A Parable of Two Plants
November 30, 2008 | Randy Smith
A Parable of Two PlantsJeremiah 17:5-8
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Pastor Randy Smith
I am about ready to call it quits. The time and the money I've invested have produced almost nothing but disappointment and aggravation. Just about every tree I've planted has died, all the grasses look half dead and the vegetable plants and fruit trees have been anything but fruitful. The remaining bushes are continually plagued with fungus, mold and an infestation of insects. My honest attempts at gardening have yielded little success.
Obviously I am doing something wrong. But every time I seek answers for my failures, the solution always appears to be different. I've tried the watering thing. I've tried to follow the instructions about sun exposure. I've tried to cultivate and enrich the soil. And thanks to the salesmen, my garage is filled every kind of fertilizer known to man. Still, I've managed to kill just about everything I've planted.
Now, if you can enter my struggles, try to enter the struggles of the plants that I purchase from the nursery! To them, a trip to my yard is probably viewed as a trip to their own cemetery! And the poor plants that do survive must feel embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed for looking as gnarly as they do-living on my property, the land of misfit plants!
Maybe we need to enter into the life of a plant a little more because the Bible often uses the imagery of plants to refer to people. Often the Bible compares the spiritual life of a human to the type and appearance of a plant. This morning we will see a classic example. This morning we will examine two plants that are indicative of two individuals-one individual without God who is barren, lifeless and unproductive and the other individual with God who is healthy, robust and fruitful.
1. A BUSH IN THE DESERT
Let's begin with the first point - "A Bush in the Desert." Verse 5 of chapter 17, "Thus says the LORD, 'Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD.'"
We must get the "witchcraft" notion of a curse out of our minds. When God curses someone it is a pronouncement of judgment upon that individual for turning away from Him and violating His demands for absolute obedience. The Jews can't say they weren't warned. While receiving the Covenant they were told: "The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me" (Dt. 28:20).
As we will soon see, being cursed is the opposite of being blessed. And God is not arbitrary in those whom He curses. If we are cursed, we are responsible. We bring this awful judgment upon ourselves. Verse 5 tells us specifically how: "Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength."
We are created to trust the Lord. We are created to find in Him our needed strength and satisfaction and purpose. We are created to look to Him above all, whereby He might have "first-place" in our hearts. So naturally, He is affronted when we put anything above Him. This is the essence, as we have been learning, of idolatry. He is affronted because that which we put above Him is another object of His creation.
In this case, the Jews sought the military help of Egypt as their confidence. As John Calvin put it, "They thought the Egyptians would be to them like a thousand gods" (Commentary). Yet listen to what Isaiah said, "Now the Egyptians are men and not God, and their horses are flesh and not spirit; so the LORD will stretch out His hand, and he who helps will stumble and he who is helped will fall, and all of them will come to an end together" (Isa. 31:3). Basically, God was tossed aside and deemed of no account because their safety was sought from mere mortal man.
The pivotal word in this section is "trust." Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with benefiting from the venues of safety that God provides. There is nothing wrong with having allies with other nations. There is nothing wrong with having a strong military. There is nothing wrong with teaching our children about self-defense. As a matter of fact, many of these should be conducted, and to do less and expect God's protection borders on presumption and putting Him to the test. Yet our ultimate trust, the One behind these means, must be in the Lord. In other words, I trust the Lord to protect our house, but I still lock the doors! I trust the Lord to heal my illnesses, but I still take medicine! Again, the problem with the Jews was a shift in their ultimate trust!
Perhaps this is best summarized in the ending of verse 5. Cursed is the one "whose heart turns away from the LORD." The moment we place our confidence in anything above the Lord, it is an indication that our heart has turned away from Him. When we forsake God for whatever as a primary allegiance, our heart has departed regardless of what our lips may profess. Let's remember, the Lord examines our heart and the Almighty God is too jealous to settle for our leftovers. When our hearts turn from the Lord, it is an affront to His glory, and it is also a cause for our misery.
Look at verse 6. "For he [the one whose heart turns away from the Lord] will be like a bush in the desert and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant."
When you consider this bush does a mental picture come to your mind?
It was 1995, the summer before I was married. I rented a car and drove west, camping in various states along the way. One of my favorite places was Salt Lake City. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I swam in the Great Salt Lake and then took a trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats-the vast white plains where the land speed records are set. The unique thing about this area is that due to the high mineral content very few things are able to survive. The lake is almost completely lifeless, and the land is a barren desert.
It is a place like this that I imagine seeing the bush described in verse 6. Words that come to mind when considering this bush: alone, dry, sorrowful, malnourished, worthless and empty. It is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree! The bush is alive, but it is just managing to live. And apart from having life, this bush has absolutely nothing going for it, no blessings to call its own.
In our text this morning we see that the one without God is compared to this bush. Words that come to mind when we consider these individuals: thoughts but no purpose, growth but no maturity, a healthy body but empty inside, around people but lonely, having all but unfulfilled, working but accomplishing very little, rested but still weary, life but no abundant life. You see, our hearts will never be at home until they find a home in God. Apart from God we are a bush in the desert.
What a sad picture! And the sadness is possibly best captured when verses 6 says, "And [such a person] will not see when prosperity comes."
They are so consumed with the trinkets of this world, that they never know what it is like to enjoy true blessings. They have become so accustomed to living in the desert, that they can't imagine what it is like to live elsewhere. So they learn to cope with ongoing frustrations, lack of joy even when the trial ends, and satisfaction with the best this fallen world can provide. A veil lies over their faces. They are blinded to God. They settle to just stay alive and miss out on true joy.
The point that Jeremiah is making is that you are not going receive the rain of God's blessings when you are living in the desert! You are not going to bear any fruit if your home is "a land of salt without habitation." You need to be transplanted. You need to pull up your roots and find some more fertile soil.
But how? Let's go to the second point, "A Change in Location."
2. A CHANGE IN LOCATION
As I already mentioned, the key to one's location is centered on the word "trust." Those who ultimately trust in anything but God are accursed. They have turned their hearts away from the Lord. They are like a bush seeking to survive in the desert. But if we turn our hearts to the Lord, we can be blessed. We can be like the tree we will consider shortly from verse 8. But since this is no small transformation, we need to carefully consider how this happens.
First of all we need to understand that we are sinful. We need to accept the fact that we have fallen from God's expectations and regardless of how much we try, we cannot reform ourselves to that which is acceptable in His sight (Jer. 13:23). We are all guilty before God. We need to acknowledge that sin is written in our hearts as it says in verse 1. We need to acknowledge verse 9, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick."
Though this is not a pleasant topic to discuss, I feel compelled to discuss it nevertheless. Quite often humans are compared to monkeys. We are told we evolved from them and act like them. My friends, that is the most insulting comment anyone can make-to the monkey!
Turn on the recent news-Do monkeys kill their parents? Do monkeys take out almost 200 innocent people in India?
Three monkeys once dining in a coconut tree were discussing some things they had heard to be true:
There is something that cannot be true, that humans descended from our pure race.
Why, it's simply shocking - a terrible disgrace.
Who ever heard of a monkey deserting his wife?
Leave a baby starve and ruin its life?
And have you ever known of a mother monk
To leave her darling, with a stranger to bunk?
Their babies are handed from one to another
And scarce ever know the love of a mother.
And I've never known a monkey so selfish to be
As to build a big fence around the coconut tree
So other monkeys can't get a wee taste
But would let all the coconuts here go to waste.
Why, if I'd put a fence around this coconut tree
Starvation would force you to steal from me.
And here is another thing a monkey won't do
Seek a bootlegger's shanty and get in a stew.
Carouse and go on a whoopee, disgracing his life
Then reel madly home and beat up his wife.
They call this all a pleasure and make a big fuss
They've descended from something, but not from us.
For until we come to this understanding of our sinfulness, when compared to the holiness of God, our trust will be in ourselves and never in Him for our salvation.
Though we can never achieve God's standard, God in His love and mercy has provided a way for us to be forgiven. Our sin has brought us under His curse, but He sent His Son Jesus Christ to be a curse for us. Listen to Galatians 3: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us-for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'-in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3:13-14). When the sinner's sin was placed upon Christ, He became accursed of God and was punished in our place. And when we exercise faith in His work on the cross, we are forgiven and inherit the wonderful blessings of God.
Faith, belief, trust-words that are all synonymous with each other. The Israelites trusted in man and not God. This resulted in their curse (verse 5). It is spelled out again in verse 13, "O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD." But in contrast to his fellow Jews, listen to Jeremiah's trust in the Lord. Verse 14, "Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for You are my praise." That is a heart that has turned to the Lord. That is a person who will be blessed by God.
3. A TREE BY THE WATER
So, from the bush in the desert, let's move to the third point and examine the tree by the water.
What I am talking about can't be any clearer! Verse 7, "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD." From stop ultimately trusting in others to start ultimately trusting in the Lord. From being cursed to being blessed. From a barren bush in the desert to a fruitful tree planted by the water. Verse 8, "For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit."
The identity of our life will be determined by where we choose to root our trust. If I can use the blind man's words from Scripture, "I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around" (Mk. 8:24). We are all plants wandering around looking for a place to grow. And where we choose to be rooted will establish our joy in this life and our placement in the one to come.
The imagery for the one who trusts the Lord is now compared to a healthy tree planted by a stream. Its roots extend into the crystal waters. Its leaves are green and luscious. It bears fruit on a continual basis.
Two particular clauses in verse 8 jumps out at me: "And [this tree] will not fear when the heat comes…and "it will not be anxious in a year of drought."
The clear implication is that the trials which affect unbelievers are the same as those that affect believers. Just because we are a tree and not a bush does not protect us from the heat of adversity. And just because we are a tree and not a bush does not shelter us from the temptation of anxiety. We too suffer the pains of life, but unlike the bush, we trees have the ability to maintain our joy and peace in the midst of them. Our roots are taped deep into God's sovereign grace. We drink from the living water (Jn. 4:10; 7:38). Our ultimate trust is in the Lord which enables us to weather these storms without distrust-namely, the two greatest signs of distrust (both mentioned in verse 8): fear and worry.
I have no other explanation how Jane Azzaretti can praise the Lord through the loss of her husband and then recent bout with shingles. I have no other explanation how Linda Galella can serve the Lord on the piano when she experiences surgery after surgery and ongoing pain beyond anything we have ever experienced. I have no other explanation how the Principatos when thinking the coast was clear have their son once again diagnosed with leukemia. Yet they can come to the Thanksgiving Service and both publicly affirm during our time of testimony that God is good. I have no other explanation how our elders and deacons can experience emotional heartache and still press on in their faithful service to the church.
Despite the adversity, being planted by streams of water results in trust in God. God is producing something special in the hearts of these believers-we call this fruit. The true mark for any believer will be spiritual fruit. Verse 8, "Nor [will this tree] cease to yield fruit" (cf. Psm. 1:3).
In John 15 Jesus said, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples" (Jn. 15:4-6, 8).
As we trust God and abide in Christ, He produces spiritual fruit through us. We begin to have attitudes and actions that are consistent with His nature and expected among those who call themselves His children. The moment we make the tree good, it is only expected that its fruit will be good. And the greatest indication of a good tree will be the fruit that it bears.
Where is your ultimate trust? Where are you planted? Where are you drawing your strength? What type of fruit are you producing?
Alexander MacLaren said, "Not more surely do gills and fins proclaim that the creature that has them is meant to roam through the boundless ocean, nor the anatomy and wings of the bird witness more plainly to its destination to soar in the open heavens than the make of your spirits testifies that God, and none less or lower, is your portion. We are built for God, and unless we recognize and act upon that conviction, we are like the prickly shrub in the desert, whatever good may be around us; and if we do recognize and act upon it, whatever parched ground may seem to stretch on all sides, there will be soil moist enough for us to draw refreshment and vitality from it."
When I consider the trees on our property, the best one at this point is the Christmas tree we set up in our family room last night. It has great form, color and smell. Unfortunately the beauty of this tree won't last long. Soon the needles will start falling and the tree will be discarded. I am sure we are all familiar with the appearance of a forgotten Christmas tree in February, a bunch of brown sticks blowing in the wind like tumbleweed. And it probably won't be long before every tree I've planted on our property will be dead as well!
But the tree that matters the most is our lives. For those of us in Christ-we live, we thrive, we have hope regardless of the worst storms this life may cast our way because our ultimate trust is in the Lord!