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Marcescence -- A Parable of Two Oaks

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Red oak

This is the story of two oaks on our property. They are both old and probably about the same age. One is a red oak and the other is a post oak. One is full of new green growth, a sure sign that spring has come and winter has passed. The other still sports its leaves of yesteryear, as if proud of its size and former glory, but it has all the appearance of being dead and lifeless.

Post oak

But it is not dead. Upon closer examination, the signs of new life are coming out on it, also.

The scientific term for this insistence of trees to not give up their old leaves is marcescence, and oaks are one of the species that often behave this way. There are several explanations that seek to explain why certain species lag behind in creating the "abscission layer", which effectively cuts off the vein that brings sap to the leaf, causing it to fall off, but no one theory is universally and definitively considered to be the actual cause. What is known, however, is that the old leaves are eventually "forced" off the tree by the new growth.

Here lies the parallel to our Christian experience. Many years ago I heard a preacher use this illustration in his sermon. He and a younger brother in the faith were out hunting and passed through a wooded area. It was winter and the trees were bare after losing their leaves in the fall. Then the other man came upon a fallen tree that still had leaves on its branches, and he noted that it was almost impossible to pull them off.

"Why does this tree still have its leaves?" he asked.

"Because it's dead," replied the preacher. "What causes the leaves to fall from the tree is the force of the new life that 'pushes' them off."

The same is true spiritually in our lives. What makes us truly Christian is the new life God has granted us through His Spirit. The soul that is dead in trespasses and sins cannot free itself from its old habits and ways of thinking. Our old nature refuses to give up the passions, lusts, pride, or its rebellion against the authority of God in our lives. Religion attempts to improve our nature through resolutions, regulations and rituals. It doesn't work. (Romans 8.1-4 "Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin's domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law's requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." Only the life force in the "sap" imparted to us through the Holy Spirit can create the "abscission layer" that will free us from the "dead foliage" of our old way of life.

The lesson of the two oaks has a parallel application in our Christian lives. We are only truly Christians by the new life God imparts to us by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who produces His fruit in us, the evidence of a life that reflects the true character of God. Why, then, did Paul feel the need to write these words to the believers in Colosse? "Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature; sexual immorality, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, God´s wrath comes on the disobedient, and you once walked in these things when you were living in them. But now you must also put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self." Colossians 3.5-10a.

The expectation is that we as children, born again of God, will display that new life like the red oak. Unfortunately, we, like the Colossian brethren, too often portray the image of the post oak, stubbornly holding on to our old habits and ways of thinking and acting. From a distance, we may give the appearance of being the same dead or dying people of the world we were in the past. But if we are truly born again, the Spirit of God is working out the new life within us. Almost imperceptibly we find evidence of something new sprouting in our lives. We can be sure of one thing: God's purpose is to rid us of all the vestiges of that old nature, and surely, although it may seem to us to be happening slowly, His new life will achieve that purpose in us. What our repeated resolutions and self-imposed rules of morality (otherwise known as "the Law") cannot do, His grace and the life force of the indwelling Spirit will accomplish. He will present us faultless before the throne at the final day. Paul wrote, "I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1.6. Do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit or do we stubbornly resist His efforts?

Within a few days, the branches of the ugly "dead" post oak in our yard will be covered in green leaves and offer refreshing shade to those who pass under it. The life coming from its roots will have it no other way. Nor will God's Spirit in us allow us to cling tightly to the dead works of our former lives. In the end, God will have it no other way.

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