June 17, 2018
Last week we talked about how Mark’s Gospel is apocalyptic – it shows us that dominant powers are not ultimate powers, but rather, that the power of God will ultimately dominate over everything. We talked about how that word “apocalypse” means to uncover, to pull back the current reality to reveal to us a different way that is of God, a way that Jesus will today call “the kingdom of God.” For Mark, this applies especially to his readers’ reality that Roman domination seems to be winning, but Jesus is saying, “No, they are not the winners. God’s kingdom will ultimately win.”
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus describes what that kingdom will look like, and he uses parables to do it. Anyone know what a parable is? It’s more than a story with a lesson, more than an analogy or allegory. It’s a story that places side-by-side two unrelated things to challenge our expectations and make us think more deeply about things we thought we knew. As one preacher writes, “Because [parables] call into question accepted ‘truths,’ they are almost always a bit subversive, challenging and even goading us to consider other possibilities in light of God’s promises.” So our first reading today presents an image of God’s kingdom that makes sense to us – majestic cedar trees – but the parables Jesus tells liken the kingdom of God to an ordinary seed with an ordinary crop, which we would not expect.
I also want to say a little something about that phrase, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom sounds like a place, right? In fact, what place do you usually think of? [Heaven.] But the Greek word there is more dynamic. It refers to something active, more like a reign or rule, not a static place. So, the kingdom of God is not a location, but a reality, in which God is the ruler, rather than earthly powers. And so, when we act as God would have us do, and treat people with the love of God, we are living in God’s reign or rule. Lutherans like to talk about the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” – it hasn’t fully come to be (we know this because of how much pain still exists in the world), but already we can see glimpses of it, when we see people living according to God’s rule. As we will see in our parables, this reign is not something we can bring about nor prevent, but we can participate in it, live in that “already,” and in that participation, we just might make God’s reign more visible. Let’s see what we can learn.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Well, I’ll go ahead and say it: the parable of the growing seed is pretty boring. I mean look at it: “A sower plants a seed, does nothing, and it grows. Then he harvests it.” What could possibly be more ordinary? What could something so mundane possibly have to reveal to us about the mysterious and longed for kingdom of God?
And then he follows it with this mustard seed parable, which is again, kind of boring. Mustard bushes are not the majestic cedars of Lebanon. They are ordinary, and they are invasive, by no means unique. They are useful, yes, with many medicinal qualities, but they are not very interesting. Another mundane parable.
Of course, this is the beauty of Jesus’ parables. He takes entirely ordinary things, things we can understand because we have experience with them, and uses them to point us toward the incredible work of God, showing us the power that even mundane things have to reveal God to us.
So what are these ordinary things showing us about living as citizens in the kingdom of God? How is the living Word of God speaking to this time and place through this parable? And, an important question for Mark, how might the earthly kingdom in which we live (the one Mark is trying to apocalyptically pull away) look different from the reign of God (the new kind of reality that we find)?
Let’s start with that last question, by considering Mark’s context. The earthly kingdom in which they were living was one of oppression and persecution, in which fear and despair was their daily diet, in which Rome was the dominant power, and they abused that power. And so into that context, Jesus says to them, “I know you long for something different, for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom to tear down all that causes your anguish. But the kingdom of God isn’t like a military power, come to overthrow. No, the kingdom of God is like this: like a seed that is planted and grows quietly, even without you realizing. It is growing in just the way God intended for it to grow, and nothing you do can make it grow any faster, nor any slower. But it is growing, trust me! And one day it will sprout – you’ll see just the tips of green come up from the dirt. You’ll see life there that wasn’t there the day before. It will keep growing, bigger and stronger. And this seed, that little seed that you didn’t even see growing all that time, suddenly it will bear fruit! And then you will know that it is time for the harvest, the time when all of God’s plans will become clear to you.”
What a word of hope that is! In Mark’s time, people were anxious for such a word of hope, that God’s kingdom could persist even through the abusive power and oppression they were witnessing. They needed to hear that God’s kingdom could not be stifled by human nature or error, nor could it be hastened, but rather, that it would come in the way and time that God chooses. They needed to hear that trusting God would not be in vain.
But Jesus doesn’t stop at that. He goes on then to describe what that kingdom, that different kind of rule is like: “Do you want to know more about the nature of the kingdom of God?” he asks. “Here’s how I would describe it. It’s like a mustard seed. Yeah, that tiny little seed that seems like nothing compared to all the trials and tribulations of this world. Yet, it grows and grows and becomes a great big shrub. I know, I know, the mustard bush may not be the most impressive bush to look at, but look at what it has to offer: healing! And beyond that, shelter and safety for the animals. Yes, even the birds, who I know can be pests – they will be welcomed into the big branches of the kingdom of God. They will be safe there from the dangers of the world. They will raise their families there, and make a home in that kingdom. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, you see – it is a place that offers love, care, and welcome even for those creatures you may not think you want around. Perhaps most importantly – it cannot be stopped. My friends, the kingdom of God, this place of love and welcome, cannot be tamed. It can and will spread, and take over everything, welcoming the birds into its branches, and living under a rule of neighbor love. Rome cannot and will not do that for you. But, that tenacity and care is what you can expect from the kingdom of God.”
What an important and life-giving understanding of this parable, for their time and for ours. It offers us hope, and a lifeline out of despair, when we find ourselves living in a world in which governments disregard God’s rule of love, turn away from people in need, cause trauma rather than seek healing, and do all of this by falsely using God’s word to support it. The seed growing in secret promises that our faults and mistakes and ignorance cannot stop the kingdom of God from coming about – it will come regardless, not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who God is. The mustard seed tells us that God cannot be beat, that God’s kingdom will always win over any human efforts to overpower it.
And while this doesn’t give us a particular job to do – planting seeds or whatever – it does inspire us to become a part of it. That is where faith comes in. We aspire to be a part of this growing kingdom, not because we must in order to be saved, but rather, because we already are, because we are so filled with faith and trust in God that we can’t NOT become a part of it. Participating in God’s kingdom springs out of our faith; it is a reflection of our true faith. Our faith in God’s promises compels us to be God’s actors and workers in this world, sharing the good news of God’s love by reaching out to the poor, working for justice for the oppressed, listening to the voices of those on the margins and borders, seeking healing for all the various forms of brokenness in this world, or even standing up against those worldly kingdoms that would try to stifle God’s work, and rule by anything other than love of neighbor.
When we do those things, we are already living in God’s kingdom, even as we still long for it to come to completion.
These kingdom parables show us that the death we experience in this world does not win. God always wins. Love and grace and justice always win. Trust in God… and then, compelled by faith, let’s make like a mustard bush, and get out there to spread this kingdom.
Let us pray… Resilient, invasive, and loving God, thank you that your kingdom comes no matter what we do or don’t do. Inspire us by your promises, that we would be compelled to actively participate in your kingdom, on earth as in heaven, by loving and caring for our neighbor as we would do for Christ himself. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.