Jesus the Tree of Life

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, June 16, 2024
Mark 4:26-34

The prophet Ezekiel foretells that “all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.”  Even the trees can recognize their Creator!  God is Lord of ALL.  Have you thought much recently about trees?  They’re all around us, but like many things in God’s creation, we usually take their presence for granted unless perhaps a branch falls in our yard, we schedule a tree trimming, or it’s a hot sunny day and we’re looking around for some shade.  It’s one of the things Rich missed the most when we lived on the plains, because we’re kind of spoiled with an abundance of trees on the East coast.  Growing up in flat, barren Nebraska, we learned the history of the early pioneers who discovered how difficult it was to live in a place without many trees, building sod houses and planting so many trees that Nebraska became the home of Arbor Day.  Similarly, people in Jesus’ time lived in a desert area without many trees, which made them value the trees they did have even more.  Trees are a reminder that God is the Lord, a magnificent creator, who provides and cares for all of us, all creation!
Trees are truly amazing.  Some trees can live for thousands of years – they are some of the oldest living organisms on the planet.  Recent research has found that trees have ways of “talking to” and caring for one another through chemical, hormonal, and slow-pulsing electrical signals.  As our scripture readings today note, trees can provide shelter and shade for many animals and plants, they reduce erosion, remove carbon dioxide, and can give us fruit, building materials, and fuel.  
In the gospels, Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, the living water, and the light of the world – the point being that we need all of these things just like we need Jesus, daily.  Today, we have a less common but equally important symbol for Jesus described in our scripture readings:  Jesus, the tree of life.  Like water, bread, and light, we need trees for our daily survival.  So too, we need Jesus.  Jesus says the kingdom of God is as if someone scattered seed and it grows – we don’t know how.  Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a very small seed, which grows into a large shrub (I discovered that there’s not really a difference between trees and shrubs in botany, by the way) that provides shelter and shade for the birds.  So, what can we learn from trees about God?  
In our first reading from Ezekiel and in our psalm, the kingdom of God is compared to a cedar tree growing high on the mountain of Israel.  Cedar trees can grow up to 130 feet high – that’s pretty tall and easily seen when the area around mountains is desert.  This particular mountain was the location of the temple.  King David’s royal line is sometimes referred to in the Old Testament as a cedar tree, and the prophet Ezekiel is promising that a descendant of David shall rule again like a tall cedar tree on the mountain of God.  We hear echoes of Ezekiel in Jesus’ parables today, connecting the kingdom of God to a different kind of tree this time, a mustard shrub, abundant in that region and grown to flavor food, growing large to provide shelter and shade.  Like a tree, God provides what we need – shelter, oxygen, food to eat, protection and strength, the health of our planet.  As Jesus likes to do, there is a surprise twist in his parables about mustard shrubs and seeds being planted: as we along with the disciples will discover in our journey with Jesus, the kingdom of God flourishes only after Jesus gives his life for us by hanging on different kind of tree, the tree of the cross.  Only the seed that is released and is buried in the ground can produce such a lifegiving, fruitful kingdom of God.  Jesus willingly gives up his life for our lives.  Through his death, Jesus becomes our source of life.  
What perhaps is the hardest lesson here in our readings for today is that we who plant the seeds and care for the trees can only do so much.  We sleep and rise night and day, the seeds sprout and grow, but we do not know how, ultimately.  Growth comes from God:  physical growth and spiritual growth alike!  We can do our best to craft a compelling mission and vision for our church, identify and name core principles, offer opportunities for learning and growing in faith for all ages, but at the end of the day, God gives the growth so the followers of Jesus blossoms and spread like a growing mustard bush, like grain being ready for the harvest.  Jesus reflects on the mystery of faith today, that God takes whatever little faith we give and grows it; that God provides, God grows, and God even takes what is given up in death and brings forth new life.  For any parent, especially as we celebrate dads this Father’s day, we also know – we do our best to raise our children faithfully and well, but God gives the growth.  There’s a bit of a mystery to parenting:  we don’t know how our children turn out the way they do – we can simply be grateful to God for that gift.  The simple presence of a tree growing can be our daily reminder that God gives the growth, God helps us bear fruit, God helps us be the best parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, and follower of Christ if we just trust in him and allow him to give the growth!
In the garden of Gethsemane, you can visit olive trees that were alive when Jesus was praying among them before his death.  This was one of the most powerful moments of my visit to the Holy Land; the same trees are still there!  They still live, they still produce olives; they still remind us of God’s eternal, sustaining care for us and for creation – the tree of life.  In the hours before his own death, Jesus went to a garden filled with trees bearing fruit and offered up his life for us so that we might bear fruit, so that we might thank God daily for the simple gifts of life and the amazing gift of life eternal.  We have shelter, we have air to breathe, we have food to eat, we have friends and family to share this life with; and God will give us growth.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.