HEALTHY, OUTWARD-LOOKING CHURCH
In my last blog post for Eden, I spoke about the often inward-looking nature of the church. Now you may be sitting, reading this, raging in your chair. Why shouldn’t the church look after its own? People in mainstream culture have largely rejected the Christian faith, so why should we pursue them?
Such a response is understandable. However you look at it, large portions of the church are being rejected by society. Whether that is reflected in falling church attendances and levels of Christian belief,9 or court cases where Christian values are rejected in favour of secular values,10 our culture is increasingly less ‘Christian’ in terms of its attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. And so it’s easy for us to feel marginalized as Christians in our faith.
In this climate, it is only natural for us to seek shelter. It’s only natural for us to want to find a comfort zone where we feel our values aren’t being attacked and we can surround ourselves with people who have a similar outlook to us. But we know there’s more to our faith than finding a comfort zone.
At its heart, this is not how Jesus wanted his followers to spend their time. Take Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, found in Matthew 13:31–32. He also told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’
At first, this parable seems to be all about the similarities between a mustard seed and God’s kingdom. Have you ever seen mustard seeds in a pot of grainy mustard? They’re tiny things, but despite this small size they can rapidly grow into a tree four metres high (though probably not if they’ve already been turned into mustard). And that’s kind of like God’s kingdom: it has a humble beginning in all of our lives, but it also has the capacity to grow and dominate who we are. That is a great and serious message in itself, but there is another level of meaning to this parable.
Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with the Old Testament – in an age without lots of books, they would have been much more familiar with it than we are today. And when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God being like a tree, he is using a picture first mentioned in Psalm 104, and then developed by both Ezekiel and Daniel in their books in the Old Testament. In Jesus’ parable, he borrows the language and imagery used in these pictures to remind his audience of them.
The prophecies in Ezekiel, Daniel and Psalm 104 were given and developed at a time when Israel was at an all-time low and the idea behind them is that God will restore the glory of his kingdom Israel – and the image used to describe this restored kingdom is a tree.
Here’s Ezekiel 17:22–23, and God is speaking:
I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.
In the Middle East, the cedar was the biggest and most impressive tree around. And in this passage, God suggests that his restored kingdom will be like that cedar tree: impressive, strong and durable. And in Jesus’ picture he echoes this image of restoration. Notice that both Ezekiel and Jesus say:
Birds of every kind will nest in [the tree]; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.
This metaphor is explained in Ezekiel 31, where he tells us that the birds of the air refer to all the nations of the Earth. So as the kingdom of God grows up into this beautiful tall tree, all the nations around are attracted to it and find shelter in it. Jesus and Ezekiel are making a very clear point here: God’s kingdom exists to serve the nations; by its very nature, God’s kingdom has an outward focus.
Jesus really hammered this point home. You’ll notice that he talked about a mustard tree while Ezekiel talked about a cedar. That wasn’t a mistake! Jesus hadn’t misremembered the picture; he was shocking his audience to tell them that God’s kingdom would not be what they were expecting.
Many Jews at the time thought that Ezekiel’s picture was all about prospering their country and their people. They thought that when God restored his kingdom, it would be all about Israel becoming great again. Actually, Jesus was telling them that it’s not about that at all. He was shocking them into the realization that God’s kingdom was all about the outsider, the poor and the downtrodden. It was intended to bless and serve the ‘other’.
And that is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. God does not want us simply to erect a billboard outside of the church for passers-by to stare at. He wants our very existence to be focused on serving and blessing those who are not yet part of the church.
June 16th, 2017 - Posted & Written by Laura White