Sunday, 14 June 2015

Something alarming is happening in my garden (14 June 2015)

Mark 4.26-34; Ezekiel 17.22-24
Something alarming is happening in my garden. I was not aware of until quite recently but now I see that there is a weed that is taking over. Whether I’m awake or asleep it just keeps on growing, it’s a pernicious, invasive, ground covering nightmare – you’re guessed it – ground elder. How it grows I don’t know, although I do know that it’s something to do with rhizomes. What I really do know is that it’s very persistent and possibly unstoppable. I’m currently trying black plastic and lashings of glyphosate.

Jesus posed the question: What is the kingdom of God like? And he gave two horticultural answers. He likened it to seed sown in the ground that without our aid, then spouts and grows. And he likened it to the tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant that birds can shade in. Scholars seem to agree that Jesus was referring to the black mustard plant that spreads over the ground and can grow up to 8’ high. It’s really a weed although it is cultivated too. The Roman Pliny the Elder (78AD) wrote: ‘mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.’

I can imagine Pliny struggling with it in his garden; frustrated with it spreading, among his neat rows of carrots. It sounds a bit like my ground elder; getting into everything and gradually taking over. I imagine him getting cross that it gave shelter for birds who could then attack his raspberries at their leisure.  Jesus reference to the birds in the branches reminded his hearers of something the prophet Ezekiel had said - another horticultural example. The mighty cedar of Lebanon whose timber was used in the construction of Solomon’s Temple. It’s a tall tree that grow to 130’, with a trunk 10’ wide.

Ezekiel proclaims God’s promise to exiled Jews in Babylon that they will one day return home, they will again flourish, but it will be a small beginning. Like taking a tender sprig from the crown of the cedar tree and planting it on the mountain heights of Israel – that is Jerusalem. And that little sprig will grow into a splendid cedar tree. And birds of every kind will nest in it and shelter and shade of its branches. ‘Birds of every kind’ is surely a reference to Jews and Gentiles finding safety and security in God’s future plans.  But Jesus chose not to use the picture of a cedar of Lebanon but a humble mustard plant that might make it to, say, 8’. He chose a common plant that spreads and invades the whole garden.

Parables are given for our personal, imaginative exploration and not for deadening explanation from the pulpit. So I’m authorised to tell you to go and ponder these two parables for yourselves. And yet, and yet, Jesus did give some explanation to his disciples in private – so here are some closing thought.

Jesus likens the kingdom of God to sowing of seeds and in particular the mustard seed. But what is the kingdom of God? It is where God is king; it is the realm of God’s rule; it’s wherever what God wants done is done. Jesus wants us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In these parables Jesus is saying that the range of God’s effective will is spreading. It has come near in Jesus and now it is spreading like a powerful weed - it is getting in everywhere. It’s small beginnings; it may not look impressive right now, but one day it will be a great work. Jesus doesn’t liken it to a mighty cedar tree, nor to that evil ground elder. But rather to the mustard plant that invades everything, indeed may even muck up our carefully laid plan of rows and borders, but is, and will be, the place where the whole world can find shelter, shade and security.

So be encouraged. It’s small beginnings but there is no stopping it. It’s growing quietly, whether we are awake or asleep. There is gradual, persistent growth that we should look out for; be alert to the signs of it here on earth. It’s got a momentum all of its own and there will come a time, when it will be ready to gather in a harvest. It is not dependent on us, although our cooperation is being sought.

Will we be part of it? Will we let God’s values and God’s ways hold sway in our own lives? Will we seek first the kingdom of God? And wherever we see it emerging in others or in our society, point it out to those who can’t see? And will you do as Jesus says and pray for its coming, in its fullness, every day?

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