Leaning Trees of Worship
By faith, Jacob, when he was dying,
blessed each of the sons of Joseph,
and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.
Joseph was displeased. His father Jacob had just extended his right hand, laid it on Ephraim’s head, and blessed him. Then, with his left hand, he had done the same for Manasseh.
But Manasseh was the older, the first-born! By rights, by custom, by time-honored tradition, the greater blessing—the blessing of the right hand—should have fallen upon him!
Having explained it to Joseph as best he could, Jacob rose from his bed, stood on his feet, took up his staff, leaned comfortingly upon it, and worshiped.
As he prayed, he reflected: Ever since that night at the ford of Jabbok it had been this way. Before the wrestling, he had indeed honored the LORD, but also walked tall, confident, and self-assured, guided by the wisdom of man.
But afterwards—after the Angel touched the socket of his hip, blessed him, and changed his name to Israel—he had walked with a limp, leaning upon his staff. And in so doing, he had somehow learned to receive the word of the LORD—the inheritance of wisdom from above—and to bestow it upon the beloved children of God.
If only Joseph could understand.
Of Pillars and Leaning Trees
In our mixed up world there are two postures of worship.
The first is that of a pillar. In exemplary fashion, it was struck long ago by the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. Standing very tall and very erect, he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess!” A pillar of righteousness, in his own sight.
The second posture is that of a leaning tree. In exemplary fashion, it too was struck in Jesus’ parable, this time by a trembling tax collector. Standing far off, unwilling even to raise his eyes to heaven, he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Can you not see him leaning? He is leaning far, far away from himself, his character, and his accomplishments, all of which, in his own eyesight, seem like iron chains, ready to drag him down to hell. Can you not see him leaning, as far and as hard as he possibly can into the strong wind of God’s raw mercy.
A leaning tree of worship—who alone, according to Jesus, returned to his house justified in God’s sight.
Learning to Lean
But we dare not misunderstand.
To be sure, God is merciful: His great Father heart inclines him to it always. But his holiness, sovereignty, and paternal responsibility for the proper government of his world do not permit him simply to show mercy at his pleasure. No, he must show mercy by finding a way to satisfy his own justice, placate his own anger, and make guilty tax collectors—as well as self-centered Pharisees—righteous in his sight.
Just here we meet the Glad Tidings: In Christ Jesus—the Staff of God—he has done this very thing.
By his perfectly righteous life, he has won a perfect righteousness for all—for all who will lean on him.
By his atoning death, he has paid the just penalty for the sins of all, and placated the divine wrath against all—all who will lean on him.
Before Christ had finished his course, the poor tax collector cried out to God for mercy—and trembled in fear and uncertainty. Had he cried out after Pentecost, God would have replied, “Lean on the Staff that I have just provided, and like Jacob of old you shall have mercy, and a new name besides: Prince with God, and My Beloved Son in Whom I am Well Pleased!”
When I imagine the aged Jacob standing before Joseph and his sons, leaning upon his staff and worshiping the One who had lovingly brought him so near, I think I hear him saying, “LORD, bring them all to an understanding; but as you do, please, be as gentle as you can.”
For it is no light thing to become a leaning tree of worship. The Angel of the LORD himself must come to you by night. He must cast his dreadful gaze upon the libertine—or the proud, self-righteous Pharisee—within. And he must also cast your gaze upon the heavenly wrath and hellish torments that the libertine and the Pharisee so richly deserve.
Moreover, if he does come, you must not let him go. Rather, in fear and trembling, you must wrestle until you prevail; until you receive the holy wound with which you will walk—haltingly and in frequent pain—for the rest of your days. And you must wrestle until you receive the holy Staff that will enable you to do so.
No, it is no light thing to become a leaning tree. And yet, for the sinful sons of Adam, there is no richer gift, no higher honor, no sweeter pleasure. For now, having become such a tree, you learn to worship.
Since it is precious in your sight, you take your Staff in hand and say, “Thank you God for having mercy on me, a sinner. Thank you for the visitation, the wrestling, the wounding, the placing of your dear Son securely beneath my arm. Thank you that I can now walk—be it ever so haltingly—in your holy presence.
“But most of all, thank you for my strong Staff. Thank you for placing my sins upon him. Thank you for placing his righteousness upon me. And thank you for placing his Spirit deep within, that I might become a Christ-centered son, rather than remain a self-centered sinner.”
Beloveds, the eyes of our heavenly Father are seeking all over the world for worshipers like this. Truly, they are the joy of his heart.
And if you are among them—standing before his throne, leaning upon your Staff—be prepared! For like Jacob of old, you are sure to find yourself filled with the Spirit, and receiving words of wisdom from above.
When you do, simply extend your hands, lay them on the heads of God’s dear children (as he directs!), and speak the words boldly.
Behold, they too will become trees of worship, leaning on their Staff; they too will receive the inheritance of the princely sons of God!