“A Growing Tree” (Ezekiel 17:22-24; Matthew 13:31-32)
The image of a tree, which may have started out rather small and insignificant, but which grows and expands until it becomes a very large tree, with branches and leaves where the birds of the air come to make their nests–this is an image that is used in a number of places in the Bible. And it is generally used to signify the rise and growth of a kingdom, a kingdom that grows and expands to include many nations in its empire.
For example, in the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream about a tree like that, a tree that grows and becomes strong, and its top reaches the heavens. And the birds of the heavens live in its branches. Daniel is called in to interpret the dream. He tells Nebuchadnezzar: “It is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to the heavens, and your dominion to the ends of the earth.” And that was a true description of the Babylonian Empire early in the sixth century B.C.
Likewise, in Ezekiel 31, there is a similar story about the Assyrian Empire. It was like a cedar that towered high above all the trees of the field. All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs. And that was true at one time of the Assyrian Empire.
But what is also true about these empires of old is that they did not stand for very long. They both were cut down and fell. The Lord God said about Assyria that, because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, he would cut it down. The Lord said that all such trees would be cut down and given over to death. And so that example of Assyria was used as a warning to the king of Egypt at that time, that the same thing would happen to him. And in the same fashion, we know what happened to Babylonia. What was the most powerful empire on earth in the early sixth century B.C., within a few short decades would be conquered by the king of Persia.
And so it goes. The rise and fall of nations. A kingdom grows like a mighty tree; it takes other nations into its broad branches. And then the tree is cut down and falls, never to rise again.
In our readings tonight, we hear similar imagery, of a tree growing and becoming large, taking in a multitude of birds in its branches, even though it starts from seemingly insignificant beginnings. But there is something different about this tree. It doesn’t get cut down. It keeps growing and doesn’t stop. Why? Because this tree is of God’s doing. It is not based on human pride and arrogance, as are the kingdoms of this world, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, and so on down the line. This is a tree that God will grow and give increase to, and it will never be cut down. It is his kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. And so with that in mind, let us hear tonight of “A Growing Tree.”
The Lord God speaks of this tree also in Ezekiel, this time in Ezekiel 17: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.”
This is a prophecy of the Messiah to come. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom. It will start out small and insignificant, like a tender sprig. But it will grow and bear branches, and birds of every sort will make their nest in it.
So this is the background, then, when Jesus tells his little parable about the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Friends, this is a picture of the kingdom of the Christ. Jesus’ kingdom comes in a very humble way. Jesus came not as a mighty conqueror, mounted on a steed, a war horse. No, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a beast of burden. For Jesus came as a humble king, a man of sorrows, riding into Jerusalem to suffer and to die, to bear the burden of our sins. This is how his kingdom comes.
This is how your forgiveness and your salvation come, in humble ways. It is Jesus dying on a cross, in shame and rejection, that is actually God’s wisdom and God’s power. Christ, the Son of God, must die for your sins, in your place, in order for you to be saved. It looks like weakness and foolishness, to think that anything grand or glorious could come out of such suffering and death, but there it is. This is how the kingdom comes. The Christ rises from the dead, though. Death could not hold him. It will not hold you, either, all you who trust in him.
So then the risen Lord meets with his surprised disciples, and he commissions them to be his apostles. He sends them out, a small band of twelve, to do the impossible: to take this message of a suffering and dying and rising Savior to the ends of the earth. Well, God is in the business of doing the impossible, and so they go, and so they preach and teach. And the church grows and expands. The mustard seed begins to sprout and grow. Three thousand here. Thousands more there. An Ethiopian eunuch. A Roman centurion. A dealer in purple cloth. A jailer in the night. Household by household. Church by church. And so it grows. Jerusalem. Judea. Samaria. The ends of the earth. Birds of all sorts are finding refuge and making their nests in this tree’s branches.
Your ancestors came into the shelter of this tree. They went from worshiping trees, sacred oaks in Germany or Scandinavia, idols of their imagination–and with the coming of the gospel to their lands, they turned to the living God, the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They came to find shelter in the one true tree of life, the cross of Christ.
And so it continues to this day. God is doing his mighty work in humble ways. This is how the kingdom comes. A pastor preaching to a handful of people in a small town in Missouri. Some water being poured over an infant’s head. Bread and wine, not even that much bread and wine, but coupled with our Lord’s life-giving words. Small beginnings. Big results.
Look at how large this mustard-seed tree has grown! Christians all over the world now. Churches in every land. Some persecuted and underground. Some fat and lazy and grown tired and bored with the gospel. But everywhere, the church. And often it is the persecuted church that grows the fastest. The places where people are bored with the gospel, or take it for granted–they tend to stagnate. But this gospel, this tree of life, is not to be taken for granted. What a blessing it is to take refuge and build our nest in the branches of this tree!
Friends, the gospel tree will continue to grow. It is growing even now. Last Friday, our church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, sent out dozens of new missionaries to serve in places all over the world, in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia. The church is growing by leaps and bounds in these places. The gospel rain-shower is falling, and the tree of the church is growing. Hungry, thirsty people who sense their need for a Savior are appreciative of God’s free gift. The birds are flocking to the branches.
But what about here? What about here in America, where it looks like the church has stopped growing? Well, have we stopped sensing our need? Do we realize our need for a Savior, a Savior from sin and death? Do we know our need for God’s forgiveness? Or have we grown cold and callous and indifferent?
Those who are indifferent to the message of repentance and forgiveness for Christ’s sake will, of course, stay away from churches where that is the main thing that is emphasized–like here, for instance. They will either stay home or they will go someplace that will scratch their itching ears and tell them what they want to hear. But here, here where Christ is present and his gospel is preached, here Christ will continue to build his church. It may not always look so impressive, but this–this is how the kingdom comes.
So be it, Lord! Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
Thy kingdom stands and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.