Why do we plant trees?
That might seem like a rather stupid question in some regards. I mean, most of us know that trees are very good for the environment. They take carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen–a very important process for those of us who need oxygen to live. Trees provide shade and relief from the sun. They provide us with paper; wood for housing and warmth. Indeed, trees are very, very important.
But why do we plant them? Think about this for a moment. How long does it take a tree to grow to maturity? How long does it take for a tree to grow to enough of a size to provide shade for a house? How long does it take for a tree to grow to become large enough to produce a board or a log large enough to burn for hours? How long does it take for a tree to grow so that one can sit under its branches without fear of sun? It takes a long, long time; depending on the tree it can take 10 to 20 years for such a thing to happen. And so, I ask again.
In this day of instant gratification and instantaneous access to information, why do we plant trees? And if we are nearing the twilight of our lives, why even bother knowing it is unlikely we will get to see the fruit of our work?
Why do we plant trees?
Perhaps it is because of the hope we have. Perhaps it is because we believe that such planting will be a benefit even if it takes years for it to happen. Perhaps it is because we believe that somewhere in the future a tree will be a benefit for the planet, for our children, or for another person. We plant trees because we have hope for the future.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
This week as I prepared for my sermon, I listened to several sermons and read several commentaries that wrestled with this teaching–and the following parable about the mustard seed. They tried to get their heads around these teachings because they tried to apply them to living out the Christian life. Many said, “Well, we can’t do anything to bring about the kingdom of God. It just happens. God does it, and that’s a dangerous idea because it can make us complacent. It can make us think we don’t have to work toward a better world or a better society. God does everything. We do nothing except scatter a few seeds from time to time. This is actually a dangerous parable.”
If you interpret this parable in such a fashion, then I think you would be right in assessing the danger. I think you would be right in being very uncomfortable with what Jesus says. Indeed such an interpretation could lead–and it very often has led to complacency among Christians. It has led some Christians to disengage from the world and fail to work for peace and justice. And, of course, for every action there is a reaction, therefore other Christians have taken up the cause of peace and justice and have decided that it is all up to the Church to establish the kingdom of God. They are tired of waiting for it and are fed up with lazy Christians, so they roll up their sleeves and strive to make the kingdom happen by changing laws; challenging governments; raising awareness or community organizing through various social ministries. For many, it becomes an either/or proposition. Either we say it’s all up to God and become complacent thinking God will handle it, or we believe it’s all up to us and we run ourselves ragged trying to change and, dare I say it, save the world.
I think this actually speaks to a deeper division within humanity. I think it actually reveals a deeper problem with how we live our lives–a problem that is not just inherent to the Church. I think it runs the gamut of our societies. For I think, as we go through life we are torn between the forces which tell us we need to live for ourselves or we need to live for others. In the Church this plays out by those who think the kingdom of God will come completely and totally by God’s own hand therefore we have to do nothing except sit back and survive and be pious–I would call this living for ourselves. And it plays out with those who believe everything is up to us to change and save the world and make it a better place–living for others.
Outside of the Church, I think this struggle gets played out in politics by the ideology of individualists and socialists. Individualists tend to put the rights of the individual above the good of society and see individual freedom as more important than societal responsibility. Do you hear the idea of living for one’s self here? Socialists tend to put societal responsibility ahead of individual freedom, so individual rights and power become limited for the expense of the group. Can you hear living for others? Now, I’ve simplified things here. I want you to know that I think things are a bit more nuanced than this. I am painting in black and white because I think these two forces are constantly working against each other. I would be happy to expound further in other discussions, but I do think there is enough evidence to support my position–especially since these two sides are constantly arguing and bickering and striving for position and power. And really and truly, this has been and will be an ongoing struggle if we don’t find some sort of way to bring this conflict into some sort of balance.
I would like to begin working toward that balance this morning as we seek to understand the Gospel and its application for our lives. For I believe the Gospel captures our hearts as individuals; roots us in a vision of the kingdom of God; and compels us to work toward the kingdom of God as a reality right here and now. How does this all work, and can I squeeze it all in without preaching for an hour? Let’s find out.
First, I would like to begin by saying that we must be grasped by the Gospel, and this is no easy task. Why?
Many of you know that for a very long time now, John 3:16-17 has made a regular appearance in my sermons. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.” Martin Luther once called this snippet “The Gospel in a nutshell.” These two Bible verses capture the nature of what God has done on our behalf. It was He who took on human flesh. It was He who became the spotless Lamb of God. It was He who allowed Himself to be betrayed, arrested, tried, beaten and crucified–all that we might be reconciled unto God. You see, our hearts are not naturally tuned to serve God. Our hearts are naturally tuned to serve ourselves or serve others. They do not naturally seek out God, and when we place ourselves or others as the ultimate things in our life, we break God’s first and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods before Him. Because we do not seek God and seek to replace Him with either ourselves or others, we deserve His wrath and punishment. But God does not want our destruction. God wants to seek and save the lost, but He cannot simply forgive without payment of the cost. Either we have to bear the cost, or He does. In the crucifixion, God pays the cost for our disobedience. He suffers on our behalf. He endures that wrath on our behalf–even though we did not deserve it. Thus, we did not earn reconciliation with God. We did not earn our own salvation. It was all accomplished by Jesus.
This is what I have hammered and hammered and hammered for many, many sermons. I was asked this past week, “When are you going to stop?” My answer is, “For as long as God needs me to preach it, and if you ever get tired of hearing God’s love for you, then we have a problem.” There is a reason I answered in that fashion. As I said before, our hearts are not naturally tuned to God, and they are not naturally tuned to accept any sort of thing that we do not earn on our own. They are not accustomed to accepting any sort of gift that costs us nothing. We tend to think that we must earn everything. Society teaches us over and over and over to work hard, and if we do so, we will be rewarded. We have that embedded deep within us. And so we believe we have to have the same sort of relationship with God. We believe that it is all up to us. We believe we have to make our faith grow. We believe we can make peace grow inside of us. We believe the more we can try and be perfect; the more we can attend church; the more we can do Bible study; the more we pray; the more our faith will grow.
But that is not true. We cannot make our faith grow. We cannot even make ourselves believe in Jesus. We cannot bring ourselves to any sort of knowledge of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul says it this way, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Even basic belief is impossible on our own. Our hearts must be brought to that saving knowledge. Our hearts must be changed and captured by the good news of Jesus. Our hearts must be turned around by understanding the lengths God will go through to love us–HE IS WILLING; GOD IS WILLING TO DIE FOR YOU!!! You have to do nothing. Jesus has done everything. This is tough to get our heads around. This is tough to get our hearts around. This is why I repeat it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. The Spirit convicts our hearts as we hear the Word–as the Gospel is proclaimed. The farmer plants the seed, but he does not make it grow. The kingdom of God begins in our hearts: tiny, sometimes imperceptible, but as time passes: it begins to grow.
And when it begins to grow, transformation happens. When the Gospel seizes your heart, things happen deep within you. You begin to sense a deep peace. You begin to have a calmness and assurance about you. You look less with a self-righteous eye. You see others as those whom God desperately wants to have His Kingdom grow within. You know it is important for you to plant seeds as well. You know it is important that they come to the same saving grace that you have. And so you begin to work. You plant seeds.
And there is oftentimes preparation that must be done. Sometimes the weeds of poverty and injustice must be cleared before the Gospel can be heard. Sometimes compassion must be shown to those who grieve before the love of Jesus can be announced. Sometimes, houses must be built for the homeless. Sometimes the sick must be comforted. Sometimes, hunger must be satisfied. Sometimes trust must be built. Sometimes old wounds must be healed. In each case, copious amounts of time pass. There is no quick fix. The Kingdom of God takes time to grow in others just like it takes time to grow within your heart. At this point, I hope you can see how when the Gospel takes root, it moves us away from individualism–living for ourselves and socialism–living for others. For when the Gospel seizes our hearts, we live for neither. We live to spread the Kingdom of God. We live to have that Kingdom grow within ourselves and within others because of what God has done through Jesus Christ on the cross.
Why do we plant trees? Because we hope in the future. Why do I preach the Gospel every Sunday? Because I hope in the future Kingdom of God. Why do we feed the hungry and work for peace and justice? Because we believe these things are a part of God’s future reality which is already growing in our hearts. Such things might start small and inconsequential, but they grow. They cannot be hindered. They will produce fruit as we seek not to serve ourselves or serve others, but serve the Kingdom of God which has come to us through the Gospel–through the work of Jesus–For God so loved the world!” Amen.