Created For Salvation
Isaiah 41:17-20, Mark 4:30-32
Rev. Aaron Willett
Our human relationship to nature is complex. We revel in nature’s beauty, and we depend on nature for our very being, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the land on which we dwell. Yet it can also seem as though we are locked in a perpetual power struggle with nature.
In the 20th Century, in our country we undertook grand projects, altering the landscape to suit our needs. We raised dams, greened deserts, and even learned to build skyscrapers on giant shock absorbers so they can survive earthquakes. As a kid I loved few things more than building dam in a ditch on a rainy day. Maybe this is instinctual. Far beyond my mud-dams, the brilliance of engineers is reflected in the ever-diminishing size of the transistors that power our electronics and the ever-increasing fuel efficiency of the planes that fill our skies (especially here!).
And yet nature has its own power. As the climate around us continues to change, we experience the growing threat of heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and storms; not to mention migrations and conflicts fueled by waning resources, desertification of marginal farmland and water shortages. Each of these demands a cost in lives, time, and treasure.
Add to this the sometimes destructive power of humanity. The 20th Century was also the deadliest in our history. Too often we resort to war and violence. Some of the nuclear weapons in the world today are more than 3000 times more powerful than Little Boy dropped on Nagasaki! And the fear of mutually assured destruction seems to be declining in our world’s corridors of power.
The exiles to whom this latter part of Isaiah was written experienced a world similarly out of control. Gone were any illusions of their own worldly power--they had been dominated by their neighbors and wrapped up in their wars, first the Assyrians, then the Egyptians, then finally driven into exile by the Babylonians, with the rising power of the Persians next door still!
They did not sit in the seat of power. God’s covenant people were being tossed by the storms of history.
Yet, even in the midst of that storm, did God abandon the Israelites to the whims of the international power players that surrounded them?
You might be wondering... and so did the Israelites.
Lamentations was written during the same time period as this part of the book of Isaiah, and it speaks to that sense of abandonment in 5:20-22:
20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure.
If we’re being honest, there are aspects of God’s sovereignty that might make us wonder along with those Israelites. Just how high above all this is God?
To the doubters from other nations who are inclined to associate the power of gods with the power of their attendant nations, Isaiah responds with a universal claim in 40:28:” Do you not know, have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.”
And then Isaiah twice declares (in 41:4 and 44:6) that God is beyond even time, “I the LORD am first, and will be the last.”
So we have this image of God, who is first and last, the creator of everything, this whole good earth... but does this God care about any of it? “Why have you forgotten us completely?” the author of Lamentations asks.
Does this God care about the migrants fleeing economic insecurity and food scarcity in northern Africa? Does this God care about the families whose homes were destroyed in last summer’s wildfires? Does this God care?
As if in response, God declares through Isaiah, in 41:10:
“Do not fear, I am with you.”
Do not fear, I am with you, says the LORD.
Yes, this God cares.
All life finds its purpose in the one who undergirds all creation. All of human history is built upon a foundation of this God who existed before all and will exist after all. God reigns in glory above all, beyond our imaginations, and yet is still connected with and concerned about the plight of humanity. God persists as an agent of justice and peace in our world, working to restore wholeness to the fractured human family.
And so we see in today’s passage, God greening up a way through the desert. The road was promised in the previous chapter, but now we read of God coming to the aid of the poor, needy, and parched, making the desert mountains fertile, of water gushing down from the mountains, springs rising up in the valleys. And God promises trees great and small to point the way home for the exiled people of God.
This is a sign of God’s continuing provision and promise, a mark of God’s loving-kindness extended through nature, God’s creation.
Jesus’ parable similarly speaks of God’s provision. The mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, grows to provide shelter for the birds of the air.
Now, Jesus is playing on imagery his audience would have recognized from Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapter 17, verses 22 and 23, speak of God promising to raise up Israel as a great tree, a stately cedar, for birds of all kids to nest in. The birds here, as in Jesus’ parable, are a metaphor for the people of the nations. But instead of that grand cedar providing them shelter, the kingdom Jesus describes is like a mustard plant.
Now the mustard plant was a known quantity in antiquity. Pliny the elder in his Natural History from 78 AD described both the culinary quality of the plant as well as its challenges.
“[The 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.”
The pharisees in Jesus’ audience would have recalled not only the play on Ezekiel, but the Talmud’s prohibition of mustard being planted in Jewish gardens because of its propensity to take over the place and thereby mix with the other plants. They would have heard this troublemaking rabbi’s clear implication about the bottom-up nature of the coming kingdom.
There’s another interesting insight to be had in comparing Mark’s telling of the parable of the Mustard Seed to that in Matthew and Luke. In Luke, the seed becomes a tree. In Matthew, he declares that as the greatest of shrubs it becomes a tree. But Mark, well, Mark seems to understand that maybe Jesus meant something different, that he chose the Mustard seed on purpose, because it is in fact not a mighty tree like a cedar, but a shrub that spreads by it’s relative lowliness. Jesus’ kingdom is not marked by the promise of grand temples and tall steeples, but by humility. Paul would later have to remind the churches of this, that in the Kingdom of God, the greatest honor is reserved for the lowest.
We Christians, in all places and at all times, would do well to remember this, that we are a part of God’s creation, like the trees lining the path home to Jerusalem. As such, we are invited to participate in marking the path to God, but we do so not as the most impressive trees, but really, just as shrubs. Shrubs sprung up from a tiny seed, spreading every-which-way, and playing host to all the birds of the air. Shrubs who can tell of the way our experience of the divine has given meaning to our lives and sustained us in our troubles. The seeds of our faith have been passed along for two thousand years, and we still rest our faith on the same simple truth: Jesus saves. Jesus saves with the gentleness of an expansive shrub giving shade to a nesting bird. In our humility, we are invited into what God is doing in our midst: saving, creating and recreating.
This is the promise Isaiah held for those lamenting Israelites in exile, and this is the good news for us us as well, we who live in a world that teeters and totters, every day flush with new anxieties to burden our hearts:
Do not fear, I am with you.
God cares for you, for me, for our community, AND for the whole, fractured, divided, torn-up human family. Isaiah envisions the healing of all creation, an action graciously infused with God’s love of ALL creatures, and Jesus gives us a vision of an untamed kingdom graciously providing shelter.
We, citizens the mustard seed kingdom, get to join with God’s good creation, pointing the way and participating in God’s never ending, never giving up, never abandoning us, always for us, faithful love. That sounds like good news to me.