Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost (June 14, 2009)
Today is Flag Day in our nation, the day when the Second Continental Congress made our flag the official flag of the United States all the way back in 1777. Like the tender twig planted on a high and lofty mountain in this morning's reading from Ezekiel, our flag has been planted on high and lofty mountains around the world by hikers and climbers. It has also been planted by soldiers and marines on foreign soil when claiming victory, like that famous image of the Marines raising the flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.
Wherever it flies, whether be on a mountaintop or on the moon, the flag represents our nation. It is a land for all peoples, although not all people have always been treated equally here. Even so, our nation's ideal has been to be a place like that tree in Ezekiel, a place where “birds of every sort will nest.” Our nation is a great land, and we have been blessed by God in so many ways to live here under the Stars and Stripes.
At the same time, there is worry and concern in our nation. We have been facing an economic downturn. People have lost jobs or wonder when they will be the next to be laid off. Personal debt is at an all-time high. The federal deficit is at an all-time high, due to unbridled government spending and bail-out programs. To top it all off, our nation is still faced with dangerous threats both within and without.
Does all this signal the decline of the United States as the leading nation in the world? The dollar is certainly not as powerful as it once was. The national crime rate is down in recent studies, but you wouldn't know it here in Marysville, what with the recent homicides of two women in their 70's less than a week apart. And other things that were once considered shameful and sinful are now done in broad daylight. Things may get worse. Sometimes things turn around and get better. What's going to happen? Only the Lord knows.
But in all this, why do we worry so much? We watch or read the news and we fret and fume and wring our hands. As Christians, we should know better. We should know better not to put our trust in our leaders to solve all our problems. Some of them are just too big to handle. “Some trust in chariots,” the psalmist declared, “and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7) No problem is too big for Almighty God to handle. Even if our United States as we now know it ever ceases to exist, we dwell under the shade of a much greater tree. We nest in the shade of the brances of the Kingdom of God. By grace, you and I became members of this kingdom in the waters of Holy Baptism and through faith in our Savior Jesus.
When Ezekiel proclaimed God's Word in our text today, the nation of Israel was definitely in decline. It was the twilight of the Jewish monarchy ruling from Jerusalem. There was political intrigue on every side. The Egyptians and the Babylonians were vying for power with the kingdom of Judah caught in the middle. Treaties were made and broken soon after. Leaders in Judah were deposed. Puppet rulers were placed in power. From Babylon, where he had already been taken captive, Ezekiel tells the Israelites that the Babylonians would return one more time to Jerusalem. The people of Judah should not expect the Egyptians to come and rescue them. The king of Judah would be taken off in captivity and Jerusalem would be crushed. Yet in all this, God gives some wonderful promises to the people of Israel and to all people who are affected by worry over the conditions of their communities … to all people who are affected by sin – the sins of others and their own sin – which brings conflict, confusion, and condemnation from God.
Here are those promises given from the Lord through the prophet: “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. 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. 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.”
The nation of Judah is pictured as a tall cedar, like the cedars that helped build the temple and the king's palace. But because of the constant, willfull disobedience of the people and their failure to keep their covenant with God, God was going to start over again with some new growth. He was going to pluck off a tender twig from the tree and transplant it. That tender twig was our Savior Jesus, who was from the line of David, but did not come in pomp and ceremony like a king. Although he was God, he became a Man in the womb of his mother Mary. He laid aside his rights as God. He didn't use his divine power for his own advantage. He lived in weakness and humility. And he willingly allowed himself to be crucified.
The hill where Jerusalem was situated was called Mt. Zion. Upon Mt. Zion was another hill called Calvary. In elevation, it's not all that “high and lofty.” There are much taller mountains in Israel. But in importance, Mt. Calvary is the most high and lofty mountain there is, because that's where the Lord of Life gave his life for yours.
And this tree planted on Calvary bore branches and produced fruit. The fruit of forgiveness, life, and salvation grew there. That fruit is offered to all in the preaching of the Gospel, in the waters of Baptism, and in the Body and Blood of our Lord which we eat and drink in Holy Communion.
In the shade of this tree every kind of bird may nest. That is to say, all can rest in the refereshing shade of the Cross of Christ. No one is excluded because of language or skin color. No one is excluded on the basis of age or nation or origin. Even the worst sinners can be forgiven and rest in the shade of the cross.
And this planting of the Lord in the Messiah also parallels the creation of the Church. It's all God's doing. Just as the sending of the Savior was all God's doing, so also the Church is the Lord's creation. It's not a human institution, like a club or a fraternity. Sometimes it seems as though the Church is merely a human institution. After all, it's made up of human beings who gather together in local congregations made up of like-minded people. But I'm not talking about denominations or congregations here. I'm talking about the Holy Christian Church … all believers in Christ regardless of denominational affiliation or geographical location. This Church is a divine institution. God the Holy Spirit calls and gathers this Church together. Notice who is doing the acting in our text today: “I myself” … “I will break off” … “I myself will plant it” … “I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
It's not due to our human ingenuity, gimmicks, sales pitches, fund raising efforts, ornate buildings, or excellent music. It's all God's doing. Our job is simply to be the vessels which carry the Word, preach the Word, proclaim the Good News about Jesus, support the spreading of the seed with our prayers and our offerings. The seed belongs to God. It's His Holy Word. We sow it. He grows it. Here's how the Lord revealed this truth through the prophet Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Things can look bleak sometimes. Whether its the economy, whether its family issues, whether its a particular sin we are struggling with, whether its conflict in the congregation, whatever the case may be, these things drag us down. We get depressed. We get discouraged. We doubt God's loving care. We doubt God's power to help us get on with our life. We feel like a tree that has been brought low, a dry tree that's just about ready to shrivel up and be placed in the recycling bin.
Hear the Word of the Lord to you today: “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Those who raise themselves up in pride and who boast about their own abilities will be brought low. Those who repent of their sin and who acknowledge their absolute inabilitiy to save themselves will be exalted. They will be watered with grace and mercy in Christ, and they will flourish in this place called the Church where they will be nurtured in Word and Sacrament.
Things may look bleak, but God sees things differently. As St. Paul says, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7). What may appear weak and unimportant to our eyes is a most glorious thing. Spoken words? Water? Bread and wine? Yet those are the very gifts which God has given to his Church to distribute. And God sends his Church out with those gifts to draw others to Christ's high and lofty mountain so that they, too, can live forever in the shade of the branches of the Cross … so that they, too, can flourish and grow in grace in God's Kingdom.