"They Bloom Later"#87-30
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 22, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Exodus 9
Years ago, it was reported that archeologists excavated an ancient Egyptian tomb. The tomb had been sealed shut for perhaps 3,500 years. In the tomb, they discovered ancient grains of Egyptian wheat. Carefully, the seeds were removed, and then somebody asked the obvious question: "What do you think will happen if we plant them?" So, they planted them and to everyone's utter amazement, the seeds sprouted after lying dormant since before Moses was in Egypt. This ancient Egyptian wheat sprouted three and a half millennia later.
Now, stories like that circulated throughout Europe in the late 1800s. This is when the British were digging around in Egypt. Some people believed them, but others were a little more skeptical. According to the most reliable scientific knowledge of the time, it was said that seeds could be viable for 10 years, 20 years, maybe longer, but a thousand years? No, these stories were just concocted to sell so-called ancient grains to gullible tourists at ridiculous prices. More recently, however, archeologists were digging at a site in southern Israel near the Dead Sea, and they unearthed an ancient pottery vessel and discovered inside it seeds, seeds that were from an ancient Judean palm tree that had been extinct for more than a thousand years.
Radiocarbon dating indicated that the seeds were around 2,000 years old, and again someone asked the obvious question, and under careful conditions and close observation, they planted one of those seeds. And in March of 2005, the ancient Judean palm seedling stubbornly sprouted from the soil bringing the whole species back out of extinction. This discovery displays the remarkable resilience of plants.
Luther Burbank, he's a famous botanist. He wrote the following. "I have dealt with millions of plants and have worked with them for many years, and I've concluded that the most stubborn living thing in this world is a plant, fixed in certain habits."
E.O. Wilson, he's a longtime professor at Harvard, renowned evolutionary biologist, he marvels at nature—nature, unimaginably complex, surprisingly resilient, stubbornly alive nature. Wilson is also a harsh critic of the modern tendency to plow over and pave nature with parking lots. "But," Wilson says, "Even in the parking lot, notice the resilient little weed peaking up through the crack in the concrete and the tuft of grass holding on the curb. Nature dies hard." Wilson writes, "And these last stand wild organisms wait patiently for us to change our minds. They give back what we remain so remorselessly bent on destroying."
Professor Wilson is a passionate defender of the environment. He's interested in the creation, but not so much in the Creator, but what might the creation be telling us about the Creator? Whoever created all this seems to like life and is quite stubborn about it. The question is, though, is He committed to human life? Is He committed to individual humans like me, like you, especially when there are good reasons to do otherwise? You see, some people describe our species like an invasive weed, that the earth would be better off without us.
Now, I think about how much I throw away and the pollution that my car produces. I recognize that I am a part of a system that could do better and should do better to take care of God's creation, and Professor Wilson drives this point home with his book. He more or less tells us that if you do not turn from your ignorant and self-absorbed ways, you will be struck with plagues, environmental plagues of biblical proportions, and his warnings sound a little like the words of Moses to Pharaoh in Egypt in the book of Exodus.
Now, the difference is that the God warning Pharaoh is not a professor giving a failing grade to his underperforming students. The God warning Pharaoh is the creator, the all-powerful Creator with the heart of a loving Father, and He delights in the biodiversity of His creation. Go back and read Genesis 1. And He created humankind not as an invasive species but in His own image so that He could adopt us as His own children so that we could care for His creation with Him. And His heart breaks for us when we stubbornly turn against Him and we destroy what He has made. But he is even more stubbornly committed to us, to rescuing us, to rescuing all the families of the earth through Israel.
This family that He chose, these Hebrew people, He calls these Hebrews in Exodus chapter four "My firstborn son." Firstborn, indicating that there are more to come, and that's why the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, is confronting Pharaoh. See, Pharaoh is treating Israel like an invasive species, trying to drown them into extinction, and so the Lord appeared to Moses and his brother Aaron, and He sent them to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to listen, so God sends environmental catastrophes. Six plagues have come so far, but Pharaoh keeps relapsing. He won't listen, and so God sends the seventh plague, and right in the middle of it, there's this interesting aside about stubborn Egyptian wheat. Listen to how it goes in Exodus 9.
"Now, the Lord said to Moses, 'Get up early in the morning. Go and take your stand before Pharaoh and tell him, "This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrew says: Send out My people and they will serve Me, because this time I will send all My plagues upon your heart, against your servants, and against your people so that you will know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. Because by now I could have stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.
"But I have raised you up for this purpose so that I might show you My strength and that My Name would be declared again and again in all the earth, but still you exalt yourself against My people, and so look out. This time tomorrow I will send the worst hail storm that has ever fallen on the land of Egypt from the day that it had become a nation until now. And so you send a message to bring in your livestock and all that you have from the fields under a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on man and beast and all that is left out in the fields and whatever is not been brought in, they will die."'
"So, the servants of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord, they hurried to bring their servants and livestock under shelter. But those who did not take the word of the Lord to heart, they left their servants and livestock out in the field. And the Lord said to Moses, 'Stretch out your hand to the heavens and the hail will fall all over Egypt,' and Moses stretched out his staff toward the heavens, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning struck the ground. The hail struck every man and beast, and it beat down all that was growing in the fields. It stripped every tree, and the only place that it did not hail was the land of Goshen where the children of Israel lived.
"So Pharaoh, he summoned and sent for Moses and Aaron and he said to them, 'This time I have sinned. The Lord is in the right. I and my people, we are in the wrong. Now pray for me because we have had enough of God's thunder and hail. I will send your people out. You do not have to stay any longer.'
"Now, the flax and the barley were struck down. They were destroyed since the barley had budded and the flax was in bloom, but the wheat and the spelt, they were not destroyed. They were not struck down because they come up later, they bloom later. So Moses left Pharaoh and went outside the city, and he lifted up his hands to the Lord, and the thunder and the hail stopped, and the rain no longer poured out on the land. And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again. He and his servants made their hearts resistant. So Pharaoh's heart was stubborn, and he did not send the children of Israel out just as the Lord had said through Moses."
The word of the Lord from Exodus 9.
Recently I heard about a professor named Dan Kimball. He passed out little paper index cards around to about a thousand different young people, and he asked them to write down their most pressing questions that they had about the Christian faith. He collected them and studied the answers. How many people do you think wrote down questions like, "How do you prove the existence of God," or, "How do you know if the resurrection of Jesus really happened?" No one. No, their questions weren't about the power of God or the existence of God but about the goodness and love of God?
You see, we live in a world where a 2,000-year-old palm trees seed can come back to life bringing a species out of extinction. So it's not too much more of a miracle to believe that God created everything out of nothing or that He raised Jesus from the dead. But the more pressing question that many people have today is, "Does God love me? Does God love me, and does He love all people? And if He does, then why do we hear Him in the Bible threatening people and confronting people and demanding so much of them?"
God's love is like the stubborn love of parents who refuse to abandon their adult daughter trapped in addiction. They keep loving their daughter. They keep giving her second chances even though they have good reasons not to. And they love her with a stubborn love, a tough love, so they confront her in her addiction. They take away support from her; they cut her off, and it tortures them to do this. It is killing them to do this, but they do it because they love her. And Exodus is a record of God's stubborn love for His people, for all people, for you. The stubbornness that we hear about in Pharaoh's heart is like an addiction, and it plagues all people. After God rescues Israel from Egypt, He's got to deal with a stubbornness in their hearts.
He's got to deal with the stubbornness in my heart and your heart. And to everyone's utter amazement, the way that He ultimately dealt with our stubbornness was not a display of His power, but a surrender. Jesus, God's Son, stubbornly loved us, and it literally tortured Him to do this. It killed Him. On an ancient Judean tree, He took our addiction into Himself and died with it so that you could bloom again.
Luther Burbank, the botanist I mentioned earlier, he became known in the early 1900s for crossbreeding plants. He created over 800 new varieties of fruits and vegetables and grains. In the year 1905, he branched out beyond botany and wrote a book called The Training of The Human Plant. This is the book where he claimed that plants were the most stubborn forms of life on the planet. But he qualified the remark by saying that a plant's lifelong stubbornness can be broken simply by blending new life with it, making by crossing a complete and powerful change in its life. Now, Burbank was talking about his work, crossbreeding plants, work that had made him famous, but this book that I mentioned, The Training of The Human Plant, made him infamous because he suggested that we ought to improve the human race in the same way by controlled breeding or eugenics as it's called. And from there, it's not too many steps to Hitler in Germany or Pharaoh throwing Hebrew boys in the river.
Controlled breeding might be a good idea for plants but not for people. How then do we fix the stubborn human plant, so ignorant, so self-absorbed, so fixed in our own destructive habits? Our most pressing problem is not with our genes. It's not biological, it's not chemical. It is relational. Our core problem is our broken relationship with our Creator. Like Pharaoh, we don't listen so well, and yet your Creator, my Creator, is stubbornly committed to us. God is not breeding stubbornness out of you. He is redeeming you, all of you, because He wants to relate to you, not like a plant but with the responsible dignity of a person—a beloved son, beloved daughter.
The new life that He is blending into you is the life of His Word: His conversation, His speech. He wants to speak with you, speak to you through Jesus, through the Bible, through His people. He says to you, "No matter how much or how often you run away, I will keep coming for you. I will speak to you. I will forgive you. I will blend My life into yours." And so if you're willing, I invite you to speak back to him and pray with me.
Dear God, Father, Your Word endowed Egyptian wheat and Judean palms with stubborn life. And Your Word became flesh in Jesus. And so give me ears to hear and a heart to trust in Your Word so that Your life would be blended into mine, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for March 22, 2020
Title: They Bloom Later
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For free online resources, our mobile app, and archived audio, go to our website lutheranhour.org. Next week Pastor Ryan Tinetti will be our guest speaker, and he joins us now with a preview of his message.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I have joining me on the phone line today, the Reverend Dr. Ryan Tinetti. He's the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Arcadia, Michigan, and is going to be coming out with a new book called Preaching By Heart. This is work that has risen out of his doctorate work that he did through Duke Divinity School. He's a good friend of mine and also a regular guest speaker on this program. Welcome, Dr. Tinetti.
Ryan Tinetti: Hey, it's so good to be with you, Mike. Thanks so much.
Mike Zeigler: I've asked you to preach on the plagues, and you said that this was a challenging experience for you. I feel the same way. Going through these narratives of God's wrath and judgment on Egypt is terrifying sometimes.
Ryan Tinetti: No question. I think we would both agree that given our druthers, these are not parts of Scripture that we're going to be drawn to to preach on. I think that's part of why it's really great that we're taking this time to go through the whole book of Exodus and not just skirting those parts that are maybe more challenging or difficult, but facing them head on and seeing what God would teach us and what He can show us about His heart for His creation through these tough passages.
Mike Zeigler: One of the places that I've seen that in my study is the orderliness and the measuredness of the plagues. They happen gradually. Each time the Lord sends Moses to give Pharaoh a message; they happen in these cycles of three. The time gets shorter and shorter as the second and third plague and then in the third plague there's no warning. Then in the fourth plague it starts back up again, and God sends Moses to Pharaoh early in the morning, and He gives him this full speech again. So he gets another cycle of three and then a third cycle of three. So like you said, there's grace even in the midst of this and that God is not out of control here. It's very measured, very fatherly, in the way He is confronting Pharaoh.
Ryan Tinetti: I think this is an important point and for us to think about God's character more broadly because for us as human creatures, I'll speak personally for myself, sometimes I have those moments where my temper gets the better of me. And we say things like, "Oh, I flew off the handle." God does not fly off the handle. He doesn't have just knee-jerk reactions of rage, but as you say, He has a measured intentionality about all of this. He has a larger purpose in mind as these signs, these plagues, are being unleashed on Pharaoh and on the Egyptians, more generally. It's not just because He's mad. That's certainly something that I came to appreciate more clearly in studying this passage of Exodus 10, but also throughout the whole section. This is not just God being filled with wrath. There's more going on here.
Mike Zeigler: We had Professor Tom Egger from Concordia Seminary last week, and we talked about this—how God's showing His justice in these. And he pointed out something that I had never thought about, that the first plague is the Nile turns to blood. What was Pharaoh doing in the beginning of the book of Exodus? He himself was turning the Nile to blood so to speak by throwing children in it. So there's this sense of justice. Like you said, it's not flying off the handle. It is measured and just and the consequences of Pharaoh and the false gods of Egypt.
Ryan Tinetti: Yes, that's right. This isn't God just, "Oh, I'm mad. Let's see what I can do, how I can really mess with them here," but as you say, even there's a proper proportionality to that. And again, it's always pointing ultimately toward His mercy and in Lutheran kind of theological language we'll talk about God's Law and his judgment being His "alien work." That is, this is foreign to His nature. His deepest heart is always toward mercy and grace, and so that even in the midst of these plagues and of these deep, profound signs of His judgment and even His wrath, He's still always pointing back toward His overall, overarching purpose of grace.
Mike Zeigler: You talk about God's character, what have you personally got to see more deeply and know more deeply in God's character through wrestling with this account?
Ryan Tinetti: To see Him as that true Father, that "Abba" as it says in Romans 8, so that we don't have a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, to think God's got it out for us. But instead with a proper awe and reverence recognize that we have a loving Father, a loving Abba, a Daddy who always cares for us and is never going to fail us.
Mike Zeigler: And you have four children at home. I'm sure you can feel that when you're at your best when you deal with them.
Ryan Tinetti: Right. Both those times I felt great about it.
Mike Zeigler: That's good. You're not flying off the handle?
Ryan Tinetti: Right. No, it's true. I think, yeah, as a father it's both convicting but also inspiring to say, "Okay, how can I resemble and reflect the love of their Heavenly Father for my own kids?" And certainly, I pray for that and desire that in some small way that my kids would be able to see their true Father's heart, even through the actions and the affections of their earthly father.
Mike Zeigler: I feel the same way. Yeah. So what could a listener do to prepare their heart to encounter this God in the text that you'll speak for them next week?
Ryan Tinetti: To stop as I'm reading it and to say, "Okay, there's a lot in here that's kind of attention getting where it's like this just seems like some real heavenly fireworks here, but how can I see God's heart of love also being revealed in the midst of this?" Because if we have this deep core conviction that all of the Scripture ultimately points us back to Christ and points us to a God of mercy, that's going to be there on every single page. Okay, God, where are You showing me not only Your wrath and Your just judgment on sin, but also Your mercy, Your forgiveness, and Your grace? How can I see that reflected in this passage as well?
Mike Zeigler: God's mercy and Jesus on every page, that's worth remembering.
Ryan Tinetti: Indeed.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks so much for joining us, Ryan. Good talking to you.
Ryan Tinetti: It's been a pleasure. God bless.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"God Loved the World So That He Gave" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)