak. ... 

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it.... I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage." 

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world."...I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.2 

It was that anointing by the Holy Spirit with sovereign power that enabled Martin Luther King, an inexperienced, 26-year old minister to proclaim liberty to the poor and freedom to the captives even after his house was bombed, fellow Christians yelled racial slurs to his face, and he was arrested and jailed. 

Advent is more than about the birth of a baby. It is also a season that prepares for the coming of the anointing of the Holy Spirit with the sovereign power of God. Isaiah received that anointing and it allowed him to preach good news to the people of Judah before their humiliating, bitter, and painful exile. His words were also a prophecy that God would again send someone who would claim that sovereign anointing. That prophecy was fulfilled in remote stable one lonely evening. But that prophecy is also fulfilled when God raises up people to continue the proclamation of the gospel and bring freedom to the captives and release to the prisoners.

As water, and air and light give life to an acorn seed, so is the anointing of the Holy Spirit to the life of a believer. An acorn cannot grow without those three elements, neither can a believer grow and minister without the element of divine presence.

I wonder if anyone here is willing to allow God to anoint them with his sovereign Spirit?

Throughout history, the Church goes through period in which she interprets Scripture differently. The Scripture do not change but research and archeological discoveries sometimes shed new light on the message. Also, the social climate will prompt scholars to approach a passage from a different perspective. Within the last 100 years two very different and distinct perspectives to the experience of salvation has arisen within the church. 

The conservative position tends to understand salvation solely as a personal event. Salvation is about a personal relationship with a personal savior. Its about me and Jesus who saves me from the power of sin. Holiness is limited to moral behavior and abstaining from passionate sexual conduct outside of marriage, excessive drinking, smoking, and swearing. Ethical conduct in business or politics is filtered through a myriad set of lens that allows Biblical commands to be interpreted by cultural values. Clarence Jordon, the author of The Cotton Patch Gospel, constantly tried to show people the hypocrisy in this form of religious piety. During one sermon, he told a congregation that if a prostitute attended church, their looks of scorn would be enough to run her out of the sanctuary, before they would ever find out why she had come to church in the first place. But if a wealthy businessman with a dubious reputation, attended worship, they would make him deacon without ever considering his ethics.3

In reaction to this, the other position places greater emphasis on the social consequences of the gospel. They interpret the word poor to represent those who live in financial poverty. They tended to concentrate their ministry efforts on relieving the social, economic, and political injustices.

The photograph captured the scene and social climate. Two Catholic priests were standing behind wire baskets stuffed with burning draft notices that they had taken from the files of an office of the Selective Service board. The clergy had soaked the papers in homemade napalm. The two brothers were joined by seven others to perform an act of civil disobedience: the first mass burning of draft files.4

Some considered the action a "stroke of moral boldness, an authoritative rebuke to an unjust war..." Others considered it an unpatriotic, disloyal act that cast a shadow over the efforts of brave young men who were defending our nation. But until his death from cancer last week Phillip Berrigan consider himself a World War II veteran who became a pacifist because he took seriously the Word of God. His brother, Daniel, wrote, "Do not imagine that some magic or other will beat the world's swords into plowshares....Your yourselves must acts." He goes to accuse the church of trivializing the gospel. 

There flourishes at large a hyper-spiritualized version of salvation. It is intensely concerned with self, with "rapture" (and the devil take the hindmost). Such salvation ferments, to all appearances, in the head only, a kind of pseudo-ecstasy, without cost or empathy or a sense of the suffering of the innocent. It is little concerned with our culture of death, or a critique of same, and much concerned with something known as the "afterlife.5

Daniel Berrigan's words are just as prophetic as Isaiah's message and just as unpopular. They put flesh and bones upon the covenant that God gave to the people of Israel to defend the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. Faith could not be compartmentalized to the Sabbath and private devotion. Faith requires obedience in the marketplace, on Capital Hill, and in the house of worship.

But salvation is not an either or, it is a both and. The poor can be found living in homes along Commerce Drive in Orchard Lake and in a vacant lot along Woodward in downtown Detroit. The brokenhearted can be the woman who absorbs the angry blows of abuse as well as the man who inflicts them. Both the woman who poses nude and the man spends hours surfing the Internet to satisfy his sexual cravings are captives of exploitation. Prisoners can be found in Jackson State Penitentiary and offices at the top of the Renaissances Center.

The church is called to feed the hungry but a full belly does not satisfy an empty soul. The church is called to love the unlovable but programs to protect women and children do not alone heal the tears of the heart. Literacy programs and job skills training may go a long way to break the cycle of crime but unless the person is encouraged to read the book of freedom, they will remain bound in their prison.

The anointing of the Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed are the two essential growing conditions for spiritual oak trees. Isaiah draws together the nation's spiritual heritage with a secular symbol to offer Israel hope. He tells them that one-day they will be like a grove of oak trees, tall, and majestic. They will have an inner strength and endurance to withstand the violent forces of nature. We like the people 

1 Michael Brown, "Ancient trees fill Israel's landscape," Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, February 2, 2001/Shevet 8, 5761, Vol. 53, No.18, Online:
2 Martin L. King, Jr. from David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, Phillip Yancy, "Classic: Confessions of a Racist," Christianity Today, 1990.
3 Source unknown. 
4 "Murray Polner and Jim O'grady, "The Radical Faith of Philip Berrigan," Online:
5 David Lyle Jeffrey, "The Gospel According to Isaiah," Books and Culture, November/December 1998, Vol.4, No. 6, Page19, Online:

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