Genesis 18:1-15; Isaiah 61:1-3
The story of Abraham and Sarah’s visitation by angels begins with this sentence: “God appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre.” God appeared at the oaks of Mamre; not God appeared at the crabapples of Mamre; or God appeared at the buckthorns of Mamre or at the honeysuckles or the weeping willows or the poplars or at the spiny hawthornes of Mamre, but “God appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre.” When those first listeners of this story heard that Abraham was sitting in the shade of an oak tree, their mind was primed for the possibility that something important was about to happen, because this was not any ordinary setting; Abraham was in the presence of oaks.
Throughout human history, oak trees have been prized and revered by ancient people. There are about 600 species of oak trees around the world, all members of the genus Quercus, a name that comes from the Celtic word for “fine tree.” The Druids considered oak trees to have medicinal and spiritual qualities and the word ‘druid’ itself may mean “one who knows oaks.” In Greek mythology, the oak was a symbol of Zeus; in Norse mythology it was a symbol of Thor. King Arthur’s round table was said to have been fashioned from a massive slab of oak.(1) The Slavic people used the oak tree to depict the very structure of the universe, roots of earth and branches of heaven. So too, in ancient Israel, the oak was a spiritually important tree, revered partly for practical reasons. Oak trees produce copious amounts of acorns which were an important food source for a nomadic people, and its wood is hard and sturdy enough to resist the teeth of grazing animals that reduced other plants to stubble. Moreover, unlike in western NY where it’s hard to see the oak tree for the forest, in the barren rugged landscape of Canaan, oaks stood out against the sky and could be seen for miles, beckoning the weary traveler to rest in their shade.
God’s choice to appear to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre made sense to the first listeners of this important episode in Israel’s history because the rest, the shelter, and the provision symbolized by oak trees was symbolic of the covenant God was to forge on that day in the shade of their branches. There beneath the Oaks of Mamre, God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would give birth to a nation and their descendants would become a light to the world. Though Abraham and Sarah doubted and even laughed at the thought of such an impossible thing, later generations knew that God’s promise had come true because they were the living proof of that promise and so they when they saw the oaks of Mamre, they were reminded that God can do extraordinary things in the lives of God’s people. For generations, people would point to those oaks and say, “Something sacred happened here.”
If you were to plant an oak tree somewhere in the landscape of your life that said, “Here is a place where God did an extraordinary thing,” where would you plant it? When was there a time when you realized that God had been at work in your world making the impossible possible? When did you experience holy healing because of the presence of God, a moment of unexpected grace, a strength that you knew was not your own, a hope that pushed through your doubts and gave you the courage to face the next day because you trusted in God’s promise to lead you through the wilderness? Those are the places in the landscape of our memories where we should plant oak trees, memorials to the promise that God has made to us that God can bring life out of our barrenness and joy out of our sorrow. Plant an oak tree in your memory to remind you: “Something sacred has happened here.”
When I think of oak trees, I think of a particular stretch of a road between Geneseo and Rochester that my family drove every Sunday on our way into church. This was before the construction of 390 and so our route took us through the back roads of Livingston County past horse ranches and hog farms, scenery that was rather unremarkable and tedious to a young teenager. There was one field, however, that is burned into my memory. As a field itself, it was unremarkable — it was a hay field like a thousand other hay fields in the county — but scattered across its monochrome landscape, each an oasis in the grain, were a dozen or so towering oak trees that the farmer had left deliberately untouched to stand as sentinels over the crops. The oak trees were stunning in their majesty but more than that, those oak trees mark a moment of spiritual significance in my young life of faith, and I could never see them without remembering what happened one day in their shadow.
Just across the road from that field of oaks, there was a dilapidated shack, similar to a score of other poverty-stricken homes sprinkling the back roads of Livingston county. One winter day, as we drove by that field of oaks on our way home from church, we saw for the first time the occupant of the house: a wizened old woman was shuffling through the deep snow in her front yard with a load of firewood in her arms. It was quickly obvious that the woman’s only source of heat was the firewood in the shed twenty feet from her home and that the path to the shed was blown over with snow. She moved slowly through the drifts, hunched over from the weight of the logs in her arms, the wind blowing through her thin coat. My father immediately stopped the car, strode through the snow, and gently took the load of wood from her. For the next few minutes while we watched, my father carried armload after armload of wood into her house and when finally he climbed back into the car he said only, “It seems she lives alone,” and we resumed our trip. For my father, his act was nothing more than a simple act of kindness, one that I’m guessing he would not have even remembered doing later in life, but to that old woman struggling through the frigid snow carrying her burden, it must have felt to her like an angelic visitation. And it was for me an unforgettable lesson in the meaning of grace. The oaks towering over that stretch of road stand silently in the landscape of my mind marking a moment when God was made manifest to an old woman and to a young girl through our witness to the power of grace when it is lived out in a life of faith.
Where are there oak trees standing in your memory — times of unexpected grace, strength that you knew was not your own, hope that pushed through your doubts and gave you the courage to face the next day? Where can you look back and think, “God was at work in this place. Something sacred happened here?”
The oaks of Mamre remind us of God’s promise — forged first with Abraham and Sarah and then carried in the people of Israel down to us today, their descendants in faith — God’s promise that God is at work in our lives and will make possible what we believed to be impossible. God would take Abraham and Sarah who were old and barren, and make them the parents of a great race of people. God would choose Moses, a man who could barely string two words together without stuttering, to help defeat a Pharaoh. Through the women Deborah and Jael, God would lead an army to victory over the evil general Sisera. With God at his side, David, the pipsqueak youngest son of the least of the tribes of Israel, would fell giants and unite Israel as a nation. The prophet Isaiah says, “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners….they — the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives — they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” Plant an oak tree here, Isaiah says, to remind you that God is at work even through these most unlikely people. The bible is the story of men and women who showed little promise and had more sin about them than saintliness — people like you and me — through whom God brought to birth remarkable things. In the words of Jesus, “For mortals [salvation] is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
The Oaks of Mamre mark the place in the memory of the faithful not of where Abraham and Sarah strode forth in greatness to save the world but where God brought salvation to us in spite of their weakness and barrenness. Where are there oak trees standing in your memory — times of unexpected grace, strength that you knew was not your own, hope that pushed through your doubts and gave you the courage to face the next day? Where can you look back and remember, “God was at work in this place” and so in looking back to remember, find the faith to trust that God will be with you today and tomorrow, continuing to bring life out of your barrenness and joy out of your sorrow?
That is the promise that God made to us in the shade of the oaks of Mamre.