In my yard I have some evergreen trees which serve as sort of a privacy barrier from the street. These particular trees are called arborvitaes, and the ones in my yard are the tall and skinny kind of evergreens, unlike the more bulky, dense evergreen trees that we commonly see all around town. I think the arborvitaes in our yard look pretty nice and healthy, standing tall and straight, but if those trees could talk, I’m sure they would say, “Hey, why don’t come here and look a little closer, because the reason we look tall and straight is that inside many of our branches are all these bungy cords that have us all wrapped together nice and tight.” I put those cords in there because one of the ice storms a few years ago did a real number on those trees, causing some of them to look like they were ready to split apart like a wishbone. So far it seems to be working pretty well, with my hope that those trees are back on their way to better health and strength – maybe.
If trees could talk, I’m sure the great tree of Moreh, near which Abraham built an altar, would tell us to look a little closer, too, not in order to tell us what we can do to maybe make a tree get to better health and strength, but to tell us what God did to truly give the man named Abraham the spiritual health and strength to build an altar to the Lord, the last of the summer projects that I pray God will lead us to do every day of our lives.
We don’t know why verse 6 specifically mentions the great tree of Moreh, but obviously it must have been a well-known tree even a couple of hundred years after Abraham lived when Moses wrote these words. We do the same kind of thing today: “We vacationed at Niagra Falls. We visited Mount Rushmore. We viewed the Grand Canyon.” You say a certain place name and immediately certain things come to mind. Even if the great tree of Moreh has meant nothing to you before – even if you don’t know if you ever heard of it before – I hope that what that tree would say if trees could talk can from now on bring to mind some very helpful things about what your dear Lord means for your everyday life.
One thing that tree would certainly say when seeing Abraham build his altar of praise to his God is, “Do what God says.” What led Abraham to do what God told him to do? “Leave your country,” God had said. “Go to the land I will show you,” God had said. What leads any of us to be able to do anything God wants us to do? “Consider all things rubbish,” God told us in our Second Lesson. “Pick up your cross and follow me,” even if it means being persecuted by family and friends, God told us in today’s Gospel.
What we aren’t told is that there was anything special about Abraham that led him to do these things. In fact, this is the first time we hear of Abraham in the Bible. That’s why he is still called Abram in our lesson, since it wasn’t until later that God changed his name to Abraham, which means “the father of many nations,” since from him would come the Savior of all the nations of the world. And what we hear about Abraham afterward often is not good at all. In the never next verses after our lesson, in fact, we see Abraham do the despicable thing of telling some foreign people whose help he needed that his wife Sarah was his sister, so he could save his own skin. Abraham was a sinner, just like you and me, as we prove every day of our lives. Isn’t it frustrating that so often our efforts to do what God says end up just like an evergreen tree would end up if the bungy cords holding it together snapped and gave way? “I don’t want to consider the things of this world rubbish compared to Jesus. I love my toys and my trinkets.” “I don’t want to pick up my cross and follow Jesus and end up looking to many of those who know me or work with me or go to school with me as some religious weirdo who still believes things the Bible says are true.” Without God’s bungy cords holding us together, we end up being exposed for what we really are – people who can’t do what God says and would have no hope of ever doing what God says unless God would also say something else too.
And he does. That’s why this tree of Moreh would not just say, “Do what God says,” but also, “Believe what God promises.” What led Abraham to build that altar to the Lord? What gave him the reason to offer him his thanks and praise? What is the only thing that can lead us to gather like this and build an altar to the Lord by giving him our thanks and praise? The only thing that can do that is God’s promises. In Abraham’s case there was a promise before he left for the future Promised Land, and there was a promise after he arrived in the future Promised Land.
After telling Abraham what to do, God told Abraham what he would do in verses 2-3: “I will make you into a great nation,” God said. “I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing,” God said. “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” God said. And then in verse 4 it says, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.” What enabled Abram to do what God said was believing what God promised. God promised that from Abraham – sinner that he was – would come the Savior of sinners. And it was the promise that had the power to get Abraham to believe it. This is a crucial point that many people never get, that many people have trouble getting, and that all of us are tempted to forget every day of our lives. The power is not in our doing, as we prove to God every single day with our sinning, but the power is in the words of the Lord, because it is the love of our dear Lord that enables us — and moves us — to do what God wants us to do. For one thing, the words God speaks are the words which cause us to believe in Jesus in the first place (just as in today’s baptism), and, for another thing, the very words God speaks give us the ability and the desire to then live for God.
And those promises also comfort us when it seems so hard to live for God. That’s something we can think about with the promise God gave Abraham after he arrived in the future Promised Land. Verse 7 tells us: The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord.” What led Abraham to say “Thank You” to God by building an altar was the promise of God that the place where he was standing would be part of the place where the future Savior of the world would someday be standing. But there was something that made that promise very difficult to believe. What are we told in verse 6 right before the promise about the Promised Land? “At that time Canaanites were in the land.” There were people there – many people – many strong-willed, evil people, who were later described by people from Israel who spied the land as seeming to be like giants compared to them as grasshoppers. To the human eye it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle that God would ever be able to keep the promise to give that land to Abraham’s offspring and future generations so a Savior could be born there.
What seemingly insurmountable obstacle is there in your life that makes you wonder if God could ever keep his promise that with him at your side you can overcome it? It might be something that has exhausted you or that keeps you up at night. It might be something that scares you and makes your stomach feel so nervous that you don’t remember what it is like to feel normal any more. It might be something that is more of an ongoing irritation or frustration. But whatever it might be, remember at all times the truly insurmountable obstacle that could never have been taken care of had not the God of Abraham intervened and sent his own Son – just as he promised – and who on the altar of the cross put his Son to death — so that you and I could have as our future home not in some unknown place in a faraway country, but in the ultimate Promised Land – where we will get to greet Abraham and all those who have gone before us on our way to standing in front of the Lord and Savior of all. If God took care of all the sins which we do against him every day of our lives, he will take care of all the difficulties of life which the devil wants to use to get us to doubt or not listen to the very promises which give us the ability to believe them, to live by them, and to be strengthened by them.
If you know trees, you may know that arborvitae comes from a Latin word meaning “tree of life.” The last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, pictures heaven as a place with a river flowing through it and on each side of that river the tree of life – the real arborvitae. If trees could talk, don’t you think they would tell us to look forward to the day when we will be able to hear what that tree has to say? Then right now let’s keep building an altar to the Lord every day of our lives by listening to what God has to say about what the One promised to Abraham back then means for us still today. And since God’s wants all people be blessed through that Promised One, that’s the arborvitae that he wants other people to hear about, too – and we know that even though trees can’t talk, we can! Amen.