Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cedars and Shrubs

Third after Pentecost
Proper 6B2:  Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4: 26-34

Grace and peace—and Happy Fathers’ Day!  As we move on into the summer, with prayers that this will be a season of refreshment and renewal for all.  I know for me this is a time of year when I enjoy doing a little yard work, as I can squeeze that in with all the other activities of the day, and perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to pause this morning over the imagery in the readings from Ezekiel in the 17th chapter and from the fourth chapter of St. Mark.  And we might say, a sermon and a word from scripture for us about trees and shrubs.  The Cedar in Ezekiel, and the Shrub, the one that grows from that Mustard Seed that Jesus talks about in Mark 4. 

But I want to begin and to set a bit of background and context for both readings by traveling to an earlier part of the Biblical story, in the fifth and sixth chapters of the Old Testament book of First Kings, which describes a moment of true renewal in the life of God’s people, as the divinely anointed Son of David, Solomon, having inherited the throne from his father and secured it from his enemies, now in response to God’s command begins to build on the holy hill of Zion that great Temple which was to be the magnificent Tent and Tabernacle and Dwelling Place on Earth of God himself.  That place of true Communion between God and Man, where in the Holy of Holies his divine presence would on earth be most fully present and fully known. 

So to read a bit from First Kings, to touch on a memory that would have been very familiar to Ezekiel and those in the time of Exile for whom he was writing: as King Solomon announces, “I purpose to build a house for the Name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to David my father, 'Your son, whom I will set upon your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.'   Now therefore I command that cedars of Lebanon be cut for me . . . .”  And then later “when the house was built, it was with stone prepared at the quarry; so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple, while it was being built.  The entrance for the lowest story was on the south side of the house; and one went up by stairs to the middle story, and from the middle story to the third.  So he built the house and finished it; and he made the ceiling of the house of beams and planks of cedar.  He built the structure against the whole house , each story five cubits high, and it was joined to the house with timbers of cedar . . . .  He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar; from the floor of the house to the rafters of the ceiling he covered them inside with wood . . . he built twenty cubits of the rear of the house with boards of cedar from the floor to the rafters, and he built this within as an inner sanctuary, as the most holy place.  The house, that is, the nave in front of the inner sanctuary, was forty cubits long.  The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers; all was cedar, no stone was seen.  The inner sanctuary he prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord.  The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high; and he overlaid it with pure gold.  He also made an altar of cedar . . . . .”

You get the idea.  It’s all cedar, Temple and Altar.  And all that in the background  and as the key connection for this passage from Ezekiel.  The centuries have rolled along.  One bad and faithless and disobedient king after another, generation after generation.  The whole rich, tragic story.  A story that led finally in Ezekiel’s day to the destruction of the nation, as the armies from the east swept down, in a cataclysm of loss.  The leaders of the people led off humiliated in chains.  And the vision of complete destruction.  Pillage and fire.  Solomon’s ancient Temple stripped of its riches and left in ruins, pile of rubble.  Nothing left for the exiled refugees but dust and ashes and regret.

And then, as the Prophet in the distant land of exile gives voice to God’s word, “Thus says the Lord God – I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of--a cedar . . . I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs . . . plant it on a high mountain . . . on the mountain height of Israel . . . in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble Cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live, in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind . . . and all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.”

Words of comfort, words of hope.  From that tiniest twig of the Cedar Forests of Lebanon, a new and noble Cedar, with lofty boughs, bringing forth good fruit, for shade and shelter.  To think of that image.  Every kind of bird and winged creature, and all creation, even the trees of the field shall know God’s sheltering presence.

Even in the midst of desolation and ruin, death and disaster, hopeless despair—with that tiniest twig of the forest, God will act to return to his holy place, to renew and restore and bless his people, and in abundance.  There is light, hope,  even in the darkest night.  

A new Temple, a new home and dwelling place for the Lord of Hosts; A Dwelling Place for the Almighty, and for us a new relationship of Communion with him.  To be together in the place where heaven touches earth, to dwell with him in that place that is the source and spring and fountain of all blessing and all holiness.

Thus says the Lord.  Forgiveness and grace.  Redemption, reconciliation, restoration, renewal.  It all happens in unexpected ways.  By God’s gracious action, and not by anything that we could ever do. 

Which carries us from Ezekiel to St. Mark.   The Cedar Tree and the Shrub, the Temple and the Kingdom, these two readings connected and echoing back and forth not just because we’re talking about trees and plants, but Cedar and the growth from the Mustard Seed as poetic images, signs of God’s presence and God’s power.  What God can do, will do, is doing right now in their presence, from a sprig and a mustard seed, whatever that is.  So small, so obscure, microscopic you can’t really even see it.  When you thought there was no room left for any hope, when God seems to have abandoned ship and left us to our own devices.

What Ezekiel could only foreshadow, Mark now can place front-and-center.  The one who was and is himself the new Temple, the Kingdom, Emmanuel, God with us.  The disciples begin  by asking, “what is the Kingdom of God?  His perfect Temple.  Where is it?  How will we know it when we see it?” But soon the question turns not on “what,” but on “who.”  Let me tell you about the Kingdom of God, says Jesus.  Can you picture a mustard seed?

On the night of his arrest Jesus is taken to the High Priest’s home for questioning.  In Mark 14 accusers come forward: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple, that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”

The renewal of the holy Temple of God, not in stones and wood, but in his flesh and blood.  The Body of Christ.  The Temple, the Kingdom, the Royal Banquet Hall.  That he might dwell in us, and we in him.

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