A message of hope and promise, of restoration and transformation

Stephen Adam, 17 June 2018

Ezekiel 17: 22–24; Mark 4: 26–34

Hope was a commodity in short supply in Ezekiel’s day. A brief reminder of the context to this morning’s first reading: you may recall that Ezekiel was a priest and prophet at the time of Israel’s greatest crisis – the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 597 BC, leading to the loss of the Temple and the exile of the Jews to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.

There were all the hard questions of exile – of abandonment, loss of hope. Questions to God: why couldn’t you protect us? You may remember that striking image of the valley of dry bones, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’ (Ezekiel 37: 11). All the old theological certainties had collided with the shock of destruction and deportation. What a challenge for a preacher!

Ezekiel preached into that existential crisis certainly with a message of judgement because of the people’s disobedience and the corruption of their leadership; but crucially he also preached a message of hope and promise, of restoration and transformation, founded on the very nature of God – of his holiness and power and his radical grace. Ezekiel’s message was that Israel would be recreated and renewed so that its vocation might be to be a blessing to all nations, and as Christians we see this in the person of Jesus Christ.

That message of hope is surely one we need to hear today. We’re not in exile, but we live in a time when many of us see a world in turmoil, a world where old certainties have gone, power arrangements have failed and it seems a dangerous place – a place, too, where many of the old moral convictions have been displaced or are in jeopardy.

It’s a world where we construct fortresses of righteousness for ourselves, inward looking and self-concerned, shutting out the views and voices of those with whom we disagree, bulwarks against a world we struggle to make sense of.

Flourishing not to dominate, but to be in a position of service and care, to provide shelter for all.

In contrast, Ezekiel uses the imagery of a sprig from a cedar tree being planted on the top of a lofty mountain to speak of the nature of God’s kingdom and his rule. This sprig will grow and flourish as a tree on the mountain top – not to dominate, but to be in a position of service and care, to provide shelter for all birds (that is, for all nations).

Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord (Ezekiel 17: 23–24).

How countercultural all this sounds to us! But is it really? Who do we follow but the one who was lifted high on a tree to die, the one who offers shelter for the rejected, the sinful, the lost and wandering?

There’s a conscious echo of Ezekiel’s vision in our gospel reading, where Jesus uses a parable to compare the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed which will grow to become the greatest of all shrubs, providing shelter for all the birds of the air. There’s a joke here, as Jesus uses a homely image of a plant familiar to his listeners. In reality the mustard plant is a puny thing, often regarded as a weed, and it might provide shelter for one or two sparrows but no more [see photo].

But no matter – you can imagine Jesus preaching, his eyes alighting on something close by on the ground, and using this spontaneously to make his point. Certainly the mustard’s small scale, its commonness and ubiquity in Palestine and the tiny seed from which it grows all make for a remarkable image of the kingdom of God where all can find shelter.

Just how inclusive and how accommodating this kingdom will be is nicely captured in the Authorised Version of the Bible where we read that ‘the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it’. That word ‘fowl’ has resonances, fortuitous as they are. There’s a nice unintended pun here, for surely there will be some strange birds nesting in that kingdom!

And Jesus is also making the point that from this tiny, inauspicious seed, so easily overlooked or taken for granted, significant things can result. The kingdom is present in the minuscule, in the ordinary and everyday things around us, hidden from view; but one day it will be revealed in its fullness, in all its glory.

What can we take away from that image? It’s a warning that we shouldn’t judge by outward appearances, or look down on small and hesitant beginnings. The first stirrings of a vocation of some kind – when so often the instinct is to resist that nagging urge and say, ‘That’s not for me!’ – who can tell where one day this might lead? Or two or three people meeting faithfully in prayer, seemingly without much result – how will that be answered?

We may see signs of the kingdom in our churches or in the lives of individuals around us, but it will also erupt in the most unlikely of places – perhaps in the slums of Calcutta, as we remember Mother Teresa’s ministry; the kingdom may be present in an anguished conversation in a hospital emergency room; or we may encounter a sign of God’s presence with us in the response to a disaster or atrocity.

I think back just two weeks to the commemoration of the anniversary of the terrorist attack at London Bridge. There was a powerful image in one of the newspapers of the Bishop of Southwark in front of a crowd of young people holding banners proclaiming ‘Love prevails’, as he planted an olive bush, a symbol of peace, which had been grown in compost made from the many flowers left in tribute on the bridge. In short, the kingdom comes whenever and wherever the power of God overcomes the destructive forces of evil around us.

And then there’s this other little parable alongside in our gospel reading this morning – a parable unique to Mark and often called ‘the seed growing secretly’. What are we to make of that? Growth seems a mystery: the sower scatters the seed, sleeps, rises day by day and has no idea of how or why the seed grows.

Again this imagery seems so countercultural. We live in a world fixated on size and success. Businesses have targets for growth. Much of the world is ruled by huge multilateral conglomerates, trading everywhere but seemingly taxed nowhere. In our churches we can seem preoccupied by attendance figures and budgets, with the emphasis on plans and strategies and measurable outcomes for our mission.

No doubt all that is important, but the parable reminds us of a deeper truth: that ultimately it is God – his divine initiative – that gives the growth. And that frees us from a burden of guilt. It’s a reminder that the consummation of God’s reign isn’t down to us or our puny efforts, but ultimately rests on the very nature and being of God – a God who is reliable and faithful, a God who, in the words of Ezekiel, promises: ‘I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it’ (Ezekiel 17: 24).

Yes, we need to keep sowing those tiny mustard seeds of hope and love and generosity amidst all the present anxieties of a troubled and torn world; but let’s also hold on to those words of Isaiah to the Israelites, spoken in the storm of their exile:

Do not fear, for I am with you …
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you …
Do not fear, or be afraid … (Isaiah 41: 10; 43: 1; 44: 8).