One Christmas while I was in grade school, I asked my parents if we could buy a live Christmas tree instead of a pre-cut tree to set up for decoration in our living room. I can’t remember what inspired this request initially. Perhaps I thought it was sad to see all the dead trees littering the curbs after the holidays waiting to be picked up by the city, a sign that the joy, fun, and wonder of the season was over for what to a young boy seemed a VERY long time. Maybe it was a natural curiosity to see if we could plant the tree and enjoy it year after year, watching it grow to maturity, the way it was intended to do. Whatever the reason, I was persistent in this request and eventually my parents conceded to the experiment. For a period 5 or 6 years, we bought live trees and began a post-Christmas ritual of planting the trees in the back yard. I was always delighted to see new growth on the trees each spring and as I grew older and began mowing the yard as part of my chores, I would be reminded of the Christmas that each tree represented as I mowed around it. Over the years all of the trees except one succumbed to disease. The one that has survived (the very first one we planted) is now taller than the house and to this day we marvel that this tree was once in our living room.
Today’s gospel lesson evokes this same sense of awe and wonder. Jesus is teaching his disciples and those who have gathered with them about the ‘Kingdom of God,’ a term that sounded as mysterious to them as is it does to us today. The Kingdom of God seems so otherworldly, perhaps a very distant time and place we will finally arrive after we’ve persevered here on this earth. You may know the haunting American folk gospel song “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” which alludes to this pilgrimage:
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world of woe
There’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that fair land to which I go
I’m going there to see my Saviour
I’m going home no more to roam
I’m just a-going over Jordan
I’m just a-going over home[i] (emphasis mine)
Jesus’ audience was well acquainted with ‘sickness, toil, and danger.’ They were prisoners in their own homeland, oppressed by their Roman occupiers, and fearful of their futures under the tyranny of the Emperor. Crucifixion was the ultimate penalty for conspiring against Rome and was used regularly to make examples of those who did. If that wasn’t enough, they were also subjected to an unforgiving interpretation of religious law by their own Temple leaders. The Talmud had grown to encompass over 613 commandments.[ii] If you could not follow the letter of the Law: for example, you were too sick to work and couldn’t make the appropriate Temple sacrifice, or the only work you could find required you to do so on the Sabbath, then you were considered anathema to God and considered an outcast to society. With no homeland to call their own and rejected by their own society, it seemed as if life was just hopeless existence with no end in sight.
Jesus was preaching a revolutionary message that was turning the tide and igniting hope throughout Judea and people were traveling great distances to hear him. What was this good news he was offering? The gospel message of Jesus was that the Kingdom of God was not only real and palpable, but that it was present in their everyday experience, in the here and now. How could this be? Within their own experience this seemed to be an incredulous claim. They had hoped for a Messiah who would lead an uprising to overthrow Rome and reclaim the land that God had given them. Where was the evidence to support this assertion?
But Jesus was a consummate teacher and he knew how to relate to people from all walks of life. Mark says: With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. And so he taught them: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” This is an image they would have known well since most of them made their livings working in the vineyards and farms of wealthy land owners. They knew that there was a time for planting, a time for tending, and then the rest was up to the earth to produce in its own time. They could not make it happen faster or more efficiently. But the plants would grow and when reaching maturity could be harvested and sold for food. The planting was hands on, but the process of growing and ripening was a mystery.
We too live in a complex world which can be disconcerting at best and downright frightening at most. We too seem powerless over the aggression of other societies, religious ideologies, and politics. We too see the oppression of others who are seen as less or don’t fit within societies definition of normal. We too are all becoming more isolated in the face of social media which promises the opposite. We are not unlike those in Jesus day who were desperate for some good news.
Jesus point was that we too are a part of God’s creation and are likewise suffused with His life, love, and provision. The key is that there is nothing we can do to make God love us anymore. He loves us exactly as we have been created and will meet us where we are at any stage of growth, until we have blossomed into our full stature. You may know that line from the gospel of John that says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[iii] This mystery of growth is called grace and while we can’t explain how or why it happens in our limited scope, the results are no less real. Jesus is God “Emmanuel,” that is God “with us,” and no matter what season of growth we’re in, He will give us what we need, even when we cannot see or understand what is going on in the present.
What is your experience of this? How would you complete the sentence: “The Kingdom of God is like ________. How do you know this to be true? Perhaps you have come to know about God’s life, love, and provision through something that is broken in your life. Or maybe there has been a situation you just didn’t know you would be able to get through, yet miraculously, here you are. You may have scars to show for it, yet you have come through stronger and more complete. Perhaps you are in a time of seeking or discernment and are not sure how God is working in your life. If this is so, then this is the food for your prayer. Ask God to meet you in this place and then hand it over to Him to work out in His time. As you come to the communion rail and extend your hands ask God to feed and sustain you so that you might come to know God as you are known by God. The founder of the community to which I belong, Richard Meux Benson, once said: “The body of Christ, however veiled in our flesh in our sinful persons, nevertheless cannot but have the glory of the Spirit of holy fire burning and resting upon it. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell on the present glorification of our natures in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ.”[iv]
And so for me, the Kingdom of God is like a Christmas tree that instead of being discarded is carefully planted in the ground. And it grows I know not how but now is bigger and more glorious than then house that once contained it. This is Jesus gospel message, his good news, and it is here now. Amen.
[i] “Wolf Folklore Collection: Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” Wolf Folklore Collection: Poor Wayfaring Stranger. Lyon College, 27 July 2009. Web. 10 June 2015.
[ii] Harrington, Daniel, ed. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1991. Print.
[iii] John 10:10
[iv] Smith, Martin L. Benson of Cowley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980. Print.
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