June 13, 2021 Third Sunday After Pentecost The text is Mark 4: 26-34.
26[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I tend to feel somewhat excluded by the last two verses from Mark this morning. Jesus has been teaching a large crowd by the seaside and Mark tells us that he has been speaking to them only in parables. But also, that Jesus clarified everything he taught the crowds in private for his disciples. What I wouldn’t give to have been a recipient of this fully explained interpretation of Jesus’ mission and ministry, rather than having to grapple with the often-subtle, and always complex meanings of the parables Jesus taught through.
If we all were privy to the insight he shared with his disciples in private, there would be no need of Sunday School, Bible Study, or preachers to offer opinions as to the underlying meaning of Jesus’ allegorical stories.
On the other hand, I would likely be out of a job. So, I suppose we’ll all have to put ourselves in the place of the crowds and do our best to come to an understanding of the lessons Jesus wants us to comprehend. Why teach in parables in the first place? Why not just tell people what the coming kingdom of God will be like, rather than resorting to so many examples, metaphors, and allegories? I imagine it’s because the fulfillment of God’s reign will bring about an existence that is completely foreign to anything the world has ever before seen. Perhaps we mere mortals simply don’t possess the capacity to grasp the form the kingdom will take, mainly because we’re not able to perceive this new way of life through the divine eyes of God. Our human perception would be overwhelmed by the glory the kingdom represents. Yet, in all it’s anticipated glory Jesus makes use of common everyday items and situations to describe what the kingdom is “like”.
We recognize the many parables Jesus uses to describe the heavenly kingdom; they appear in the Scripture readings throughout the church year. Most should be familiar to us; “The Sower and the Seed”, “Weeds Growing Among the Wheat”, “The Precious Pearl in the Field”, “Yeast Leavening the Whole Batch of Flour”, “Nets Filled with Fish”, and others. And, also the two parables Jesus tells this morning; seed that grows on its own and the parable of the mustard seed. We’ll get to these two in a moment; but did you notice that all of them center on comparing the coming glorious kingdom of God to the vocations of the common people of the time; farmers, bakers, fishermen? Even if we’re not to be graced with the inside information Jesus gave to the disciples in private, the allegories are presented in ways that make it relatively easy for us, as well as the first century crowds to comprehend. But, since I’m not a farmer, baker, or fisherman, I still have to delve a bit more deeply into the allegory to gain a clearer vision of the image of the kingdom Jesus is portraying for us, in 2021.
After all, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come”, we’re asking for God’s reign to be realized and we yearn to know what it will be “like”, as Jesus strives to make us understand. So, let’s look at today’s two farming parables and see if we can’t get a handle on the subtleties Jesus may have employed in using this pair of agricultural metaphors. In the first one Jesus is revealing less about what the kingdom will come to be like, but rather more about how it is to come about; what the process entails. Our ancient farming ancestors had a good deal of knowledge about agriculture. They knew which crops grew best in specific soil types, they knew that rain was needed in order that the harvest would flourish, when to plant and when to reap. But Jesus’ point is that the first-century farmer doesn’t really know what is happening with regard to the science of germination of the seed, how photosynthesis works, or the mechanisms that cause the transformation from seed to edible food. He is stating rather straight-forwardly that the farmer simply observes the growth and awaits the harvest time. Hence, the kingdom of God is coming and farmers 2,000 years ago didn’t really have to understand how; just that God wills it.
Now, what about us? Is the point of this parable applicable today, when there is so much greater understanding of the science of botany and agricultural processes? Absolutely! Jesus’ words once again are proven to be timeless. Science enables us to manipulate genes within plants to develop varieties that were unheard of previously. Insect resistance, increased yield, longer growing seasons; all these and more are commonplace today. But the fact remains that all that is being done is modification to what was essentially the same two millennia ago. The seed transforms to sprout, stalk, and full grain through the miraculous processes God has set in place. Even with all the science we employ, we are only able to participate in the miracle of the growth from seed to harvest; we might be able to enhance it, but the harvest will come whether we participate or not. In fact, all we could really do would be to hinder it in some way. This seems to be Jesus’ point with this parable; the kingdom is coming; we don’t decide how or when.
Our options are to observe and welcome it, attempt to hurry it along, or act in ways that might try to slow it down. No matter what, Jesus tells us that God will reap the harvest. The seeds will sprout by the will of God. The kingdom will come.
What does the second parable tell us about the coming of the reign of God and the kingdom God rules? Why did Jesus decide on a mustard seed as the metaphor for something exceedingly tiny, to represent something that will ultimately grow to be huge? In truth, mustard seeds aren’t really all that little; poppy seeds are nearly invisible when compared to mustard seeds. Perhaps Jesus chose this particular seed, and its propensity for expansion, not for its ability to produce large branches and to undergo rapid growth. In truth, the mustard plant was considered an invasive weed by ancient farmers, and this opinion is also held by present-day gardeners; one that if it takes hold in a field or a garden, will soon overrun it and choke out whatever was originally planted there. What results is the troublesome mustard weed and not what was expected to be there at the harvest. The crowd hearing this parable would have known that Jesus was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when he lavished such great praise on the lowly mustard plant. If his intent was to describe the immenseness of the kingdom Jesus would have used a more appropriate symbol; why not the mighty cedar tree so exalted by the prophet Ezekiel from the first reading this morning? Why did Jesus instead choose the example of a rather exasperating shrub? Because, it’s not the size Jesus wants the crowd, and us to grasp, it’s the persistence, tenacity, and steadfastness of God’s purpose to establish the kingdom that is at the center of the mustard seed parable. The seed of the Kingdom of God has been planted; and it will sprout and will spread to overtake and overcome the status quo of the current world. God’s reign is described with the image of God’s glory as an ever expanding, widening, overflowing envelope of love, mercy, and grace covering God’s people.
Alas, we don’t have access to a private tutoring session with Jesus to help us understand God’s will for us. We’ll just have to do our best to acknowledge and accept the mystery of the kingdom; the one to come and the one already here.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are blessed with the presence of God in our lives, to allow us a glimpse into God’s will. While we might not have an all-access pass to know all that God has planned, we do have the Word in Christ Jesus to assure us that the seeds of the kingdom have been planted in fertile soil; the germination has begun and the spouting of new life is ongoing. And, although we don’t know exactly how God causes the transformation from seed to harvest, we do our part to support the coming of the kingdom each time we answer God’s call to be workers in the fields. Each and every time we respond to the command to serve as God’s gardeners, helping the garden to flourish by caring for, encouraging, and protecting the blooms that are the people of God.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, we do not understand your ways. The miracles that you create daily in your world are beyond our comprehension. But we wait with anticipation for your garden to yield your kingdom. Help us to be good stewards of what you have made and to avoid acting in ways that would interfere with your plan for your coming reign. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come”. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.