When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
--Mark 4:1-34 (NRSV)
I have a friend who farms with his brother and two adult sons in eastern South Dakota. I may have mentioned them before. It’s a family operation. They farm over 10,000 acres a year, predominantly wheat and soybeans, plus alfalfa as feed crop for the cattle they also raise. The first time I saw them in full operation was about 10 years ago.
Farming has changed dramatically from the days that my dad farmed. Then, it involved driving a relatively basic tractor, planting seed, praying for rain and for sun at the right times. And, then, harvesting. There was a near complete reliance upon nature. There was really very little that my dad could do to ensure a good crop. Today, farming is truly a science. It has become so technologically advanced that farmers can now view and study their fields through satellite images. They can see where they need to re-seed. Or to add more fertilizer. Equipment is massive and computer-operated. And, although the hours are still as long and the pressure to plant and harvest at the right times remains, a farmer can sit in the air-conditioned cab of his or her massive tractor, turn on the GPS and let the vehicle literally drive itself around the field.
But, there is one thing that a farmer cannot do. He or she can know exactly when the right time is to plant the seed. They can fertilize it perfectly. They can irrigate it and provide exactly the right amount of water. And, although, they can’t always control the sun or the rain or the hailstorms that might come through, the efficiency of farming today far outpaces that of years ago. But there is one thing that a farmer simply cannot do. They cannot pull the sprout out of the seed.
Today, we have three parables about seeds and farming. In his day, Jesus’ method of teaching through parable was not uncommon. It was a way to use something that was common and familiar to teach a deeper meaning. In the parables today, Jesus touches on farming, something that would have been very familiar to his listeners. But the deeper teaching, for those who were able to hear and understand it, was about the kingdom of God.
This is the point in the section that begins with verse 10. On first hearing, it may be difficult. A little unsettling even. Surely, Jesus wants everyone to understand what he is trying to teach, right? But, that’s not what these verses say. It’s like it’s a secret club, a closed society. Where the insiders get the “truth” and those who don’t remain outside. Yet, as things will unfold in the gospel of Mark, we will begin to see the lines between these groups become blurred. At one point or another, everyone is confused by Jesus. And sometimes even, those on the “outside” seem to understand Jesus more than those on the “inside.”
I want you to think back to the fall. To the beginning of the Hebrew scripture in Genesis, where we first meet a God who creates, who loves, and then seems to become grief-stricken and angry after this humanity that God has created with freewill, rebels. God devises another plan, choosing a people to lead and to teach so that they might begin to reveal to the world the loving and life-giving nature of God. And, they, too, rebel. Over and over God meets Israel where they are, attempting to reach them, to reveal to them God’s true nature that which we first glimpsed at the beginning of creation. Yet, they continued to rebel. God attempts to bring them back into the boundaries established by God, boundaries designed to bring life instead of destroying it. Finally, when this fails, God determines an ultimate plan to bring life to all humanity and to all creation through God’s very own Son. It is in him where the true nature of God is revealed. A nature of love and sacrifice. A nature of forgiveness and grace.
But, God is not finished. This is the message of, first, John the Baptist and, then, Jesus, through whom the kingdom of God has come near. It’s actually just the beginning. The beginning of a new way of being. A new way of living. A new reign. A reign of peace and justice. And a reign of the continuing revelation of God.
Because God’s work on earth did not end with Jesus. It began with Jesus, through whom this true nature of God was revealed and the hidden nature - the mysterious nature - of God’s reign began. It continues to be unveiled. God continues to reveal godself to us. A few years ago, the United Church of Christ began a campaign where they put up billboards around the country and placed ads on television using the phrase, “God is still speaking.” That's the point here. We are still learning about God and God’s kingdom. The mysteries of God and God’s kingdom continue to be revealed. Much of this still remains hidden and veiled from our eyes, even from those who are the most learned about the things of God.
So, what are we to do? How are we to begin to understand? Jesus tells us as he tells the disciples: Listen. Look. Pay attention.
In my seminary class on the Lutheran Confessions, one day my professor, who is a noted Lutheran scholar, confessed to us a huge mistake he had made. In the early years of the debate in our church - the very same debate that our Methodist sisters and brothers are going through right now - over the issue of homosexuality, and gay marriage, and, particularly, the ordination of gay pastors, he had come out very publicly in opposition to everything around this issue. Claiming as the church had done for so long, that homosexuality was an abomination and that it was contrary to the will of God.
And then, he had a friend come out after years of hiding his homosexuality. As my professor supported his friend and walked alongside him, he was witness to the transformation in his friend. From darkness to light. From deep despair to peace and wholeness. To joy and happiness. And my professor began to wonder just what new thing God might be doing here. What new place God might be moving the church to. What new aspect of God and God’s reign was being revealed.
If we, like my professor, listen. If we look and we pay attention, we, too, can begin to see the unfolding of the good news of God’s kingdom. It manifests itself in light and love. In joy and happiness. In forgiveness and acceptance. These are the hallmarks of God’s kingdom - the signs for us that God’s kingdom is coming near and is being further revealed. Signs of goodness, rather than evil. Peace, rather than violence, Wholeness, rather than despair and destruction. Life, rather than death.
And so we continue to throw out the seeds of the good news in what we say and what we do. There will be some seeds that we may not, in our time, see sprout. This is perhaps one of the hardest parts of our faith. Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a family to try to keep them together and to keep them from being evicted. There have been signs of the seeds of love and support and grace and forgiveness sprouting at times. And, yet, this past week, everything seems to have completely fallen apart.
It is easy to fall into despair and a sense of hopelessness. Yet, we do not know when the seeds we have planted will sprout. We may never see that happen. But, we trust that God - in God’s time - will grow God’s kingdom. And we continue to listen, to look and to pay attention. Because often there are other seeds that sprout when we least expect them, in people and places we never anticipated. This is the paradox of the reign of God - that it is revealed precisely where it often seems to be most hidden.
Just like the farmer, we can never know when God will bring the seeds that have been planted to sprout. And to take root. All we can continue to do is to plant them. With love. And with grace. And with the trust in God’s promise that the seeds that have been planted will grow in God's time into an abundant harvest that will be gathered at the fullness of the reign of God. When the full nature of God and of God’s kingdom will be revealed and no longer hidden.
"For now we see in the mirror dimly. But, then, we shall see face to face." (1 Cor. 13:12) Amen.
Preached January 26, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Mark 4:1-34, Hosea 10:12, Psalm 126