A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 13 June 2021.
What are your favourite months in the year? Mine are May and June – well perhaps I need to modify that – May last year and June this year! Though the very wet May that we’ve just had has made everything shoot up and look incredibly green. Spring is a miracle and the pandemic has certainly heightened my awareness of this.
I suspect some of us are familiar with the poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. There the poet writes:
‘And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs…’
Nature is a wonderful place to turn not just to recharge our batteries but also for images and insights that can help us.
In the Old Testament tall trees are sometimes used as symbols of national power. That’s what’s going on in our first reading. Earlier in the chapter, the prophet Ezekiel has woven an allegory in which a mighty eagle has broken off the top of a cedar of Lebanon, and taken it to a land of merchants and planted it there.
The bit that we then read, comes a little later in the chapter, and is a re-working of this allegory, now with God not an eagle, taking the sprig from the top of the cedar, and planting it, not in a land of merchants but on the mountain height of Israel.
Given that in the allegory the cedar top represents the house of David and its transplantation the exile of the Davidic king to Babylon, what’s envisaged in the verses we read is the restoration by God of the house of David, no longer in a land of merchants but on a mountain.
So this restoration can be seen by the whole world, reversing all our human ideas of success and failure, important and unimportant. Safety and shelter will be provided for people far and wide; what is high will be brought low, what is low will be exalted; what flourishes will wither and what is dry will blossom.
It’s a picture of the coming of God’s kingdom drawn from the natural world – a tree planted on a high and lofty mountain with birds of every kind nesting in its branches.
It’s inspirational and it resonates in our hearts and minds. Not unlike the opening words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem that I quoted earlier, where the poem begins:
‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…’
We then read some verses from Psalm 92 where a different use was made of the image of a tree, not to help us think about the way God’s kingdom turns national prowess on its head, but to reflect on what makes for a good life.
The psalm compares the righteous to a flourishing palm tree that spreads abroad like a cedar of Lebanon, and the psalmist suggests that even in old age the righteous will still bear fruit, ‘they shall be vigorous and in full leaf’.
Well – maybe that’s not quite how we feel, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Finally we read two short parables that Saint Mark gives us in which Jesus turns to nature for some important insights.
We heard him say:
‘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 kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
We’ve heard those words before!
We don’t know the exact context that gave rise to these two little parables. But perhaps the disciples were getting discouraged. When was this kingdom Jesus talked about going to come? Why was it proving so difficult? Why didn’t Jesus bring in the kingdom now?
And if that’s right, then it seems that Jesus is wanting to encourage his disciples when he says: think of the seed in the ground that sprouts and grows all by itself – think of the smallest seed you can think of and what does it become?
As we grow older we may well feel far from ‘vigorous and in full leaf’ as today’s psalm put it. With doubts now being sown over whether the restrictions on 21 June will be lifted completely, we too may feel our spirits sink.
But both the prophet Ezekiel and Jesus of Nazareth want to share their conviction with us, that while outward appearances may be discouraging, there’s always more going on than meets the eye.
Because, as Gerard Manley Hopkins concludes in that same poem:
‘Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.’