Several weeks ago on a speaking assignment in California, I took the opportunity of visiting Calaveras State Park and hiking through its impressive grove of Sequoias. I felt like a Lilliputian among giants. Sequoias are the largest living objects on earth, and, of course, very ancient. Some were seedlings in the days of King David. Some were towering skyward when the Son of Man walked the earth.
I've hiked among Giant Sequoias before, but I've never felt so sad as this time, because the prescribed path at Calaveras begins at the foot of a giant stump. According to the park guidebook, a fellow named Augustus Dowd, who worked for the Union Water Company of Murphys Camp, was tracking a wounded grizzly bear through the California Sierras one day in 1852. He stopped abruptly at an unbelievable sight -- a monster tree of such gigantic proportions he couldn't believe his eyes. He called it the Big Tree. It was house-sized at the base and, he reckoned, nearly 300 feet tall. Returning to camp, Dowd told his coworkers what he had seen, but they thought he was joshing.
One man, however, determined to find out. William Hanford, president of the Union Water Company, investigated the tale. When he saw the tree in all its glory, he connived a plan to profit from the discovery. If he could cut down this behemoth, he reasoned, he could send portions of it on an exhibition around the world and charge people to see it.
At his direction, workers spent three weeks stripping off the bark, which was two-feet thick. Then, since there were no saws large enough to cut timber like this, workers used drills, augers and wedges to pierce the tree, boring holes side-by-side, inch-by-inch, their bits piercing the venerable rings. It took three weeks working day and night. Finally the colossus tipped over and thundered to the ground, shaking the forest like an earthquake. Its base was bigger than a saloon. The workers celebrated their victory by playing fiddles and dancing on the gigantic stump.
I stood there, read the guidebook, studied that stump, still anchored in the ground by its lifeless roots, and felt incredible loss. For the sake of momentary monetary profit, foolish men stripped and pierced and felled a Giant Sequoia, one of the rarest treasures on earth, and danced on its stump. I felt like weeping, and I couldn't help brooding over another giant who was felled, not at Calaveras, but at Calvary. He was the most gigantic figure in human history, the greatest man who ever lived; but at the hands of a foolish mob, he too was was stripped and pierced and felled, and the earth was shaken by his death. His enemies danced on the stump of a life cut off; and men rejoiced at his demise. The Old Testament refers to Christ as a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and the prophet Daniel predicted the Messiah would be "cut off, but not for himself." Psalm 22, written long before Jesus was born, foretold, "They pierce my hands and my feet.... They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment."
The poignancy of the death of Jesus Christ presents the most tragic event in history, for it exemplifies all other sin and suffering in the world. The perimeter around Golgotha is the most sacred real estate in history. That's why it's important to pause during the days leading to Good Friday and Easter, to study the story afresh in the guidebook of the Bible, and to ponder anew the death of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before Christ, said, "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).
There is, of course, an immense difference between the giant tree of Calaveras and the great Savior of Calvary. The story ends differently, for Christ rose from the dead. This miracle is the dividing point for both history and humanity. By his resurrection, Christ became our tree of life. Without the empty tomb, the world is a desolate forest. Without the resurrection the philosopher would be right in saying: "Everything is meaningless." The troubadour could sing, "All we are is dust in the wind." Whether we lived another 50 minutes or 50 years wouldn't matter. Shakespeare would be correct: Life is an idiotic tale, signifying nothing. Without Easter, we cry at birth, weep in life, grieve at death, and are swallowed into blackness, as though we never existed.
But now, says the Bible, Christ is raised from the dead, just as He said, in the middle of history, in the Middle East, in a garden outside Jerusalem, on the first day of the week. The women at the tomb saw angels dressed in white, gleaming with light, who asked: "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here! He has risen as He said!" God raised Him up, freeing him from the bonds of death, because it was impossible for death to hold Him. He is the living one, the resurrection and the life. He was delivered up for our sins, but raised up for our justification, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too should walk in newness of life.
Nothing will bring back the Big Tree of Calaveras; its silent stump sits as an abiding witness to mindless humanity. But Jesus is alive and well, enthroned in heaven, exerting more influence over earth than we know, flourishing, life-giving, and fruit-bearing. Because of him we can lumber through the toughest days with joy. Because of Good Friday and Easter, we can stand tall today and lift our limbs toward heaven.