Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 17 June 2012
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34
God works in mysterious ways. I wonder how often we fail to recognise what God is doing in the world because we’re hoping and waiting for something else. The flourishing palm trees and magnificent cedars described in the psalm don’t start out that way – they begin as little shoots, insignificant and vulnerable-looking. The prophet Ezekiel uses allegory and Jesus uses parables to point to the inauspicious nature of divine beginnings.
Ezekiel 17 is an allegory about the two-step Babylonian captivity of the people of God, an utterly catastrophic period in their history. Earlier in the chapter, Ezekiel has clearly pictured the disastrous effect of the political choices of the Davidic monarchy. The Babylonian king is an eagle who plants a twig from the top of a cedar, signifying the house of David, before destroying the resultant plant. Today’s reading is the conclusion of the allegory where God takes a tender shoot from the same tree, the Davidic line, and plants it in the land. The new beginning that God brings will start out as a little shoot, but in the end it will be a mighty tree. Here is God’s promise that the destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians will not mark the end of the story of the people of God ‘Branch’ became a recognised title for the hoped-for Messiah. I am reminded of the words of Isaiah 53 which speaks of God’s servant whom Christians recognise in Jesus Christ, as a tender shoot taking root in dry ground.
Jesus used parables to speak about the Kingdom of God, those times and places where God’s reign is made evident and God’s will is done. The parable of the seed that grows by itself and the parable of the tiny mustard seed that becomes a mighty tree suggest that the establishment and the growth of the Kingdom is not the result of human effort and that even though its presence may be unremarkable, even invisible, at first, it is taking root and growing. Its tiny beginning is deceptive of its true power and final influence. Mark’s Gospel shows how Jesus was consistently misunderstood even by his own disciples, and Jesus’ death looked like a moment of utter God-forsakenness. Yet the seed was planted, took hold and grew. From inauspicious beginnings, the Kingdom of God announced, described and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth is growing in our midst.
Where we might wish for a mighty ‘Day of the Lord’ when we see God acting in power to defeat God’s enemies and establish the Kingdom, God at work in the world is more likely to begin as a little slip of a plant or a seed hidden in the ground. The Kingdom of God is full of surprises and reversals. It is an upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the last first, where the flourishing tree withers and the withered tree blooms. It is found where we least expect it. No wonder Paul says that we walk by faith and not by sight.
It takes courage to live this way. Paul and his companions reveal the secret of their ability to persevere fearlessly in the face of any opposition: they are not motivated by self-preservation but by the desire to please God. Death is not seen as the end, but as the gateway to deeper communion with God. Therefore they cannot be bullied into abandoning their calling. Any power which depends on violent coercion is powerless against such faith. This kind of faith also doesn’t have to depend upon displays of power for its strength.
God is at work in the seed that grows we don’t know how, the tiny mustard seed that blossoms into a mighty tree. Are we looking for God at work in the right places?