Topic: Biblical Verse: Ezekiel 17:22–17:24
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Mark 4:26-34)
Have you ever gotten your hands dirty?
Some of the folks in our congregation know that I’ve got a little herb garden at home. It’s nothing really fancy, just a strawberry pot out on our balcony that lets me grow some of our favorite herbs for when we cook. Occasionally, I’ve been surprised by a plant or two that makes it through the winter months; but usually the whole garden dries out and dies over the winter and needs to be replaced from literally the ground up. When the time comes in the spring for re-planting, I empty out the pot, throwing all its contents into the trash. Then I pour in new potting soil, layered with some plant food, and put new herbs in all the side-bowls and the top of the planter. Once that’s done, my hands are pretty dirty and smudged with rubbed-in soil on my fingers and under my nails. But my work isn’t finished, though. I need to fill up the watering can and pour out fresh H2O on the herbs, dampening the soil so that the new plantings can take root and grow. After that, I water the garden daily to keep the herbs going with what they’ll need to thrive. In those times over the years when I’ve forgotten to water for a few days – or weeks – the garden has suffered. With the weather that we’ve had in the past month or so, it didn’t take long at all for the plants to start sprouting new leaves, offering up a ready harvest of fresh herbs for us to use. I might have to get my hands dirty each year to restart our home garden, but I definitely think it’s worth it.
God spoke His message through the prophet Ezekiel to the people of Judah, now living in exile in Babylon. They likely had gardens of their own, but they were far from home. In the opening verses of chapter 17 that precede our Old Testament reading, God tells a parable of two eagles. The first and greater of the two breaks off a twig from the top of a mighty cedar and plants it in a distant land where it sprouts and grows into a vine, reflecting what Babylon did to Judah when it took the elite of the nation off into exile. Once it has grown, though, the vine sees another, less impressive eagle and reaches out to it. The people that had remained in Judah, including the ruler who had been installed by Babylon, decided to seek help from Egypt. They faithlessly thought that they could get what they wanted from another world power: help, hope, and a home. But they were wrong. As God rhetorically asks in the parable, “Will [the vine] thrive? Will it not utterly wither when the east wind strikes it—wither away on the bed where it sprouted?” Egypt didn’t come to Judah’s rescue; instead, Babylon brought disaster on Jerusalem and what was left of Judah as a consequence of their rebellion. Judah dried up and died out.
The people of Judah aren’t the only ones that have reached out to someone or something other than God in seeking help, hope, or a home, are they? When people like you or me feel the scorching and arid heat of life in a relationship or in the crunch of time in work or school requirements, where have we turned for relief? It’s usually not been towards God. Like a plant that would bat away the watering can that has what it needs to survive, have you reached away from God’s Word, from spending time with the One who created and planted the garden? Doing that, we’ll just dry up and die out.
But that’s where the second part of the parable begins today: God says that He will step in. He personally acts and gets His hands “dirty,” planting a new and tender sprig from the top of the dried-out cedar, planting it on the top of a mountain. It will grow and flourish and become so great that all the birds of the air have a home and place to rest. God would send His Son, the Messiah, the “branch of Jesse,” to establish the new Judah and new Israel for all nations.
Speaking in another parable, Jesus told his hearers of that kingdom of God – the reigning and working of God – that was already breaking into the world. It wasn’t coming all at once in the obvious and overwhelming way that the people of his day were expecting. No, God’s kingdom was sprouting like the inconspicuous mustard seed, growing without human force by God’s doing alone. Jesus, the Son of God, had come into the world in a lowly way, and he would give all souls a home in the branches of his arms stretched out wide on the cross.
God did as He promised to do in the message Ezekiel delivered: He acted personally. He stepped in and got His hands “dirty” in the incarnation, taking on our humanity to ultimately suffer and die for you and me on the cross. God dug in for us so that we could have a sure hope and foundation for life, one which understands that He gives us everything we need both now and forever.
You are God’s planting. In Baptism, we get to see the Creator of the universe taking a soul and planting it in His kingdom to sprout and grow in His gifts of faith and forgiveness. But He doesn’t just get His hands dirty: He gets them wet. He washes His people, making you and me His own – and He doesn’t stop watering us after that one washing. Baptism is an ongoing experience for every day of the Christian’s life, one through which the Holy Spirit is continually nourishing you and providing what you need.
But what do you really need to sprout and grow? People have practical concerns in the scorching and arid heat of life. Baptism isn’t given as a cure-all to make the Christian’s life perfect and trouble-free; what it does deliver, though, is a treatment for the illness of sin that we each carry, the illness that breaks us down each day we draw breath. By the infinitely deep waters of Baptism, God connects His people to an inexhaustible supply of His grace for you in Christ. Your sin is forgiven and washed away. And by the working of the Holy Spirit, you will sprout and grow closer to your Creator who will see you through the dry and dusty landscape of this temporary life into life that lasts. As Paul writes, “[God] saved us… by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5–7 ESV)
Daily watered by God’s grace in Baptism and regularly nurtured through His Word in the Bible, we know that we have a lasting home through Jesus, one that will never dry up or die out. He has made the kingdom of God a present reality for us, even though it’s not yet fully here. We’ll have to wait until the Last Day to see the sprout fully formed when Christ comes again. But while we wait, we still walk, walking by faith in confidence of what’s to come. In his triumph over the grave, Jesus gives us a glimpse and promise of the lasting home that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5: the resurrection body that makes our mortal body seem like a simple tent. Living in Christ by his gift of Baptism, we have the greatest help, we have the surest hope, we have a lasting home.
Thanks be to God who gets His hands dirty – and wet – for us! Because He definitely thinks you’re worth it.