Speaking Of Life 3029 | The Cutting Takes Root Greg Williams If you’ve ever done any gardening, you know it can be frustrating. You have to strike the right balance between caring for something and leaving it alone so it will grow and not be smothered. One technique for growing that takes quite a bit of care and attention at first, but can really be successful, is growing from a cutting. With a tree, you cut off a green branch and carefully plant it in rich, fertile soil so that it forms roots and grows into a new tree. The prophet Ezekiel talks about this as a metaphor for God replanting Israel after exile: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: 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. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it. Ezekiel 17:22-24 This parable follows a discussion of Israel’s efforts to ally with its pagan neighbors. Their disobedience brought them into exile and despair. But God gives them this very tender image of himself as the gardener who gently takes a cutting from what’s there and grows in the familiar soil of back home. The image would have been comforting to an exiled Israel. God’s plan for Israel was not to destroy or start over, but to build from what was already growing. He took Israel in his hands, even after all their efforts to make their own way failed. They were frail and completely dependent, but he saw the mighty strength in their future that would bless all nations – “birds of every kind will nest in it.” Jesus no doubt drew on this image in Mark 4, when he told the story of the tiny mustard seed that grows larger than all the garden plants. God, the divine gardener, took a cutting every time the great tree of humanity fell and he replanted it. From Adam and Eve to Abraham, from Abraham to Isaac, then Jacob, then Moses, then the people of Israel. Finally, from all this imagery, all of this promise of growth in the future, God’s plan comes together in one person, born of the lineage of the kings and priests. From Jesus grew the mighty family of faith that keeps growing through the centuries despite its own mistakes and the devastating winds of time. God’s plan is connected throughout. Nowhere in it did God change his mind or start over again or make up for some mistake. Redemption and restoration, yes, but the same consistent story always moving forward. The story, like the tree, grows and keeps on growing just from the tiny beginning until it crescendos into the all-encompassing Kingdom of God. You and I are part of that replanting, part of that story. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.
Psalm 20:1-9 • 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 • 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 • Mark 4:26-34
The theme this week is God doesn’t play by our rules. The call to worship Psalm tells of trusting in the Lord rather than chariots and horses that the other countries trusted. In 1 Samuel 15-16, the prophet goes on a secret mission to choose Saul’s replacement. The Lord who looks on the heart has him skip over every likely candidate, finally settling on the youngest brother, David. Mark shares two parables that remind us that God has things under control and doesn’t need our help. Our sermon looks at 2 Corinthians 5. In this intensely personal letter, Paul appeals to a community that has been distracted by flashy teachers to tell them that image fades, and God’s kingdom is upside down.
Image Isn’t Everything
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Read 2 Corinthians 5:6-17.
Some of you may remember the 1990s tennis pro, Andre Agassi. He is celebrated as possibly the best tennis player who ever lived and was in so many advertisements back then his face was recognized throughout the world.
One of his more memorable ads was for Canon, the camera brand. After a few action shots of him swinging his long hair and smiling at you, he pulls down his shades and says, “Image…is everything.” The simple tagline was imminently memorable, and most of us are surprised to learn that those ads are 30 years old!
Years later, in one of those odd twists of fate that only celebrities have, Agassi admitted that his trademark long hair was a hairpiece! The hair which had established him as a bad boy icon in the button-up world of tennis was fake the whole time. The image that was “truly everything” turned out to be false. In his autobiography, Agassi also revealed a life troubled by strained celebrity relationships and drug use and overshadowed by an abusive childhood. Under the image, the reality wasn’t quite so pretty.
Paul dealt with some similar issues in the circumstances and conversation surrounding believers in Corinth. One of the major themes Paul discussed was the Corinthian community’s infatuation with sleek, wealthy new teachers who had come their way. Distracted by these interlopers, the believers had become ashamed of Paul, who was not concerned with image, and they were enamored with the polished presentation and prestige associated with this new group.
In his typical style, Paul addresses this head-on in this letter. Specifically, in this passage, he addresses a fixation with earthly image and prowess as a distraction from the deeper reality of knowing Christ. He casts this not in simply moralistic terms (“don’t focus on your looks”), but in metaphysical terms (“this image is not our final image”).
Let’s look at Paul’s response to one of his most difficult and also most beloved communities. We’ll break it down into three I’s:
We’ve already talked about Andre Agassi’s somewhat humorous story of image that wasn’t quite everything. Have you ever had a moment when you got fixated on your image and presentation and found out, quite suddenly, that it wasn’t “everything”?
Share a story of a time you found out your image wasn’t important. The funnier the better. One good place to look is former styles that now look pretty silly – bellbottoms, Bugle Boy jeans, embarrassing hair styles. We all have these stories!
As we mentioned, the church in Corinth had become enamored with some new teachers, who Paul later jokingly calls “super apostles.” They come with the looks and slick delivery that Paul openly admits he doesn’t have to offer, and they are distracting the Corinthian church from the transformation of their hearts and minds through the gospel.
Corinth was a cosmopolitan city to say the least. One of the interesting features of the area in the ancient world was a short road called the “Diolkos” (pronounced dee-ol-kose). Instead of navigating the treacherous waters around the south of Greece, sailors stopped their boats near Corinth, put them on wheels, and were pulled across this ancient road from one harbor to another. The going was treacherous, but it was better than the much longer trip around the southern horn.
This feature and the placement of Corinth made it a stop for travelers and traders throughout the ancient world. This meant the culture, the religions, the languages and the bad habits of these different people groups often found a home in Corinth. The resulting culture was complex, hedonistic, and—you guessed it—image-conscious.
The word “Corinthian,” when applied to a woman in the ancient world, meant she was promiscuous and reckless. Their culture in general, along with religious practices that involved fertility and virility, was marked by sexual brokenness. The image-consciousness that goes along with an over-sensualized society was no doubt burdening the souls of these people.
One top of that, Corinth was a relatively young culture. The city had recently been re-established after laying in ruins for a century. Many of the Corinthians were transplants and didn’t have a long heritage. Many were also wealthy because of the constant trade. All this added up to people searching for identity—following the latest new teachers or the new perspectives that (sometimes literally) rolled into town, trying on worldviews like clothes.
Into this walks Paul. He comes to them with scars to show for his determination to go against the culture, and he questions their fixation with image.
“For we live by faith, not by sight,” Paul says in verse 7, pointing them toward the coordinates they’re supposed to live by as children of God. They aren’t to be distracted by every pretty face that comes along, by every boat that rolls by on the Diolkos. They are to hold to the truth of the gospel and see through the fog of trendy philosophies and fashionable beliefs.
Through his letters to the believers in Corinth, Paul has asked them not to just add Jesus to their crowded shelf of gods, which was the practice in the ancient world, but to clear the shelf entirely. He asks them to hold to a reality that’s more coherent and permanent than the latest fad. “We make it our goal to please him…”
Our modern world is very similar to Corinth in some ways, and very different in others. Historically, most people would not know many outside their immediate circle. The digital superhighway of the internet exposes us to different cultures and points of view in a few seconds. And, like Corinth (and perhaps even more so), we are image-conscious and entertainment-saturated; new trends are available every time we go online.
Dissimilarly, the Corinthians often added new gods to their belief system, according to who was coming through town. They looked, or at least glanced, toward figuring out why we are here and what powers are at work in the universe. Their world was fairly cynical toward any one belief system, wondering if it was all completely out of reach, or even relevant. It is much the same today.
In a sense, like in Corinth, in the modern world, all we have left is image.
Paul’s message here stands in stark contrast. Those who are distracting the Corinthians with new presentations, even though they claim to be Christian teachers, have the gospel upside down. They are “those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart” (v. 12), and they aren’t living in the freedom from image-addiction that pervades Corinth and our world today.
Christian author Thomas Merton, a monk whose books made millions and who lived in one room in a cabin his whole life, wrote insightfully:
The last thing in the world that should concern a Christian or the Church is survival in a temporal and worldly sense: to be concerned with this is an implicit denial of Victory of Christ and of the Resurrection.
The Corinthian community was deeply addicted to status, and they had made their newfound faith into part of that status machine. They were following different teachers around to try to angle their way into the “in crowd.” Even the phenomenon of tongues was something they desired to assure their status among the elite.
Paul uses himself as the example to show that the kingdom of God doesn’t run on this kind of social one-upmanship. The Jesus kingdom, in which the last shall be first and the weakest are the strong, runs on inversion. By the world’s measure, it is upside-down. Paul even said some will consider a believer “out of his mind.” Some things just don’t make sense to others. Things like leaders being servants, the first being the last, take my tunic and my cloak, let me turn the other cheek, loving others as Jesus loves—in other words, putting others first.
Our identity as individuals and as a community can’t be tied to this temporary, fleeting earth, this constant vying for the center-stage. To live like this, and to waste our energy seeking this, is to deny the victory of Christ and the resurrection.
Jesus broke us free from ourselves and our desire to lift up our image, our importance, our value. He broke us free from the world where image is everything. Think of the sadness of Hollywood heartthrobs from years ago who’ve spent a fortune on plastic surgery. Think of the aging high school star who keeps hanging around the games after graduation because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. Think of the high-power executive who one day finds himself getting older, walking slower, and wearing last year’s suits. The image world is merciless; it doesn’t celebrate humanity—it suffocates it.
In the ancient world, the scars on Paul’s body were an embarrassment. The body was venerated, and physical health was a prime value in that society. But Paul bears his scars with pride, as an example to the people he led. “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus,” he wrote in Galatians 6:17. He celebrated his wounds, and called us to live honestly in this impermanent, image-obsessed world, so that we might be truly free.
When we realize our freedom, we focus less on the self and more on others. Note how Paul finished the comment about others thinking we are “out of our mind.”
If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:13-16)
We don’t judge people by their image, by their religious practices, by their lifestyle—we judge them by the truth of who they are—children of God, many of whom do not know their Father. Christ’s love compels us to see others differently, to be convinced that Christ died for them and was raised for them. We cannot view them from a worldly point of view based on image, or occupation, or status, or race, or religious beliefs, or anything else. All are children God created who are suffering in one way or another from the fall of humanity. All have lived in a false image—a series of lies that have been told in so many different ways: You are not loved; you are not good enough; God doesn’t love you; you are worthless; no one cares about you, and on and on it goes.
Whenever we focus on an earthly image to imitate or to follow, we will fall short. There is an image, however, that we want to hold on to. You were created in the image of God. We look to Christ to see what that true image looks like. He is the image we hold up for ourselves and for others.
And this is Paul’s message to the believers in Corinth. Because of Jesus, we see everyone through his eyes. Because of Jesus, we are new. “The old has gone, the new is here.”
Welcome to your real image—a beloved child of God.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for sermon: “Image isn’t Everything”
- Do you have any embarrassing stories about seeking after image in your own life?
- Exchange stories of an outdated style you used to love and think was the pinnacle of fashion – sideburns, leather pants, rhinestone jean jackets. Your culture and age will provide ideas, for sure! The funnier, the better.
- Paul’s issue with the Corinthian community is that they had become image-focused and distracted by being in the in-crowd. Is this still a temptation in our modern world? How can this distract us from the way God sees us or the way we are supposed to see each other?
- In verse 15, Paul writes: “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” Why is it that living for Jesus is the only way to truly find fulfillment for ourselves? How do we live out that paradox?
- We talked about how Paul celebrated his scars in the ancient world in which scars, especially on teachers and leaders, were an embarrassment. Is that still true today – not just in physical but emotional scars and “scars” on other levels? How can we “celebrate our scars,” so that the light of Christ shines through us without us getting in the way? What would it mean to “bear the marks of Christ” (Galatians 6:17) for us in the 21st century?
Questions from Speaking of Life: “The Cutting Takes Root”
- We talked about how God’s plan, like growing a root from a cutting, is connected with what came before. God didn’t demolish it and start over; he took from what was already there and grew it. Have you seen him do this in your own life? In your church community? In the community of GCI?
- Ezekiel’s description of a tree, as with Jesus’ tree in Mark 4, ends with an image of generosity: “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” (Ezekiel 17:23, NRSV). This is a picture of generosity and shelter. Is the church perceived that way? Are we a place that gives shelter and shade, refuge, to those who need it? Or are we known as standoffish or cold?
Quote to ponder:
“Hence I do not find in myself the power to be happy merely by doing what I like. On the contrary, if I do nothing except what pleases my own fancy I will be miserable almost all the time. This would never be so if my will had not been created to use its own freedom in the love of others.”~~Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island