3 Pentecost Proper B6
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 4:26-34 Sermon
June 17, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
9 "O Day Of Rest And Gladness"
276 "Come Unto Me, Ye Weary"
46 "On What Has Now Been Sown"
49 "Almighty God, Thy Word Is Cast"
HOW CAN WE EXPLAIN GOD'S KINGDOM?
TEXT (vs. 30-32): 30 And [Jesus] said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Seeds. Have you ever given any thought as to how important seeds are to our very existence? What first comes to mind is what a seed actually does. If you were to take a seed, put it into the ground, water it, and give it come care, you can expect some type of plant to grow from it.
I remember studying seeds in primary school science, and we did several things with them. We first learned how a seed sprouts. We had a folded up piece of wet paper towel, and we set a few seeds on it. It didn't take too long before those seeds sprouted and began take on a new appearance.
We also had a clear glass jar with some dirt in it. We took some seeds and placed them in the dirt close to the outside edge so we could see what was happening as the seed turned into a plant. It began to send forth roots and started to push up a little shoot toward the surface. It wasn't long before there was no resemblance at all to that original seed, as it started to become a young healthy plant.
But that's not the only thing seeds are good for. We also eat many different kinds of seeds. What first comes to mind are the toasted sesame seeds we find on bread, buns, and Chinese cuisine. Or we might think of those delicious poppy seed kolaches we get at the bakery. Maybe we think of those roasted and salted sunflower seeds we buy at the store that we eat as a snack.
But we eat and consume seeds in so many different forms. Every kernel of corn, every type of bean, or pea, or any variety of a nut is also a seed. Seeds from the canola plant are crushed and processed to make cooking oil. And the next time you start to eat a bag of popcorn, just remember that you are eating seeds that have been heated to the point where the internal moisture of the seed boils, and the seed explodes.
Seeds are so much a part of our everyday life that we don't think about them a lot. And we don't have to be a farmer or even a gardener to appreciate them. Everybody needs seeds in one form or another. And I'll even go so far as to say that without seeds, life would not be possible on this planet. That's how crucial seeds are to the support of life.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is using seeds as a metaphor for the kingdom of God. This isn't the only time the Bible uses the example of seeds either. So let's begin by looking first at another "seed story" metaphor that Jesus uses in his teaching ministry.
If we go back to the beginning of Mark chapter 4, which is where our appointed Gospel lesson for today is recorded, Jesus begins by teaching the people using the parable of the sower. In a nutshell, a sower sows seed on the footpath where the birds eat it; then he sows it on rocky ground where there is little soil or nourishment, so it withers and dies. Then he sows it amongst the weeds and cockleburs, where unwanted plants choke it out. Then finally, the seed is sown in good soil, where it is nourished and watered, and grows into a bountiful crop. The bottom line here is that the Word of God is like that seed, and the different types of ground represent the different types of people who receive that Word. Of course the Christian wants to be the good fertile ground where that Word can grow.
As we move into our Gospel lesson for today, it begins with a continued application of the parable of the sower. In verses 26-27 Jesus says: 26 ...“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how."
At the beginning of my sermon today, I told you about what we did in our science class when I was in primary school. We learned to understand what happened with a seed. We knew that it couldn't be a thriving full-grown plant if it was just sprouted on a paper towel. It had to be planted in dirt to get the nutrients it needed. Yes, we knew full well what was happening.
The thing we couldn't understand was why it happened the way it did. Science has never been able to fully explain why a seed works. It just does. Archeologists have found seeds that are hundreds, even thousands of years old that are still capable of growing!
Jesus knows this; that's why he says in verse 27 with regard to the farmer: "...the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how." That's one of those things that will forever remain a mystery.
The next section of our Gospel lesson dovetails very nicely with everything else. This is what is known as the parable of the mustard seed. The Word of God illustrated previously by Jesus now takes us to what constitutes the Kingdom of God. And when we look at the Kingdom of God, we need to remember what Jesus tells us in Luke chapter 17, verse 21: "...behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” So when it comes to understanding what the parable of the mustard seed is talking about, we need to look at how God's kingdom exists within the hearts and lives of his people.
When Jesus begins this parable, he is sort of musing out loud to himself, something he does for effect. It's like he's saying, "Hmmmm....what metaphor or illustration can I use to describe the Kingdom of God? We've just talked about the sower and seed...hmmmm...I think I'll use one of the smallest seeds around, the mustard seed!"
If I go to my kitchen cupboard, I have a jar of mustard seed on the spice rack. It's these tiny little round balls, just a small fraction of the size of a piece of buckshot. It has a pungent flavor, and is used as a seasoning in cooking. Sometimes it's ground into a powder, and it's called dry mustard. Sometimes it's made into a yellow paste, and it's called prepared mustard. And some of the mustard I have in my refrigerator actually has mustard seeds in it, either whole or in pieces. There's a lot going on with mustard seed!
But the point Jesus makes with this, is that even though the seed is tiny, yet it is capable of growing and reproducing itself a million or more times over. Although mustard doesn't grow on a huge tree like an elm or an oak, it is still a rather large bush, one large enough for a bird to build a nest and live in. That's an impressive increase from one very tiny and seemingly insignificant seed!
But here's where things get deep down and personal. The gift of faith we receive from God the Holy Spirit is like that tiny mustard seed. That's the seed of faith that is planted in us. Through our baptism, through hearing the Word, God implants that seed in our souls. Through Word and Sacrament, that seed is watered, fed and nourished.
Jesus actually uses two different metaphors involving mustard seed. One of which is our Gospel lesson for today. The other one can be found recorded in Luke chapter 17, verse 6. It's a while after his first "mustard seed" metaphor when Jesus says to his disciples, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." One doesn't need to have faith on some undefined colossal scale for it to be effective. Even faith in small amounts can do some great things.
God's gift of faith is the key ingredient in our salvation. As sinful creatures we have been cut off from God; and left on our own, we wouldn't stand a chance. But God did something miraculous in our lives. He took and planted the mustard seed of faith in our souls. This is where our relationship with Jesus begins. Because of that seed of faith, we come to know Jesus as our Saviour from sin. And as the weight of sin is lifted from our souls, the seed of faith begins to grow and grow.
When we listen to God's Word, when we regularly partake in Holy Communion, and when we build our relationship with him, that one mustard seed of faith becomes a thriving bush. This is what God has done in our lives. We didn't do it ourselves; it is all God's doing.
The farmer who plants the seed in the parable does only one thing: he plants it. It has contact with his hands as he throws it in the soil. But it is the seed itself that does everything else. The seed germinates, shoots, grows and reproduces because of its own genius, not that of the farmer. The work of God in the world, the church’s work, is the same. Oh sure, we have some role in the sowing, but it is minimal. The power for the all essential growth and harvest is God’s, not ours.
Isaiah chapter 55, verses 10-11 illustrates this quite well. God tells us: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."
One of the lessons we all need to learn comes from the farmer. He prepares the soil for planting by plowing, disking, harrowing, and fertilizing. He can do everything in his power to ensure a good crop. But once that seed is planted, he cannot make it grow. He can nurture it along the way by cultivating and irrigating, but the actual growth is not in his power. There's only so much he can do.
As individuals and as a congregation, we do much the same with the seed God has given to us. We go about the business of witnessing, sharing, loving, caring, and inviting, as we should. But we have absolutely no control over the final harvest. For example, when we baptize a child, we have absolutely no idea how it's going to turn out. But God does. The seed is planted through the sacrament. Then we can encourage, pray for, instruct, and nurture the child, but we can never predict the outcome. We have to leave that up to God himself.
I was reading an interesting article about this the other day. Allow me to quote from it: "Many churches today are driven into the future by what is called 'mission anxiety;' we have to survive, work harder and longer. In reality it’s not like that. There is another way, the way of trust. To see the work of God we need to step back and take a wider view. What is he doing? You may not be able to see what it is yet, but you can bet on one thing: he is working. The seed is growing, germinating, and pushing up through the soil. There will be a harvest but it will be in God’s time. To put it very simply, the harvest will occur only when he is ready."
I think we all suffer from this "mission anxiety." We look around and see that there are empty pews that need to be filled. We look at our budget and wonder if we're going to make it. We began to compare ourselves with other churches and wonder why they seem to be more successful than we are. And so we fret and stew and ask ourselves, "How can we make our church grow?"
I think that we're so busy trying to play God that we've forgotten how to be farmers. We've had that mustard seed of faith planted in our souls. The kingdom of God is within us. From that one mustard seed, God has grown an entire bush full of an unending supply mustard seeds that we need to share. The unfortunate thing, is that people have this tendency to tie those seeds up in a sack so tightly, that not even one can spill out. Those are the people who complain about lack of growth, but won't even so much as lift a finger to plant one of those seeds that they're hoarding.
But as you look at our congregation's mission, we need to continue to plant more and more of our mustard seeds. We know that not every seed will grow. But God assures us that some will. And so we continue as faithful farmers.
When we distribute door hangers, we're planting seeds. When we send out evangelism letters, we're planting seeds. When we're doing community activities, we're planting seeds. When we enter people's homes through our television broadcast, we're planting seeds. When people find our website on their computer, we're planting seeds. When we have an inviting house of worship, we're planting seeds. When we offer traditional worship and music, we're planting seeds. That's what we do as a congregation.
But things have to happen individually too. Each of us needs to be farmers in our own right. We need to dig into that sack of seeds we're carrying around, and start planting.
So how can we explain the Kingdom of God? Just think of that mustard seed, like Jesus has said. Jesus has said that God's Kingdom is within you. God has done something beautiful and wonderful in your life. He saw your sinful state, and didn't want to leave you there. So the Holy Spirit gave you hope through that small mustard seed of faith. Through faith, you came to know and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour from sin. Through faith, you were born again, born from above. God reached down from heaven and nurtured that seed and caused it to grow. Your faith continued to grow and increase as you kept feeding through Word and Sacrament. Now it's time to start farming.
In the meaning of the second petition of the Lord's Prayer, which is "Thy Kingdom Come," Dr. Martin Luther says this: "God's kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may come also to us. When does this happen? God's kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live a godly life on earth now and in heaven forever."