09/10/17 “A Fruitful Place Called Zion”

2 Kings 19: 29-31

A couple weeks ago we read the passage from Matthew where Jesus gives the disciple known as Simon a new name: Peter. And we talked about how important names can be.  Well, I’ve been thinking about the name of our church pretty much ever since I came here.  I’ve asked around, and no one seems to know how the founders decided on the name “Zion.”

Of course, it’s a very Biblical name. It shows up 160 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible; many of those verses are in the Psalms.  The first time it is mentioned is in 2 Samuel, when David seizes the city of Jerusalem from the Canaanite tribe, the Jebusites.  The name originally referred to the hill on the southeastern side of Jerusalem.  The Jebusite citadel there was easy to defend.  It was also close to the area’s only known spring, and some ancient residents had built an aqueduct from the spring to the citadel, ensuring the residents would have a water supply even in the event of a siege.

The meaning of the word “Zion” is murky, since in Hebrew it could be related to several different words with a variety of meanings.  It could mean “to be dry,” which would make sense in the desert environment.  It could mean “to set up” or even “to protect.”  But the closest Arabic word refers to a “ridge of a mountain” or a “citadel.”  So, that’s a popular choice since the first time our Scripture uses it is when David captures the Jebusite’s citadel, situated on a high plateau.  So, at first, Zion was simply the name of a place.  But over time, the City of Zion came to be understood as Jerusalem, the city where God dwelt, and the Daughter of Zion was understood to be God’s people.

As we discussed over the past couple weeks, our name can be a kind of shorthand for who we are.  So, for the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at where the name Zion is mentioned in Scripture and see what we can learn about what it means to be a place called Zion, and who we should be as people who are part of that place.

Our passage from 2 Kings doesn’t show up in the lectionary, which is a shame, I think. Because the assurance that God gives to King Hezekiah through Isaiah is important for us, especially in our world today where our expectations are that things will happen fast.  We have nearly instant communication with people all over the world.  We can send documents and photos with the click of a button or tap of a screen.  We can have just about anything we need or want delivered to our homes so fast that overnight delivery is starting to feel slow. In fact, Meijer started delivering groceries this summer, and you can get that item you forgot to pick up at the store delivered right to your door in an hour!  Instant gratification is the name of the game.

This happens in our relationships.  If you read the advice columns (as I do), you find there are lots of stories about people searching for instant intimacy. We want our life partners to quickly meet our needs, as soon as we express them (and sometimes before we express them).  We want our children to start preparing to get that sports or academic scholarship while they’re still in grade school.  We take a job and want to start at the top. We have surgery or treatment of one kind or another, and we expect to feel better as soon as it is over.  Sadly, we often lay the burden of instant recovery on the grieving or those whose lives have changed dramatically:  get over it and move on.

Our instant-response world makes us forget that we need to take time: time for children to learn and play and for relationships to grow and mature, for job skills and knowledge increase, for our bodies to heal, and for feelings of loss and confusion to ease. We deny ourselves and each other the opportunity to take things slowly and allow growth and healing to happen at their own pace.

The “need for speed” starts to infect our mindset about what we do as the Church, too.  We want our problems solved instantly, because we hear that if they aren’t Christianity will die.  We are tempted by the latest trends and fads that promise quick fixes. We frantically jump into new projects and ministries in an effort to bring in more money and more people, and when we do, we want fast results. We forget that as with bodies and relationships, growth and healing for the body of Christ can be a slow process.  So, if the response is too slow, we’re off and running on the next option.  We never give ourselves time to see what can develop.

If anyone was in need of a quick solution to a disastrous problem, it was King Hezekiah of Judah.  From his home in Jerusalem, he had watched as Assyria mowed down kingdom after kingdom. Finally, the Assyrian horde set its sights on Jerusalem.  Hezekiah tried to buy them off, but their king sent messengers to set Hezekiah straight. They taunted Hezekiah’s representatives and the Judean people with ugly words in the Judeans’ own language: if they allowed Hezekiah to convince them to put their confidence in God, they would be doomed “to eat their own dung and drink own their urine.”  In other words, they should be prepared to die of starvation and thirst.

But, the Assyrians proposed a quick fix. If the Judeans resisted Hezekiah’s promises that God would save them, the Assyrians would see to it that every one of them would “eat from their own vine and fig tree, and drink water from their own cistern, until the king of Assyria took them to a land like their own, with grain, wine, bread, vineyards, olive oil, and honey, and where they would live and not die. It sounded pretty good; after all, none of the gods of the other countries the Assyrians had attacked had saved them!

Fortunately, the people did not give in to the quick-fix mentality.  Hezekiah didn’t either.  He sent his representatives to the prophet Isaiah, and Hezekiah went to the temple to pray. His messengers told Isaiah of the dire conditions they were facing, and through Isaiah, God promised to take care of the Assyrians.

The Assyrian king tried again.  This time he sent a letter to Hezekiah, telling him not to allow God to deceive him into thinking God would save him and his people. Hezekiah once again headed to the temple, this time with letter in hand.  Scripture tells us he “spread it before the Lord,” and then proceeded to pray, “Save us, I pray you, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.”  Soon, he heard from Isaiah: God had heard Hezekiah’s prayer and had responded in no uncertain terms about how God intended to handle the Assyrian king.

And then God added a word of assurance and encouragement to Hezekiah, the words of our passage today: “And this shall be the sign for you: This year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that; then in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

The people of Judea were under a very real threat to their well-being—even their existence.  And there was a quick way out of their troubles, if they took the king of Assyria up on his offer. He promised them instant fruitfulness—fields and vineyards and groves and hives and wells.  Of course, that meant abandoning their trust in God, and it meant being taken to a place not their own. It meant abandoning their identity as the Daughter of Zion, living in the City of David, which is Zion.

But God had something else in mind—a slow process of growth that would lead to fruitfulness for the people of Zion. this process would not produce “here today, gone tomorrow” results.  It would take years—years when the people would have to trust in God while it looked like not much was happening. Instead of instant fruitfulness, they would have to wait through a season of eating what grew from the leftover seed in the fields. The second year, they would likely have slim pickings again.  During these lean years, the people would have to trust in God’s promises to them, even when they didn’t have a lot of evidence to reassure them.

But the third year brings fruitfulness.  In the third year, the Judeans will sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.  And, there will be an even more important kind of fruitfulness: fruitfulness in the people themselves.  Those years of trusting in God’s promises will have given the people of Zion the time they needed to develop a healthy spiritual root system, where they could draw deeply on what would nourish them and make them strong. They would be like those trees David himself wrote of in the psalms: “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.”

And as a result of having roots that are deep and secure, the people will bear fruit upward.  Their inner strength and faith will produce fruit in the world. And it won’t take an army to do this.  All that is needed is a small band of survivors—a remnant—whose fruitfulness will extend outward from Mount Zion into the world.  It will take three years, but it will be worth the wait.

As I studied this passage, I thought of how often this three-year rule shows up in odd places. When my husband Marc and his partners left their jobs at a local law firm to start their own, he studied up on the financial side of starting your own law practice.  He learned that new firms could expect to lose money the first year, break even the second year, and begin to show a profit the third year.  Three years for growth to take hold and bear fruit.

I had a neighbor and friend who is a good gardener.  I was expressing some concern about some perennials I had planted.  I had hoped they would spread quickly and fill in some bare spots in my landscaping, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything. I was ready to call my experiment a failure and rip the plants out. Brenda just shook her head at my impatience and said, “Remember: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap.”  Three years for growth to take hold and bear fruit.

Perhaps this three-year plan that God spoke to Hezekiah is a good one for us to learn from. How can we apply God’s words to Hezekiah and to the people of ancient Zion to our lives here as the people of this Zion—individually and as a faith community?  First, God’s words should remind us that any fruit we bear comes from strong roots.  So, we need to continually “take root downward” through prayer, spending time in the Word, studying and worshipping together.  This is what John Wesley called growing in “holiness of heart,” where who we are is more and more defined by our relationship with Jesus Christ.

God’s words remind us that with strong spiritual roots, we will bear fruit upwards.  We become more in tune with God’s will for as individuals and as a community.  We are enabled to better see what kind of fruit God intends for us to produce and how.  We can feel comfortable coming alongside God, finding out what God wants for us and from us in our community, and who the neighbors are that we can serve.  Bearing fruit upwards as God intends is what John Wesley called “holiness of life,” where our faith in God becomes evident through how we live.

God’s words remind us that small is beautiful and useful. God doesn’t need a horde the size of the Assyrian army to accomplish God’s will.  God is perfectly willing to use a “remnant.” God is perfectly willing to take a few people who are willing to sink their roots deep into their faith and reach high to bear fruit for the kingdom, and send them out from Zion into the world.

God’s words remind us to be patient.  That doesn’t mean sitting still and doing nothing.    It means that we give our work time to develop. We don’t look for the quick-fixes, and we don’t rip out what we’ve planted when it doesn’t grow fast enough to suit us.  We consider our work, we spend time reflecting on how it is aligned with God’s designs, and we allow the work we do to take root and grow.

Finally, we remember that it is God working in us and through us that makes us fruitful: “the zeal of the Lord will do this.”  It is God who wants this world to be reconciled to God’s self.  It’s God’s love for us that sent Jesus into the world, to show us how to live in holiness of heart and holiness of life.  It’s God’s zeal that enables us to take root downward and bear fruit upward, and as we do, we will live out our call to be a fruitful place called Zion.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young