On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. (Ezekiel 17:23-24)
For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 5:2-5)
Jesus said, “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." (Mark 4:26-28)
Growing up, we had a huge lilac bush in our backyard that would blossom every spring. This bush grew large enough that, while I was small, I could hang from and sit on one of its branches. Even as I got older, the bush was big enough that I could climb into it, and stand amidst is branches and blossoms. I loved crawling into that bush, being swallowed up into its blossoms, being swallowed up by the fragrance, being swallowed up into a sea of tiny purple and white flowers.
It was only a few years ago that I traveled to California for the first time. Me being my good midwestern self, used to seeing streets and lawns lined with ash and oak and maple trees, I was surprised to see streets and lawns in California lined with orange and lemon trees. It was amazing to me that families would just happen to have a lemon tree growing in their back yard. One of my hosts for the week took me outside to her lemon tree and plucked a small, heavy lemon from a branch. It looked like a lemon, nothing terribly special. But then she pierced the peel with her fingernail and handed the fruit to me. From that tiny sliver came an overwhelming aroma of sweet and sour. Without having to cut it open, without squeezing it or tasting it, the scent of lemon and sunshine swallowed me up.
Being swallowed up by the fragrance of lemons, being swallowed up by flowering lilac branches: we know that these are ideal moments. We know that these are very different ways of being swallowed up than we experience in much of our life. You know as well as I do that there are so many things in life less fruitful, less beautiful, and less ideal, that threaten to swallow us up. There are so many other things that seek to consume us.
Our schedules often seek to consume us. You know the sort of day: work or school runs right into soccer practice or rehearsal, which runs right into evening meetings and activities. You know the sort of day: you rush around doing what needs to be done, only to look back in the evening and wonder where your day went. You know the sort of day: having to squeeze in time to eat meals or to run errands between meetings and activities.
Our money and possessions often seek to consume us. Last week, I tried to run a quick errand along Route 59 - in the Fox Valley Center area, and got lost in a sea of shopping centers, malls, and restaurants. In a small, congested area of land, stores and restaurants trip over themselves to win your business. The parking lots are large and confusing, big-name and small-name stores rise on both sides of you as you drive down the road, making shopping convenient for both those drives who are stuck in right turn lanes and those stuck in left turn lanes. At its best, the area is a consolidated way to take care of your needs. At its worst, the area is a hollow symbol of consumption – of the way that we are always in danger of ourselves being consumed by our purchases and possessions.
The griefs and burdens of the world seek to consume us. Last Wednesday, a number of us gathered here for a Taize healing service. In the flicker of candlelight, the quiet of prayer, the comfort of music, I saw the faces of those who had come into this safe and soothing place because they felt on the verge of being swallowed up. Swallowed up by pain and grief, by sorrow and suffering, by brokenness and weariness. These were faces who knew firsthand the powers of pain and death that can threaten to consume our souls.
And yet, in the midst of all of these and other ways that the world threatens to consume us and to swallow up our mortal selves, Paul offers us something radically different. He offers us the good news that Christ came to earth, died, and rose again so that all “that is mortal may be swallowed up by life!” Let me repeat that. God sent Christ to the world so that all “that is mortal may be swallowed up by life!”
Ezekiel's image of the noble cedar is a sign for the Israelites that God will swallow up their oppression with liberation; that God will swallow up their grief with joy; that God will swallow up their exile with restoration. The image of the tree was a sign to Israel that God would get the last word over unjust rulers and that God would raise up for them and for us a new kind of king, one who would rule not with fear but with love, a king who would suffer and die for our sake that we might receive life.
Jesus preaches this life-giving message in the parables we hear in Mark's gospel. We hear the story of a tiny seed that is swallowed up into the ground; buried under the soil; lost and even forgotten beneath the dirt But, despite its burial, this seed has not been swallowed up by death, destined to remain forever lost beneath the surface of the earth. No - the seed has been swallowed up into life! The seed rises from the ground as a fresh, living, green shoot that grows and expands into a wide, sprawling bush, just as God's grace in Christ grows in us and through us, expanding beyond us into overwhelming promises of abundant, eternal, recreated, resurrected life!
In baptism, we hear the language of dying and rising with the resurrected Christ. We are buried in living water so that we might rise to new life, in the same way that Christ died and was buried so that he might rise again to bring life to the world. These living waters of baptism swallow up our mortal life – swallow up the ways of the flesh, the ways of sin and death. We emerge from the baptismal waters as new creations, enlivened by the Holy Spirit to live new lives in Christ.
In the same way that the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost to breathe life into the church, the Spirit comes to us anew every day and lives in us, breathing life into our mortal selves, fulfilling all of God's promises of abundant, eternal life.
The theologian Jurgen Moltmann, in his book The Source of Life, puts this yet more elequently:
God's mission is nothing less than the sending of the Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son into this world, so that this world should not perish but live. The Gospel of John tells us quite simply what it is that is brought into the world from God through Christ: life. 'I live, and you shall live also' (John 14:19). For the Holy Spirit is 'the source of life' and brings life into the world – whole life, full life, unhindered, indestructible, everlasting life. The creative and life-giving Spirit of God already brings this eternally living life here and now, before death, not just after death, because the Spirit brings Christ into this world and Christ is 'the resurrection and the life' in person. With Christ, 'indestructible life' has come to light, and the life spirit which Christ sends into the world is the power of the resurrection, which brings us new life. The sending of the Holy Spirit is the revelation of God's indestructible affirmation of life and his marvellous joy in life. Where Jesus is, there is life. That is what the Synoptic Gospels tell us. Where Jesus is, sick people are healed, sad people are comforted, marginalized people are accepted, and the demons of death are driven out. Where the Holy Spirit is present there is life. That is what the Acts of the Apostles and the apostolic letters tell us; for where the Spirit is, there is joy at the victory of life over death, and there the powers and energies of eternal life are experienced. (20-21)Where God is, there is life. Where Jesus is, there is life. Where the Holy Spirit is, there is life. This is the assurance that Ezekiel's lofty cedar tree gives us. This is the assurance that Jesus' parable of the mustard tree gives us. We can be confident that through even the tiniest seed of faith, God will wash over us with overwhelming life, with branches spread wide enough for us to come and take shelter in him, shaded and protected and swallowed up by the fullness of God's grace.
To my right, here in the sanctuary, you see an embroidered wall hanging from India. It is a depiction of a “tree of life.” The image is striking – a tree whose roots and branches connect it to the whole of creation. It is watered by the sea, which is teeming with life, and its flowering, expansive branches are home to a variety of birds and creatures who rest in its foliage. The shade from the tree cools and protects elephants and wild cats who rest at its trunk. It is a picture of bounty, of grace, of life.
I want you to consider this image as I share with you a meditation from Bonaventure, a medieval Christian mystic, as he reflects upon the image of a tree of life:
Picture in your mind a tree whose roots are watered by an ever-flowing fountain that becomes a great and living river with four channels to water the garden of the entire Church. From the trunk of this tree, imagine that there are growing twelve branches that are adorned with leaves, flowers, and fruit. Imagine that the leaves are a most effective medicine to prevent and cure every kind of sickness, because the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Let the flowers be beautiful with the radiance of every color and perfumed with the sweetness of every fragrance, awakening and attracting the anxious hearts of men of desire. Imagine that there are twelve fruits, having every delight and the sweetness of every taste. This fruit is offered to God's servants to be tasted so that when they eat it, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste. This is the fruit that took its origin from the Virgin's womb and reached its savory maturity on the tree of the cross under the midday heat of the Eternal Sun, that is, the love of Christ. In the garden of the heavenly paradise – God's table – this fruit is served to those who desire it.Brothers and sisters in Christ, our God is a God of life. Our God is a God who swallows up all that is mortal, all that is broken, all that is in need of healing and redemption. Our God is a God who swallows us up with the promise of life. It is God who invites each and every one of us to his table, to share in the fruits of grace and new creation: Christ's body and blood. It is God who calls to each of us, saying “Come, rest in my branches. Come, taste the sweetness of my grace. Come, all you who are mortal, and be swallowed up into life!”