Rev. Doug Floyd
Ezekiel 31:1-18, Psalm 92, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Mark 4:26-34
In our reading from Ezekiel today, we hear a story of an enormous tree. When I think of large trees, I think of Sequoias, Redwoods, and Cedars of Lebanon.Several years ago, Kelly and I drove up the California coast to the Redwood Forest. When we reached the Redwoods, we could not believe our eyes. Cars, trucks and campers looked like little toys at the base of these mammoth trees. Walking through the Redwood Forest was like walking through a fairy land. We were the tiny elves surrounded by trees that were so high we couldn’t see the top. These giants took our breath away. In fact, they literally brought us to tears because it was so magnificent.
Over the course of my life, I’ve often dreamed about gigantic trees. Once Kelly and I were volunteering at a fundraiser at a wealthy lady’s house in Knoxville. That night I dreamed that I was back in her house. I started climbing a tree in her backyard and the tree was so tall that I climbed for a long, long time. At one point, I was climbing through dark waters. It was cold, difficult, and exhausting, but eventually I climbed through the waters and came to the top of the tree sticking out of the ocean. From the top of the tree I could see Noah’s ark. The sun was shining and there was a rainbow in the sky. Kelly told me to send a copy of the dream to the lady. I did, and the lady talked to me about that dream several different times over the next few years.
There are many ancient mythological trees whose roots go down below the depths of the earth and whose branches reach up into the heavens. The Norse legends speak of the World Tree that stretches over the nine realms. Or think about Jack and the Beanstalk. Though it’s a beanstalk, that’s my image of a tree that reaches into the clouds. It reaches so high that Jack can climb up into the giant’s household. Eventually, Jack has to cut down the beanstalk to protect himself from the threatening giant.
This brings me to our reading. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, Pharaoh compares his kingdom of Egypt to the kingdom of Assyria. The Assyrian kingdom is described as a giant tree that reaches from the deep waters below the earth up into the clouds above, connecting heaven and earth. The birds of the air and the beasts of the field find protection in this enormous tree. All the great nations live in the shadow of this tree.
This glorious tree has become proud as it towers over the earth. The Lord allows it to be humbled, to be cut down. It falls down so low that the tree falls down alongside all the dead soldiers in Sheol. This image of the chopped down tree is an image of both Assyria and Egypt. Both nations grew strong and proud and now have fallen lower than the trees of Eden.
In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a similar tree that grows large and provides shelter before it is cut down. The dream is about Nebuchadnezzar’s coming fall as a result of pride but also about the fall of Babylon. The empire is falling.
Multiple empires have come and gone since then and all have fallen from greatness. As the Psalmist writes, “It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” (Ps 75:7). These images of trees can speak of kingdoms as well as individuals such as in our Psalm today,
12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
15 to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (Ps 92:12–15)
Our Gospel today picks up on this image of a tree that provides refuge. Jesus says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 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.” (Mk 4:30–32).
Jesus gives us a few unusual images in this picture of the kingdom. First, he emphasizes the kingdom is like a tiny seed buried or sown in the ground. This tiny seed does not grow up into a Cedar of Lebanon or a Redwood tree. It grows up into a plant. A very large plant. He says that this plant is the larger than all the garden plants. Its branches become a refuge for the birds of the air.
On the one hand, there are some parallels with these tree parables of the Old Testament. The plant grows large and its branches provide refuge. At the same time, some details are extremely different. He tells the story of planting a tiny seed. It does not become a giant towering tree, but a large plant.
Why would he emphasize the smallness of the seed and speak of the kingdom as a plant and not a tree? The mustard plant produces many seeds that the birds come to eat, and as a result the mustard seed plants keep being planting. If this is a metaphor for the kingdom, it is an image of a kingdom that keeps spreading. Unlike the Cedar or the Redwood, it is not a thing of glory to the average viewer and yet, it keeps reproducing.
Jesus will speak of His coming death as a seed being planted in the ground. In John 12:23-24 Jesus speaks of the coming cross. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:23–24). By the same Spirit that raises Jesus from the dead, He will raise up disciples who will reveal Him in word and deed. The kingdom will spread not through glory according to the standards of the world such as wealth, power, government, and human accolades. Rather, it will spread through humility, through sacrifice, through love poured out in relationships.
In the end this kingdom will do what the Cedar and the Redwood cannot do, it will actually unite heaven and earth. Man tried to do this at the Tower of Babel and through his various kingdoms across the ages, but these kingdoms will always fall. Though they may do some good, they are ultimately rooted in human wisdom and human conceptions of greatness. The wisdom and greatness of God confounds human wisdom.
In the cross of Christ, we see the wisdom of God revealed. We see God’s provision for human sin, for our sin. We see the way of reconciliation for Jew and Gentile alike. Thus we see the formation of a new family, a new man, a new Temple. We see the beginning of the restoration of creation. In that sense, Jesus is the only “tree” that connects heaven and earth. We also see the mystery of the life of God revealed in the humility of Christ. Paul writes in Philippians 2,
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:4–7).
This notion of humility is not about self-depreciation. The word condescension may be more helpful. It speaks of coming down from one’s rights or claims. The Son of God condescends to His creation by entering into creation as a human being and even as a servant. He descends to serve and to literally pour out His life to heal the world. Johann Hamann suggested that all of God’s interaction with His creation is a condescension. Even the very act of a creating a world, God condescends. He does not need creation to be any more glorious, to experience companionship or for any reason. He is complete as Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet, he comes down in a sense and creates a world. A free act of loving generosity. It is the very image of self-emptying love.
The movement of self-emptying is a mystery of love within the Triune God. To the eyes humanity, this kind of love looks like weakness. Paul also speaks of this in 1 and 2 Corinthians. Our lectionary has been leading us through 2 Corinthians with readings that focus on weakness, suffering, emptying. Today’s reading focuses on our tents, that is our bodies which are wearing out. Much like his argument in Romans 8, Paul says that we groan for a glory that is to come, we long for the heavenly dwelling to clothe us, we long for bodies that can bear the weight of glory. Throughout the book, he emphasizes our weakness and God’s strength or God’s glory. Eventually God says to Paul and us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Christ condescends to the accursed cross. Like the mustard seed, He will be planted in the earth. Like the mustard plant He will burst forth as a plant. Nations will not suddenly declare the glory of His resurrection. Most people in Jerusalem will ignore it or reject it. And yet, Christ is more glorious than any kingdom.
He is the true vine who connects heaven and earth, who defeats the power of sin and death, who provides shade and sustenance for the birds and beasts, who provides healing and refuge for the nations. As we put our faith in Christ to redeem us and cleanse us from sin, we are rooted in Him. We are the branches of this tree, this vine, this plant that reveals God’s healing grace in the world around us. We reveal this kingdom, this glory, this healing grace as individuals and as a community. Unlike the Cedar and the Redwoods, we do not seem glorious. We seem frail and weak.
As we follow Christ, we learn the pattern of condescension, of taking the lower seat, of serving instead of waiting to be served, of seeking the glory of another, of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and of even counting others more significant than ourselves. We are not beating ourselves up or berating ourselves. No we are actually pouring out our lives for one another in love, or at least we are learning this way of self-emptying love. And in so doing, we are learning the way of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are learning the way of perichoresis, of the shared dance of love within the communion of God and God’s people. We may look weak but in fact, we are growing in God’s glory.
 Alexander, W. M., Johann Georg Hamann Philosophy and Faith, Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1966 (pp. 25-37). “‘Come,’ says God, ’we will come down from heaven. Let us go down.’ This is the means by which we have come closer to heaven: the condescension of God to earth.” – JG Hamann.