Mark 4: 21 He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? 22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”
24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
Because he neglected to finish something that he had started, Treehorn found that he was shrinking. Because he got distracted for too long, took his eye off the ball, didn’t pay attention, and didn’t follow through, Treehorn woke up one morning to find that he had to jump down out of bed, a surprising, scary distance to the floor. Not because the bed was getting bigger, but because he was getting smaller.
Has anyone here read Treehorn’s story in the old classic children’s picture book, The Shrinking of Treehorn? I’d put Treehorn at about 8 or 9 years of age, just when parents should have to buy new shoes and new clothes for a growing young boy at least once that year. But instead of growing, Treehorn is definitely shrinking.
The adults around him of course wonder why. His parents ask each other, “Do you think he’s doing it to get attention?” They tell Treehorn, “You can shrink all you like; just don’t do it at the dinner table.” When his teacher finally notices him, she says, “Kindergarten is down the hall, little boy.” Treehorn explains to her “I’m Treehorn, and I’m shrinking,” but all she can say is, “Well! There’ll be no shrinking in my class.” And when Treehorn tries to explain to the school principal why he’s jumping up and down to reach the water cooler, the principal says, “Shirking? There’ll be no shirking in my school.”
You can imagine what a crisis shrinking would be for any child. They often feel so small as it is. As to why Treehorn is shrinking, I’ll tell us later. But to all the children listening, let me explain; this is just a story. Its not for real. You’re in no danger of shrinking like Treehorn did. I can assure you: one day you won’t have to stand up on tiptoes to drink from the water fountain or turn on the tap to wash your hands. You’ll be reaching down or even bending over.
But first I want to cut to the chase and get to the question that Jesus is putting to us in today’s Gospel text. Its like the one Treehorn would have asked himself: Am I growing or am I shrinking? Or to put it in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel text, Are we gaining or are we losing something important? Because those are our only two options. Is more being added to my faith, my character, my life of discipleship, my most valued relationships, or is the little I have slipping away? Its one or the other. The answer depends on whether or not we too keep paying attention, if we follow through on what we started, or if we let ourselves get too distracted, for too long.
Now it wasn’t easy getting that one question out of today’s complex passage. When we looked at today’s Gospel passage over the Sermon Roundtable Breakfast last Tuesday, we saw we could have gone in at least four other directions. First, in verse 21, Jesus asks, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?” just like elsewhere in the Gospels, in the Sermon on the Mount. So is this passage about our witness to the world?
Then in verses 22 and 23 we read, “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” So, all of a sudden, we were back in 3rd Grade Sunday School singing, “So, be careful little eyes what you see…..” or “So be careful little mouth what you say……Cuz your Father up above/ is looking down with tender love, so be careful little mouth what you say.” Because all our secrets are known to God, and will be revealed.That sounds like a call to integrity and transparency.
Then in verse 24 we’re on to “Consider carefully what you hear,” because “with the measure that you use it will be measured unto you—and even more,” words that elsewhere Jesus applies to generosity. In the measure that you give, so shall you receive. And in another passage, he applies them to judgment. In the ways that you judge others, so shall you be judged. And then we get to verse 25: “To him who has shall be given more; to him who has not, even the little he has shall be taken.” That poses the question, Are we accumulating treasures in the kingdom of God, or are we losing them? And there, within the space of five verses, we have five possible sermons. We got dizzy just thinking about it.
So what ties all these ideas together? Or did Mark just need a space to throw some random, left-over words of Jesus that he didn’t have any other place to put?
Well, as long as we confuse these verses of Mark 4 with the other times that Jesus has talked about secrets and measures and judging and candles under bushel baskets, and generosity, this will be a confusing passage. But when we connect them to what went before and what comes after in this very chapter of Mark’s Gospel, they gel together.
For these words and images all come on the heels of Jesus’ story about the Sower who scattered seeds everywhere. Seed fell on the roadside, the briar patch, the stone field, as well as on good soil. If you heard last week’s message, hopefully you remember that the Sower is God, and that the story reveals the secrets of what God is up to in this world. He’s sowing seeds of grace and gospel, everywhere, including in places and among people who might not have ears to hear and understand them, places where they will grow and bear fruit, and places where they will disappear.
So instead of applying all these different images to ourselves, like Jesus does in other places, let’s apply them in this context to God, the sower of grace and gospel. God is bringing a lamp out from under a bushel and shining light into the world. It is God who is revealing what was hidden beforehand.
Now, since this is a time for the unveiling of divine secrets, then what’s our responsibility? What does Jesus want of us? To pay attention. Verse 24: “Take heed how you hear.” That is, “Heads up! Listen up good. For with the measure of attention we give to what we hear, the more will be measured out to us, to hear even more. The more we hear and understand and apply what we hear, the more we will be given to hear and understand and apply.” Its called growth. That’s how we grow.
But if we tune out, if we take our eye off the ball, if we don’t follow through on what we began, like Treehorn neglected to do, then we’ll go backwards. We’ll ungrow; or shrink. In the things of God, I mean.
In the kingdom of God then, as disciples of Jesus, we’re either growing or shrinking, gaining or draining away. There’s no comfortable, static, safe middle ground at which we might arrive and then rest comfortably forever on our laurels, much as we might like to. For something there is about human nature that wants and seeks a comfortable, predictable and familiar stasis, a static, unchanging condition at which we arrive, and which requires no more work, thought or care to maintain.
I call it the Grandma’s-China-hutch approach to life. Some of us might have, or had, Grandmothers who had a diningroom hutch for their very special chinaware plates, saucers and cups, displayed neatly and carefully behind glass doors, visible all year round, but taken out only for a very few special occasions. Maybe we do, too. After all, chinaware is beautiful and fragile stuff. Naturally we want to protect it. And yet we want to be able to see and admire it, too. Something there is about human nature that wants life to be like that china hutch. Once everything is in its rightful place, let nothing move nor change, never, ever, ever, at all.
But real life is hard on chinaware and Grandma’s china hutch. Things have ways of breaking, changing and moving out of their assigned places. We no more get something the way we like it, and we have to make sense of it all again. There’s no holding onto yesterday’s perfection. Same with the kingdom of God; we’re either gaining or losing, never just keeping time or holding our place. We’ll never have arrived; we’re either growing or shrinking.
And if that sounds unfair, I can only say that what is true in the kingdom of God is also true for so many other things. Athletes or body builders never get to the place where they can say, “I’ve hit the ideal weight and strength now; I don’t need to exercise nor watch my diet anymore.” Musicians never get to the point where they can say, “I’m so good I don’t need to practice anymore.” Just to stay in place, they have to keep pushing their limits. Or pity the poor woman who asked her husband, “Do you love me?” and he replied, “I told you I did thirty years ago, don’t you remember?” Pity him, too, until he finally gets it; that all our most meaningful things and relationships require constant, daily work and attention to keep them growing and fresh. Or they’ll die on the vine.
But that work and attention-giving is actually where the joy is. Whenever life starts forcing change and adaptation on us, can we embrace the God-given opportunities for joy and growth in them? Sure, not every change is wonderful nor desirable, like losing a loved one or getting a scary diagnosis. The normal human response to any significant change naturally contains some element of fear and grief. Even when its a good change. But whenever time takes away or changes things we value, can we trust that God is able to eventually give us something better? The God of redemption will, and does, but we have to look for the growth opportunities, and tend to them.
As we did when we came here today to pay attention to God and the gospel in worship. And whenever we fellowship with each other and serve each other in our homes, our ministries, commissions, and small groups. And as we have a church business meeting today to consider where we have been and where we are going. And so we are seeking to discern God’s vision and calling for us over the next five years. And so we reach out around the world and across the street, not only so that the kingdom of God might grow and the world be changed for the better, but so that we too might grow, that we too might keep changing for the better. And so I hope we give God time daily in prayer and study. Did I say yet that our only alternative to such growth is not resting in place, its sliding backwards? The only option to gaining is losing. Whatever it is we value most in life, we will have either grown it, or blown it.
And that’s what Treehorn learned, so that he could start growing again. In the children’s story book, Treehorn kept shrinking until he could walk underneath his bed. There, underneath his bed, he found a board game that he had pushed under there the night before he started shrinking. Halfway through the game he had lost interest and went on to something else, so that the pieces were still on the board exactly where he had left them. He got that board game in the mail for having sent in the required cereal box tops. It was called, “The Game to Grow On.”
Treehorn spun the spinner and moved his piece until he finished ”The Game to Grow On,” and won. With “The Game to Grow On” completed, he started growing again, like he should. Like every living, breathing thing, like every meaningful relationship, like every talent and virtue on God’s green earth and in God’s kingdom just naturally wants to do. And when we get to the point where our bodies stop growing and even start declining with age, our spirits and our souls and our relationships still want to grow. And they can. Because the God who gives the seed also gives the growth. That’s how God is, and that’s what God is doing in the world: making good things grow, like Christ’s disciples and discipleship. But only if we pay attention, keep our eye on the ball, and tend the soil of our souls and relationships, until the time of harvest has come.