“God Does Whatever He Wants” – Ezekiel 17:22-24
Introduction – Two trees
Have you ever seen an apple tree in late spring? Its leaves are that bright and lush green. Its branches look vibrant and full. The apple blossoms may already have fallen off, only to be replaced by the first promise of little luscious apples growing in their place.
Have you ever seen a Christmas tree in late spring? You know, someone was too cheap to take it away in the post-Christmas days, and as a joke propped it up beside that apple tree, for contrast. There it is – dry, needles mostly devoid of any of their original colour or life, and most of those needles lay beneath the tree like a brown carpet on the ground.
They are very different kinds of trees – one green and promising, the other brown, and long overdue for the wood chipper. One alive, the other dead. Different trees with different expectations. You know which one is going to bear fruit in the fall. Not only is that dried up Christmas tree dead with no connection to roots which suck up life-giving water, but blue spruces and Scotch pines and Noble firs NEVER bear fruit.
Now, if no one ever did take that Christmas tree away to be chipped, and you went back to the same location in October, you’d be surprised to find the former blossoming apple tree had been struck by lightning, cut down, and thrown onto the burn pile. You’d be even more surprised to find that dry and brittle Scotch pine not only standing up straight and tall, with roots apparently sunk deep into the ground, but also green and full of lush, juicy apples.
It’s that kind of amazing and unexpected reversal that God is talking about through the prophet Ezekiel: “I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
That is to say – as in the sermon title – “God does whatever He wants.”
1. God does what He wants in history
a. Then – in Ezekiel’s time
Let me tell you what was happening in Ezekiel’s time, because this chapter in the history of God’s people is not very familiar to us. Let me tell you what God was doing and why.
Some 300 years earlier, just before 900 B.C., the united people of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms – the Northern kingdom, called Israel, and the Southern kingdom, called Judah. For those centuries, they had diverging histories, with different kings and different prophets. Sometimes they were at war with each other, even though both kingdoms were descendants of Abraham. The people of the northern kingdom were lured by some of the foreigners in the land to worship their false gods. God’s patience over their unbelief grew thin, and eventually – in 722 B.C. – God allowed the Assyrian world power to come in and conquer the northern kingdom.
The people of the Southern kingdom maintained the kings from David’s promised family line, and for the most part remained faithful to God. But 125 years after the Northern kingdom’s demise, the disobedience of the Southern kingdom led God to take similar action. This time it was the new world power – the Babylonians – who approached Jerusalem with an army too big to ignore. Ezekiel was one of the priests taken into exile in Babylon during the rule of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel Chapter 17 takes place before the final siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 587 B.C. Some of the people were still putting their trust in the Judean King Zedekiah, with false hopes that Jerusalem would not fall to the Babylonians simply because it housed the temple of God. But in the meantime they were relying on their own power and political and military might for their protection. That was a misplaced hope. God calls them and even the proud King a tall tree which He is going to tear down through the rise and fall of nations and political powers.
b. In between times
Between Ezekiel’s time and our time, there are lots of events that we could point to saying God does whatever He wants in the course of human history, and we would have a difficult time explaining why God would allow such things to happen.
In human history, God allowed:
Christians to be fiercely persecuted and killed at the hands of Roman emperors and gladiators
Christians to kill untold thousands of Muslims during the Crusades
The Church at large to abandon God’s Word as the sole source of truth, and to accept human decisions as doctrine
The Church at large to fall away from the truth that we are saved only and completely by Jesus’ death for us, and to add good works as contributing to our salvation
The Black Plague of the 1300’s to last over 7 years and to kill ⅓ of Europe’s population
Two world wars that pit ideologies and people against one another
A 3 year long famine in Ethiopia during the 1980’s that killed over a million people
And that’s just a short list of God doing whatever He wants. Some of those things are reasons why people even today reject God, why people have a hard time believing in God. Maybe you are one of those people whose faith in God is really challenged by what God has allowed to happen during the course of human history.
But I want you to know that what God allowed in human history was not only bad things. In human history, God also led Roman Emperor Constantine to believe in Jesus and to declare the Roman Empire a Christian one.
God led Martin Luther, in the midst of spiritual darkness, to rediscover the precious light and truth that we ARE saved only and completely by Jesus’ death for us.
God sent missionaries to various parts of the world to bring that good news of Jesus to all.
God led people to establish hospitals and orphanages and relief agencies as ways to care for the needy, and to love one’s neighbour.
c. Now – in our time
What about now? What is God doing in human history?
Again, there are lots of questions we could ask related to things like:
Acts of terrorism, destructive hurricanes and volcanoes and earthquakes, senseless acts of hatred and violence against people of other colours and cultures, escalating conflicts between different ideologies and religions, and of course a 16-month long pandemic.
I might be a pastor, a theologian in residence, but I am not God, nor can I read God’s mind or interpret His will and His reasons for allowing all those things to happen. God can and will do whatever He wants. One thing that we can be confident of – God is still in control of human history, even if we don’t know or understand exactly what He is doing and why. We can’t say for sure how God is acting in the current headlines we hear on the news or read on our phones and computers. But as with the past, we want to remember that God is NOT the author of evil, and that there is often good that is hiding in the apparent wickedness and catastrophes that afflict our world. In many of those stories of hatred and evil and natural disaster, there are episodes of love and compassion that truly remind us who we are called to be as God’s people in our world – agents of God’s very presence, agents of God’s healing in this hurting world.
You see, God has this habit – He tells us so in Ezekiel 17 – He has this habit of bringing low the high tree, of cutting down the lush apple tree. To make this personal for you, you need to apply it to your own life – are you the high tree, the proud tree, the boastfully fruitful and successful tree that relies on your own strength, or maybe the challenged or doubting tree that has trouble relying on a God who allows such things to happen in our world? If so, remember what God says, “I will bring you low.”
2. God does what He wants in salvation
a. Then – in Ezekiel’s time
But wait… there’s more. You see, it isn’t just that God does what He wants in human history; God also does what He wants in salvation. Having Jerusalem and the temple destroyed in 587 B.C. wasn’t the end of the story for the high-tree-cut-low people of Judah. Being taken into captivity in Babylon wasn’t the end of God’s chosen-people experiment with the descendants of Abraham. God offers comfort for those who remained faithful to Him. The little twig that Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had broken off the top of the cedar was young Jehoiachin, from the royal line of David. He was taken into captivity, but it is through him that the Davidic line would continue after 70 years of exile in Babylon. God promised that He is going to plant that little twig again in His land, on a high and lofty mountain. So, His covenant with David will stand. One day, the exiled community would go from burn pile or wood chipper to blossoming, fruit-bearing tree – even though cedars NEVER bear fruit. It would be a tree big enough for people from all nations to find a home under its branches.
Twenty chapters later in Ezekiel – and this was our Old Testament reading three weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday – God gave Ezekiel another vision in order for him to understand and believe God’s plan for the eventual salvation of His exiled people. That vision was not of a dead and dry Christmas tree, but of a valley of dead and dry BONES! God asked Ezekiel if those bones could live. Ezekiel’s response was, “Lord, you know.” If you read between the lines, I wonder if he meant, “God, you’re smart enough to know that these bones are hopelessly dead!” But God wouldn’t take “hopeless” as an answer, and He proceeded step by step to join the bones together, to put sinews and muscles on them, then skin, and finally to blow into them the breath of life. They stood up, alive, an exceedingly great army. That was the picture image of the hope that the people of Judah could have of being returned to their land and of being God’s people once again. Could Ezekiel have predicted it? No! But when God has in mind to save His people, you can’t stop it… it’s more wonderful than any of our expectations.
b. In between times (Jesus!!)
More wonderful than any of our expectations. I guess that accurately describes God’s greatest plan to save His people, because God does whatever He wants… in Jesus. Again, the Saviour- hope of God’s people was fading. The Romans were now the world power, and although the people of Israel hadn’t been displaced, their freedoms were restricted by the Romans, much like our freedoms were restricted by the virus. The promise of a Saviour had been so long ago that the people wondered if God would ever keep that promise. And yet a similar tree promise from another prophet remained intact. Isaiah had prophesied: “A shoot from the [apparently dead] stump of Jesse will come forth and bear fruit.” The stump of Jesse was like the dry Christmas tree or like the dead bones in the valley that Ezekiel saw. Very little hope of spiritual life.
But into that seemingly hopeless context, and into the womb of an innocent virgin, God planted a seed that would be born as both God and man – Jesus, Immanuel. He was laid low in a manger. He lived a humble life, bringing the Word of God and the Kingdom of God into the lives of others whose hopes seemed dim. For our sake, the royal Son of David, the shoot and branch of Jesse, was dried up, and hanged up, and nailed to a tree. For our sake, His broken corpse, laid low in a tomb, was raised up from the dead, bursting with new life, resurrection life. All of this God wanted to do in order to accomplish your salvation – to win the forgiveness of your sins, to restore and reconcile your relationship with Him, to open wide the doors of heaven, and to say to you, “No matter how dead, and brown, and dry, and sinful your life has been, I delight in you, and I will plant you on my high and lofty mountain. I am the Lord. I have spoken, and I will do it.”
c. Now – your life
God continues to do what He wants with respect to your salvation now. No matter if your life resembles the vibrant apple tree or the pitifully dry Christmas tree, the God who does what He wants, whatever He wants, wants an intimate relationship with you in Jesus Christ. He calls you to daily and humble repentance for your sins so that you don’t get too high and mighty, too proud and green, too reliant on yourself and not reliant on Him at all. It’s for the sake of Jesus that God is on your side. You can trust Him no matter what. We need that promise because we are not ultimately in control of our lives, our families, our church, our work, or our world. God is in control, even when it doesn’t look like it, especially when it doesn’t look like it. And like the two parables that Jesus told in Mark 4, God wants you to be green, and growing, and bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God.
One volume of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is titled The Horse and his Boy. In one scene near the end of the book, the boy – Shasta – spends a long dark and foggy night trudging uphill, with a steep mountain wall on one side and a terrible, man-eating lion on the other. He was sure that he would die at any moment. But when the sun rose and the fog lifted, he discovered that he had traveled the only path that could have led him past warring armies to safety. It was a mountain pass that he could never have navigated on his own. The dangerous wild animal actually kept him from falling to his death, and ultimately delivered him to a land of refuge. The lion is, of course, Aslan – the King, and the Christ-figure.
When our family life is foggy, when work is treacherous, when decisions we face seem to lead only to more bad things to come, our Lion, Jesus, walks beside us. In fact, Jesus is even working in some of those things we perceive as dangerous or scary. When the fog finally clears, and the night is done, we will look back on our own histories and see the hand of God guiding us in unexpected and unrecognized and wondrous ways. God does whatever He wants in your life, and in the end… that’s a good thing, a VERY good thing. Until then, His promise stands: “I am the Lord. I have spoken, and I will do it.” Amen.