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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Last King Standing

Robert Barron - The Last King Standing

Robert Barron - The Last King Standing
TOPICS: Kingdom of God

Peace be with you. Friends, with this Sunday, we return to Ordinary Time. And I want to return to my consideration especially of the first readings from the Old Testament. And so it brings us today to the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which is one of the strangest, most fascinating and difficult to interpret books in the Old Testament. There was a saying in ancient Israel that one should not even try to read Ezekiel until one is fifty. And there's a lot of truth to that because there's so much packed into it, so much of Israelite spirituality and history and theology, that you do need to have a bit of a background to get it. The trouble is we're going to read it today. And our first reading is a little tiny snippet from it that probably makes absolutely no sense to anyone today.

So I want to spend a little time with that. What you've got to do, get out your Bibles, go to Ezekiel chapter 17. To have any sense of what this reading for today is about, you've got to look at chapter 17. Chapter 17, well, first of all, I should tell you this, that Ezekiel was a temple priest who was carried off in the first wave of the Babylonian exile. So around the year 597 BC, the Babylonians came in. They took away a number of the leading figures of Israel, and they left behind a sort of a client state. Then there's the definitive exile in 587 BC. Well, Ezekiel is in Babylon, and he's operating right at this moment. So he's a temple man. He's a priest. He knows that whole tradition.

Also a great literary figure, a great prophetic figure. And he gives rise to this book all during this time. So what we have in chapter 17 is something that biblical people loved, which is an elaborate, extended allegory. We're not nearly as comfortable with allegorical forms of thought. We're much more literal. We're more of a scientific culture. But ancient people, especially in the Middle East, they loved these long complex allegories. Look for other examples, for example, in Isaiah, in Jeremiah, in Daniel, many other places. Well, that's what we're dealing with here. So listen; here's how it begins. "Thus says the LORD: A great eagle, with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon. He took the top of the cedar, broke off its topmost shoot; he carried it to a land of trade, set it in a city of merchants".

Okay. We're saying what? A bird comes, takes part of a tree, brings it to a city of merchants. I mean, I don't know what's going on. But trust me, ancient people in Israel, that they're reading this saying, "Ah, I know exactly what Ezekiel is talking about". The great eagle with great wings and long pinions, this is a symbol of Babylon. So one the great imperial kingdoms of that time and place, like an eagle, stately and powerful, swooping down from above. Its long feathers and pinions. Well, that means all the attendant states that it controls. Even the many colors, well, that stands for all the peoples and ethnic groups and tribes that are under the aegis of mighty Babylon. They wouldn't have missed this.

Now, what did the eagle do? He took the top of the cedar, broke off its topmost shoot. Well, yeah, in 597, Babylon, the great eagle, descended upon Israel and took off the king and the courtiers and the top figures in its society. And what did he do? He carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. That was code at this time, no one missed it, for Babylon, the city of trade. So he's describing now in allegorical form what happened in 597 when the great Babylonian eagle swooped down and carried off the leadership of Israel. Okay, now the allegorizing continues: "He took a seed from the land, placed it in fertile soil; a plant by abundant waters, he set it like a willow twig. It sprouted and became a vine spreading out, but low".

You say, "Okay, the eagle planted some seeds and this new tree grew, but it wasn't a mighty tree. It was low to the ground, like a vine. What's that"? That's the sort of rump state or client state that Babylon left behind that is sort of under the control of Babylon. So, "You can have your king and your leadership, but you’ve got to look to us". Think of great imperial powers today that have smaller states kind of under their aegis. That's the vine. Now, listen: "There was another great eagle, with great wings and much plumage. And see! This vine stretched out its roots toward him; it shot out its branches toward him, so that he might water it". We're thinking, what does that mean? Well, believe me, Ezekiel's audience knew what it meant. Babylon takes away the leadership of Israel. They leave behind this kind of rump state, this client state, and it stretches out its roots and its branches, where?

Toward another great eagle, this time, Egypt. Egypt was also an imperial power to the West, with mighty wings and attendant states and many races and so on. And the client state that was meant to be loyal to Babylon, it turned toward Egypt. Were the Babylonians happy about it? Nope. So Nebuchadnezzar comes now in 587, and he crushes Israel. He crushes Jerusalem. He burns the temple, and he carries off now the second wave of exiles. This is the year 587 BC. And usually when you say the Babylonian captivity or exile, you're referring to that moment. Okay.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "All right, Bishop. I guess that's mildly interesting, really, really ancient middle Eastern history". But here's what I want you to see. This story, now, it's in highly allegorized form, but once we unpack it, you should recognize that story. That's politics. The Germans call it "realpolitik". That's the way the world goes, doesn't it? When I was a kid, go back to like the 1970s, there were two mighty eagles: the American Eagle and the Soviet Eagle, these big empires with their long feathers and their attendant states and many colors; they contain many different peoples. Were there little states kind of caught up in that struggle? Sure.

Think of in the 1970s and 80s, when the Middle East, this same part of the world, by the way, same part of the world, found itself caught between these two great political powers. Read all of history under that rubric of great powers, little powers. They come and they go, treaties made, violated, bad decisions, good decisions. This is like power politics. Okay, Ezekiel knew about it because he was a victim of it. He was carried off in that first wave when the Babylonian eagle came. So he knew all about power politics, and he was a careful watcher of it, which is why he can describe it with these allegories. Okay. But here's the religious heart of it, I think why this is more than just interesting ancient political history.

I'm now going to verse 22 of chapter 17. "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". Now, listen: "Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind".

Okay, we’ve got two worldly birds. We’ve got Babylon and we’ve got Egypt. We’ve got little Israel caught in the middle of this typical power play. Ezekiel knew all about it. So far, so ordinary; "realpolitik," ancient and modern. But here's the heart of it, verse 22 and following. What's God going to do? In the midst of all this, despite all that, God is going to build a great kingdom. The birds, all nesting in its branches, that's symbolic of all the peoples of the world coming under the aegis and protection of this kingdom. God's going to build it. Okay.

Now, why is the Church asking us, and why have I spent so much time with Ezekiel? Because this little simple story of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark for today, gosh, it's easy for us just to miss the real power of it. You know it well. Jesus now is speaking, now, mind you, Jesus, the Son of God, who is also a son of Israel, who knew these texts that I've been describing very well. "With what can we compare the kingdom of God"? Don't spiritualize that right away. "The kingdom of God", they're hearing, like Babylon and Egypt, this kingdom that God's going to make. "What parable will we use for it"? Listen: "It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade".

Now, I know you've heard a hundred sermons, I've given some of them, on the mustard seed principle, and from little things, great things come. Love them. Love those homilies, totally subscribe to them. But in the light of Ezekiel, can you read this little story with fresh eyes? What's God doing amidst all the power plays of the world, as the kingdoms come and go? Think for a second, by the way: ancient Babylon, where is it? Nowhere. It's gone. Ancient Egypt, gone. Egypt today, third rate power. "Oh, America, Russia, China".

Well, yeah, in a thousand years, they'll all be gone too. "Oh, how could you possibly say that"? Talk to someone in the Roman empire in the year 100, and you suggest, "You know, someday the Roman empire is going to collapse". "No way; impossible". They all collapse. They all come and go. But what's important? Ezekiel saw it. Chapter 17, verse 22, he saw it. God is building a kingdom. And listen again to Jesus. It "puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade".

About ten years ago, I was privileged to travel the whole world when I was filming the "CATHOLICISM" series. And one of the episodes was on the Mass. And so wherever we went, we always filmed the Mass. I attended Mass in New York, in London, in Paris, in Munich, in Warsaw, in Krakow, in Kolkata, in Namugongo in Uganda, in Mexico City, in Manila. I attended Mass all over the world. Because as the kingdoms of the world come and go, God has been building this mighty kingdom with branches that stretch all over the world, and peoples of every stripe and ethnic background and nation come and make their nests in these branches.

Whenever I go to St. Peter's in Rome, and you stand there in the great Bernini Plaza, it's as though the whole world is coming there. You hear every language. You meet people from all over the world there. That's the kingdom that so strangely and mysteriously God has been building. As the kingdoms of the world, from Babylon and Egypt, all the way up to Russia and China and America, as they all come and go, and they're involved in all of their "realpolitik games," keep your eyes fixed everybody not on all that. Keep your eyes fixed, yes, on this little mustard seed, which is the proclaiming of the word from which the real kingdom, the one that matters, the one that will endure. Keep your eyes fixed on that kingdom. And God bless you.
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