Sermon for June 14, 2015

Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost

June 14, 2014, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Texts:  Ezekiel 17:22-14 and Mark 4:26-34

Sermon Theme:  “God’s Arbor”

 (Sources:  Anderson’s Cycle B Preaching Workbook; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Christian Jokes Online; Peanuts Comic Strips; original ideas; Harper’s Bible Dictionary; Believer’s Commentary)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

           Father Murphy, the priest, walked into a pub and said to the first man he met, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

The man replied, “I do, Father.”

The priest said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”

Then the priest asked a second man, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

“Certainly, Father,” was the man’s reply.

The priest said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”

Then Father Murphy walked up to O’Toole and said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

O’Toole said, “No, I don’t Father.”

The priest said, “I don’t believe this.  You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to heaven?”

O’Toole said, “Oh, when I die, yes!  I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.”

Today’s lectionary missed Arbor Day by one month and 20 days, — it’s the last Friday of the month of April, — but both of our sermon texts are about trees, the Old Testament from Ezekiel and the Gospel of Mark.  The metaphor of the trees and the parable of the trees shed some light on O’Toole’s misunderstanding.

In both texts, trees are picture language for the Kingdom of God.  For all practical purposes, “the Kingdom of God” and the “Kingdom of Heaven” are synonyms, — they mean the same thing.  Matthew is the only gospel writer who used “Kingdom of Heaven,” – the others, such as Mark in our text, say “Kingdom of God.”  The two terms mean the same thing, but there’s some confusion about what they mean.

Until Jesus’ earthly ministry, “the Kingdom of God and/or heaven” was thought of as that anticipated historical event when sin and its consequences have been abolished and God takes up His perfect rule forever over the world and in the hearts of men.  But when Jesus came to earth, He spoke of the Kingdom of God as though it were a process going on in His own time and connected to His ministry.  Through Christ, the Kingdom of God, that is the Kingdom of Heaven, is both a future event to be anticipated and a present reality in the process of arriving.

You have to understand that to understand the two texts.

The Bible is filled with trees, — fig trees, their leaves; palm trees, their branches and leaves; cedar trees, olive trees, various fruit trees, the Tree of Life, etc.

In the case of a little boy, the huge, old family Bible was literally filled with at least one tree leaf.  One day when he opened the old Bible, something fell out onto the floor.  He picked it up and looked at it closely.  It was an old leaf from a tree that had been pressed in between the pages.

“Momma, look what I found,” the boy called out.

“What have you got there, dear?”  his mother asked.

With astonishment in the young boy’s voice, he answered, “I think it’s Adam’s suit!”

In our Old Testament text from Ezekiel, God says that he will take a sprig from the top of a tall cedar and will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.  The sprig is Jesus the Messiah, taken from the tree of David and planted in Zion, that is in Israel.  It will bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar.  Under it, God says, will dwell every kind of bird, and in its shade, birds of all kinds will nest.

In picture language, God describes His Kingdom.  All kinds of birds will come into the kingdom, — not just mighty eagles, beautiful cardinals and brightly colored parakeets, but also wrens, pigeons, and plain old barn sparrows!

Then flipping to Mark’s gospel, we find God’s Son Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the smallest seed on the earth, which, when planted becomes a huge tree where the birds of the air can make their nests in its shade.  Most scholars believe it was a black mustard plant, which botanist call a shrub, but since it often grows up to six feet, I call it a tree.

Black mustard is essentially like a weed, which no self-respecting farmer wants in his fields, — because it’s very difficult to root out.  How strange that in the parable, the farmer intentionally sows the mustard seeds.  Why would anyone go and do a crazy thing like that?  Everybody knows how rapidly they spread, and how persistent they are – but then, no doubt that’s exactly what Jesus is trying to tell us about God’s Kingdom.  The seeds of His Kingdom may seem tiny and insignificant, but once they take root in the ground, there’s no stopping them!

Who is to say what is a trash tree and what is a keeper?  When my wife and I first moved into our home, a friend who lived a block from us gave us a small Chinese tallow tree for us to plant in our then treeless backyard.  Other friends told us, ‘Oh, don’t plant that, that’s a trash tree, — it grows fast, but you’ll hate the mess it makes with tallow berries and broken limbs.’

I told them I had to plant it because the friend who lives a block away would see that it’s not growing in my yard if I don’t, and you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Today that so-called trash tree is the largest tree in the backyard; it has a beautiful shape; its yellow and red leaves are lovely in the fall; it provides wonderful backyard shade for us; our children loved it; the squirrels love it; the birds love it.  It’s like the mustard tree.

You see, God has different standards from human standards.  God does not judge by appearances, but by the heart.  God is nimble and unconstrained, He doesn’t do things the way the world does.  He plants mustard seeds and He wants them to flourish.  Look at whom he has picked for the Kingdom’s work in the past.

I don’t have to cite all of the bad things about King David or the Apostle Paul, you know them.  Moses was far from perfect, he even committed murder.  Those fishermen who made up Christ’s inner circle were a motley crew, to be sure!  Many of the hungry, sick, and homeless mobs who followed Jesus everywhere He went were probably looked upon as poor white trash by the high and mighty.  Just remember, in God’s eyes, there are no trash trees!

As believers, you and I are part of the Kingdom of God.  By the standards of the rich and mighty, I guess we’re a motley crew; by their standards, perhaps even trash trees.  Sometimes, we often feel inferior to the big churches in Houston, don’t we?  Maybe even to the bigger churches in our Circuit.

Ed, the President of a small church like ours, watched in dismay as young families gradually left the church.  They had to move to large cities to get jobs; there were no jobs in the small town were their church was located.

The members of the church worked twice as hard to attract young families, but they could not really compete with the town’s big, new church that had an outstanding children’s ministry as well as contemporary worship.

It was very frustrating for Ed and the other officers of the church.  Several new families would stay for a while before drifting off to the new church, but the result was always the same.  The pastor suggested that maybe their church should focus on its strengths:  an exceptional music program and an exceptional adult ministry, instead of feeling bad over what they did not have.

Much discussion and debate followed, and after discussing and debating the issue for nearly a year, it was decided that the church would try their best to attract people like themselves – in other words, middle age and older adults.  With that shift of emphasis, the church grew, the offerings increased, and soon thereafter they had to add some part time staff.

Jesus says in our gospel text, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.”  In the Ezekiel text, God says, “And under it [the tree God planted] will dwell every kind of bird, in the shade of its branches birds of every kind will nest. . . . I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree.”

The stories told through picture language in both the Old Testament text and the Gospel remind us that we don’t have much to do with the growth of God’s Kingdom.  In Ezekiel, God plants the tree, and in Mark, the man in the parable plants the seeds, then sleeps, and when he awakens, the seed sprouts and grows, — and he hasn’t a clue as to how.  These texts show us that God does all the good; we are merely obedient workers, surprised and in awe of what God does through us!

What a blessing to be a part of God’s arbor!  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.