We’ve all regretted planting at least a few plants in the garden. Perhaps it’s an overly aggressive ground cover. Or the mustard plants that drop thousands of seeds before you can pull them. Or what about the mint that nearly took over the entire neighborhood? For me, my most troublesome plant in recent years has been an extremely thorny variety of blackberry bramble. It demands a good bit of painful pruning every year to keep it from taking over. But what makes it especially difficult is that it produces beautiful blackberries. This ensures that I’ll never quite be able to bring myself to remove it completely. But I have come to peace with this plant, in part, because it has become sacramental to me. It is a means by which God brings me His wisdom and grace.

The Bible talks about thorns quite often. That shouldn’t be surprising. Palestine, the context for much of the Bible, is a land overrun by thorns and other prickly, stinging plants, including nettles and thistles. There are at least 70 common varieties of plants that would represent this general category. I doubt anyone in the Bible world escaped childhood without numerous pricks and stings. In an agricultural society, thorns and thistles were quick to overrun ploughed fields if left untended. A few years without cultivation would result in a field filled with thistles (seeds carried in on the wind), berry brambles and other thorny fruiting plants (seeds carried in by birds). To reopen such a field to cultivation after a year or two required a good burning and then constant weeding to deal with sprouting seeds. Thorns and thistles brought people a great deal of work.

In the Ancient Near East, cultivation was most restricted during times of war and social instability. What is the point of planting food when an enemy will sweep in and take it? So in bad and unstable times, many fields went abandoned. Thorns and thistles thrived during times of economic hardship, drought, and war. They reflected a world in chaos, where people were unable to keep a grip on their livelihood.

It would have struck home when the Scriptures mentioning thorns were read. Thorns show up early in the biblical narrative as part of the curse laid on Adam and Eve for their sin: “And to the man God said, ‘Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return’” (Genesis 3:17-18). Ever since, thorns have been a sign and reminder of the disruptive and painful presence of sin.

The prophet Isaiah, among others, took up the theme centuries later, tying thorns to judgment:  “In that day of judgment the lush vineyards . . . will become patches of briers and thorns. The entire land will become a vast expanse of briers and thorns, a hunting ground overrun by wildlife. No one will go to the fertile hillsides where the gardens once grew, for briers and thorns will cover them. Cattle, sheep, and goats will graze there” (Isaiah 7:23-25). Sin would bring judgment and lead to the failure of agriculture. The breakdown of cultivation and the conquest of thorns are consequences of sin.

Jesus continued the connection by telling a story about how our hearts are like soils, and that some of our hearts are like a soil quickly overgrown with thorns: “The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced” (Matthew 13:22).  The sin in our lives and in the world around us can certainly keep us from making spiritual progress.

As we reflect on the season of Lent and look toward Christ’s suffering on Good Friday, should it surprise us that He was wearing a crown of thorns as He died? As He hung on the cross to redeem all creation from the destructive power of sin, Jesus was wearing the painful sign of sin’s curse.

“Some of the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into their headquarters and called out the entire regiment. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, ‘Hail! King of the Jews!’ And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and struck him on the head with it. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified” (Matthew 27:27-31).

The soldiers who crowned Jesus likely considered it an act of clever mockery. But in the larger narrative of Scripture, we discover that Jesus was wearing  one of the most enduring symbols of our fallen, broken world. And by voluntarily wearing the curse of the Fall, Jesus overcame the Fall forever. He gives us hope for a new world and a new Kingdom.

The prophet Isaiah looked with hope for this Kingdom: “Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life. I will make an everlasting covenant with you. I will give you all the unfailing love I promised to David. . . . You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands! Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow. Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up. These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name; they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love” (Isaiah 55:12-13).

And at the very end of time, the healing work of Christ on the cross will bear its final fruit: “Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:1-3).

Crown of Thorns

So the thorns in my garden remind me of many truths, because they are a sign of the sin that has shattered our world: Thorns and sin cause suffering to all who come in contact with them. Thorns and sin create a great deal of hard work. Thorns and sin deplete productivity in the garden and Kingdom. Thorns and sin may need to be burned out for a new start. And thorns bring to mind the suffering of Christ on the cross, an act that in the end will set us free from all brokenness and suffering.

Garden Tip: Live dangerously—plant some thorns! (This is NOT a suggestion to plant sin in your life.) I suggest blackberries or raspberries so you get some reward for your suffering. Thorny varieties of climbing rose can be wonderful, too. Shrubs like barberry are also excellent for a prick or two! When you are pruning these thorny plants, take a little time to weave a crown of thorns to hang on your wall. As you weave it, you’re sure to get stuck a few times. And as you see it hanging there, remember the destructive power of sin and the pain that the Christ suffered on your behalf in order to set you and the entire cosmos free.

And remember with the apostle Paul that sometimes thorns aren’t all bad, whether a besetting sin or a troubling infirmity. Either is evidence of our broken world, but such thorns help to teach us humility and dependence on God. Paul wrote:  “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, . . . Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).


1 Comment

  1. February 18, 2012 at 8:57 am

    […] 1Thorns « Fiachra's Hollow SUBMIT […]

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