11th Sunday in Ordered Time
11th Sunday in ordered time year B, 6-14-15; Ez 17: 22-24, Ps 92, 2Corth 5:6-10, Mk 4:26-34
The first part of the Book Of the Prophet Ezekiel is a harsh indictment of the leaders and people of Israel. The Babylonians had killed the king of Judah, and King David’s line had ended. But our reading today is a promise of hope and assurance of God’s continuing promise of a messiah. It uses a poetic symbol of the cedar tree.
So we need to know a little about cedar trees. The cedar tree is a picture of strength. Cedar is beautiful red hardwood, highly prized for building, used for beams, pillars, ceilings and furniture. Cedars grow up to 150’ or higher (2 or 3 times taller than oak tree), with a circumference of 40’ or more. Cedars are evergreens, deeply rooted, and the spread of their branches exceeds their height creating a refuge for birds and other animals. Cedars are an Old Testament image of a powerful kingdom sheltering its people.
God tells Ezekiel that he will take just a tender shoot from the very top of a cedar tree, and he will plant it in on top of a mountain (a holy place) in Israel. From this tiny shoot will grow a majestic cedar tree (an image of a messiah who brings eternal life, ending sin and suffering). This tree will provide shelter for “birds of every kind” (people from every nation). From this we are to understand that God is Lord of all creation. God is the God of all trees, all life; God is in control. So when the world of the Israelites seems out of control, when their last hope for a new Kingdom of David (the promise of “forever”) seems out of reach, God acts. God takes a small shoot, like a tiny baby, seemingly insignificant, and makes something strong to protect and to provide for his people.
We seem to have a kind of inborn “memory loss” – we seem to need God to regularly remind us of the Promises we have been given. Most of the harmful things we do to each other and to ourselves are based in the fear that it won’t “all work out.” But God does not, cannot forget us. God promises to hold us in the very palm of his hand, to have us as the “apple of his eye”, to dwell with us for eternity. Look at the last two chapters of Isaiah, when God says, “ I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create.” God also gives us the ability to create anew, to change our actions and choices when things go badly.
Because we must feel our way through life with faith, without clear sight to guide us, we must guard against that “memory loss”. Paul adds incentive for hope. Paul says that God’s promises give us courage in bad times. Paul chose to act in ways that were right and holy, ways that would please God. One of Paul’s memory aids was to think of the final judgment. We must watch our behavior mindfully; we are held accountable.
Two short parables in the Gospel bring all this together. In the Growing Seed parable, seeds grow independently of humans. The ministry of Jesus began a sequence that will lead to the fullness of God’s Kingdom just as surely as sowing seeds begins the spontaneous process leading to harvest. Even if the Kingdom seems hidden now, it is present. In spite of appearances, we can be confident that what has begun will lead to its glorious revelation. While we live our daily lives, the Kingdom is at work. What we know and see is not all that will happen before the promised coming of the Kingdom of God. We do not bring in the Kingdom; we are servants of the Kingdom, not its cause. Patience; all is in God’s hands.
As to the Mustard Seed parable, 750 mustard seeds weigh about 1/28th of an ounce; but a mustard seed can germinate in 5 days and grow to a height of 10 feet, with large leaves. The visual point is that a mighty plant grows from a tiny seed.
This parable illustrates the presence of the Kingdom in Jesus’ own ministry, even if others do not recognize it, and Jesus’ expectation of the certain and full revelation of the Kingdom to come. Like a mustard seed, God’s Kingdom starts as something insignificant but becomes large. Never forget that Jesus knew the Jewish scriptures intimately, he knew the image of the cedar tree shading and sheltering and protecting, and this parable reminds us of the Ezekiel passage. Inherent in the phrase the “Kingdom of God” is all of God’s care for us, and more.
Both parables respond to a question that was asked of Jesus then and that we ask now. Wasn’t the Kingdom of God supposed to slay evil like a dragon and remove oppression from nations like Rome and Babylon? The Apostles’ expectations were incorrect if they expected a bomb to vaporize Rome. They, like us, thought violence could bring peace; but if the image of peace is birds sheltered in a tree, then a bomb cannot create peace. Miracles and healings are great, but people often demand impressive action, without delay. The promise of the Kingdom’s fulfillment is certain, but frustrating. No timetable is provided, except to know that the timing will be perfect.
Have you ever reached out to grasp God by the lapels, to scream and shake him, when a child suffers, when a loved one has a frightening diagnosis for which there is no cure, when everything goes in your life goes wrong? Then these parables of hope are for you. In the worst times of our lives, we look to the Cross for answers. The Cross was considered the spoiler; on Good Friday, it was seen as a death of shame and finality, an end to hope, a crushing loss. Like the cross, the mustard seed challenges the way we view and judge what is small and what is significant. When God is at work, we come to understand that our ways are not God’s ways. We must develop “mustard seed memory”; never doubting the unexpected ways God acts to fulfill the promises given to us. In the Words and Love of Jesus, the Kingdom – God’s coming to rule all things – has made its entrance into our hearts and into our lives and into our messed up world. Let the mustard seed of hope and faith grow tall in your life.