Monday, June 15, 2009

God's Garden

This is the message I preached at Bethany Village yesterday. I preached it 4 times in slightly different ways. This was the last one I preached at evening vespers.

7:00 Vespers Sermon

How do you imagine God to be? What do you see when you pray? We all have different images of God we see in prayer, which are especially meaningful to us. I used to live in the Holy Land. From my window, I could watch a young shepherd with his sheep and goats. He loved and cared for them. He even played soccer with one of the goats. For me, the image of the Lord as my shepherd in Psalm 23 or Jesus’ declaration in John 10, “I am the good shepherd,” are very rich and meaningful.

Perhaps when you’re lonely or fearful, it is God almighty, the creator God who is your comfort, your protector. Our hymns and songs are full of pictures of God. God walks and talks with us IN THE GARDEN or maybe you see Jesus as the Lover of your soul. Someone living by the sea will have different images that are meaningful to them than someone living in a city or someone on a farm.

Is it maybe the all seeing, all knowing God you most closely identify with? In preparation for this service tonight, I heard for the very first time the words of “Hymn of Promise” which we will be singing later. Do you have an appreciation for the paradoxes this hymn speaks of? There are some things that only God can know; only God can do.

The scriptures portray God in many ways, one of which is a gardener. Did you know that God likes to garden too? Through the prophet Ezekiel God speaks:

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 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. 24 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. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.

To do justice to our text, we need to learn a bit about its biblical and historical context. Ezekiel was written while the people of Israel were living in exile in the far off land of Babylon because of their sins against God. Running throughout the book like threads, are the messages of judgment balanced by the messages of hope. The primary theme of the book is knowing God. The phrase, “They/you shall know that I am the Sovereign Lord” is used around 70 times in this book.

Did you hear all the pronouns in this passage? I is used 5 times. Twice it’s coupled with the word myself for emphasis. So what is God, the I doing? Listen to the verbs: breaks off, plants, brings low, makes high, dries up, makes. God is not distant, but involved and busy in God’s garden. God is getting down and dirty in it. Why does God go to all this effort? It’s so the trees will produce boughs, fruit, and shade. The ultimate aim however, is so all the trees will know God is the Lord.

So what does all this talk of planting, gardening, and trees mean? This was a symbolic message of hope and restoration for the people of Israel after they had been living in exile for so long. Trees flourishing in a desert area is inspiring, miraculous. What is happening is something the tree itself did not initiate, create, or sustain by itself. The growth is something only God could accomplish.

We are not trees, however. The trees are symbolic of nations, of people. It’s like a parable. When a tree is planted, does it argue with the gardener saying it doesn’t want to go there, but here? When it is fertilized, does it complain that the fertilizer is smelly? How about when it’s pruned? Does a tree whine saying, “Be careful! That hurts!?” God’s gardening in us may be hard and painful at times so we can be more like Jesus, so our lives produce and bear the fruit of the Spirit to serve God and our neighbor.

But it seems so impossible, so unattainable. That’s the good news. We are incapable of doing this. We are nowhere near perfect, so much so that Martin Luther said we are at the same time saints and sinners. So how can God expect of us something we are incapable of doing? Is God just setting us up to fail? Hear again God’s promise, “I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.” The trees don’t have to DO anything to grow!!! They just have to be trees. We just have to let the master gardener work in our lives to produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Trees grow and produce when they are cultivated. We just need to allow God to do so in us. Let God do the gardening. God is not finished with any of us.

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Jennifer said...

What a lovely sermon!
I feel sure it was well received by four worshipping gatherings!

Ivy said...

Thank you Jennifer. It was well-received. The weird thing is, the last one is video-taped, then as a group we watch it the next day and talk about strengths/weaknesses, what could be done differently etc. It was quite a learning exercise. I've never been taped before.