26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4.26-34 NRSV)
Jesus taught using parables – these short stories that use metaphors and comparisons to make their points. Jesus’ parables teach about God’s character, they teach about Jesus’ mission, and they even teach us what it can look like to respond to Jesus with faith. Jesus’ parables used common things and everyday events to make their points. He drew from his audiences’ built-in knowledge base; using examples from baking, farming, shepherding, even losing and finding things.
Parables take something familiar and compare it to something unfamiliar. Sometimes parables are paradoxes. They can seem contradictory. Parables can be disorienting. Sometimes parables even take a strange twist, or have something like a punchline, that moves the story in a direction no one would have imagined.
Parables engage us. Parables stretch us out. They make us uncomfortable. They push us to put some effort into understanding them. Often, even when we have done some work to try to understand them, parables can still be confusing. After all, these lessons were confusing to the people Jesus first taught them to. Usually, someone walked away from a parable frustrated or puzzled. Often after the crowds had gone away, Jesus’ disciples asked him to explain just what in the world he was talking about. Parables engage our imaginations. They push us to think though great mysteries of our faith. They throw us into creative tension.
The parables we just heard are “Kingdom Parables.” In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we learn Jesus came “Proclaiming the good news of God,” saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.14-15). The kingdom of God is good news. Here, Jesus uses short stories to teach about God’s kingdom … to show what it looks like for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus’ parables open us up to the possibility of a different world. They help us see what a world ruled by God’s grace and love and peace would look like.
Jesus taught the crowd,
“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” (Mark 4.26-29).
Farmers and gardeners do all kinds of work to create environments were seeds can sprout and grow. We can improve soil. We can water. We can build strange fortresses around our gardens to keep bunnies and deer out. We can do a lot of work to provide favorable conditions for seeds to sprout and grow, but when it comes down to it, that seed sending up a sprout is something beyond our direct control. It is a mystery. We can encourage it, we can hope for it, but we just can’t make that miracle happen on our own.
My parents always had something they were hoping would sprout on their kitchen windowsill. They had avocado stones with toothpicks stuck in their middles to hold them half-submerged in a glass of water. There were peach pits. Tomato seeds. We had a peach tree in the backyard and a grapefruit tree in a pot that grew from those windowsill sprouts. But, usually they didn’t have much success. They tried to make the right conditions. When it came down to it, they couldn’t make those seeds and pits do anything.
In the parable, someone scatters seed, but doesn’t do much to make it grow. They just go about their everyday routine and eventually the seed sprouts and grows. This points us to an important truth about God’s kingdom – it is God’s kingdom, not my kingdom or your kingdom. We don’t control God’s kingdom.
Often we hear about building or extending the kingdom of God.
Building and expanding are not ways scripture speaks about God’s kingdom. In scripture the kingdom of God is proclaimed, given, inherited, entered, and received (Guder, Darrel. “Missional Church” pp. 94-95). The kingdom of God is a gift given by God, not something we can build or extend ourselves … it is God’s realm we enter … it is God’s will we yield ourselves to.
God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on our efforts. It depends on God. The parable also gives God’s kingdom a sense of inevitability – God is bringing the kingdom, will we yield ourselves to it, will we receive it, or will we resist it?
It is God’s kingdom. It is God’s purpose … God’s work … God’s will. It is God’s doing, but at the same time, the kingdom is something we can participate in – this is the creative tension parables can pull us into.
Then Jesus used another seed comparison:
“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” (Mark 4:30-32).
It seems like Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God is like a seed that starts out small, sprouts, and grows into something helpful and beneficial to other creatures. Some bible teachers also point out that if gardeners aren’t careful, mustard plants can take over a garden. I like that picture of God’s kingdom – it shows up in small things and grows into things that make a difference … and once it takes root, its hard to get rid of.
Together, these parables teach us that the kingdom of God is God’s kingdom. We don’t build it. It doesn’t depend on our efforts. We yield ourselves to God’s work, but at the same time God’s kingdom shows up in little and surprising ways, and when we give ourselves to God’s will, what we do, even the littlest things, can make a difference. How is that for a place of tension? Building the kingdom does not depend on us, it depends on God, but what we do matters.
This is good news on the day we install our deacons and elders. As Jesus’ followers we are called into this work of serving the church, but there is freedom and responsibility in this calling.
There is freedom – God’s work doesn’t depend on us. God’s work depends on God. Hopefully that can take a lot of pressure off of us – we don’t have to save the world. God is doing that.
There is responsibility, we are called to discern where God is working in our church and in our community, we join in that work. What we do matters and God uses it to make a difference. The way we treat people … the way we respond to needs … the way we say, not our will God, but your will be done … God works in and through us.
Our leaders, our elders and deacons, lead us in living in this holy tension – they lead us in discerning where God is moving around us and in figuring out how we can be part of what God is doing.
Hopefully this is encouraging. God is living and active. God is constantly working to bring his will of life and healing and love and justice in Christ to the world. God invites us into this kingdom work, we don’t control it, yet the ways we yield to God, the ways we seek to love God and our neighbors, the things we do still can make a difference.