The Parable of the Diamond Willow Back to all sermons

Date: January 23, 2015

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Book of Ephesians

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1–2:10

Tags: depravity, grace, mercy, love, salvation, God’s glory

Synopsis: In his introduction, Pastor Cam describes a wood-working project he made from a piece of diamond willow. In Ephesians 2:10, we find the words: “We are his (God’s) workmanship.” In this message entitled “The Parable of the Diamond Willow” taken from Ephesians 2:1-10, we trace God’s craftsmanship from raw material through to finished product. We also gain some valuable clues about why he is building the Church and how he feels about it.

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It was 1979. Esther Ruth and I were living in Alaska, where I was pastor of a small church. Although both Esther Ruth and I had grown up in Africa, we had not been back to Africa to visit since we finished high school – some 11 years before. So we set about to save up enough money to make a journey back to our African roots.

As the trip began to take shape, I realized that we were going to be with my parents in Kenya over Father’s Day. Since it had been many years since I was with my father on Father’s Day, I wanted to give him a special gift in honor of the occasion. I wanted it to be something Alaskan, something that expressed me, something that I had made. I have never been a very “crafty” person or good with my hands – but I wanted this gift to be something I had done myself. I decided to try to make something out of a piece of “diamond willow”.

Now, I probably need to explain what that is. In Alaska and many areas across northern Canada, one of the kinds of trees that thrives is the northern willow tree. It grows in thickets alongside of streams and lakes. Most of the willow trees are healthy – but in some places, thickets of willow can become infected with a fungus. This disease attacks a tree from the inside and over time can twist and gnarl the trunk and the branches into distorted shapes and strongly contrasting colors. Eventually the fungus may kill the tree. But in the process, it turns the trunk and branches into very interesting shapes and patterns. So the diamond willow is valued by wood workers and carvers for the interesting things they can make from it. It is called diamond willow, because of the classic red diamond shape that is displayed when a branch is cut away from the trunk or a larger branch.

I acquired a length of diamond willow from a friend and began to work on it. At first it just looked like an ordinary piece of wood or branch from a tree, covered in a nondescript gray bark. So I took a knife and began to carve away the bark to reveal white wood underneath. It was hard work. It was an old piece of wood, so it was dry and hard to work with. But eventually the bark was all removed. Now I could see, not only the white wood, but the red wood exposed where the smaller branches had been or where the disease had twisted and distorted the main piece. These red sections were often recessed and hard to carve and clean out. But eventually, I succeeded in digging out all the bark and debris. The piece now looked something like this.

Now I could see the potential of the piece, but it was still rough and full of splinters, with no real beauty. So I took sand paper and began to smooth its rough edges. I started with coarse sand paper, and gradually changed to finer and finer grain, until I was using sand paper that almost felt like a piece of cloth. I worked and worked it until it felt smooth and soft to my touch. Once again, it was most difficult to work the sand paper into the crevices and dips in the red sections of wood.

Finally it was time to apply the final touch. I debated what kind of finish to apply. I had seen some nice pieces that had been finished with a kind of polyurethane, glossy varnish. So that is what I painted on first. As the varnish dried, I realized I had made a mistake. The piece of wood no longer felt like a piece of wood. It felt like a piece of plastic. I could see the wood underneath, but it didn’t feel like wood.

So I bought a varnish stripper, and stripped off the polyurethane finish. Now I had to sand it again, to get the last bits of varnish off – especially in the crevices. Over and over I sanded and scraped it until I was once again down to real wood and I could feel the smoothness under my fingers. Now I was ready to try again. This time I applied a simple coat of linseed oil. It soaked into the wood. It made the red look redder. It made the light colored wood look lighter. Yet I could still feel the smoothness of the natural wood. I let it dry and then applied a second coat and then a third. The piece was finished. All that remained was to drill a hole through one end and insert a leather strap to use to hang it with.

I fit the piece into my suitcase and took it with me to Kenya. On Father’s Day, I got it out of my suitcase. I gave it to my father. Of all the gifts I ever gave him, I think this was the most meaningful. Just a piece of wood. But I was able to say to him: “Here, Dad. This is for you. I made it myself with my own hands. I am proud of the way it turned out. I am giving it to you as a self-expression of my love and esteem for you.”
This piece hung in a place of honor over the fireplace in my parents’ home in Kenya until they retired. Then it hung on the wall of their retirement condo in the US until my father died. It now hangs on the wall of my office here.

So – why the long story? I have entitled this message: The Parable of the Diamond Willow. I am building this message around a phrase that occurs in the final verse of the paragraph (v. 10): For we are his workmanship.

The Greek word that is translated “workmanship” is “poiema”. It is the word from which we get our English word “poem. “We are God’s “poem.” Now, in the English use of the term, it has come to mean something created or made out of words. A verbal expression or work of the poet. In the Greek language it was more general. It could refer to anything that was made, any piece of creative work, whether made with hands or words or any other creative endeavor. “We are God’s workmanship.” We are the product of God’s work, God’s craftsmanship, God’s creative genius and an ultimate act of self-expression.

Using my diamond willow piece as a comparison: When God set out to create his masterpiece, what did he choose for his raw material? Just like I chose a non-descript piece of wood, twisted and gnarled and covered in gray bark, what did God choose for his creative work?

Paul describes the raw material in the first three verses of this passage. And let me warn you that it is not a pretty picture.

First, we find that we were dead. That is what he tells us in verse 1: And you were dead in trespasses and sins…

“Trespasses” refers to our violations of God’s commands. All of our deviations from his righteousness. “Sins” is a word that describes our failures to meet his standards; all the times that we have fallen short and missed the target – even with our best efforts.

Because of our trespasses and sins, we were dead, spiritually. There was no spiritual life in us and we were in a state of separation from God.

We were not only dead, but we were in bondage. This is what Paul tells us in verses 2-3:

in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind…

We were in bondage to an evil triumvirate. First to “the world.” The Bible uses this term in certain contexts like this one to describe the world system as it has organized itself to operate independently from God and his rule, and in defiance of his moral law and principles. We were “following the course of this world,” living according to its values and its principles.

Not only that but we were following “the prince of the power of the air.” This is a reference to Satan, the highest evil power in the spiritual realm. He is the one who led the great rebellion of angels from heaven. He is the one who deceived Adam and Eve into disobeying God. And he is still pulling the strings, the puppeteer who controls and inspires the spirit of rebellion that is still at work in the “sons of disobedience.”

We were also in bondage to our own flesh or our own sinful nature. We lived for ourselves, seeking only to carry out the desires of the body and the mind – all in defiance of God and his rule in our lives. We were in bondage to the world, the flesh and the devil.

And because we were in bondage, the final reality is described. We were condemned in God’s sight. This is what we see at the end of verse 3: and were by nature children of wrath. Whose wrath? God’s wrath which was directed toward us because of our disobedience.

These verses clearly describe a doctrine that is known as “the depravity of man.” And who is subject to this depravity? Look at verse 3 again: among whom we all once lived. And as he says at the end of the verse: were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

This is the raw material that God chose to use to make his masterpiece. He came to that thicket of standing willow trees. Some were clearly gnarled, twisted and dead. Others still stood tall, looking alive, looking like healthy trees on the outside. But every one of us was stricken with the deadly fungus of sin that was eating away at us from the inside. Children of disobedience, children of wrath, enslaved, condemned, spiritually dead. What a picture of helplessness, hopelessness and despair.

That is the raw material. So what did God do to transform such despair into a product of divine craftsmanship? There are three verbs here. Three main verbs upon which the entire paragraph hangs. All three of them begin with the same prefix, expressed in the English preposition: “with”. All three of these verbs are based on our union with Christ. All three of these verbs are demonstrations of the mighty power of God.

Let me pause here for a moment and delve back into our passage from last week, at the end of chapter 1. In that paragraph, Paul prays that the believers will have the “eyes of their hearts enlightened that they might know (among other things) the immeasurable greatness of God’s power at work toward us who believe.” He goes on to say that this power of God at work in us is the same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.

Now look how this same mighty power is at work in us who believe:

First, we are told that that he made us alive with Christ. Why was this necessary? Because we were dead. It required the resurrection power of God to raise us from the dead spiritually. Salvation is a work of divine power; resurrection power. It is God’s work. Only he can do it. And that is the first thing he does as he enters the thickets of sin to begin a work of creative craftsmanship. He takes people like you and me who are spiritually dead and he makes us alive with Christ. He places the life of Christ into us. He breathes the breath of spiritual life into our nostrils just like he breathed the breath of life into Adam in the Garden of Eden.

But that is not all he did. He raised us up with Christ. God didn’t just bring Jesus back to life. He raised him up – a verb that includes both his resurrection and ascension back into the heavenly realms. And he raised us up with him. We soared, with Christ, up into heaven itself.

And even then God was not done. He seated us with Christ in the heavenly realm. This is unbelievable, but it is what the Bible says in verse 6: He “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” And that is where we are right now. That is our position in the heavenly realm. You see, when you and I put our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, we are united with Christ. We are baptized into Christ and we are placed into Christ. We are his Body. He is our Head. Spiritually speaking, everything that is true of Christ is now true of us. He is alive, risen from the dead by the power of God. We are alive, sharing in his resurrection. He ascended into the heavenly realm. We ascended with him. He is seated at the right hand of the Father in the place of authority over every other spiritual power. We are seated there with him; all through the immeasurable power of God at work in us who believe.

The realities of what we are told here is almost beyond belief. No wonder Paul prayed in last week’s passage: “Open our eyes, Lord!”

But let me address another question. Why did God do it? What was his motivation? There are actually four divine motivations described in this passage. Or maybe it is better expressed as three plus one.

The first motivation is God’s mercy. There it is in verse 4: God, who is rich in mercy. We were children of wrath – deserving objects of God’s judgment. But God had pity on us. God is “rich” in mercy. The word rich is the word for opulence and extravagance; more than enough, abounding. God has mercy and to spare. That’s why he did it.

The second motivation that moved him to action is God’s love. Because of the great love with which he loved us. This is no ordinary love. There is no greater love than this. “This is how God demonstrated his love. He sent his one and only Son…” We can pity people we do not love. And we may even love people without displaying mercy. But when God’s mercy and his love come together with his power – it is a marvel to behold. And that is the marvel that is on display in our salvation. God loved us with a “great love.”

And when did he love us? This is even more incredible. Look at it as I read this whole phrase in context again: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.

God loved us even when we were still dead, enslaved and condemned. This contrast between the love and mercy of God and our state as “children of wrath” illustrates the third motivation on display in God’s great work of salvation. That is God’s grace.

Look at verse 5 again: even when we were dead in our trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved

Paul continues on this theme of grace in verse 8-9, in a text that we are all familiar with: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

The distance between verses 1-3 and the wrath we deserved and the salvation described in verse 5-6 where God made us alive, raised us up and seated us at his right hand in the heavenly realm – that distance is the measure of God’s grace; his undeserved favor. This salvation is not our own doing and it does not come to us as a result of any works that we have done. We have nothing here to boast about. This is a free gift of God’s grace.

God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s grace; all of them are here as the driving motivations behind God’s work of salvation. But I mentioned a fourth motivation; or three plus one. We have looked at the three. What is the “plus one”? It is the motivation that drove the other three into God’s great work. It was God’s desire to display his own character and attributes. Remember in chapter 1, we found that God is doing everything to “the praise of his glory” and to the “praise of the glory of his grace.” This passage says it so clearly. Why did he do it all? Look at verse 7: so that (this is his motivation) in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Do you see that? This is why he did it. God wanted to show the immeasurable riches of his grace not only now but for all the ages to come. So he displayed his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus, and he will put the Church on display for all ages to come and say to the watching universe: “This is what grace looks like. This is what love looks like. This is what mercy looks like. This is what I am like.” And the universe will bow in worship and sing: “Amazing grace!”

So that is what God is doing and that is why he is doing it. He is the ultimate Craftsman at work, creating his greatest masterpiece to display the magnificent attributes of the Artist in his work. Let’s return again to verse 10: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

So God is working to prepare a masterpiece for the ages. But how is his craftsmanship displayed in our lives in the here and now? This verse answers that question. We were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Note the subtle, but absolutely essential nuance of meaning here. We were not saved by good works. That is what verse 9 tells us. But we are saved for good works. And even these good works that are a result of our salvation are not our good works. They are God’s good works in us and through us as his power is displayed as he transforms us from glory to glory.
Back to the diamond willow again. As God, the master craftsmen, chooses each piece of diseased wood and cuts it out of the thicket, he begins to work on it. He cuts away the ugly bark. He begins to sand away the rough edges. He uses a sharp knife to cut deep into the diseased places of the heart where sin has bitten the most deeply into our fabric. And gradually the beauty begins to emerge; a testimony to the Craftsman’s skill and patience.

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us look something like this. (Hold up the unfinished piece.) We are a work in process. Lots of things have changed. But lots of things remain to be changed. God isn’t finished with us yet. But he is committed to us. He loves us. He isn’t going to stop until he completes his work.

As the Craftsman works, a very fascinating phenomenon of the diamond willow emerges. It is often in those places that are most deeply diseased and been most distorted by sin that the greatest beauty emerges as God carefully sands and smooths and then applies the soothing oil of his Holy Spirit. Until finally he is ready to put his masterpiece on display.

But wait! We have not yet exhausted the riches of this wonderful passage and its teaching. It is found in the phrase with which we began: We are his workmanship. Here it is in the subtlety of the grammar. We (plural) are his poem (singular). God is at work in each of us individually. Each one of us is a trophy of God’s grace and a demonstration of his kindness, love and mercy as he transforms us into his image. But there is an even more marvelous truth. It is the truth of the Church of Jesus Christ. That we, corporately, the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ; we are his workmanship, his poem, the ultimate expression of the Master’s work. This is God at work in his Church. His Church universal. But also his church local – his church right here at ECC. We are his workmanship as God works in us both individually and corporately to display his character and his attributes in his mercy and grace toward us, but also in his transforming work in us.

Until one day, the great work is complete, and he will take the Church in his hands. And he will place the Church on display before the watching universe. He will say: “Look. I made this. It is my masterpiece. It is my ultimate act of self-expression. And I am proud of it!”