Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
In the name of Jesus, amen.
Many years ago, when I was growing up, we had a big Bradford pear tree that stood in the yard in front of our house. It was a huge tree, with the branches of the tree’s canopy stretching up and over our courtyard and the roof of our house. It protected our house from the beating heat of the sun in the summer, and protected us from heavy rain and snow. It was like a second roof, and we weren’t the only creatures living under it. Squirrels made nests in the upper branches, and birds nested in the tree’s hollows and knot holes. I remember specifically watching a family of blue jays that lived about halfway up the tree, across from my bedroom window. That tree’s branches, especially in the spring and summer months, were home to many birds and insects, and it was full of song. Looking out my window into that big pear tree was like having a window into a secret, private world for only beasts and birds; a different kingdom.
A whole universe lived in the shelter of that tree, and it was a shame when we had to cut it down. If you’ve ever had a Bradford pear, they are notoriously weak trees. Fast growing, but prone to dropping limbs or coming down themselves. It had gotten large enough that this home for so many others had become a threat to our home because some of its larger branches were cracking, and so it was removed. That tree, like so many other living things, was not eternal. It wasn’t even that old, even though it was so large—it had stood there some forty years. But all trees eventually fall or die or are cut down. I tried to find out where and if there still stand any old-growth trees on Long Island, but it seems that many of them have been cut down. Apparently, though, there is a white oak just west of here in the Ashley Schiff Park Preserve that is at least 300 years old. But someday, it too, shall die or be uprooted by wind or rain. No tree— not even “Pando,” the 14,000-year-old quaking aspen clonal colony growing in central Utah that shares one giant root system— will last forever.
That is, no tree, except for one. In our reading from Ezekiel this morning, the prophet recalls a message given to him by God about what the Lord will do, setting up a “sprig from the lofty top of the cedar” atop a “high and lofty mountain” that will grow large, become a “noble cedar” and be a place of refuge for “every sort of bird.” Did you know that there are some 18,000 species of birds on earth? That’s a lot of birds, and so that must be a mighty tree. The Burj Khalifa of trees, no doubt. It seems almost miraculous that a tree that large could come from a small sprig, a tiny twig, but as God tells Ezekiel, “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree.” God alone can make a tree like that.
This is something that Jesus echoes in his parable from our Gospel reading this morning. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The kingdom of God is like a tiny grain of mustard (not the smallest seed in actuality, but Jesus is speaking hyperbolically— it’s really small) that grows to tower over the other plants in the garden. And how does the kingdom grow? “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. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” It doesn’t grow through anything of man’s doing–God brings it to fruition in his own way and in his own time. God plants the sprig of cedar on the mountain of Israel and it grows into a great tree and refuge for birds. God plants the mustard seed and it sprouts and grows large without man’s intervention— indeed, in spite of it! That’s what God does with his kingdom.
So when we read what Jesus is saying here, along with what Ezekiel hears from the Word of God, something becomes quite clear: When it comes to his kingdom, God does the planting and the growing. He takes the low tree and makes it high. He takes a small people and grows it so large that it encompasses all the nations of the world. This is what we pray when we say, “Thy kingdom come” when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Remember what we learned in catechism class?
“Thy kingdom come.
What is meant by this Petition?
Answer. The kingdom of God comes indeed of itself, without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.
When is this effected?
Answer. When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word, and live a godly life here on earth, and in heaven for ever.”1
The kingdom of God comes indeed of itself, without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also. That’s sometimes hard for us to accept. We like having everything depend on us. The kingdom of God doesn’t depend upon us at all, but we live as though it does. We live like everything does. Stress and stress-related illnesses are on the rise among Americans, and I think it’s largely because we think everything is dependent upon us. “If I don’t take care of X, Y, and Z responsibilities right now and also do all these extracurricular activities and if I don’t do all of them to the best of my ability, well then I’m a failure as a person and have failed in all my vocations because it all depends on me.” Does that sound like you? Does that sound like someone you know? That’s a big temptation, and if we give into that sort of thinking, it leads to burnout. And if we are tempted to think that way with regard to God’s kingdom and his power in our lives, then that leads to spiritual burnout because we will never be able to live the way God wants us to live under our own power. We can’t usher in God’s kingdom in the way we want to; it comes as God will have it come. God builds it and grows it.
And this is a frustration for us, I am sure, because life in this vale of tears is so terrible in so many ways. So unjust, so cruel. So full of pain and suffering, violence and hate and illness. So full of temptation and greed. So full of loss. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just make the peaceable kingdom here right now? I fear if we tried we’d only make things worse. We aren’t God. We aren’t the King. We are subjects, and sinful subjects at that who are not the all-good Father and gardener who causes his kingdom to grow. And so our efforts would be in vain. It would be better for us to pray with Martin Luther: “Use me as Your instrument; only do not forsake me, dear Lord. For if I am left to myself, I will easily ruin it all. Amen.”
Instead of happening in our time, the growth of the kingdom of God happens in God’s time. And it is growing here, among us now. It is growing in each and every one of you. “But how can you say that?” you might ask. “Last week, Pastor Unger told us about the state of the church at large right now. It doesn’t look like it’s growing.” Well, first off, don’t lose heart. Don’t focus on that— that wasn’t the point of his sermon anyway, and thank God, the church is certainly growing elsewhere in the world. But second, think about what he said: look to see what God is doing in you with Christ. (See how all the readings of the last few weeks are tied together?!) God takes a shoot from the stump of Jesse and raises him up on a cross, a tree, high upon the mountain of Israel, Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and through his death and resurrection brings you, you and people from every nation, to roost in the safety of his shadow, in the protection of his kingdom. You and I are like the birds that roost in that great cedar, in that big mustard bush. Jesus Christ died for us and watered us with his blood so that we might be pure and holy, free from bondage to sin and death and alive with the new life and freedom of Christ. The Holy Spirit dwells in us and guides us, pointing you back to the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and to Holy Absolution, to receive again the benefit of the promise of new life won for us by Jesus on the cross. To cause us each to grow as Christians in sanctification. To want to do better by our neighbors. To want to delve deeper into the word of God and to live by his law. To not neglect the assembly of believers, but to come together frequently to worship God, receive his gifts and care for one another. In all these ways, the kingdom of God is growing in you right now, and in the hearts of millions of Christians around the globe! So to reiterate from last week’s sermon, don’t lose heart. It is growing, though God’s timing is such that we do not yet see the harvest.
When I was digging around in commentaries while working on this sermon this week, I found a beautiful description of God’s timing and work from a sermon by Peter Chrysologus, the archbishop of the city of Ravenna, Italy, from 433-450 AD:
“Such then is the mustard seed which Christ sowed in his garden. When he promised a kingdom to the patriarchs, the seed took root in them; with the prophets it sprang up; with the apostles it grew tall; in the Church it became a great tree putting forth innumerable branches laden with gifts. And now you too must take [wing]…and fly to rest for ever among those sturdy, fruitful branches. No snares are set to trap you there; fly off, then, with confidence and dwell securely in its shelter.”2
The kingdom of God has drawn near to us, and its growth among us is still ongoing, taking a long time. But this is okay. We know the ending. God’s kingdom will be established in-full with the new heaven and the new earth— check out the last few chapters of Revelation in your pew Bible. It’s wonderful. But even though we know the end and that God is the one doing all this, growing his kingdom in his church in his own time, this is not an invitation for us to be passive. We can’t grow the kingdom of God. But we can be God’s instruments as he waters and cares for the tree of his kingdom as it grows. We can be his tools. You, too, can be a pruning shears, or a trowel, or a watering can in God’s garden. You can be a soil aerator— imagine that! And how Look to what Jesus has done for you, and listen to the Holy Spirit as he guides your ways. do you become a tool of the kingdom? It’s both easy and hard: be a Christian. By the help and power of the Holy Spirit, live out your baptism. Daily die to sin and rise in Christ, trusting him for his love and his forgiveness. Perform your vocation well, and give everyone who asks you the reason you have for the hope that is in you. Love one another as Christ has loved you. And stay in the Word–read your Bible, and pray, and keep your eyes, ears, and hearts open to see where God’s Word is calling you to love and serve others. Because when you know who you are in Christ, you can be like Christ to someone else, bringing them near to the Kingdom of God and helping it to sprout and grow in their heart, too.
So my brothers and sisters, you who nest in the shelter of the mighty cedar atop Mount Zion, God’s kingdom is growing in you and among you. May we all be tools for its cultivation, so that the harvest may come soon. Amen.
1Henry Eyster Jacobs, ed., The Book of Concord; Or, The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1916), 368.
2Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Mark (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 58–59.