Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel can proclaim God’s judgment in stark, forceful ways: “You have feared the sword; and I will bring the sword upon you, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 11:8).

Mark 4:32
"[W]hen it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

June 17, 2018

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

Ezekiel can proclaim God’s judgment in stark, forceful ways: “You have feared the sword; and I will bring the sword upon you, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 11:8).

God’s anger can appear in the way the people had most dreaded. Ezekiel can point out idolatry in ways that push the boundaries of propriety: “But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame” (16:15). Ezekiel’s pronouncements of God’s condemnation and punishment did not mince words. These fearsome, even borderline repulsive judgments give Ezekiel his reputation for not holding back, and even provoking controversy. The church should not ignore Ezekiel. He is a prophet to be reckoned with.

Despite the roughness of Ezekiel’s words of judgment, he can also proclaim forgiveness, restoration, and renewal in images just as memorable. His tender words are as unforgettable as his scold. Here in this passage he plays with an image that evokes hope and blessing. He flips an image of judgment into a word of grace. The same image that served to describe punishment now promises a new beginning.

Verses 22-24 fit into the context of the whole of Ezekiel 17. The prophet identifies his message as a “riddle,” and an “allegory” (verse 2). Those terms seem designed to cause the reader to pay closer attention. An eagle plucks off the top of a cedar tree, and then carries it off. As an historical reference, the riddle refers to Babylon removing from Judah the king Jehoiachin. The riddle in part alludes to the mystery of wondering how God works within history, and through the armies of a foreign power. The second eagle refers to Egypt and Zedekiah. Egypt and Babylon become instruments of judgment for God against Judah.

Drawing on the same imagery of the cedar tree, verses 22-24 now speak of God’s restoration. In the simplest terms, this part of the chapter promises that God will act to take a descendent of David and restore the monarchy. This promise gave hope to the exiled Judeans. All was not lost. God would give them a future.

For contemporary Christian preaching, the passage offers rich proclamation of God’s mysterious, creative grace. The God who acted through foreign nations to exact judgment now acts independently to heal and restore. Several themes present themselves for Christian preaching.

Because God acts directly to bring the restoration after exile, the Christian preacher can affirm that God’s judgment is not vindictive. God does judge unfaithfulness and idolatry, but that judgment serves as correction. Once the people learn the lesson, and maybe even when they do not learn the lesson, God acts to restore after the punishment.

Once God takes the “sprig” from the top of the cedar, that sprig grows into a tree that produces fruit. The boughs of the tree provide shade and shelter for birds. The earlier allegory had used the fearsome image of an eagle. Now the oracle of salvation talks of birds that need shelter. The “allegorical” image evokes protection, stability, and safety. God not only forgives the idolatry and unfaithfulness, God not only restores the status of Judah, but uses the chosen people to bring blessing to others.

We see this theme in other parts of scripture. In Daniel 4, a chapter filled with bizarre imagery (as allegorical as Ezekiel 17), Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a tree in which birds could nest and under which animals could seek shelter (verses 10-12). Daniel 4 speaks to the role of kings and rulers to provide an opportunity for life. The king should set up conditions that permitted people in the realm to flourish. The gospel lesson for this Sunday draws on the motif of a bush/tree that provides shade and protection (Mark 4:30-32). The parable from Mark uses this image of stability and security as a metaphor for the dominion of God. The tree does not create stability at the sacrifice of individuality. The tree does not coerce order. The tree provides the space and the opportunity for life to develop.

How many ears long desperately for such a message? With estimates of refugees worldwide around 65 million and total displaced persons over 200 million, might Ezekiel’s reworked allegory bring both comfort to the sojourner and impetus to mission? Might the declaration that “in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” give heart to those who find even sturdy physical structures still a place of turmoil and abuse and give the courage to keep going?

First United Methodist Church of Dallas hosts an annual service in which the community of faith (ecumenical and interreligious) remembers those who have died in the city without a service or any outward opportunity to be mourned. Some of the children are listed in the bulletin only as “baby girl.” God wants a nest for all of the birds. God wants shelter and nurture for all of the birds.

Ezekiel 17 ends with the affirmation that the act of restoration will spread out to make known God’s identity. The tree will become a means of making God’s presence known. God judges abuses of power, and works within human affairs to promote good government and justice.

A few short, poetic verses reframe God’s judgment, promote physical stability, and reconnect estranged people with God’s identity. The act of restoration starts small, with just a “sprig,” but blossoms into a full, comprehensive blessing.