Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 13 June 2021.
The 1953 film The Living Desert, with the scene Sydney describes beginning one hour and five minutes in.
• First Reading: Ezekiel 17: 22-24 (I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I will dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish)
• Psalm 92: 1-4, 11-14
• Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17 (Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come)
• Gospel: Mark 4: 26-34 (Parables of the Kingdom: the hidden seed that sprouts and grows)
Some of us may remember the Walt Disney film, The Living Desert. One of its most memorable sequences was one of the desert flowering into a garden of thousands of flowers of all colours, when the waters came.
What was hidden sprang to life, even if it was only briefly and then it withered away in the heat. While it was there the spectacle was magnificent – and it was a complete surprise, never expected in this environment unless you already knew about it. But there it was and it could be filmed.
Part of the surprise was that we do not associate deserts with this kind of life. We think of dryness, daytime heat and nighttime cold. But life? And life in this kind of profusion and wonder? Not really.
Yet this brings me to our lessons. In Ezekiel, there is the promise of God to do an new thing using an old tree. The cedars of Lebanon are magnificent trees, with their spreading boughs and their sheer sense of presence. They still form the national symbol for Lebanon, and the country was exporting its timber to ancient Israel in the times of Kings David and Solomon.
But God was going to take a sprig from the top of the tree – He was not going to take a low-hanging bough with its size and strength. God was going to take that which was small, weak, even immature, and yet which had the potential to grow.
The He would plant it, nurture it, prune it, keep it from wildlife which could harm it, so that it might grow to its maturity as God was directing and cultivating it. This would be the maturity for which God was preparing it, the strength and fruitfulness which He had in mind, and it would come forth at the time and in the circumstances of His choosing.
In terms of the people of Israel, the shoot of the House of David did indeed come to fruit in Jesus, and from a stump – a cut down remnant of the once glorious Hose of David.
But for us there is also another kind of fulfilment, and indeed God has been renewing the church down the centuries. In a way, He never ceases to renew the church especially when the existing structures and practices have become wooden and have lost their ability to see and hear the thing that the Lord is doing.
But then in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is also saying something about the ways and the mysteries of the Lord.
Their outward bodies may not change and to the superficial there is nothing to see. Yet within they are entirely changed. To be in Christ is to be a new creation – the old person has already passed away, and in baptism the new man and woman are born.
The changes will work from inside outwards, first hidden and then revealing themselves. There will be a new life of prayer, a new interest in the things of the life of faith, the scriptures and the fellowship of those who would worship and serve the Lord.
For those looking for a political movement, there is nothing to see and so nothing to mobilize, or manipulate, or even suppress.
But there is a new identity and a new purpose in living and in the normal life of the family and the community this will become apparent. The need to acquire, to control, to gain the upper hand, to abuse and humiliate the losers in life are all replaced by a desire to honour God, to honour the fellow worshippers and to respect all others in the community.
But Jesus says something more. He too speaks of the mystery of faith, and how the farmer can do nothing to create the growth of his crops. It is God who has endowed creation with the ability to reproduce itself and so for seeds to grow up into plants and to yield a harvest. This is the mystery of life. It is there in all parts of the living world for He placed it there from the beginning.
But for Jesus there is something more to be said. The growth of the seed is the gift of God in creation. The fact of the growth and the nature and distribution of that growth are His as of right.
Even the smallest and the most insignificant of seeds can grow to produce magnificent results. The appearance of the seed is not the point – the point is that God gives it to grow into its own kind and to offer its shade, its strength, its fruit and foliage to serve humanity.
But this brings me back to the renewal of the church down the ages. In the early years of the church, from the 2nd century onwards, people were retreating into the deserts to pray and to seek the face of God.
These communities grew and when one generation had become too fixed and rigid, then another was raised up. This continued up to the 14th century and the reformation when the church rediscovered its commitment to the scriptures as it found life in them.
After this came the extremes of the Inquisition and of the Puritans. Then came the evangelists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then there have been the Tractarian and the Evangelical movements and finally the Charismatic movement.
For us the point is that God is never asleep, always watching and always waiting for our prayers. In these days of doubt, chaos, confusion, turbulence, there is still the potential for God to do a new thing. We cannot predict is let alone control it.
But we can all in our own prayers, say: “Thy Kingdom come, this will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”