Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20th, 2021


Manage episode 278337805 series 1950523
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For the 4th Sunday after Pentecost we continue our 1 Samuel readings, Epistle texts from 2 Corinthians, two short parables from the Gospel of Mark, paired with OT equivalents in the form of Ezekiel’s allegory/parable/riddle concerning the great cedar, and the Psalms of response keyed to the two different OT readings.

For last Sunday we tried to summarize the main story line of the Samuel material. In spite of grave threats from the Philistines and others, during Samuel’s long tenure Israel was faithfully preserved from attack. The people feared his passing and asked for a King. Samuel warned them solemnly against this and they persisted in their request, which God granted. However this would require a very strict obedience on their part and Saul’s. In the passage which precedes ours today we hear that God has withdrawn whatever even reluctant support he sought to give on behalf of Saul and the people’s request. Saul refused to carry out the direct command of God and Samuel, and using his handsome head, spared the most handsome portions of the spoils he had been directed to destroy. Pragmatics are not what God requires, but obedience. When confronted by Samuel, within earshot of the bleating reserves, Saul confesses he feared the people and acted in that spirit. He desired their approval. Following on from a similar occasion of cutting the bed to fit his own best sense of things, this time God’s patience and Samuel’s has run out.

The entire complex of narratives involving Saul and the request of Israel, wrongly predicated—“that we might be like the nations”—offers a chilling tale that nevertheless raises up in us sympathy even as the morale of the story is clear. Watch what you ask for, especially out of fear, for the requirements laid down for this are sometimes worse than patiently waiting upon God. Even Samuel finds it in himself to grieve. But that doesn’t change the reality. God dispatches him, and he goes on what he considers a dangerous mission. Here the coming depiction of Saul is anticipated, wherein he becomes the erratic, unpredictable, dangerous, unstable shadow tracking the Lord’s anointed, David, son of Jesse for the remainder of the books of Samuel.

The outward appearances—strength, stature, the grandeur of nations with their battle machines and kings—these are of no interest to the Lord. He looks inside. The ones we do not think the world will admire, these he puts to service. David is young, untested, not the one we would instinctively choose—so too Samuel’s instincts are off. He thought the eldest son of Jesse the best candidate. But God has in view the one he has in view. Saul anoints him. The spirit comes mightily upon him.

The psalm captures the scene well. “Now I know the LORD gives victory to his anointed. Some put trust in horses and chariots. But we call upon the name of the LORD. O Lord, give victory to the King.”

The other OT reading is not only chosen because it comes alongside the sowing parables of the Gospel lesson from Mark, with its image of a spring which becomes a noble cedar. It is also likely directly influencing the parable of the mustard seed as detailed by Mark. From smallest to greatest, this is the kingdom God is sovereignly bringing to flower. The parable in Ezekiel describes the competition amongst the nations, Babylon and Egypt, and the last of the Davidic rulers, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, one preserved and one blinded and hauled into captivity, caught up in the machinations of warring powers. Yet from the Davidic tree brought down, God will take a sprig. It will grow on a mountaintop, like the mount Zion of Micah chapter 4. And all the birds of the air will find shelter under it. In Ezekiel the reference is to the nations of the earth. The phrase emerges in Mark as “so that the birds of the air can make their nest in its shade,” the shade of the great mustard plant with the tiniest and most improbable of beginnings. In the kingdom Jesus is bringing, and whose inner truth he explains to his disciples, all the nations of the earth will find place in its shade. The first parable speaks of the need for sowing the word, and after that God produces the growth in ways hidden and mysterious. The second speaks of the mystery whereby the seemingly small and insignificant is by design en route to becoming a plant capable of sheltering all nations. In a funny way, the reading from 1 Samuel – the choosing of the boy David – fits here as well. David must be brought into view, for no one bothered to let him pass before Samuel. And yet this is the one who will become King and will portend the coming of the King Jesus.

The Psalm chosen for Track Two speaks of the righteous flourishing like great trees, the palm and cedar, because planted in the house of God’s purposes. They shall be green and succulent.

Mark’s double parable—the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed’s grand outcome—belongs in a longer section, which begins at the start of chapter 4 with the parable of the soils, rocky, thorny and good. Quick growth is not sustainable, and thorny growth is hampered from the outset. But good soil produces good growth, and it happens according to the mystery of God’s designing, just as the soil all by itself produces by stages stalk, head and full grain. The parables have the effect of closing ears, Jesus tells the disciples gathered around him. Isaiah and Ezekiel precede him in this truth. But to those close to him, the true meaning is given so that comprehension is possible, and so growth in good soil will occur. Even if mustard sized, the way ahead is prepared. Mark puts the readers in a position to come alongside the disciples, in the good soil it is our privilege, close to Jesus, to inhabit.

In our epistle reading we see one of those remarkable places where, though a serial reading crossing the main terrain of 2 Corinthians, we nevertheless have a remarkable symphonic fit with 1 Samuel and the Gospel and even Ezekiel 17. We walk by faith and not by sight. We regard no one from a human point of view. God looks on the heart. God is taking care of the smallest of our comprehension, and seeing to its growth according to his purposes. This way of walking in faith means much is hidden from our view. But this is not a hindrance but belongs to a new way of thinking and living. We are no longer living for ourselves but have been transported into a new soil where God is bringing about growth. We have a king who is not our heart’s desire, nor our fear’s longing, but is the one God’s has called forth from the baggage where his eye alone sees. This is not seeing from a human point of view, but can only be described with the language of new creation. Old and familiar patterns—let us be like the nations—are passing away. The kingdoms of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah have been brought low. But a sprig no larger than a mustard seed is all that God needs to produce the noble cedar of his kingdom. We are given the secrets of the kingdom that his parables otherwise veil, by sitting at his feet. There the good soil is, there the secret growth goes from stalk to head to full grain, and there the cedar capable of sheltering all the nations makes its way into the heavens. Jesus is himself the sprig, the mustard seed, the ruddy David behind the baggage, the first stalk. And he is at the same time the noble cedar in which is room for all the nations on earth to find shelter, who look to him as Lord and King.

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