Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)
Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.
Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.
Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:
- He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
- During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
- Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
- He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.
It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.
For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.
Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.
We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life, being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.
This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.
In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.
And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.
Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.
Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.
Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.
Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.
The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.
Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.