I. Theme – The Surprising and Unexpected Revelations of God
"Mustard Tree" – Katy Jones
The lectionary readings are here or individually:
Today’s readings are colored by lovely shades of green, and are filled with images of growth and newness. From the cedars of Ezekiel to the palm tree of the psalm, the flourishing of human beings is part of all creation’s fruitfulness.
In the first readings, Ezekiel gives the Israelites hope that one day God will restore their strength and Samuel sees beyond outward appearances to choose the least likely son of Jesse to anoint as king. Paul reminds his Corinthian communities that our eternal dwelling is not found here on earth but is with the lord.
In the gospel, Jesus uses two parables to describe how God’s dynamic presence—the kingdom—grows in our lives. In Jesus’ parable of the kingdom, seed (God’s word) is scattered broadly. Perhaps as he told this story, Jesus was watching a farmer hand-sow a field. The farmer does not know how the seed sprouts and grows. The process goes on while the farmer sleeps and wakes, not by any effort on the farmer’s part, but by the mystery of growth itself. “The earth produces of itself” and the harvest comes. Jesus is not trying to explain the mystery of growth. He is commanding the same kind of trust in the reality of God’s kingdom that we depend upon in the natural world. Just as we believe a seed is growing in the dark ground while we cannot see it, so we believe the kingdom is growing in our dark world.
For the spiritually perceptive, Jesus himself is the seed God has sown in the world. We believe in the divine kingdom already “planted” in Christ and trust the creative Spirit of God to bring forth the new harvest of redeemed human souls.
The word “harvest” is also used as a biblical note of warning. The sickle is judgment. The grain was ripe when Jesus came into the world. But now the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. God’s kingdom has already sprung up in Christ, and we must decide whether or not to be among the disciples who understand his words and live by them.
God is doing something new, which is the new thing God began in creation. God is bringing the high down low and lifting up the low to be high. God is creating us anew, in a way in which we grow and live together in a way that honors God and each other, and not ourselves. The reign of God is built when we live for each other, building each other up, doing Christ’s work here on earth. The reign of God is built when we recognize that death does not have a hold on us, and that life is worth living when we live for others, not for ourselves. Everything old dies, but in Christ, everything becomes new, and life surpasses death.
First Reading – Ezekiel 17:22-24
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered the city of Jerusalem in 597 BCE and forced thousands of Jews to relocate in Babylon. Ezekiel was probably one of these refugees. Like his fellow prophet, Jeremiah, Ezekiel did not encourage the Israelites to hope for a speedy and victorious end to the exile. Both prophets foresaw a time of suffering and mourning as God worked to cleanse the people of their idolatry and hardheartedness.
Ezekiel was a priest who received his call to prophesy while in exile (1:1-3). His priestly experience comes through in many of his messages that deal with the loss of the temple and the departure of God’s glory from the inner court (chaps. 8–10, 40–48).
More than any other prophet, Ezekiel was called to transmit God’s messages through enacted symbolism. These dramatic allegories carried a visual force that left no room for false interpretations. Despite his “gloom and doom,” Ezekiel’s visions are balanced by a firm reliance in God’s sovereignty. The holy God who disciplines severely will also restore the people and renew their worship. God’s judgment will not be retribution so much as cleansing, and Ezekiel relies on God’s future work in bringing salvation.
Ezekiel 17:22-24 describes God’s reign like a tree, a sprig of cedar plucked up and replanted upon the top of a mountain. God is doing something new, replanting twigs, so that they may grow into new trees, budding leaves and bearing fruit. The high trees are brought low and the low trees raised high–God is leveling things out, making things as they should be, where all have an equal chance to grow and bear fruit and flourish. This is God’s desire for creation, and throughout Scripture, God is constantly doing something new, which is to re-create the way things ought to have been.
While the people hoped for political restoration and restored power, God explains that Israel’s role in the world is one of spiritual blessing, not political influence. God alone will accomplish Israel’s true destiny.
Psalm – Psalm 92:1-4,11-14 Page 720, BCP
Psalm 92 echoes back to the Ezekiel passage of the cedar growing in Lebanon. We are to sing and make music to praise God, for we are created by God to be creative, and to use our creative gifts to praise God and further God’s work in the world. God is doing something new, and that new thing is really going back to the garden, to God’s created intention for all of us, which is to use our creative gifts to further God’s love and work in the world, and that instead of competing with each other, we ought to grow and live together, like trees planted in the garden of God.
Epistle – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
At first Christians believed that the lord’s second coming was imminent (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). With the passage of time, questions were raised about the fate of those Christians who had already died (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). In a metaphor mixed between images of inhabiting a dwelling and putting on a garment, Paul develops further thoughts about the resurrected body from the teachings of 1 Corinthians 15:35-54. 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 speaks to the tension of participating in the body of Christ, and yet yearning to be home with God.
Paul suggests that the believer is not “unclothed, but…further clothed” in the spiritual body. Though they are now not yet “with the lord” in the full sense, they are still always in Christ even when “away from the lord.” They “walk by faith, not by sight,” that is, not yet on the basis of an objectively verifiable lord.
Paul then turns the Corinthians’ attention to the conduct of their earthly life, urging them to make it their aim to please the lord in the knowledge that their reward at the final judgment depends not upon faith alone, but also upon their deeds. Paul sees no inconsistency between justification by faith and judgment on the basis of deeds for justification calls for obedience and right behavior.
Paul speaks to the dichotomy of the body here on earth and being with God beyond this life, and that this barrier that divides the two, death, is broken open by Christ. Everything has become new, the old has passed away, and the new creation is born out of death. We live for Christ; therefore, we live for others and not for ourselves. We do not live in Christ to put ourselves first, to make ourselves look good, but rather to build up others.
Gospel – Mark 3:20-35
Although Mark puts great stress upon Jesus’ teachings (1:22), he gives relatively little space to its content. But in chapter 4 he gathers some parables as examples.
The two parables of the kingdom in today’s reading both concern God’s presence in our world. Both emphasize the process of growth and the contrast between beginning and end.
In the first parable, which is not found in any other Gospel, it appears that the sower is a bit careless with his harvest. The seeds are scattered, but the sower has no idea how they are growing or what is making them grow, but when the time comes, when the grain is ripe, the sower turns into the harvester, reaping the grain. While a literal interpretation would presume that God, the sower, has no idea how any of us are growing or why, most of us assume that God has a more active interest in our lives. Yet God does allow us to grow on this earth, interacting with this world, and does not pull us out of danger or harm, or shield us from mistakes. But the kingdom or reign of God is built and created out of all of us. We do not know how each of us will grow, but we know we grow based on our experiences here on earth, and grow beyond our earthly experience. How we grow, and grow together, helps determine how and when we will be harvested, gathered together with God
The parable of the mustard seed contrasts the smallness of the seed, proverbially although not literally the smallest of all, with its ability, when grown, to provide shelter. The image of “the greatest of all shrubs” is drawn from the symbol of the world-tree of life (see today’s first reading).
Jesus’ initial ministry will lead to the inclusion of all nations. The contrast between small and secret beginnings and unexpected and triumphant endings in both parables also applies both to Jesus’ own earthly career and to the growth of the Church. Finally, the point is made that only faith in Christ makes possible genuine insight into the nature of the kingdom.
III. Articles for this week in WorkingPreacher:
First Reading – Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm – Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
Epistle – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
Gospel – Mark 4:26-34