Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 1
2 Corinthians 5:1-10 (11-17)
Mark 4:26-34

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.

I took a trip to Denver, Colorado a few years ago. One of the adventures I took was to drive to the top of Mount Evans. The road leading to the peak is the highest paved road in America. This road is a steep and windy road that takes the visitor up more than four thousand feet (it begins around ten thousand feet and ends at around fourteen thousand feet) through the different landscapes that grow on the mountain. It passes lovely mountain lakes and meadows with wildflowers, through evergreen covered hillsides and past the tree line to the tundra.

The views are spectacular; except for cars of the visitors and an occasional park building it is completely void of human impact. The road is only open about three months out of the year as the area is completely uninhabitable for most of it. I recall thinking, as I looked down at the mountain valleys with green pastures and cool clean mountain lakes, what an idyllic setting it would be for a farm or ranch. Then I realized that there were no roads leading to those valleys. Besides, as I drove to the top of the mountain in mid-July, I saw that there were still places covered in snow. The amount of snowfall in those lovely valleys could cover a house.

What I found most amazing was the stark contrast between the wooded areas at the lower elevations and the sudden change at the tree line. It seems impossible to think that the environment could be so different in such a short space. Why could the trees grow in one place and not another? There are, perhaps, several reasons, not the least of which is the temperature. It was 95 in Denver the day I drove to the top of Mount Evans, and it was less than 50 at the top of the mountain, just thirty miles away. The weather is unpredictable, too. It can snow throughout the year. Scientists suggest that the lack of trees is not simply the cold, but because it is cold too many days of the year. There is not enough warmth for a tree to build up the cell structure necessary to grow to great heights. Thatís why there are scrubs and tundra grasses at the top of the mountain, but not trees. They simply do not have the time to grow and establish roots before the weather kills off the tender shoots.

We donít think of Israel being a mountainous place, but there are mountains in the vicinity. Mount Hermon, a cluster of mountain peaks, is part of a larger range that is situated between Syria, Lebanon and extends into Israel. A peak in the Israeli controlled area of the Golan Heights is 7,336 feet high. It snows on this mountain and is the site of a ski resort. As with other mountains, trees do not grow at the top of Mount Hermon.

Todayís Old Testament passage is a promise to do the impossible. 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 Godís name.

So, the parable found in Ezekiel 17 tells the story of this time in the life of Israel. Our passage takes this story in a new and unexpected way. God will take a shoot and make it grow where it can never grow. Can anyone really take a cutting from the highest branches of a cedar tree and put in the rocky soil at the intemperate 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. 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 Ezekielís 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 wasnít 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. 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. God used Nebuchadnezzar to bring His people back into His heart. He can bring life to that which should be dead. He does this so that the world will know that He is God. God turns the world upside down so that we can see His power and His mercy and His grace.

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. Whatís 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 isnít something we can describe in so many words. It isnít something that is the same for you and for me. It isnít even the same for each of us throughout our lives. Paul writes, ď...for we walk by faith, not by sight...Ē 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. Iíve 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 canít. We canít make others become Christian. We canít even make ourselves into a Christian. God does the work. Who among us would ever be a Christian without Godís help? God can do the impossible.

It is interesting that in the Gospel lesson we donít 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.

Seeds can be cultivated by nature. Seeds are spread by the wind. They drop into the ground. 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 conditions, He can make His Kingdom grow without our help. But He wants our help. He wants us to be a part of it. He makes us colleagues.

Paul invites 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 about his faith but also personally. People in Corinth were trying to undermine his ministry and the seeds he had planted. 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. 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, ďTherefore we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord; for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are courageous, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well pleasing to him.Ē 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.

I enjoyed my trip up Mount Evans and I still recall the beauty through my photos and memories. The grass was truly greener in those valleys than they are at my house right now. Our drought stricken lawns are struggling to stay alive, let alone green. Yet, I wouldnít want to live there. Life isnít always better where the grass is greener.

The psalmist writes, ďBlessed is the man who doesnít walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand on the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in Yahwehís law.Ē We tend to shy away from words of law, preferring to focus on Godís grace. After all, it is in grace that we have the freedom to truly be what God has created and redeemed us to be. Yet, we learn from the psalmist that the righteous will live the fruitful life in Godís kingdom. Paul reminds us, ďFor we must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are revealed to God; and I hope that we are revealed also in your consciences.Ē

If you ask a gang member why he or she joined, you will probably hear similar stories. They had unsatisfying home lives, harsh parents, too many rules and not enough love and attention. They turned to the gangs because they saw love and freedom in the ranks, they thought it was a law-free environment where they could express themselves and live a fuller, richer life. They often find exactly what they are looking for in the gangs. However, they are kidding themselves if they think it is a law-free environment. The rules for belonging in a gang do not fit into the mold of what is acceptable in society, but there are requirements to be part of the group. They experience the blessedness of obedience, the rewards of conforming to the expectations of the gang, when they do what is required.

Sadly, those requirements are often harsh and dangerous. They never realized that they could find true blessedness in the shadow of their families rather than seeking it in such a dangerous lifestyle. They were afraid of their homes, but they find a new kind of fear in the gang. They think that the grass is greener in the ďloveĒ of the gang, but they quickly learn that it is mixed with blood. Then they are trapped in a prison (sometimes literally) from which there is no escape. They thought they had gained freedom, but are they really free? What blessings can really come out of the fear and obedience that demands rejection of home, family and true authority?

I suppose that those outside the Christian faith might ask the same question. Why would Christians want to give up their freedom to abide in a law that is so demanding when they can live freely according to their own wants and needs? Which grass is really greener?

There are very real issues in the neighborhoods where gangs roam. Some parents are not able to cope with the responsibilities. Others are consumed with their own rebellion and anger which leads them to wrong decisions and actions. The authorities do not always offer justice. The struggles have gone on so long in those communities that they donít see a better way. Even so, life is never better when we chase after our desires; that pursuit leads us to less freedom.

God has given us a set of laws. The Levitical laws seem useless and inappropriate in our modern lives. Perhaps they are. However, Godís law was given for a purpose: to help and guide His people into a long and blessed life. If we look at only the top Ten Commandments, each of those will keep us walking on the greener grass even if it appears better on the other side of the fence. Take, for instance, the command to not covet our neighborís spouse. We may think it is harmless to wish for their attention or desire their touch. However, the more we covet, the more we ignore that which God has given us. As we covet our neighborís spouse, we grow apart from our own family and our life begins to fall apart. We think freedom means chasing after whatever we want, but true freedom is found in the fear of the Lord.

The grass may seem greener on the side of the fence with no law where there is a freedom from authority other than ourselves. That kind of freedom is not blessed. The grace of God gives us the freedom to live under His care, in His good and perfect Word. There we will find the blessings of obedience and the rewards of our inheritance in the Kingdom of God. Just as staying home when the gang seems to be so appealing, life in Godís sovereignty, delighting in His Law as we live in His grace is truly where we will find the greener pastures.

God sees the world much differently that we do. He sees it through love, through mercy and through grace. God can see goodness in the midst of darkness, He can see potential where there seems to be none. He can take a tender twig and made it grow in impossible conditions. He sees differently because He sees beyond the surface and into the heart of man. He sees beyond the moment. He sees His creation without the cloak of sin and death. In Christ we are given a vision of what God sees in us and in others. We are called to see the world through eyes of faith, to see it with love, mercy and grace and to act accordingly. We are invited to live as if we are the tabernacle of God, a dwelling place for Christ in this world so that His love, mercy and grace might be seen by others.

As Christians, the world sees us as foolish. Faith to the non-believer is nothing more than a crutch that keeps us from our human potential. The world thinks we are trapped in a prison because we are afraid of the freedom we could have pursuing our own desires. However, seeing the world through faith is a gift, an incredible blessing because we can see a bit of eternity through the eyes of God in the midst of this world that is covered in sin and darkness.

God is doing amazing things. He brings life and in the blink of an eye He can make nothing something spectacular. God has promised to do the impossible. He did it in and through Jesus. He is still making all things new. He has called us to dwell in the shadow of His grace and to produce fruit in keeping with His forgiveness. He is taking the seeds that we have planted and He is bringing them to life. He is also making the seeds in our hearts grow. We are a new creation in Christ, called to live in the freedom of His Kingdom, partners with Him in the salvation of the world.

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