In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The whole thing strikes me as a joke…that Jesus is telling. He’s talking about a mustard plant in this parable, about how it will spread out its branches and birds can nest in their shadow, but He’s using the same words that Ezekiel uses about cedar trees in the part of chapter 17 we heard this morning. Now I’m no botanist, but there’s a pretty big difference between mustard plants and cedar trees. Cedars grow up large, strong, and impressive. People take cedar trees and build houses, like Solomon did for his own house, and then for the Temple, the House of God. Any bird would be happy to build its nest in the branches of a cedar tree. But no one’s going to build a house out of mustard plants. They are not particularly large, strong, or impressive. And birds might hide in the branches, but I doubt they’re going to build nests there, especially if there’s a nice big cedar tree next door. Actually, mustard plants seem to be more of a weed than anything desirable in the garden, unless you want a plant to take over everything. In fact, a guy named Pliny wrote a book about 40 years after Jesus’ death, where he talks about mustard plants. He says they mostly grow wild, but they’re a little better if transplanted. But watch out, because once they’re sown, you can hardly get the place free of them. Because the seeds, when they fall, germinate at once. The seeds, when they fall, germinate at once.
So why is Jesus talking about mustard plants when He should be talking about cedars? To get a hint at the answer, we have to go back to Ezekiel 17. See, Ezekiel is telling a parable also. A parable God told him to tell the people of Israel. It’s a parable about two eagles and a vine. One eagle, which represents Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, plucks the top off a cedar tree; that is, he takes the leaders of Israel, including the king Jehoiachin, back to Babylon. And then he plants a vine, that is, a new king, in a fertile place: Israel. The new king is Zedekiah, who happens to be Jehoiachin’s uncle. And everything seems to be looking good for Zedekiah. He’s king in Israel, second only to Nebuchadnezzar, and all he has to do is submit and pay tribute to Babylon, and everything will go well for him. But that’s the one thing he doesn’t want to do. So, as the parable says, the vine reaches out toward another eagle: which is Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Zedekiah tries to get Egypt to back him when he rebels against Babylon. But Egypt doesn’t quite come through, and so Nebuchadnezzar brings his armies to Israel, breaks down the walls and takes the people into exile in Babylon. Zedekiah has to watch his sons killed in front of him and then they put his eyes out and he has to live blind in Babylon until the end of his life. Zedekiah was not rebelling only against Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, he was rebelling against God. It was God who brought Nebuchadnezzar to Israel; God was in control, not Zedekiah.
And then, finally, we come to verses 22-24, which we heard earlier. Now, God says, it won’t be Nebuchadnezzar taking the top of a cedar tree away and planting a vine instead. God says, I will pluck the tenderest sprig off the top of a great cedar, and plant it on the high mountain of Israel, Mount Zion, where God chooses to dwell. And that little shoot will grow into a large cedar and spread out its branches so far that all the birds will have room to build nests in its shade. And God will do this so that all the trees of the field, that is, all the kings and kingdoms of the earth, will know that it is Yahweh who raises up lowly kings and kingdoms, and puts down exalted ones. God dries up fresh, green kingdoms, and God refreshes dry kingdoms. I am Yahweh: I have spoken and I will do it. And He does. So that Mary, the mother of God, sings in her little song after being visited by the angel: God puts down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly (Luke 1:52). God takes a little shoot and plants it in the womb of a virgin.
The problem was, everyone who was waiting for the Messiah was looking for a cedar. Looking for the reign of God to come with impressive power and strength. But then Jesus starts talking about God reigning like a mustard plant, not a cedar. And everyone thought it was a joke. No, God doesn’t come like this. And they killed Him. The world still thinks it’s a joke, this Reign of God. The world can only see cedar-like power and prestige. They want to know what the Church has ever done for anyone. Does the Church have anything to say about which candidate to elect? Does the Church have anything to say about how to reform health care or how to stop violence in the streets? Does the Church have anything to say about Israel and Palestine? No? Well, then it’s all a joke. You’re just here playing church. It’s worthless. And Christians—you and me—we often think it’s a joke, too. This Gospel: what has it ever produced? People just go on being the same sinners they were before. Nothing ever seems to change. Better to tell people what to do, how to have a better marriage, be better parents, better citizens, nicer, and on and on and on. As if people don’t know that they ought to love their husbands and wives and children, and do for them what they need. It’s not as if they don’t tell us what they need. We just don’t want to do that. The every-day needs of the people who are actually put into our midst are not cedar-like, impressive and imposing. As for how to be better people, try hammering your children with what they should do, what they should do, what they should do, and not do, and see if that works. It might seem like it, for a while at least. But they’re still the same on the inside, just like us; we just try not to do what we really want to do. But if the Church doesn’t tell people what to do, especially once we’ve progressed beyond what the Scriptures really do tell us to do, it must be a joke. The Gospel, the Reign of God in Jesus Christ, must not be enough. Or did we forget we walk by faith and not by sight, even when it comes to our own holiness?
Jesus is dead serious about how God reigns in this creation, and it’s mustard plant, not cedar. By the way, did you know that the (alternate) Family name for mustard is Cruciferae? Like “crucified.” It comes from the fact that mustard, like some other plants, has four flowers in the shape of a cross. That may be a coincidence. Or maybe not. Maybe what’s at the center of the whole reign of God in this creation is the crucified One. Maybe that’s the best result we could hope for in this world: to die. To die in ourselves, or to die in Jesus; that’s pretty much it as far as options go. Maybe, then, there’s something to this whole mustard plant thing after all: when it’s sown, you can hardly get the place free of it. When the seeds fall, they germinate at once. So maybe all there is to do in a dying world is to scatter some seeds. For me to keep throwing Christ out on this ground, and hope He takes root. So: I, a called and ordained servant of Christ, forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You’re forgiven for thinking God’s means are foolish. Jesus planted you in Himself at baptism, and He keeps feeding and watering you with Himself, the only soil there is in which you can grow. I keep scattering the seed, in the form of bread and wine, which we insist is Christ’s Body and Blood, because He said it was. And I go to sleep, and wake up, and maybe something grows. After all, to those who have, more will be given.
And you: you go out and scatter some seeds. You fathers and mothers scatter Jesus to your children, planted firmly in Him at baptism. You forgive their sins, and each other’s sins. And when someone wants to know what the big deal is, why you have to be here on Sunday morning, you tell them because Jesus is here, and He’s giving His forgiveness away like it costs nothing, though it cost Him everything. You scatter the seeds, you go to sleep, you wake up, and maybe something grows.
And we have absolutely no control over it whatsoever! That’s a frustrating thing, especially for sinful preachers like me. But it’s actually good news: because it means that God is in control, that He’s making seeds grow whether we see anything happening or not. And that’s a promise. And when God makes a promise, He does it. And when the harvest comes, and we see this mustard plant of the Church for the resurrected cedar it is, then all the birds, of every tribe, and people, and language, and nation, will gather under the branches of the crucified One, safe and secure. Thus says Yahweh: I have spoken, and I will do it.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/13/15