Once upon a time there were three trees that grew beside one another in the forest and were good friends, sharing their deepest thoughts. They often talked about the next life. (The next life, for a tree, is what it will be made into after it is cut down.)
The first tree used to say: “In my next life I would like to be associated with new things, with youth.” Now, there is one way that a tree can be associated with youth, and that is by being made into a baby’s cradle. So the tree longed for this with all its heart, longed for it so much that it imagined it had to be.
The second tree was a traveller at heart. “I want to travel the world,” it said. “I am tired of being in this one place all my life. I want to spend my next life travelling.” There is one way for a tree to manage this: it is by being part of an ocean-going liner. The tree dwelt so much on this hope that it began to be certain beyond doubt.
The third tree was different, more reflective, contemplative. “I have no desire to travel,” it said. “I have loved to stand here all my life, pointing to heaven, reminding people that there is a God in heaven who loves them. In my next life I would wish to be able to do the same, in some way.” Its mind lived so naturally in a world of truth, beauty, goodness – far above this painful world – that it believed this contemplation must last forever.
Then one day the foresters came, bringing axes, saws, ropes, all the instruments of felling. “What will I be used for?” cried the first tree, trembling in the face of death. “Am I going to be turned into a baby’s cradle?” The foresters laughed. “Baby’s cradle, indeed!” they said. “We have news for you: you will not be a baby’s cradle but an animal’s feeding-trough!” The tree died beneath their blows. It died a double death, for its hopes died with its body. It died in despair; never would it be associated with new life, but only with filthy animals and their food.
BUT… this feeding-trough became the cradle in which the Lord was placed when he was born in Bethlehem! So it was associated with new life after all – with life so new that thousands of years later it is as new as in the beginning, and it will continue forever to be new. The tree’s hopes were not fulfilled; they were surpassed!
Next day the foresters approached the second tree with their axes. “Am I to be part of a ship?” it asked, its leaves and branches trembling with fear. “What big notions you have!” they said. “You are going to be a little fishing boat!” The tree’s hopes were shattered and it died, like the other, in despair.
BUT… this fishing-boat was the one in which the Lord sat to preach to the crowds at the Lake of Galilee. From that little boat the Good News has gone out to the whole world and continues even today to circle the globe, and it will continue thus to the end of time. The tree’s hopes were not fulfilled; they were surpassed!
Then the foresters came to the third tree. “There’s a man to be crucified tomorrow,” they said roughly, “and you will be the cross!” Like the other two, the tree died in despair. Never again would it be associated with God or with a world of truth, goodness and love; instead it would be associated with cruelty, failure and death.
BUT… (and this is the greatest ‘but’ in history) that tree stands in a million places throughout the world, pointing to a God who loves us more than we ever dared imagine, a God who does not fulfil our hopes but surpasses them.