The Shade Tree – Mark 4:26-34

If you’ve ever done any gardening, it’s quite an enjoyable and amazing experience.  In the past, we’ve planted a vegetable garden in our yard in the section that we called our “ugly area.”  In that area, we tilled the ground, then placed the seeds, then covered up the seeds with earth and carefully watered them.  We planted things like tomatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, and cucumbers.  

It didn’t look like much at first.  Just a slightly cleaned-up “ugly area.”  But then, after a couple of weeks, you could see the first sprouts start to break through the surface.  It was very existing as we saw the first little leaves break the surface of the ground.  And then a couple more weeks and these sprouts turned into stalks.  And then after a few more weeks these stalks grew and formed flowers.  And then the flowers started to form into vegetables.  So, it took a few months, but we had food in our backyard.

We actually didn’t do much to get the plants to grow and give vegetables.  All we did was put the seed in the ground and watered and fed them.  It’s not as if I was out there every day giving the seeds motivational speeches, or telling them to believe in themselves, or urging them to try harder or dig deeper.  The seeds just sprouted and grew as they were watered and fed.  And then after the seeds had grown into plants and these plants then gave vegetables, we harvested them so that we could enjoy the fruits of the plants.

I’ve always found it amazing that all this occurs.  You look at a tiny little seed, and it seems impossible that one day it will be a plant and that it would provide something that we can eat.  Planting a garden allows you to reconnect, in a way, with this mystery of God’s creation.  

At our old house, we also used to have a Magnolia tree.  I planted it when we first moved in; it was tiny – lower than my ankles.  Yet, I gave it space to grow.  A decade later it had grown into a large shade tree, giving us shelter from the sun as well as beautiful flowers that smelled like lemons. 

Now, in our Gospel reading for today, Jesus tries to explain the kingdom of God to his disciples (Mark 4:26-34).  The “kingdom” of God is the active reign of God that is manifested in the Church, and Jesus uses a couple of different comparisons to explain to his disciples how the Church grows.  

Jesus’ first comparison is similar to my story about the vegetable garden.  The Church is like a seed that is planted that seems to just sprout up by itself, produces fruit, and then is harvested at the appropriate time.  His second comparison is also similar.  

Jesus’ second comparison is similar to my story about my Magnolia tree.  The Church starts off small and of no account, like a little seed or a little sapling, but it becomes as a large tree, becoming a blessing to all around it and sheltering many within its branches.

Think for a moment about Jesus and the apostles.  Jesus was betrayed by one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot.   And then Jesus was arrested while the rest of the apostles scattered.  And then Jesus was crucified and the apostles were huddled together in fear when Jesus, after his resurrection, came to them.  The New Testament Church united around the crucified and risen Christ was tiny and battered.  They were despised and persecuted by the Jewish and Roman authorities.  All the power in the world was aligned against them.

And yet, this tiny seed would go on to spread throughout all the earth.  God Himself planted it, and He gave it space, because He knew what it would become.  We read in the book of Acts about the apostles going out into all the earth to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ under the power of the Holy Spirit.  The root of the Church was planted in Jerusalem with the death and resurrection of Christ, and we see this small sapling growing up and getting bigger and bigger.  

We see its branches extending to Antioch, Ephesus, Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Thessalonica, Philippi, and Rome so that the people of all these areas can shelter in the branches of the Church.  It’s growing and growing and we know not how; it just seems to grow.  And then, later we see it sending forth branches to cover the rest of Europe, Asia, and the New World to incorporate these people into it as well.  And we know not how.  

The tree grows and becomes a blessing for all around it.  Within the Church we are sheltered in God’s care, receiving His peace and shade.  Every kind of bird rests in its branches.  God brings into the Church people of all nations and languages; we are all united in this tree that has Christ, the shoot of Jesse, as its root and trunk.  

The Lord has spoken, He has done this.  He plants through His Word of Gospel.  He waters through Baptism and feeds through the Lord’s Supper.  The Lord plants, the Lord waters and feeds, and the Lord will reap.  He is with His Church; He is with you.  And He sends His Church into the world to gather up all people under its branches until the day comes when the Lord returns for His Church.  

Think back also to what happened in the Old Testament at the tower of Babel.  After the flood, where God preserved just 8 souls – the entire Church on earth at that time – through the ark across the waters, the people multiplied and settled at Babel.  God had commissioned humanity to fill the earth, but the people stayed at Babel and became self-righteous, thinking that they could reach God through their own efforts by building a tower to heaven.  They wanted glory for themselves and rejected God and His grace.  So, God confused their speech and forced them to go throughout all the world to fill it.

But, God didn’t abandon His plan to redeem the world through the Christ He first promised in Genesis 3:15.  God chose Abraham as the one through whom the promised Messiah or Christ would come.  And then He chose Isaac and his son Jacob, and then Jacob’s sons and descendants, the people of Israel.  They were the Old Testament Church, gathered together by God around the light of the promise of the Christ who was to come.  He planted them in Canaan, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean world on the transit point from Africa to Asia and Europe.  In this way, they could be His witnesses on earth.  He watered them with His Word and provided for them.

And then in the fullness of time, God sent His Son Jesus Christ.  Christ came as the root of Jesse, a descendent of King David according to his humanity and the Son of God according to his divinity.  He is both true God and true man, come in the fulfillment of God’s promises and the expectation of His people.  Christ is the glory of his people Israel, the Church, and a light to the Gentiles, the nations.  

And through His death and resurrection God planted the New Testament Church, the Israel that lives in the light of God’s fulfilled promise.  Christ is the root and the trunk of the Church.  The Church grows out of him to spread throughout all the world.  So, all those scattered at Babel and those scattered throughout Old Testament Israel’s history – all nations – are gathered back together through the Church.  The Church provides a refuge for all nations and unites all people in Christ.

And as I mentioned, this process is ongoing.  The tree continues to grow and grow, continuing to spread throughout the entire world.  God is gathering up His people into His Church.

We see this wonderful gathering in the Book of Revelation.  Now, a lot of people in our own age spend a great deal of time and effort on trying to interpret the book, because they think that in it they will discover the secret of the “end times.”  However, the Book of Revelation is much different than what most people think of it.  In the very first words of chapter one, the Apostle John writes that it is “[t]he revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”  It’s a Revelation, not revelations, because it is a single message.  It’s divided up into three seven-part visions that all speak of the same events, but from three different vantage points.  It’s Christ’s last message to His Church until He returns in person for you.

Thus, chapter 5 of Revelation speaks of the same event that chapter 1 of Acts speaks of, which is the ascension of the risen Christ into heaven to take his rightful place at the right hand of the Father in the company of the Holy Spirit.  And this Lamb who was slain and now lives sends the Holy Spirit into all the earth to feed and water the Church.  It is through the Holy Spirit working in Word and Sacrament that God grows the Church.  It’s how he waters and feeds His people; God works in mysterious ways, and we marvel at His work.

But, you know what the main point of the Book of Revelation is?  It’s not to provide us with a map of the end times.  It is to provide us with hope and comfort; it is to show us “the things that must soon take place,” because it shows us that the Church will endure to the end.  Like a tall, strong Magnolia tree, the Church will live to the end, because Christ is victorious over sin, death, and the devil and so through him the Church, his people, is victorious.

It’s no secret that in this life we encounter many trials and tribulations.  In our gardens we have weeds and insects that plague the vegetables.  The magnolia tree sometimes has Japanese beetles that attack it, and we even had a dog once try to dig up the roots of ours.  That particular tree also had been through what I call the year of the five hurricanes that we had a number of years ago as well as the years of drought that we had.  There have been times when it looked like it wasn’t going to make it.  And yet, the tree still stands.  

The Church and its people face similar battles.  You are still in this fallen, sinful world, and you still struggle with sin and temptation as well as being plagued by those of others.  Your faith sometimes comes to a breaking point and you think you can’t go on.  

And you are buffeted by trials and tribulations in this life.  Bad things happen and we don’t know why; sometimes life just stinks.  We just know that we live in the midst of a fallen world surrounded by decay and death.  Life can be hard and painful and sorrowful, and sometimes our hearts are filled with mourning.  Sometimes we feel that we can’t go on.

And God gathers us together, who are hurting and wounded, and brings us into the shelter of His Church.  But, the Church herself is also tempted and beset by troubles.  There are at times heresy and false teaching and enemies that try to tear the Church apart from both inside and outside.  Sometimes all seems lost with both our own individual lives and in the communal life of the Church of Christ.  We don’t have answers for our sorrows.

But, you know what we see in Revelation?  We see that at the end, when Christ returns, the Church and her people are still here.  The tree is still living and it is still growing.  And when Christ returns He brings this tree, and all who are sheltered in and under its branches, to Himself.  

This is the tree of life that is watered by God in heaven for eternity.  He waters it here and now on earth through His Word and Sacrament, and will tend and care for it forever in the new creation when Christ returns.  

We see in Revelation that despite appearances at times to the contrary, the Church and her people – you – will be victorious with Christ and will dwell with the Lord for eternity.  You will be victorious, because Christ is victorious.  

And then the Church will no longer be plagued by trials and temptations, and you who are sheltered in the Church will no longer be beset by the plagues of life in this sinful, fallen world, because sin, death, and the devil will be cast out.  It’s as if the Lord fumigates the tree and the garden in which it is planted in order to get rid of all the pests, so that the tree can flourish forever in His midst.  

Who knew that a little seed could grow up into a great tree?  And who knew that the little sapling of the Church would grow up to cover all the earth and would be victorious through Christ over so many powerful enemies coming from sin, and death, and the devil.  

Well, the Lord knows, because the Lord has won the victory and fulfills His promises.  So, we walk by faith and not by sight, trusting that the Lord is faithful and will return to bring all things to completion.

So, the next time you see a tree with large branches and with birds nesting and roosting in it, think of the Church.  Think of how it is here on this earth, with God watering and feeding it through Word and Sacrament even as it is buffeted by the storms and plagued by tribulations.

But, think also of the Church when Christ returns and plants it in the midst of the river of life that flows out from the throne of the Lord.  You will receive food and water and light directly from the Lord Himself, and you will dwell with Him and each other for all eternity.  And on that day you will hear the Word of the Lord, as did John in Revelation, saying: 

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

He is the Lord, He has spoken, and He will do it.  Amen.


(Image: Tree of Jesse, 1480-1490.  By Master of Jacques de Besançon – Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, )