Scriptures for Sunday, June 17, 2012

Pentecost Three
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

And all the trees of the field shall know that I, Jehovah, have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish; I, Jehovah, have spoken and have done it.

“The kingdom of heaven is like…” Matthew uses this particular phrase many times, comparing the kingdom of heaven to everything from a mustard seed to a net. Each parable tells us something about the kingdom of heaven, helping us to see it from different points of view. The parables reach into our understanding about the world and compare God to that which we have experienced. Parables are imperfect, of course, because they are so limited. Do we, who do not plant mustard or bake bread, really understand what it means? Intellectually we might be able to put a meaning to the parable, but sometimes they are hard words for us.

Now, Mark does not use the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” but many experts agree that his “kingdom of God” means the same thing. If you do a parallel comparison, you’ll find that Matthew uses heaven where the rest of the Gospel writers use God. There may be reason that Matthew made that choice of wording, but I don’t think it matters. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God belong to God, and we are made part of it by faith. The question is: what is the kingdom of God like for us? If Jesus were here with us today, what parables would He use to help us understand? What parables can we use to help others see the kingdom that has been proclaimed by Jesus?

Of course, we know that the parables are not always understood by those who hear it. Even the disciples, who knew Jesus intimately, did not understand what He was saying. He had to explain it to them later, in private. What’s the point of telling stories that do not help someone come to faith? I think parables are meant to make people think, to make us reach beyond our comfort zone, to seek answers to questions that are brought to light by the story. What is the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, like? What does it mean that the kingdom of God grows by itself? What does it mean that the kingdom of God is small but grows large and provides protection for creatures of the earth? What is the kingdom of God? It is in thinking about these questions that we draw near to God.

Parables are not meant to give us answers, but to guide us in asking questions. Faith is not something that is tangible. It isn’t something we can describe in so many words. It isn’t something that is the same for you and for me. It isn’t even the same for me throughout my life. Paul writes, “…for we walk by faith, not by sight…” I will never fully understand the kingdom of God until I dwell in my eternal home. Until that day, Jesus will continue to tell me stories that make me think about what it means to me today. If the kingdom of God is like a man who spreads seeds, am I a seed? Am I the man? There have been times in my life when I have been both. I’ve been the one sharing the stories of Jesus with others. I am also a seed that continues to sprout and grow. The point here is that the kingdom of God does the part that we can’t. We can’t make others become Christian. We can’t even make ourselves into a Christian. God does the work.

This is particularly true as we read in the Old Testament lesson. Ezekiel, speaking for God , says, “I will also take of the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I will plant it upon a high and lofty mountain: in the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it; and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all birds of every wing; in the shade of the branches thereof shall they dwell.” In this passage, it is all about what God will do. And what He is proposing sounds impossible.

Can you really take a cutting from the highest branches of a cedar tree and put in the rocky soil at the top of a mountain and expect it to grow? According to tree experts, cedar trees can be propagated, but it is not an easy process. It is much easier to grow new trees from seeds. Reading through several websites on the subject, I doubt that you could just take a bit from the top of the tree and plant it. It doesn’t help that the top of the mountains above Israel are not suitable for tree growth. Though Israel is not known for having towering mountains like Everest or Kilimanjaro, Mount Hermon is tall enough to have snow covered peaks and a line beyond which it is impossible for large trees to grow. If you or I would try to plant a cedar tree on the top of Mount Hermon, we would fail; we certainly could not make it bear fruit.

Yet God will do this thing. The people in Ezekiel’s day needed to hear that there is a promise for new life. They were like that twig that had been cut off the top of the tree, although it seems as if it wasn’t God doing the cutting. They were in exile. They had been taken from their home and were living in the midst of strangers, pagans. They had lost it all; they had even lost their connection to God. They felt abandoned.

Israel had turned away from God. The kings had lost their way. The people were no longer worshipping only the God of their forefathers. They were not doing justice or living as God intended them to live. The only way to get their attention was to use the nations of the world. God gave Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians the power to defeat Israel in Jerusalem and take the king captive. The king made a vow with Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonians did not destroy Jerusalem. But the king thought he could be unfaithful to the covenant he made with Nebuchadnezzar, so he sought the help of Egypt. Egypt did not help Israel. As a matter of fact, Egypt helped with the destruction of what little was left. God allowed this to happen because the king was not faithful to the vow he made in God’s name.

So, while it might seem like Nebuchadnezzar was the one doing the plucking and planting, it was God. He took that remnant and placed it in a place that seemed impossible for growth. And yet, He made it grow. God spoke and did it.

The psalm is a song of praise, thanking God for being faithful. The psalmist is singing over the success which God gives. God will make His righteous people flourish like a palm tree. They shall grow like the tall cedars of Lebanon. They shall bring forth fruit; they will be healthy and green. Notice that the triumph here is not human success or victory. The triumph is God’s. He does these things. When the psalmist says, “I will triumph in the works of thy hands” the psalmist is not saying that he will be triumphant, but that God will make him triumphant. It is all about God’s hands, all about God’s works, all about God’s triumph. All that we have, all that we are, is thanks to God. Whether we rise to the heights of a palm or cedar tree, or if we spread out like a vine, our fruit is brought to the world by God’s hands.

I think that it is interesting, then, that in the Gospel lesson, we don’t really hear that it is God doing the work. The kingdom of God is like a man casting seed. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, planted in the ground. We see in the first parable that the man who cast the seed does not know how it happens to grow. He sleeps and rises, but the seed grows without his help. The mustard seed is small but grows to be something big enough for birds to dwell. This happens without the help of any man.

Yet, who plants the seeds? Yes, the seeds can be cultivated by nature. Seeds are spread by the wind. They drop into the ground. The plants in the wild die, but new plants grow in their place. In these stories, though, the seeds are planted. What is amazing about this is that we know that God is at work in the growing of those plants, and yet He calls us into partnership. He calls us to plant seeds. He asks us to help Him with the work He is doing in this world. He can do it alone, just as He saved Israel from Babylon, just as He took that tender twig and made it grow in impossible soil, He can make the kingdom of God grow without our help. But He wants our help. He wants us to be a part of it. He makes us colleagues.

So, as Paul writes, it is up to us to live pleasing to God always. Paul faced difficult times. As a matter of fact, there were many who would have preferred for his ministry to fail. He was attacked, not only according to his theology, but also personally. People in Corinth were trying to undermine his ministry and the seeds he had. But Paul did not give up. It would have been much easier, and better, to be in heaven. He would have preferred experiencing the promised life in the eternal presence of God, whatever that means. He wanted to be with Jesus. But he knew that there was still work to do. He was a partner with God in the kingdom that He had established here and now. The kingdom of God might be something we will experience in the future, but it is also right now.

Paul writes, “Being therefore always of good courage, and knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight); we are of good courage, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. Wherefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well-pleasing unto him.” Even though he wanted to be home with the Lord, he stayed to continue the work Jesus called him to do—planting and nurturing the seeds of the kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven is like so many things. The kingdom of God is like the world we see around us. The stories we tell to others about the kingdom help them to think about the God who can do the impossible. Those stories are not easy to understand, especially since we know that God cannot be reduced to earthly and earthbound things, and yet we can see God in the experiences of our lives and share that with others. The kingdom of God is like a mother, taking her child to kindergarten. The kingdom of God is like the cashier at the supermarket down the street. The kingdom of God is like the mailman delivering the mail. How? I don’t know. But perhaps these examples will make us think about how God does do what He does in this world. Does He carry the child across the street? Does He greet the harried shopper with a “Have a nice day”? Does He deliver a letter of good news to His people?

Does it matter if we do not fully understand what the kingdom of God is? No. We walk by faith, not by sight. We believe that God has not abandoned us and that He can do the impossible. We think about the stories we hear and we ponder what they mean in our lives at this moment. And in faith we join with God in His work, spreading the seeds that will grow into something so big that God’s people will be able to rest under the leaves.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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