June 14, 2015 (You can view a video of this sermon here.)
A high school friend posted on Facebook the other day that wheat harvest has already begun down in southern Kansas. While our harvest up here in Minnesota might be a few weeks out yet, my friend’s comment reminds me that the cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting follows a predictable pattern. The steps in the cycle follow the same order, year after year.
Lots of variables can affect the final outcome of each year’s crop: weather conditions, seed quality, disease, pests. But the cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting is still the same cycle that’s been in place since God created plants. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the very familiar process of plant growth to teach some important lessons about the Kingdom of God.
Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus says, listen to the Word of the Lord as given to us in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 4, beginning at verse 26. Jesus is already talking:
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “”With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)
Jesus told lots and lots of parables. These stories that drew on familiar, everyday events and circumstances were his primary teaching tool. On the surface, a parable might seem to be the same as a fable – a story that has a moral, like “slow and steady wins the race,” in The Tortoise and the Hare. But they aren’t exactly the same thing.
A fable offers basic instruction on getting along in life. It’s great for giving advice or teaching some “moral or practical lesson.” But a parable offers a challenge to the way we think things ought to be. “A parable … is intended to … interrupt what you thought you knew and not just teach you something but actually to confront you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.” (David Lose). Let’s take a minute to see how these stories do just that.
In a parable, concrete elements often represent less concrete ideas, and our tendency, as we try to understand the message, is to make every element represent something else. Trying to assign a specific meaning to each piece of the puzzle can be exhausting, and can also lead us down the wrong path.
Instead of going through the parable with a microscope, we stand a better chance of seeing the message clearly when we step back and take a broader view, looking at the way this particular story fits into the bigger picture. We can better hear these two short parables about seeds if we keep them in the context of all of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God.
So let’s take a look at the broader view of Mark 4 for just a moment, and see how the parables we find here might be connected to one another. The parables about seeds follow the more elaborate Parable of the Sower that opens chapter four. Sandwiched in between Sower and Seeds is another brief parable about a lamp on a stand, and bracketing all of these parables is a refrain that we hear throughout Jesus’ teaching: Let those who have ears, hear.
Jesus draws his listeners back to the prophet Isaiah when he tells them, “the secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside, everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding.” (Isaiah 6:9)
So what is this secret of the Kingdom that Jesus tries to share with his disciples, and also with us? And how does this set of parables challenge our assumptions about the Kingdom of God? Let’s go back to the beginning of chapter four.
In the parable of the Sower, the focus is on all the obstacles to growth that a seed might face: drought, hard ground, birds, weeds. Yet the seed that falls on fertile soil bears fruit, and the harvest is exponentially greater than anyone might expect it to be. Jesus tells his disciples that the seed being sown in this story is the Word of God, and the fruit it bears depends upon the quality of the soil, or the condition of the hearts, that receive that Word.
The parable of the Lamp follows, and Jesus uses this parable to introduce the truth that “Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (Mark 4:22).
Now we come to the parable of the seed, growing by itself, with no help from the farmer who plants and harvests it. Here’s where we run into Mark’s favorite word, “immediately,” as he describes the urgency required to harvest the grain when it is ripe. But the focus of this parable is really on how the seed grows by itself, without much help from the farmer who plants and harvests it. Growth is natural, and the farmer anticipates that every seed planted in the ground will grow. Growing is what seeds are designed to do. And Jesus says that’s what the Kingdom of God is like. It just grows. This growth from seed to plant is inevitable.
And we don’t control the process – God does.
We have to remember that the whole DNA of the fully-grown plant is already present within the seed. The mighty oak is inside the tiny acorn. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus announces, “The Kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21).” Just as the Kingdom of God is growing around us – and sometimes it seems to be growing imperceptibly – so the Kingdom of God is growing inside us.
How is the kingdom of God growing within you?
I’ve seen the Kingdom of God at work here, sometimes changing us so slowly that we don’t really notice, until we step back and take a look at where we are now, compared to where we’ve been. I’ve seen attitudes shift from worrying about maintaining an institution to thinking about how God wants to use us on this corner of Center and Broadway. I’ve seen us welcome the noise of children, and create space for them to grow up among us, learning how to be church from our example. I’ve seen people show up for Bible study, with a real hunger to know the Word of God. More of us are showing up to serve in ways we haven’t before. The Kingdom of God is growing in us.
How do you see the kingdom of God growing around you?
We’ve moved, almost imperceptibly, from a congregation that protects its own turf to a congregation that opens all its doors. We’ve started looking at outreach as something that doesn’t just happen in Mankato a couple of times a year, but meets the needs we see at our doorstep right here in New Ulm. We’ve begun to talk about missions as work we do with our own hands, instead of writing a check to pay for someone else to do the work. We used to look for ways to pinch pennies, and now we look for ways we can be generous. Seeds of the Kingdom have been planted in us, buried in the ground where we can’t see them sprout and develop, but we know that life is happening, that good fruit is developing from those seeds.
So Jesus gives us another parable, about a mustard seed. It’s an illustration of how the kingdom of God grows exponentially from tiny beginnings to unexplainable size. Now the focus is on the process of healthy, inevitable, unstoppable growth, from something small to something huge.
But the kind of seed Jesus chooses as his example is pretty interesting. Because mustard is a weed in the middle East. If you Google “how to grow mustard” you’ll find instructions for planting and harvesting the leaves and stalks. You’ll also find this warning: harvest before the plant goes to seed, because the seeds scatter everywhere, and you will soon have an uncontrollable crop of mustard plants all over the place.
When I met with Eric and Alyssa to plan for baby Jack’s baptism, Alyssa mentioned that she wanted to have Jack baptized before he outgrew the gown he’s wearing today. That’s the thing about babies. They grow like weeds. Weeds grow fast, and they often grow big. You can’t stop a baby’s growth, any more than you can prevent a ripe mustard plant from spreading its seeds everywhere.
What is this saying to us about the Kingdom of God? Do we have ears to listen?
The thing about parables, remember, is that they challenge us with truths that we might find uncomfortable. For example, if your idea of God’s Kingdom is pie in the sky, angels playing harps while resting on puffy clouds, you might not like the picture Jesus draws of the Kingdom of God. If you think of the Kingdom of God as something that will happen at the end of time, but has no connection to life right now, so you can go on living as you please, what I’m about to tell you might make you squirm a bit.
Jesus says the Kingdom is now. It is already in you. And it’s spreading like weeds. When the crop is ripe, you’d better have your sickle ready, because the harvest will happen immediately.
Klyne Snodgrass has spent a lifetime studying the parables of Jesus. In his book, Stories with Intent, he writes, “Like the tiny mustard seed which grows to a large plant, so the kingdom is present, even if hidden, unnoticed, or ignored … The kingdom, which has already begun with Jesus, does not come with a glorious band and the defeat of Rome; rather, it comes unexpectedly, almost unnoticed. But all that is necessary is already there, and the end is present in the beginning.” (Snodgrass, 225)
This idea of the Kingdom being already present in the person of Jesus was a bit much for the Jews of his day to accept. Jesus had to use parables to proclaim the good news that, by his very presence in the world, the kingdom of God was already here. That was hard for Jesus’ listeners to hear, and if we’re honest, it’s hard for us to hear, too.
You see, we are really no better off than those early disciples, who were confused by the difference between what Jesus was saying and what they thought they already knew. They thought Messiah was going to wage a military victory over Rome, and then God’s Kingdom would come. They weren’t prepared for Jesus, their friend and teacher, to tell them that the revolution they were looking for wasn’t about military power.
It was about a change of heart.
We aren’t much different. We want to have things our way, keeping God in a tidy corner of our lives, where we can take him out and show him off once in a while, as it suits us. Instead of ordering our lives around Christ, we order our lives around our work, or our favorite sports, or our kids’ activities, and if there’s time left over in our busy lives, we might show up at church, or say a quick prayer.
And don’t we have our own ideas about the way God ought to be running things? Don’t we wonder where God is when disaster strikes, or corruption seems to be taking over the world? When we pray, aren’t we sometimes guilty of treating God like a short-order cook, telling God how we want our eggs? Do you ever catch yourself telling God how to answer your prayers? And all the time, God has something different in mind for you, something that, if you had ears to hear, would amaze you.
Why is it so hard for us to hear? What hardens our hearts to the message God has for us?
Jesus “spoke the Word to them as much as they were able to hear” using parables to uncover the hidden truths of the Kingdom. While the stories themselves may be about the inevitable spread of God’s kingdom that has already begun, I think these final verses bring us to the meat of Mark’s message: just how much good news of God’s kingdom are we able to hear? And once we have heard the news, what are we willing to do about it?
Maybe we don’t want to hear the good news because we know it means we will have to change. Being part of the Kingdom means giving up control, and we like being in control – or at least thinking we have control. Maybe our ears can’t hear because our hearts have been hardened by our own self-centeredness, and we don’t want to soften our hearts or open our ears to the possibility of growth, because growth means change.
Maybe we’re like those early disciples: we think the Kingdom of God needs to be big, grand, amazing, … and this picture of something tiny and insignificant doesn’t fit our idea of what the Kingdom must look like. We’re looking for a giant sequoia, but Jesus shows us God’s power in a tiny, no-account weed seed.
It’s not the way we expect God to work, but God often chooses the unexpected, the unimpressive, even the nuisance of a weed, and while nobody’s looking it grows with a power beyond our understanding.
And when it is ripe, harvest happens quickly. Farmers know this. There is a short window of opportunity to get in the harvest while the grain is at its peak, so every able-bodied person works from before sunrise to well after sunset, bringing in the harvest.
How is the kingdom of God ripening among us? And where is your sickle?
When Jesus talked about sending a sickle into the grain, he could have been referring to the time when all things will be complete, and God’s final judgment comes. But remember that this parable of the Growing Seed comes to us in the context of the Parables of the Sower, the Lamp, and the Mustard Seed. This harvest is not just about judgment. It is also about becoming fully formed as a new creation in the Kingdom. Watching that seed grow into a fully ripe plant isn’t a passive thing. There is work for us to do: getting the seed planted, growing in Christ, and helping with the harvest when the grain is ready.
What does this look like? It may be imperceptible at first. Every time you choose love instead of anger, every time you choose generosity instead of greed, every time you work for another’s good instead of your own, you are participating in the Kingdom of God. Every time you engage in the practices of Bible study, prayer, and service, you are participating in the Kingdom of God. Every time you set aside your own agenda and ask God in all humility to show you his agenda, you are becoming more and more like Christ. And as you grow into Christ-likeness, the Kingdom of God is advancing. It is growing, and it will not be stopped.
Let everyone who has ears, hear. No matter how small or insignificant its beginnings may seem to you, the Kingdom of God is here. It is growing in you, and around you. Grab your sickle. Get ready for the harvest.