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Today in the Spirit: Proper 6B

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In this week of the Pentecost season, we continue with the teachings of Jesus found in the early chapters of the Book of Mark and other readings supporting them. The only exposure to our Lord’s agricultural parables in Year B comes this week with the assigned Gospel reading out of Mark 4:26-34. (We hear more parables of this kind from Matthew in Year A). This reading covers the Parable of the Growing Seed, found only in Mark, and the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which has parallels in Matthew and Luke. Together, these two parables emphasize the spontaneous growth of the kingdom of God, which the ministry of Jesus incarnate has sown into the world. 

Our assigned OT reading this week is Ezekiel 31:1-6[7-9]10-14. It is chosen for the poetic language used by the prophet to describe the kingdom of Assyria, like a tree with branches beautiful and large, so that all the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs (5,6). Assyria fails, but with dripping irony, Jesus borrows the same image to describe the kingdom of God, which is the only kingdom on earth that will both prosper and remain. The assigned Psalm 92 (also assigned for Epiphany 8C and Pentecost Proper 3C) is titled A Song for the Sabbath. It includes the cedar in Lebanon image (12) as in the Ezekiel reading, but this time as a positive description of the righteous under the protection of YHWH. 

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Proper 6B continues the series of NT readings from the early chapters of 2 Corinthians with the appointment of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. In this passage, Paul continues with the train of thought we meditated on last week, his maintaining by grace an eternal perspective on life and ministry:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

(5:1)

The Collect this week petitions the God “from whom all good proceeds” to inspire us to ponder on and act on that which is “good.” We must recite this prayer without diminishing that which is “good” in our minds to that which is kind and “nice.”. The goodness our Lord seeks to work in us is that which serves his purpose to redeem the world and proclaim the good news.

The Collect

O Lord, from whom all good proceeds: Grant us the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may always think those things that are good, and by your merciful guidance may accomplish the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Behold, Assyria (Ezekiel 31:1-6[7-9]10-14)

1 In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude:

“Whom are you like in your greatness?
3 Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
  with beautiful branches and forest shade,
    and of towering height,
    its top among the clouds.

(1-3)

9 I made it beautiful
    in the mass of its branches,
and all the trees of Eden envied it,
    that were in the garden of God.

10 “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, 11 I will give it into the hand of a mighty one of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out.

(9-11)

There are multiple nations to sort out in this reading. Our text appears as one of a series of oracles (29:1-32:32) delivered by Ezekiel to Egypt right around the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. At that time, Egypt’s Pharaoh believed (arrogantly) he could resist the growing power of Babylon by building alliances with the smaller kingdoms north of his border (including Judah). The oracle demands that Egypt consider the example of Assyria, which, as a nation, believed itself to be invincible (Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon). The message to Pharaoh is that his pride in believing he can overrule the will of YHWH to raise up Babylon will bring down the nation of Egypt in due time (see 31:18).

If the historical data is confusing, the devotional message is not. Assyria was beautiful and exceedingly large, but that nation (like many powerful nations and people in the world) believed itself to be responsible for its one success. Startlingly, in the midst of the oracle, we hear, I [YHWH] made it beautiful (9). It is God alone who is responsible for any and all prosperity we enjoy in this world. Remember the warning of James: Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (2:16-17). There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a citizen of a prosperous kingdom, but this passage, together with the Gospel reading, would convince us to choose well, to decide for the kingdom of God whose boughs never break and whose branches do not fall.

Today, Holy Spirit, help me to consider well the choice between putting my confidence in the kingdom of Assyria or your kingdom, over which you reign without fail with the Father and the Son.  

The Righteous Flourish (Psalm 92)

12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree
    and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
    they flourish in the courts of our God.

14 They still bear fruit in old age;
    they are ever full of sap and green,

15 to declare that the Lord is upright;
    he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him
.

(12-15)

The psalm seems to be inspired by the experience of a believing person coming out from worship in the temple. His heart is lifted in praise for the great works of God which distinguish the LORD, though unbelievers are too dull to see him (5-7); the favor of God demonstrated in Israel’s defeat over her enemies (8-9); his personal experience of favor in the face of enemies (10-11); and the flourishing of the believing community–while the “ungodly are green as grass”  (widespread but not enduring), the righteous shall…spread abroad like a cedar in Lebanon” (12-15, BCP Coverdale).

I wonder if it is no mere coincidence that the psalm’s rejoicing over the community of the faithful comes last in the order of things. You may find, as I often do, that it is easier to praise God for his presence and his works in the world than for his success in raising up the community of faith. Oftentimes, we may be looking at the uneven presentation of ourselves as faithful Christians and projecting that onto others. And, of course, we are a fickle lot. But the focus of the psalm is not on the behavior of people day to day, but sanctification in the long term. The long-range view is that the righteous are planted and, over time, flourish and bear fruit in old age.

Is your church considering a daring new venture in ministry for the future? Today, inspired by the same Holy Spirit that caused the psalmist to praise God for the righteous community, take your eyes off the faults you find in yourself and others just now and trust in Christ, who is making all champions of faith in the long term.

We Are of Good Courage (2 Corinthians 5:1-10)

1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

(1-10)

See how just as Paul twice uses the line we do not lose heart in last week’s reading from this letter (4:1,16), he repeats the phrase we are of good courage in this one. The two are related like negative (not losing heart) and positive (having courage) poles on a battery together, producing energy in the same direction (for the gospel). But the phrase of good courage (Greek: tharreo) is extra intense, as in urging the right frame of mind for life-threatening circumstances. It is all about God preserving the Christian’s body, the sure exchange of the earthly tent for the eternal building. In Matthew, using the same Greek verb, Jesus commands his disciples, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” when they fear for their lives seeing Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm on the sea (14:27).

Devotionally, when the Lord calls us to do what seems to us especially difficult, or even dangerous, this is the section of 2 Corinthians that we need to meditate on with extra attention. No matter how life-threatening a situation becomes, God has our transformation to a resurrection body in hand. Ultimately, nothing else matters. Perhaps the news of a possible deadly disease to our mortal bodies is especially relevant here.

Today, through the Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it (Eph.1:14), let us be of good courage for the things that threaten us most severely, even our bodies. 

All by Itself (Mark 4:26-34)

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” 30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

(26-34)

Or, All by itself the soil produces grain…(28, NIV). I’ve always liked the way the NIV puts the more intense all by itself (from the Gk: automatos) and places it at the beginning of the sentence. From automatos we get English “automatic,” and that is the point of the parable. There is beside, over, and under, the efforts of the man to sow at the beginning and reap at the end an invisible and spiritual activity of God’s kingdom work. Even if we suppose Jesus to be the man sowing and reaping, what the parable commends to the church is the inevitable quality of the movement of God’s kingdom slowly creating all that is both useful and beautiful.

The Christian discipler takes great comfort in the knowledge of the automatic success of his efforts made in good faith under the power of God. The trick, in view of this message, is to adopt a long view of evaluating that work. Just as it does little good for a farmer to check the growth of grain day by day, we need to pray faithfully and do a good day’s work for months without looking for progress–and, depending on the context, only the outcomes measured in years will have any meaning at all.

Today, in the Spirit, we who have taken on to ourselves too much responsibility for the success of the Father’s kingdom work, hear this parable and relinquish control to him who automatically brings everything he has sown to fruition.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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