Who doesn't like a good mystery--the kind with multiple layers of intrigue in the plot? My favorites are those stories that let me think I know the answer to the who dun it. I really like the mysteries of Mary Higgins Clark. As the story continues, you become more or less sure of the conclusion you have reached. The plot twists and turns until you reach the end of the story and...THAT’S the culprit? Certainly didn't see that coming.
In many ways, life in Christ has its share of mysteries. We think we know how God is leading us or what is happening next in someone's life and then--BAM--God comes on the scene and we are blown away by the way God has worked in the situation. We didn't see that coming.
Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. Just what is a parable? We may think of a parable as a story that illustrates a truth. A parable is different than a fable, which is a clever story meant to offer insight and instruction about life, like Aesop's Fables. Though it may not seem so to us, parables are meant to be disruptive, to interrupt what we thought we knew and not just teach us something. Parables are supposed to confront us with a surprising and often unwanted truth, unlike detailed allegories. In the hidden elements of parables, we see pictures of the kingdom of God that Jesus' ministry inaugurated.
Author Eugene Peterson describes parables as narrative time bombs. You hear them----wonder about them---think maybe you've got it---and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home--boom--almost overwhelming you with its implications.
We experience the kingdom of God in much the same way. It's a new reality that invades, overturns and eventually overcomes the old one. It's a word of promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their jobs to share it, and to leave behind their old ways to live into it. The kingdom is dangerous because you don't know where it will take you or what you will do when it takes hold of.
When Ray and I got married, I thought we'd both work until retirement and then we'd ride off together into the sunset and enjoy the rest of our lives together. But God had other plans, like me going to school to finish my undergrad and going to seminary and being a part of God's family here. It's not always easy to live into God's kingdom, but if we do, God will do some amazing things that we would have missed out on. I wouldn't trade my life with anyone.
The first parable of today's gospel is explicitly designated as a parable of the kingdom. "Kingdom of God" is Mark's language for God's presence and activity here on earth. As a whole, the parable in some way corresponds to the kingdom of God. It is not a single element like the man, the sowing, the seed or the harvest, but like the whole situation that is narrated.
In the parable, someone scatters seed. That seems pretty straightforward. What are the next steps the farmer has to take?
We'd expect him to do some watering, plowing or cultivating But what does he do---NOTHING. He sleeps and rises night and day. It's amazing there could ever be a harvest at all! However, the earth produces a yield without any visible cause. Was the farmer just lazy? Or did he know that there was nothing he could do to make it happen any faster or better? According to Mark, the farmer does not even know how this happened. The earth did this itself. The growth of the plant is a mystery. Why do some thrive and others fail? Was it the soil, too much or too little water?
Martin Luther speaks of the "hidden God." The paradox of the cross teaches that the ways of God are hidden, even in the revelation of Jesus Christ. "...the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how" (v 27). God's work in the lives of people and the situations they find themselves in is a mystery.
The farmer's roles shift with the season. He is passive while the seed is maturing, but then he reacts swiftly when it is time for harvest. "...at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come" (v. 29).
Jesus did not identify who or what symbolized what for this parable. However, it seems evident that the man did not represent God, Jesus, or the disciples, but was simply the man. That leaves room for us to identify with the one planting seeds.
What does this mean for us and what do we do about it? We must accept Jesus himself as the parable of God, the Messiah, who upsets our expectations. Before the parables were opened to the disciples, they needed to grasp the importance of the person of Jesus before his teaching, the Revealer before the revelation. The disciples' understanding came by the revelation of the Holy Spirit and this understanding comes by revelation of the Holy Spirit for us as well.
Like tiny seeds, our response of faithful action takes root and inspires others to be both strong and creative in the good news that God is alive and among us.
Did you know that we carry around all kinds of seeds on our bodies, clothes and shoes at any given time? We don't know where they come from or where these seeds will end up. We don't know they are with us in the first place. Could it be that the good news works like that too? Sometimes in spite of us, it clings to us and travels to the places it is needed. It spreads and grows even though we cannot have a clue that this is happening.
The growth of faith is a mystery, like the growth of the plant from a seed. Faith seems to take root and grow in some people and not in others. There are those raised in horrible conditions who become strong people of faith, while others raised in optimum faithful, conditions have no interest whatsoever in God.
Faith, which is a pure gift from God, is something we cannot control in others or ourselves. We can plant, water and then we can sleep and wake until the plant grows. In the end, it is God who brings the growth and the Holy Spirit who gives us faith.
God calls us to be good soil. God calls us to trust that he will do what we cannot. Faith will grow and the church will flourish, not because of our grand schemes and plans, but because God will have it no other way. The church cannot explain the growth of the seed: the mystery lies in the power of God.
This is a message for us as well in 21st century post-Christian America. We can be confident that if we faithfully do what God has called us to do, there will be fruitful harvest for the kingdom of God, whether we ever see it or not. Our own exertions do not bring or hasten the kingdom. The present hidden elements of the kingdom will be made manifest in God's own time, not our own.
Just like last week's gospel, all the wonderful understandings we attain and share are a result of growing our relationship with Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is all about relationship--our relationship with God, which develops into --our relationship with each other--and then develops into our relationship with our community. That is how the kingdom of God grows and spreads infectiously here and all over the world. Even if we are oblivious to what's going on around us, God works.
Does this change the way we act with each other and those we meet on a daily basis? Absolutely. We cannot keep the good news of the kingdom of God bottled up inside us. If we pay attention to the Holy Spirit's leading, God will bring people into our lives who need this good news that we have to share. God's work in our lives is not solely for our benefit so that we may feel good. It is for the glory of God. As we leave church today, let us look for the opportunities where we can plant seeds that will have a lasting effect in our communities. Amen.
M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible: Mark
Brian Stoffregen, crossmark.com/brian/mark4x26.htm