Elton John, a young sprig, cedar fruit, birds of every kind, and the church.
I didn’t think I was ready. And most days, I still don’t know if I am.
The year was 1998. The song that lasted the longest that year at #1 on the Billboard music charts was Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” The fashion was…well, if you Google “Fashion in 1998” the first hit will be an article in Glamour Magazine (if you didn’t get your copy in the mail) that is entitled: “9 Fashion Trends from 1998 that are Just as Relevant in 2018.” Take out your pens and pencils. If you’re wearing “logo wear,” “microfloral dresses,” or small, symmetrical sunglasses, you’re trending.
Back to 1998…
In 1998 I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. I had passed a series of ordination exams for the Presbyterian Church. And I had interviewed in a variety of places, including Columbia, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was this campus ministry in Chattanooga that I felt God’s call. And the leaders there called my wife and me, married a little over a year, to pastor this ministry that met on sixty folding chairs in a living room one block off of the University Tennessee-Chattanooga campus.
I wonder: What makes three years of studying Bible, Greek, Hebrew, church history, a handful of preaching classes, youth ministry classes, plus passing a few exams—what makes all of that make someone ready to lead a group of people? What makes all of that qualify someone to teach the Word of God to a group of 18-22 year olds. A group that over the next sixteen years would grow to over 400 people in worship and small group meetings.
I was twenty eight years old when I began serving in that ministry. I was, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel—a tender young sprig. I had only been a believer in Jesus for 12 years at that point. And now leading a group of people in what it means to follow Jesus.
How many of us have found that God works just like that? That the periods of growth in our lives come when we think we are not quite ready.
Can you think back on those times in your life when you were young at something or inexperienced at something—it all felt new and tender and vulnerable—and God, or a boss, or a coach, or someone else said, “I want you to go here and start this. I want you to lead this. I want you to serve here.”
I’m told that when you are wanting to transplant a vine, or a tree, you look for a new branch—one article I read said a branch less than a year old would work best.
Which brings me to this passage in Ezekiel 17:
22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
Now all of this about a tender sprig growing into a strong cedar–what this text in Ezekiel 17 was about is a very specific situation.
What God was saying through Ezekiel then was about Israel, and the kingdom of Babylon that had put them in exile. God’s people had experienced the king of Babylon coming to Jerusalem and snapping off a portion of God’s people like a sprig from a tree and taking them to a foreign land. Here, God says He Himself will take a sprig…but instead of that sprig withering away, it will grow.
One of the things I love about God’s Word is that these words—written to a particular people, in a particular situation, for a particular purpose—these words are living and active—and the meaning then still has meaning now for us.
Jesus knew this. He knew the Word of God, and many of the people he spoke to knew these Scriptures as well. So when Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed—would grow to the largest of garden plants so that birds of every kind would nest in its shade—when Jesus spoke those words and said “birds of every kind nesting in its shade,” do we think this was a coincidence? One of the things we need to know about Jesus—that when he spoke, not a word was wasted. Do we think for a moment that he wasn’t wanting to call others’ minds to these days of Ezekiel—so that when Jesus said “birds of every kind will nest in its shade,” those that knew Ezekiel’s prophecy would know that Jesus was talking about a kingdom–and a kingdom people. A kingdom that reflects every kind of bird finding shelter under a strong tree.
What is God’s kingdom? I think one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard was from Dallas Willard: Where God’s will is being done.
“The Kingdom of God: It is present wherever what God wants done is done.” (see more here)
Contrast that with our kingdom: Where we strive to make what we want done done. How much of our time and energy are spent trying to make our own kingdom grow? Trying to arrange our lives in order to make our will be done as much as possible. How is that working out for us?
Is it any wonder Jesus taught us to pray, “YOUR (God’s) kingdom come, YOUR (God’s) will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?
Jesus in his parables sought to point out that God has always been about making His kingdom grow—by making His kingdom people grow. So he used parables about seeds growing to large garden plants, nets and fish, weeds and wheat, and much more.
Back to Ezekiel, who has a parable of his own.
That strong tree begins with inauspicious beginnings. A tender shoot. But the Master Gardener, God Himself, is the one who takes the sprig. NOTE: If you read all of Ezekiel 17, you’ll notice that kings are the ones who try and plant their own sprigs. But here, God is the one who cuts and plants. He knows what He is doing. That might be the first principle for us desiring to make shade for others—let God do the planting. Let God do the planting. This sprig has been planted by God in a particular place—it grows. With branches that spread out. And it bears fruit— I had to look that up: Does cedar really produce fruit? I hadn’t seen it recently at a grocery store. Well, I guess a cedar does bear fruit. A dark blue berry that is usually eaten by squirrels and birds. But Native Americans used it as an herbal remedy for arthritis and nausea. Don’t try this at home. In any case, the tender sprig becomes a strong cedar, spreading out its branches, bearing fruit, making shade for birds of every sort.
The church where I serve has been in the city of Sacramento for 150 years. Fifty years ago, the elders and leadership of this church moved from a beautiful space at 36th and J Streets to plant something new here on Carlson and H Street. Before that, 14th and O Street, where the first church was built at a cost of $500 with labor donated, and then rebuilt on 15th and O for $10,000.
Each of those moves in our history were inspired by God to grow something new, to give something new, to go somewhere new, to be something new.
Aren’t the words of Ezekiel for us as well? That we are planted here to grow branches, bear fruit, so that birds of every kind—people of every culture, race, and language—can gather and find a home?
Will we continue to grow, to deepen our roots in this community and city? Will we be a strong cedar, under which birds of every kind—people of every race, language, and culture—can gather and find shelter and hope?
As only God’s Word can do: when you look at these verses through the lens of the gospels—the story of Jesus—we find remarkable parallels.
A man, a young shoot from the family line of King David. Who the night before his death said, “Let this cup pass from me…but not my will be done, but yours be done.” He was a man cut down in the prime of his life—tradition has it at age thirty-three. A tender sprig placed up on the hard wood of a cross. Lifted up and planted down upon a mountain in Israel. A shameful death. But that death has brought life. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection continues to grow in its depth, spreading out to all nations—as people from every nation, every culture, every language are finding forgiveness and grace.
The words spoken by the prophet Ezekiel are coming true: All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord. May we join in God’s kingdom work by making shade for all peoples. Amen.