Our first reading for today from Jeremiah presents us with contrasting pictures of a shrub in the desert and a tree planted beside the water. Each of these represents a different kind of response to life. Both of them evoke in my mind pictures of places I have seen. They are parables of the human condition.
The shrub in the desert reminds me of the scraggly bushes on the rocky hills of Israel/ Palestine that I saw when I was one of the chaplains to a group at St. George’s College, Jerusalem a few years ago. (2006) The same image reminds me of some of the desert wildernesses I have seen here in America; in the central part of the State of Washington, travelling there many times with my parents as a boy. I remember barren hills with clumps of sage brush growing here and there, along with outcroppings of rock and piles of dried tumble weeds along the barbed wire fences. I am also reminded of deserts in Eastern Oregon, Nevada, and parts of Southern California, with a similar scarcity of plant life, and vast salt flats. As I read the portion of Jeremiah that we heard as the first reading today I knew that the Prophet Jeremiah had seen the same kind of landscape as these, and used that image to illustrate the condition of those who put their trust in mere mortals, and in their own strength, and turn away from God. (Jer. 17:5-6) Those shrubs remain small and offer very little nourishment for the wildlife or flocks of sheep grazing there. In the same way the souls of those who trust only themselves and turn away from God are small.
The contrasting image used by Jeremiah to describe those who trust in the Lord is that of trees planted by water sending out roots by the stream for nourishment. (Vv. 7-8) Here in Cambridge we are familiar with the Plane Trees, or Sycamores, and other trees lining the banks of the Charles River. I am also reminded of the lush growth of trees along the banks of the Jordan River where it leaves Lake Galilee, and the groves of olive trees along the highway going towards Jerusalem from Galilee. I am also reminded of trees along the banks of rivers and streams in other parts of America, and other countries that I have visited.
Jeremiah uses such trees growing by water to illustrate those who put their trust in the Lord, and he calls them blessed. Carrying the analogy a step further I think that we can say that it is not only putting trust in the Lord that brings blessing, but it is also the life of prayer that enables all of us who put our trust in the Lord to receive a blessing.
The prayers that we pray from our hearts, and the meditations that we make, are like the roots that the trees send down into the earth to draw up nourishment. They are our means of spiritual nourishment that enable us to put our trust in God and share God’s love with others, bearing fruit for God.
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