Remembrance Sunday, 10th of November 2019
Rev Dr John McCulloch
Micah 4: 1-8
St Luke 1: 68-79
Living Signs of Hope
In 1953, Jean Giono published a novel entitled: The Man who planted trees. It tells the story of a shepherd by the name of Elzeard Bouffier, and his effort to re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps during the first half of the 20th century.
The story is narrated by a young man who was walking through Province in 1910. He runs out of water after entering a valley where there are no trees, only shrubs growing amongst the ruined buildings and a dried up well. It is a picture of utter desolation. Let me read you a section:
‘After walking for three days I found myself in a landscape of unparalleled desolation. I camped near the skeleton of a deserted village. I hadn’t had any water since the previous day, and I had to find some […] there was a spring, but it had dried up’.
It is there that he meets the main character in this story, Elzeard Bouffier. Elzeard had been widowed and had lost his only child. The desolation of the valley where Elzeard lives, mirrors the barrenness he is now living in because his loss. But despite this, Elzeard does not remain in a place of bitterness, but engages in acts of hope. He begins to plant trees, to restore the ruined landscape back into life.
The narrator of the story goes off to fight in World War I. Traumatised by the war, he returns to see Elzeard, and sees young trees taking root in the valley, and new streams running through it. The narrator continues to visit Elzeard every year. The Second World War comes and goes, but the shepherd keeps planting trees, until the valley is restored to life.
Nobody knows how this transformation had come about. Elzeard’s work was done quietly, it went unseen by most, as he would just plant acorns from his pocket as he walked his dog. This is the description at the end of the novel, when the valley has been repopulated, and the ruins from the city rebuilt:
‘But now all was changed, even the air. Instead of the rough and arid gusts that I had met with before, there was a soft and scented breeze. A sound like water drifted down from the heights: it was the wind in the forests. But the most astonishing thing of all was the sound of water actually flowing into the basin. I saw the people in the village had built a fountain: it was gushing forth in abundance –and this is what moved me most– beside it they had planted a lime tree which must have been about four years old. It was already sturdy—An indisputable symbol of resurrection.’
Our Old Testament reading from Micah 4 paints a picture of transformation, a picture of God’s reign of peace and hope.
Micah lived at a time of war and conflict. A time when God’s rule of peace seemed very distant…
In this regard, our world has changed very little. For we too, especially today as we lament the loss of life of so many whose lives were cut short by war, are reminded on a daily basis that our world has not learnt the ways of peace…
It was also like this for Micah, as nation rose against nation. And yet, in the midst of this, he proclaims a day when there will be peace. In verses 3&4 we read: ‘they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken’.
It is a picture of transformation, restoration and hope.
We too, live in a world like that of the prophet Micah and Elzeard Bouffier, a world torn apart by war and ecological devastation. At times, we can lose hope. Imagine what Elzeard must have thought,… That after planting thousands of trees during World War I in the hope that the barren wastelands of war would be replenished by trees; within the short time span of his lifetime, World War II breaks out. The temptation would have been to give up. To sink into despair because nothing really changes…
Last week I was up at the Tent of Nations farm, just outside Bethlehem, in the Occupied West Bank. It is owned by our friends the Nasser family who are Palestinian Christians. They are surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. Many of their fruit trees and olive trees have been destroyed, as settlers have tried to drive them off their land. And yet the Nasser family refuse to be enemies with those who are trying to push them off their land. Like Elzeard Bouffier, they keep planting trees. They refuse to meet violence with violence, but follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour. Today, 300 of their olive trees are under threat from a demolition order.
Our Saviour, who spent his last hours under the silvery shadow of the olive trees, knew what it was like to face suffering.
When he climbed the Hill of Calvary, he refused to meet violence with violence, to teach us a better way.
And in reaching out to in forgiveness and love to the very soldiers who crucified him; he gave the world hope that love will win out over violence, and peace over war.
Our gospel reading from Luke reminds us of how the God of peace breaks into our world. Verses 78&79 of Luke 1 read:
‘Through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’.
Christ calls us, his church, to embody this message of peace and hope, in such a world as ours.
Christ comes to heal and restore, to reconcile and make peace, and to lift us up from the scorched valleys of despair, in the hope that they can be replenished with life giving streams and orchards of fruit trees.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and evermore shall be. Amen.