Despite the fact that I have spent almost my entire life living in south Florida, my first experience with a major hurricane actually took place in northern Virginia. Hurricane Isabel was deadliest, costliest, and most intense hurricane of the year 2003. Reaching category five status for about a day, Isabel eventually slammed into the outer banks of North Carolina and sliced through the middle of the state of Virginia. I remember my wife and I hunkering down in the middle of our tiny apartment as we listened to the storm rage outside our windows.
Now Virginia Theological Seminary, where I was a student, is situated around a large grove of trees. At the time of the storm, many of these trees had been standing in that grove for decades and were several stories tall. But the day after the storm, as we began to return to campus, we discovered that many of those majestic trees had been toppled over by the storm. As I looked closely, I was surprised to see that the root systems of these trees were relatively shallow compared to their imposing height. The roots were several feet wide, but only a few feet deep. In other words, due to the weakness of their superficial root system, these trees didn’t stand a chance against powerful winds of Hurricane Isabel.
And in that moment, as I looked at these toppled trees, I remember thinking that these same trees had been the ones struggling to survive just one year earlier during a prolonged period of drought. Why? Because of their superficial root system. You see, these tall, majestic trees were okay as long the conditions stayed relative stable. As long as there were no difficulties, no challenges, no adverse circumstances, these trees were fine. But as soon as they were buffeted by the wind, as soon as they were scorched by the heat, as soon they were deprived of their status quo, they struggled to survive and in many cases were destroyed.
Now half way around the globe, near a place called Echo Caves in South Africa there is a tree called the Wild Fig. On the surface, this tree looks like any other tree, growing and bearing fruit in due season, but underneath the surface is a root system that descends as much as 400 feet into the earth. The root system of the Wild Fig Tree is the deepest ever recorded and because of the depth of its roots, the Wild Fig Tree of South Africa can withstand the harshest of environmental conditions. When it is buffeted by the wind, scorched by the heat, or in any other way deprived of its status quo, the Wild Fig is able to stand strong.
You see, the contrast between the beloved trees in the grove of Virginia Seminary and Wild Fig trees of South Africa couldn’t be more clear. It’s the difference between superficiality and depth. It’s the difference between going wide and going deep.
Our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah this morning is all about our call as the people of God to go deep. Jeremiah is writing during a time of significant political, economic, and social unrest. The kings of Israel have consistently failed to live into the covenant that God had established with his people and now the powerful Babylonian empire is threatening to conquer and dominate the very land that God had promised and entrusted to his people. The challenge for Jeremiah is that most of his contemporaries don’t think there is a problem. Most of the people don’t think anything is wrong and they would go about the streets declaring, “Peace, peace, but, in fact, there was no peace!”
But Jeremiah lifts up his prophetic voice and says “Listen! – things are going to worse before they get better. Challenging days are before us. The Babylonians are coming whether we like it or not!” And in these difficult days, we can choose to respond in one of two ways – we can go wide or we can go deep. We can choose to place our trust in human strength and human wisdom or we can choose to place our trust in the power and sovereignty of God. We can be superficial people tossed by the winds of change and scorched by the heat of violence and despair or we can be deep people who put down spiritual roots that penetrate the endless depths of God’s love and mercy and grace. Jeremiah is asking his community – “What kind of people do you want to be?”