SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, JUNE 14, 2015, THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We start the long green season of ordinary time in the Gospel of Mark this year - Remember: Shortest, probably earliest, most streamlined of the gospels. The action is so condensed that it takes just 14 verses to cover the first 30 or so years of Jesus’ life and get to his public ministry. And right at the beginning of that ministry, the theme of Jesus’ life and message is already clear: “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.’” (Mark 1.14-15)
The kingdom of God - an almost universal dream of first-century Jews, a longing for national restoration, the overthrow of Rome, a theocratic renaissance with Yahweh ruling his people from the Temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus comes on the scene saying “It’s time - the kingdom of God is here.” But the kingdom Jesus described wasn’t what they were waiting for; it wasn’t what anyone expected. And today I want to get us picnicking asap, but first let’s look at kingdom life under two headings: (1) Rest in the kingdom; and (2) Revelation of the kingdom.
First, Rest in the Kingdom:
[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” (Mark 4.26-28)
Both the parables we read today - the Parable of the Seed Growing and the Parable of the Mustard Seed - both would sound repetitive if we were reading straight through Mark’s gospel because both are drawing out and extending the Parable of the Sower from back at the beginning of chapter 4. Remember that story? A sower went out to sow, and some seed fell along the path, some on rocky soil, some among thorns, some on good soil? Jesus explained it to his guys later - if the seed was the word, their job was to plant it. But all the commentaries point out how disheartening that charge could’ve been to the disciples because only one factor determined if the seed would ever grow - their skills at planting didn’t matter; how hard they worked - didn’t matter. In fact, only one thing mattered: soil quality. So one commentary asked: “If the condition of the ground is so significant, what chance have they?” How would they ever know they were doing it right? How were they supposed to accomplish anything?
I can sympathize - this time of year Fr. Warren and Deacon Daphne and I always take some time away to reflect on the year we just finished and plan for the year ahead. The temptation is always to think “the success of our ministry at the Advent depends on us - how skilled are we at structuring our programs, how tight are our lesson plans, how good can our sermons be, how can we do more justice ministry, more evangelism, how can we allocate financial and human capital to ensure maximum fruit yield?” Or to use kingdom language: How can we bring the kingdom of God to Beacon Hill and Boston?
Jesus’ parable is a standing rebuke to that kind of thinking. All around the disciples were people trying to bring in the kingdom of God all over the place through all kinds of things - zealots tried to force it through fomenting revolution; the Pharisees tried to midwife the kingdom through meticulously keeping the law. Jesus says “It’s not like that at all!” Just look at the farmer in the parable - all he does is plant, then while he sleeps and rises the crops start to come in, and he doesn’t even know how it happens! The harvest just grows, and the clue is in the word we translate “all by itself” - αυτοματη in Greek.
“Automatic.” There’s a hidden power in the process of gestation — where do the crops come from? Who knows? They just grow!
You know, the surprising thing is - when we finally get that, when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kingdom doesn’t come from our hard work, that there’s no guaranteed technique - we can rest! The pressure’s off - so go have a picnic. God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on cleverly devised strategies - God brings his kingdom in his way and in his time. It’s not up to us. So rest.
But (there’s always a but), there’s a flip-side - Point 2 is Revelation of the Kingdom: It may sound like the opposite of point one, but one reason the church exists is to reveal the kingdom to the world!
I’m starting to realize that one of the challenges to a pastor’s self-esteem is when all his classmates start publishing books. It’s all I can do to make sure the lights stay on around here, and my friends are writing a book a year. And what really sucks is that some of them are good! One of my classmates wrote:
The kingdom of God is indeed much more than - and different from - the church . . . . However, it’s also true that like your rearview mirror says, these two things - the church and the kingdom - are actually “closer than they appear." It’s the church - this ragtag bunch of argumentative, self-centered, struggling- for-holiness but glorious forgiven sinners . . . that acts as a sort of embassy for the government of [Christ the] King. [The church] is an outpost of the kingdom of God surrounded by the kingdom of darkness. And just as the embassy of a nation is meant, at least in part, to showcase the life of that nation to the surrounded people, so the church is meant to manifest the life of the kingdom of God to the world around it.
Jesus says “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” and he points at us, the church. We’re an “outpost of the kingdom” in enemy territory.
Or let’s use another metaphor - Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk to people who don’t know Eddie Izzard. Know him? He’s a British comedian, and in one of his standup routines he talks about how Britain colonized a lot of the known world. He said:
We stole countries with the cunning use of flags. Just sail around the world and stick a flag in. “I claim India for Britain!” They’re going “You can’t claim us, we live here! Five hundred million of us!” “Well - do you have a flag?”
Planting a flag - that’s a symbol; a symbol of conquest, a symbol that this territory has been taken by another king - and the church is called to plant a flag in the world and announce Jesus is the true king here. The secret power of gestation that God uses to bring the kingdom into a world in rebellion is us, you and me - If you let him, God will put inside you a heart that will love enemies, forgive trespasses, serve broken, hurting people, and when he does that you will be a revelation of what the kingdom of God looks like.
One last point - From the second of today’s two parables:
Jesus said [the kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the largest plant in the garden. (Mark 4.30-32)
In Mark for Everyone, N. T. Wright says:
Don’t worry, Jesus is saying. Remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that [the smallest beginning - loving one enemy, forgiving one slight, serving one wounded person] is the start of God’s intended kingdom - the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world.
That’s the power and the promise of these parables - they let us rest from the need to bring God’s kingdom in through our own power, they set us free for God to slowly begin to reveal the kingdom in us, and they promise that when God’s work begins in us, even in the smallest way imaginable, he won’t stop until it becomes larger than anything the world has ever seen.
1) Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992): 101.
2) Kevin DeYoung, and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?” Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011): 126-27.
3) Quote found at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/239641-we-stole-countries-with-the-cunning-use-of- flags (last visited 13 June 2015).
4) N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2001): 50.