I have always loved trees. As a child growing up in Buckinghamshire we had a vast sycamore tree in our garden which we called ‘The Big Tree’ (See image below). It was said to be one of the largest and oldest of its kind in the UK and was simply magnificent. There was a branch to the left of it that came right to the ground which was perfect for climbing up into a cavity in the middle of the tree, which was the place we went to as children to get away from everyone. My first experience of prayer was here as I spoke to God about whatever problems I was having – normally some kind of sibling rivalry or another.
There is something permanent and comforting about old trees. I often sit under Christ Church’s ‘Jaberwocky Tree’ imagining all those who have gone before over the centuries, and somehow all the temporary concerns are put in to perspective.
Sarai’s (her name is later changed to Sarah) story features a particular tree, or group of trees, evocatively named ‘The Oaks of Mamre’.
Sarai was married to Abram (her half-brother) and much of their life was spent travelling as Abram had been called by God to leave their homeland (Haran) and go into a new land where, he was told, they would be blessed. (Genesis 12.1-3).
They were indeed blessed in many ways, with wealth, land and livestock, but they were not blessed with a child, and this was all that Sarai wanted, and was all that was expected of her as a woman.
It is at the base of the Oaks of Mamre that two incidents occurred which changed the course of Sarai’s life. It was here that Abram first received the promise that they would have a child, and not only that, but their offspring would be so numerous they would be ‘like the dust of the earth’ (Genesis 13.16).
And it was also at the foot of the Oak of Mamre many years later when Sarah and Abram had another encounter with the Lord who came in the guise of three strange men, and again they were promised they would have a child.
But this time Sarah laughed at the prospect. She was now past the menopause or, as the bible delicately puts it, ‘it has ceased to be with [her] the manner of women’. Abraham was also past his prime – ‘my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ (Genesis 18.11-12).
But this time the promise was fulfilled. Sarah did indeed have a child, Isaac (which means ‘he laughs’).
Sarah’s life can’t have been easy and, as Hagar’s story yesterday revealed, she struggled with rivalry and jealousy. But she was faithful and strong and is remembered in all three Abrahamic faiths as one of the few biblical matriarchs (with Rebekah and Leah).
At the end of her long life Sarah was buried in the very first description of a funeral and burial in scripture, in a place lovingly secured by her husband Abraham, and where he would later join her: in a plot overlooking her beloved Oaks of Mamre.
So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area…After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.Genesis 23. 17-19
In John’s Gospel one of the very first disciples Jesus calls to follow him is Nathanael, who is sitting under a tree at the time!
I saw you under the fig treeJohn 1.48
and the very first thing Jesus says to those who follow him (in John’s Gospel) is:
What are you looking for?John 1.38
‘I saw you’, ‘What are you looking for?’
These are good questions to begin our Lent journey. Perhaps you might like to go outside and spend some time sitting under or near a tree and reflecting on what it is you’re looking for this Lent? It might be something personal like Sarai who longed for a child, or it might be a more rewarding job, or wisdom for a particular problem, or an ability to concentrate on your studies. Or perhaps it is for a deeper relationship with God this Lent.
Whatever it is, perhaps you might like to take it God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, thank you that you see us and hear us when we come to you in prayer. As you heard your daughter Sarai many centuries ago we pray that you would hear us today as we speak to you of all that we long for.