A Sermon on Mark 4:26-29
Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God. He brings this kingdom up time and time again in his earthly ministry. Jesus tells us the “kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 7:21) and we are told it is “at hand” (Matthew 3:2). But to the frustration of readers, Christ will never just say what exactly he is talking about. The Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly, which we just read, is another mysterious, round-about way that Jesus tells us what the kingdom of God is.
I’ve read this parable many, many times and until I sat down to study it to preach on it, I never encountered it on its own. See, it immediately follows the more well known Parable of the Sower. This parable also talks about scattering seed and seems pretty straight forward. But, like most things involving Jesus, there is more than meets the eye here.
We have a man. Jesus doesn’t call him a Sower or a Farmer, but simply a man. You cant really call him a farmer because he doesn’t appear to know much about it. This man has an impulse to plant a field and he scatters some seed on the ground. Following that, he walks away and goes to sleep. We aren’t told why he would do this at all. Perhaps, he was ignorant of the ways of farming and he just didn’t know that he was supposed to plow the field and care for the crop as it grows? Maybe he knew all that and was just lazy and didn’t feel like dealing with it. Here, Jesus’ audience were probably thinking What a foolish man! And entirely expected Jesus to conclude the story with the man failing horribly and possibly starving without a harvest. They had heard Proverbs 20:5: “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing” or maybe Proverbs 10:5 “a son who sleeps in harvest brings shame.”
Yet, the harvest miraculously grows of itself by itself. As the man does nothing more than sleep and rise, the grain comes to full ripeness. Only then does the man go out to his shed and get his sickle to harvest the full crop of grain.
From the man’s perspective, this is a story of getting something for nothing! Laziness, ignorance is actually rewarded by the miraculous growth that God provides!
For those who know little of farming, maybe we can think something like: the kingdom of God is as if a football coach should recruit a high school team from the school body. Both the coach and the entire team would sleep night and day, and the team would improve, but no one knew how. They began to win games, after never having a single practice. They won first at district level, then the conference level, then the state championship. But when it came time for college recruitment, he sends them off because graduation has come.
Or perhaps a woman invests in a bank account and then never accessed the account for 20 years. But of itself the money gained interest and began to grow and grow until it amassed such a large amount the bank notified the woman. And when the time was right, she withdrew her fortune for retirement had come.
There is a disconnect here. Something to make us go “huh?” We have “a narrative break” in very structure of these stories. The result simply doesn’t match the beginning. Its like someone copy and pasted two different stories together. And today, we are a scientific generation. We have the result of a fruitful crop on one hand and a man who’s “hypothesis” of successful farming is to sleep. There is something missing, right?
So there is the mystery: how does the world’s laziest gardener produce a fruitful crop? All we are told is that the earth produces “of itself.” It grows automatically. This word “of itself” is also used to describe other miracles of God. In Joshua, the walls of Jericho are explained to fall “of themselves,” as a way of speaking of God’s direct hand in the story. It’s a way of saying “I have no idea how that happened, it seemed like it just happened.” We can think of the unexplainable works of God in this way.
In Leviticus we also find the language of grain growing “of itself,” God commands that the people of God would observe a sabbatical year of rest after every 6 years of work farming. The farmers were not allowed to cultivate, till or plow the fields, but they were to let the field grow “of itself,” and were allowed to reap whatever grew by harvest time. This is similar to the way Jesus talks of the seed growing. Just as every 7th day was the Sabbath, so every 7th year was the sabbatical year. Imagine the stress of a farmer, a society dependent on grown-food, when you are commanded, by law to do nothing!
The sabbatical year is like God’s kingdom. That year where we are asked to sit back and God says to us “I got this.” That is how the entire Kingdom of God is. The Sabbath reminds us that we are not in control of our lives, but God is. More importantly, the Sabbath reminds us that regardless of what culture says, what the calendar says, what our jobs say, we are not running on our own human time, we are running on God’s divine time. We may be stuck within time that constantly pushes forward, where death and destruction constantly remind us of the limits of our time. But God works with a schedule of eternity. Taking a year off from farming is, quite frankly, insane to human eyes. But by letting God take over for a year, the Israelites acknowledged the power of God.
In that way, the Kingdom of God is similar a field growing in a sabbatical year. The growth happens of itself. Whatever grows in this Kingdom, grows by the grace of God alone. The man sows the seed, but God raises the seed up in secret. The seed grows abundantly, and then the ignorant man is allowed to harvest. This is a harvest of the abundant grace of God. Christ announces that we live in a time where grace is bestowed abundantly. We live in a world that is wrapped up in God’s time, where we can see the working of God.
But about the details of the parable. What fits where? Is God the Farmer? I certainly hope not! God as an ignorant farmer doesn’t quite work. But, the vague character of the “man” makes it easy for us to place ourselves in his shoes. If one of us spreads the word of God, do we “sleep night and day” or do we till, cultivate and plow the field?
This parable has to do with the Word. The Word of God. Christ has given us the Word. If we have any seed to give, it comes from Christ. But this parable tells us that in the Kingdom of God, a crop that is sown, grows “of itself,” by God’s power. As Christians, we cant help but think about our efforts to spread the Word of God. To bring the gospel of Christ to others. Our goal to “make disciples of Christ” and to “transform the world.” Yet, sometimes we get so caught up in our own actions, all are the things WE are up to, and all the experiences I have to share with you about MYSELF and the church that the activity of God can go unnoticed. Just because our actions are plainly visible, we should not forget what goes on in “secret.” Little is possible without the behind-the-scenes working of the Holy Trinity.
What about this harvest? Jesus actually quotes a line from the prophet Joel here. Joel is speaking of the day of the Lord, when the Lord will come and set all things right. The harvest carries a notion of completion, of finality. The harvest reminds us that there is an end of the story, just as there is a beginning. Whatever the end may be, we know there is nothing we can do to bring the crop to fruition. We reside in between the beginning and end of the story, where the plan and work of God still remain mysterious to us.
This parable causes us to look at what’s going on behind the veil. There is nothing we can do to bring about the Kingdom by ourselves. God grows it. God brings it about. When we cast seed, it is God that brings it to fruition. I stand here, preaching before you, because I came to a point when I realized that God is in control of my life, and had different plans for me than I had made. I’m preaching the Word of God by the grace of God alone. This is a comfort: in God’s infinite mystery, the Word of God, the Kingdom of God grows and flourishes regardless of the actions of the broken vessels that God chooses to use. Even our salvation is not up to us, but the Son of God, Jesus Christ died for us, that we may have eternal life through him.
This parable invites us into the realm of grace. And what makes grace, grace is that it is gift. It is excessive and undeserved. We have nothing to do with it, it is the work of the triune God. Life in the Kingdom of God is living among fields that you may have helped plant, but you did not make grow. John Wesley even compares the growth of the crop to the growth of grace within us. We are the crop that grows steadily further and further in grace until we achieve holiness. Mysterious growth can be also found within our souls, as well as in the world around us.
Being a Christian today, its rather easy to get discouraged. It’s a human reaction we all feel. Our sweat, time and energy go into organizing, planning and going to meetings for Jesus and sometimes its hard to see any results for our efforts. Maybe you’ve gone on a mission trip and didn’t see any clear impact you made during your time there. Or maybe you’ve ministered to people who continuously reject you. This parable says: let it go. Its not up to you to find results. Its not up to you to follow the seed from growth to fruit. The seed grows in secret.
A woman at my home church recently told me a story about Dell, a long time member of the church. She told me that 22 years ago, when her and her husband started visiting the church, Dell had greeted her warmly and asked her if she was liking the congregation, and made an intent to welcome her. Dell had absolutely no memory of this when I asked him about it, but his efforts had made her feel welcome in the church and was a main influence on her choosing to become a Christian. Dell’s natural friendliness helped to bring this woman to a deeper relationship with Christ. That is God working through one to bestow grace to another.
To you control freaks out there, this is a HARD message to hear! God does not seem to appreciate micro-managers. Or at least, when they assume they can micromanage the intricacies of the kingdom. We want results now, but we are called to be patient. We want to do it all by our own hands, but We are called to trust God. That does not mean inaction by any means! Recall, the man sows the seed. Yet, in our action, we are urged to remember that the Holy Spirit works through us, in us, and often, in spite of us.
Jesus let us know about the Kingdom of God. This “seed” of knowledge has sprouted. We, the Church, can see the Kingdom of God sprouting up around us, in the saving work of Christ and the continued activity of the Holy Spirit. We can see it, but it still remains mysterious. This is how the Kingdom works. The kingdom isn’t high maintenance on our end of things. The Kingdom grows in secret. The Kingdom is mysterious. At first no one knew the Kingdom was there, and God placed it where none but a few could see. But then a blade appeared, and the mystery increased. What is this blade? Who planted this, where did it come from?
Then the head developed. And people began to wonder how that blade survived and grew into a head. Surely the weeds would have choked it out! Then to oppose all good logic, the head sprouted full grain. No explanation could be found, so it was deemed a mystery. But all could not help but marvel at the pristine grain the plant had produced, much fuller and riper than any had ever seen. And while they continued to marvel, a farmer holding a sickle over his shoulders broke through the crowd and walked towards the pristine, mysterious crop because NOW it was time for the harvest.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.