Mark 4: 26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” 30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” 33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
I hope you all are up for one more farm and garden-related sermon. I’m simply following the series of Jesus’ teachings in Mark chapter 4, in which we find Jesus using a lot of agricultural images. This one will have a pretty strong peace message. But instead of lifting out Jesus’ questions to us, like I’ve done the last two weeks, I’ll focus on our most likely questions of Jesus.
Speaking of questions: On a brick wall in some major American city was seen the following graffiti: “Jesus is the Answer.” A few days after it appeared, someone spray-painted underneath it, “So, what’s the question?” How would you answer that question? I have an idea, but I’ll save it for later, so that this sermon might hopefully make some sense of it.
But here are some questions that have long pestered me whenever I have read today’s Gospel passage. They’re all reprinted in your bulletin. One of them is, Why would Jesus tell a parable like this? And about this? After all, Jesus is addressing the most common, basic question in the back of all our minds, and at the source of so many of our labors. This about that for which people build cities and empires and corporations; its even what sends soldiers marching to war, to kill and to die. So, wouldn’t Jesus want to lay it all out clearly, in some quick, catchy turn of phrase, instead of hiding it inside some symbolic story about sleeping farmers and birds in the bushes?
The second question is, “What’s with the birds in verse 32? Are they just part of a throwaway line, a minor detail that only tells us how big a bush gets? The third question is, What’s our part in whatever it is God is doing that is so big and important? On one hand you could read this parable to mean that God is doing everything—growth happens by itself, even while we’re sleeping, and still, even the most renowned plant geneticists have not entirely figured out why. So maybe we don’t have to do anything at all? And lastly, so What IS the question, to which Jesus is the answer?
Now for that first question, Why would Jesus tell a parable like this? especially when it addresses the most basic, fundamental question of existence, the one that is at the back of our minds motivating a lot of what we do even when we’re not aware of it. That nagging, persistent, all-important question is: Do I and my life mean anything more than just trying to live comfortably until I die? Or to put it another way, Will I make any contribution to the world that matters, and which endures any more than might footsteps on the beach at low tide? Can I?
Yes we can, and yes we must. But according to Jesus, our lives and our labors will have positive, enduring impact inasmuch as they are in line with what God is doing in the world. For God, that is nothing less than growing his kingdom in this world, until the day when it suddenly stands revealed to all, like a city coming down from heaven to earth, the New Jerusalem. Until then, the work of God in this world is rather subtle and surprising, like the growth of plants in your field or your garden. One reason, then, that Jesus answers this most fundamental of all questions with a symbolic story taken from farming, is so that we might understand what God is up to in the world—growing his kingdom—and how he is doing it—subtly, gently, patiently and peacefully, the way gardens and wheat fields grow, and by God’s own power. But we’ll get that only if we have ears to hear, that is, ears that want to hear.
But not everyone has ears that want to hear this message. Which is another reason why Jesus gave us the most important news in the world in such a mysterious, symbolic wrapper: because he wanted some people not to understand the answer, namely, people who would not like Jesus’ answer, and who, when they finally got it, would kill him for it. There would come a time to die for this message, but not this early in his ministry.
The hostile people I’m thinking about here would be both the Romans and their Jewish allies, plus their rebel enemies, the Jewish Zealots. The Romans already thought they had their son of God in the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. That’s what you could read about him on the Roman coins: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Gods.” And they thought they already had their kingdom of God—Caesar’s kingdom, coming to a neighborhood near you by the force of Caesar’s arms and Caesar’s armies, and kept there, by that same force. Unlike the peaceful, mysterious growth of plants, they force their kingdom of God grow by their own military might and muscle.
On the other hand, the anti-Roman rebels were also hard at work trying to provoke the promised kingdom of God that they read about in their Bibles by the same means: with their arms and their armies. Between them and their Roman enemies they had different gods, but the same means and the same ends. And both sides are watching this Jesus and his movement, to see if he is either a threat to them or a potential ally.
So any spies from the Roman camp, and that of their friends, like King Herod, or from the rebel camp for that matter, would come back from this lakeside teach-in and say, “They don’t seem to be gathering weapons; mostly their rabbi seems to be talking about farming. Pretty poor farming if you ask me; he even advocates wasting good seed on the road. Maybe he should stick to Bible teaching.”
But when they finally get the idea that God is making his own peaceable kingdom grow, and by peaceful means, with no help from them, that would be ridiculous, offensive, even infuriating to both the Roman and the rebel camp, as it is to many people in our own time today. That makes this peaceable kingdom vision of Jesus either ludicrous, or more revolutionary than any armed revolution. You choose.
The case against Jesus would be all the more damning, in their eyes, if ever they caught on to this business of the birds, in verse 32. Which brings up the second question, What’s with the birds in verse 32? “[The mustard plant] grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
In effect, Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is for the birds. But in a good way. Now I’m sure that Jesus loves the literal birds that his Heavenly Father created at least as much as any Audubon Society birdwatcher does. But the birds that Jesus is talking about today are symbolic birds. He got the symbol from the prophet Ezekiel.
Several times Ezekiel tells parables about kings and kingdoms that grow from small plants or cuttings, and which grow large enough for birds to roost in. In Chapter 17, God even says: “I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.”
In that passage, God is promising to establish a kingdom throughout the world, from the tiny, unarmed, peaceful, exiled remnant of Judah, after he brings them back from Babylon. It will start small and vulnerable, but will become a giant tree, sheltering birds roosting in its branches. Birds roosting on branches are an ancient symbol of peace, of justice and security, as opposed to birds suddenly flying away in a big flock. Those birds would be endangered and frightened. Birds in the branchesreinforce the idea of how peaceable this kingdom is. The birds mean people, or other nations, or both, which find peace and security in God’s king, and in God’s kingdom. So if we didn’t catch it from the peaceful farming and gardening symbols in this parable, these birds in the branches seal the deal: the kingdom of God is coming into the world to establish peace, and by peaceful means. Those with ears to hear would see in this birds-in-the-branches image that Ezekiel’s prophecy is now coming to fulfillment with Jesus.
And now for the third question: now that the time for this Peaceable kingdom for the birds has come, What’s Our Part in the kingdom of God farming operation? Or in Ezekiel’s peaceful kingdom of God bird refuge? Especially since all the growth is given by God? The answers are two-fold: 1) keep sowing seeds; 2) keep trusting God to provide the growth.
As for the first part: keep planting, keep sowing seed–We plant seeds of God’s kingdom by way of gospel words and gospel works. Now if more people in both the church and the world understood that, we might have a better witness. Because some people, when they find out that we’re Christian, don’t they sometimes get rather stand-offish, on a rare occasion, even quite cold and disrespectful? Or am I the only the one who has noticed the eyes roll whenever you mention to some people words like “church” or “God?” Now, I know what people are thinking: Are you going to try and convert me? they’re wondering. Which is the flip side of the coin from: Are you going to judge me and condemn me? The same question comes up about our engagement with Muslims. Are we trying to convert them?
In the spirit of today’s parables, my answer is No. We are neither responsible to convert anyone else, nor are we even capable of it. We are only responsible for our own conversion to Christ, and speaking personally, my conversion is still a work in progress, and will be until I die. Our own ongoing, lifelong conversion is the only one over which we have any power. Or responsibility. Instead, we’re just to be sowing gospel seed wherever we can by good news words and good news works. We’re not about collecting spiritual scalps or numerical notches of conversions. We’re only planting gospel seeds, trying to keep up with our spiritual enemy who is more busy than we are planting spiritual weeds.
Which brings up the second part of our responsibility: For such a task, for the long haul, we need faith, the faith that God will grow his kingdom from all the seeds we plant. Some fruit we will never see. Some we may have to wait a long time to see, if ever. Like the Lutheran Catechism class teacher who had a particularly disruptive young man among his 12-year-old students. This particular student was lipping off all the time, more interested in being the class clown and the center of attention than he in learning anything and preparing for confirmation.
After several sessions enduring his antics and theatrics, the Catechism instructor said to him, “Son, I am not forcing you to stay in this class if you don’t really want to be here. I’m sure you can find a more appreciative audience for your comic genius elsewhere, and you’re free to go look for them now if you wish.”
“I do,” said the young man. “Good bye and good riddance.” With that, he walked out.
“But remember,” said the teacher as the boy left, “that I shall be praying for you every day, that you might come to appreciate and desire what we are learning here.”
Some ten or fifteen years later, that same teacher received a phone call that began with this question: “Are you still praying for me, Teach?”
“If this is who I think it is, I haven’t missed many a day,” he replied. And with that began a new repeat one-on-one catechism class with a willing, though older, student.
With all the time that it took those seeds to germinate and grow, it also took trust for that teacher to keep planting good news words and works over the years, and to keep watering the ground with his prayers. The growth of God’s kingdom is a partnership, in effect. We don’t make anything in God’s kingdom grow; God does. But God won’t cause anything to grow that we have not planted. And one day, as a result of that partnership, the harvest will have grown to the point where the invisible grain elevators of heaven will be full to the bursting point and open up, so that all the harvest of all our good words and good works will spill forth and cover the earth “as the waters cover the sea.”
Which leads me back to the first question: If Jesus is the answer, what is the question? First of all, I don’t go around spray-painting other people’s walls. But if I made an exception in this case, I would simply have spray-painted the name, Jesus. Jesus is God’s question, posed to us, probing us, confronting us, mystifying us at times with parables like this, with things we cannot learn until we let down our guard, even disturbing us with this implied question: All the seeds you are sowing in this life, and the kinds of things you’re building and laboring for, How’s that working for you? The things in which you find meaning and value, are they going to endure and mean anything more in eternity than footprints in the beach at low tide? As you go about amassing security, riches and reputations, as you risk life and limb to build your own kingdom, or someone else’s, What are you going to do about this Galilean carpenter who is so unimpressed by all that, and who instead wants us to see the meaning in the tiniest of seeds and birds in the bushes? The more you catch on to what he’s saying, will you be offended or excited, hostile or hopeful, infuriated or enthusiastic?
Not only is Jesus posing us some very penetrating questions, not only do we have questions of Jesus, Jesus IS the question which God is posing to us. Our answer has to do with whether or not we can catch the message in the tiniest of seeds, and the birds in the branches. His kingdom, after all, is for the birds.