If I’ve said it once, I’ve probably said it 10 or 12 times in my preaching over the past 5 years: “God is God, and we’re not!” And our 1st reading today from Ezekiel 17 makes that very clear again, as no less than 11 times in 3 verses God says, through the prophet: I myself will; I will; I am; I bring, and so on. There’s no question here at all, there’s absolutely no room left for doubt about who’s in charge and who the active party is, acting on behalf of the faithful remnant of God’s chosen ones.
Israel has been in exile for years in Babylon, and God’s about to make a way for them to return to God’s holy mountain, back to Jerusalem, to be reestablished as God’s people in the land of God’s promise. And none of this is in any way because they deserve it, but wholly, completely, utterly, entirely by God’s own amazing grace, and God’s own sovereign will! God is God, and this is what God wants to do – to take the little tender sprig, and to plant it on a lofty mountain height where it will grow and become a noble cedar of Lebanon…
There are a couple of other things to notice in this text from Ezekiel, as well. Even while this can be seen as God acting on behalf of God’s chosen people, and bringing them out of the Babylonian exile, and placing them back in the land of promise, there’s also this wildly inclusive bit in verses 23 and 24. The point of the sprig being planted and growing into the noble cedar, isn’t, in the end, about the sprig or the cedar alone. The point is about what the cedar is meant to be as it serves others. “Under it every kind of bird will live.” “In the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” Do you see how wonderfully inclusive this is?
And verse 24 pushes things even further. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.” So if Israel is the noble cedar, and all the trees of the field come into the picture here, (if trees are nations and languages and tongues and peoples and tribes) do you see where God’s pushing God’s people to be, and what we’re being pushed to be about? The blessings of God are never just for us. God never wants us to realize that we’re blessed so that we can just wallow in that blessing like some kind of pig rolling around in a mud pit. When we realize that we’re blessed, along with that realization, God wants us to realize that we’re blessed in order to be a blessing to others. It’s never just about us, but about how God’s activity in, and through and around us serves as an invitation to others to come and experience for themselves what it’s like to live in the shade of the branches of God’s tree. That’s where God’s calling us to be, and what God’s calling us to be about as a people, planted for the sake of the Gospel here, in this time and place…
More on that in just a moment. But first, here’s another thing that strikes me about this text. When you plant a sprig, it doesn’t become a noble cedar overnight. There’s a long time involved between planting and becoming a noble cedar, and it’s really easy to lose heart in the meantime. This is why it’s good to remember that, first and foremost, this is God’s work, and it’s God’s business to make it happen. For our part, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5: “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Now, it can be hard to not lose trust and faith in the meanwhile, but, it’s then more than ever that we need to remind one another that this is God’s work.
God’s God and we’re not, and it’s God’s job to cause the growth.
Does this mean we don’t do the work of evangelizing? Does this mean that we’re off the hook? Does this mean we can hide behind these Church walls, behind these stained glass windows and just do our thing for ourselves? Of course, not! As Paul writes in verse 14 of 2 Corinthians 5: “For the love of Christ urges us on!”
So there’s the flip side of the picture. Or to say it the way our ELCA tag line says it: This is about doing God’s work with our hands…
Using a couple of horticultural parables, Jesus speaks about the Reign or Kingdom of God in Mark 4. The first one is striking, as it describes the scattering and eventual growth of seed. The one who scatters just goes about their daily business, while the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head, which, once it’s ripe, is harvested. But the one who scatters doesn’t know how all this sprouting and growth happens – it just happens! That’s God’s work! Still, the one who scatters does the scattering, right? That’s the our hands part. God’s work. Our Hands.
The second parable Jesus uses is about a mustard seed, a tiny little seed which can grow into a tree that’s large enough for birds to come and nest in its shade. There are mustard trees all over the Holy Land and they grow from a tiny little, seemingly insignificant, seed.
Now, we might feel like what we have to offer for the sake of mission and ministry is too small, too insignificant, too limited to be of any use in advancing the mission and ministry of God, but that’s the way of the Reign of God.
Little things become big under God’s activity!
Seemly insignificant things become mighty under God’s activity!
The tiny little mustard seed of our open welcome for the sake of the Gospel of Christ Jesus becomes a branch in the tree of life in the shade of which birds of all kinds can nest…
And that brings me back to the earlier point, about our being blessed to be a blessing.
In some ways, we’ve not had the easiest go of things as a community over these past several years. Pastor Acer’s death, and the messy non-call and departure of Pastor Stechman, and the period of pastoral vacancy leading to you calling me almost 5 years ago already, and the closing of Fort Monmouth causing many people and families to move away, all made the soil of this faith community a bit rocky. But we’ve persevered, and we’ve done our best to tend the soil, and to do the work of pruning away that which wasn’t bearing fruit, and fertilizing that which does bear good fruit, and we’ve blown open our doors – metaphorically and literally with that wonderful new entryway we built a couple years ago – and we’ve tried to be intentionally invitational, and evangelical, and welcoming, and nimble (to borrow a word from Pastor Scott Schantzenbach). And we can see new life and new hope for the future as a result!
Even this weekend, as we mark the end of the program year, and the end of this year’s Christian education program, and as we welcome those who serve as first responders, thanking them for their service, and asking God’s blessing on their work, we also welcome little Landon as yet another sign of new life and new hope for the future of Reformation. Landon is enrolled today as a candidate for Holy Baptism – just another bird coming to find safety and security in the shade of Christ’s Tree of Life…
My hope and prayer for this community of faith is that we’ll continue to move beyond our fear of people and things that are different, and beyond our tendency to resist change, and that God will continue to do God’s work on the soil of our hearts.