Sunday, June 17 – Sermon on Mark 4 (26-34)

Mark 4 (26-34)

As some of you may recall from last week, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has started to make a name for himself.  An enormous crowd gathers around him at any chance they can get to hear him speak.  In our text for today, Jesus is speaking.  In fact, he’s giving a sermon.  And his sermon is, once again, filled with parables.

Jesus begins like this: “The kingdom of God is…”. Now, what do you think Jesus means when he says “kingdom of God”?  What is he talking about? Back in the days of Jesus, there was this long held belief that the history of the world would contain five great kingdoms.  At that time our great kingdoms had already come and passed and now the ruler of the world was Rome. Rome had an overwhelming military, and unbelievable economic and political control over the whole world.  So everyone was a bit anxious. Is this it?, they feared.  Is the kingdom of Rome going to be the fifth and final climactic kingdom of the earth? Will Rome have the last word? Is our world coming to the end?

But in the midst of this Kingdom of Rome, Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom of God.  Which means, he’s trying to tell the people something.  Whether the end is near or not, the final kingdom of the world will not be the kingdom of Rome.  It will be the kingdom of God.  Rome will not have the final say; God will. It is about the power and activity of God in the world, not some power and control of an emperor.  And so Jesus spoke to them about the kingdom of God.  To try and help the people see it.

Jesus isn’t the first person to try this. To try give an image to what the kingdom of God looks like.  Just a minute ago we heard the prophet Ezekiel describe the kingdom of God as being like a big noble Cedar tree.  This large and strong tree, so big that every kind of bird could nest in it.  Which makes since. Most of us like to think of God and the kingdom of God as large and powerful and protective over the whole earth.

But that’s not how Jesus describes it.  Remember Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God in parables.  And a parable is a lot like a riddle, or a puzzle.  The answer isn’t obvious at first. It’s meaning isn’t immediately clear. In fact, it is meant to confuse and frustrate the person hearing it before it begins to shed any light on the situation.  It is supposed to make you stop and think. Parables turn over the tables of how we normally think about something. They are meant to tear down the understanding of things that we have built up for ourselves.

So if everyone thinks the kingdom of God is like a cedar tree, large and in charge, Jesus turns the whole thing on its side and upside down when he begins to speak about the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a sleeping gardener.

The kingdom of God is like a gardener who tosses some seed on the ground and goes back to bed, without the faintest idea of how it begins to grow.  It just does.  And in the end, the farmer gets to reap the benefits.

Hmmm…what’s Jesus trying to say here?  A parable is like a riddle, whose meaning isn’t quite clear at first.  But, you know, Jesus is a nice guy and so he gives the people another chance at it, speaking to them a second parable.

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like an itty-bitty seed.  A mustard seed in fact.  It is the smallest of all the seeds on earth but when it grows, it becomes the greatest of all…shrubs.

Ahh, yes, isn’t it wonderful? The kingdom of God – it grows as high as your waist and is ugly as sin.  Come on, Jesus – you want us to believe that the kingdom of God is like the most miniscule of seeds and the un-pruned shrubbery outside of my house?  What’s are you trying to say?  Come out with it!

Truth be told, I don’t know Jesus is trying to say.  It’s a parable after all.  It’s meant to confuse and frustrate.  So your guess is as good as mine. But I do have a hunch.  I wonder if the people gathered around Jesus were a lot like you and me.  Maybe they came together hungry for a word of hope.  They couldn’t see God at work in the world and in their life.  They feared another power had more control over the world than God.  All they could feel was the suffocating weight of an oppressive government.  All they could see was their chronic illness, or a broken relationships.  They just wanted to know that God was a part of their life but they just couldn’t see it.

So Jesus tells them a parable – the kingdom of God is like a gardener who tosses seed on the ground.  The seed begins to grow, even though the gardener can’t see it. He reassures them that the kingdom of God, the presence of God, the activity of God, is not something we have to wait for.  It is happening right now, though I know you can’t see it.

In fact, not only is the kingdom of God growing, you can’t stop it from growing either.  Because the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed.  And a mustard seed, when it grows into a bush, acts just like…a weed.  Those of you who are gardeners and farmers know how weeds work.  You can’t kill them.  They’ll always find their way back.  And that is what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.  You can’t kill it. You can try, but it will always find its way back into your life.  And then it just grows and grows and grows.

A well-seasoned preacher, Richard Lischer, wrote a book called Open Secrets.  It is about his first year out of seminary and his first parish – a tiny, Lutheran congregation in the cornfields of Illinois. Sound familiar?  Just out of seminary, Lischer spent that first year showing off his preaching skills.  He use big words.  He referenced great works of literature to show how well read he was.  He spoke with what he called a Kennedy-esque urgency and eloquence.  In those days, he said, the gospel lived or died by my personal performance…how ridiculous I must have looked to my congregation.

But then he asks the question: why couldn’t I see the kingdom of God happening in our little church? Why did I think I had to find it in a book.  People in our congregation, every week, volunteered to exercise the legs of a little girl with cerebral palsy, so that her muscles wouldn’t grow weak.  People helped one another put up hay before the rains came.  When a neighbor lost their farm, we all grieved with him and we refused to bid on his tools at auction.  Weren’t these all signs of the kingdom of God, Lischer asks?  Why couldn’t I see them?[1]

The kingdom of God, the activity of God, looks different than the world’s understanding of a kingdom.  The Kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Rome.  It doesn’t look like power and strength. A sometimes, we just can’t see it.  It’s like a seed, growing slowly underneath the soil, where the gardener can’t see what’s happening beneath the surface.  But other times, when we do see it, it just seems so small and insignificant, like a mustard seed, that we don’t recognize the kingdom of God that was hidden within it.

Just this past week, five families from this congregation brought meals over to a family whose son had major surgery on his legs.  One family even threw in an iTunes gift card for him, because they figured he must be really bored. It might seem insignificant.  After all, it was just being neighborly.  But it was also the kingdom of God breaking into this world through something as ordinary as a pizza or a tater tot hot dish. Can we see it?

Today a little Ayla will get a couple of handfuls of tap water splashed over a her head.  To a person passing by, it’s just a baby getting her head washed.  Pretty insignificant.  Pretty ordinary.  But to us and to Ayla, it’s the greatest of promises.  A promise of unconditional love.  A promise of forgiveness and grace.  A promise of having a family in Christ.  And to us, it is a promise that never dries off.  It Is the kingdom of God breaking in.  Can we see it?

I don’t know about you, but in the midst of our work-addicted, status-addicted, award-winning, medal-wearing addicted society where it’s all about what you can achieve in your life, this watery promise is good news. And it is the kingdom of God breaking into this world through something as small and insignificant as a handful of water.  Ayla has done nothing in her life to earn God’s love.  And that’s exactly how it is with the love of God – we do nothing to earn it.  It’s given freely and wildly.  It engulfs the whole world, like a weed.  You can’t stop it from coming.  Which means whether you have been baptized or not, this watery promise is for you too.

Jesus wants the people surrounding him, people like you and I, to know that the kingdom of God is here. Right in front of you, Jesus says.  We don’t live under the kingdom of Rome, or the kingdom of the United States, we live under the Kingdom of God.  Even though we might not see it.  Whether we see it or not, we cannot keep it from growing – because it’s like the tiniest of mustard seeds.  A weed that when planted and set loose, there is just no stopping it. AMEN

 


[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, p. 72-75.

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