13 June 2009
preaching: Mk 4:26-34
With What Can We Compare the Kingdom of God?: The Mystery of God’s Dominion in Parables
(manuscript from 06.14.09: Allensville/Trinity Charge UMC)
Our words have trouble describing and our minds have a hard time conceiving of the Kingdom of God, God’s Dominion. We sometimes recognize parts of it, or see hazy visions of it, as the Apostle Paul says, “through a glass darkly.” We trust in its power and existence the same way we trust in our God. After all, one of the best ways to understand a King is by looking to the kingdom. We do well then to try to understand this coming kingdom, especially as we pray for it to emerge. Not our kingdom, but God’s. Though we think about, pray about, and attempt to be about “kingdom work,” let us humbly and prayerfully try to learn more about this kingdom that is so complicated (yet simple) and so counterintuitive (though hopefully present to our “renewed imaginations”).
It is thus incredibly helpful and with much grace that when Jesus teaches, he illustrates for us: like a painter, kindergarten teacher, or master storyteller. In our reading this morning from Mark’s gospel, we catch a pair of a larger group of parables that Jesus tells to describe the kingdom that he earlier arrived to proclaim and the gospel that he came to declare. Jesus speaks in agrarian terms to an agricultural people. Though they obviously don’t understand the full implications of these lessons (honestly neither to we), they grasp many pieces to both describe to them and instruct them in their life after encountering Christ.
“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.”
How does this comport with us, now? For one, the mystery and hiddenness of the kingdom of God gives way to uncertainty and insecurity- two things we do not welcome but can surely understand. Whether our uncertainty is economic (as many anxieties are) or whether it is transitional (even as we celebrate our graduates and students today, an end inevitably leads to some new beginning), we all strive for some modicum of certainty, some bit of faith, some measure of stability. We find this in the kingdom of God, which Jesus ushers and calls. We know it is present, we know God works and will “continue the work begun onto completion”. But how? Maybe just like a seed grows. Underground. Mysterious. Beyond our control and beyond our comprehension. Mystery is scary though. Mystery is not something we like to pursue. Wendell Berry wisely reminds, “Never forget: We are alive within mysteries.” Though, it is within these mysteries that we have faith. And whether we unknowingly pick it up from the store or watch it blossom out of our back window, we mysteriously receive our daily bread by means mostly beyond our control. Our science tries to explain these processes, our experience seeks to refine and replicate them, but mystery pervades. Such is the kingdom of God: put forth by God, and mysteriously brought about by God.
"We sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows and we don’t know how."
I find myself stuck in this habit, failing to reflect on mystery and on the fact that I am utterly dependent on God’s provision, despite any air of independence I feign. Jesus alludes to this. In the next verse (v28), he tells of the earth “producing of itself.” The original word there looks like, sounds like, and nearly means: automatic (αυτοματη). As far as we’re concerned, God’s working and provision happens automatically. God alone produces such a harvest. With this knowledge we must continually give thanks and never slip into a habit of self-sufficiency or ingratitude.
We also mustn’t neglect to see the mystery in the continued faithfulness of God’s methods. God’s kingdom, in this parable, seems to come about out of sheer grace. We are neither totally aware of it, nor do we understand its process, yet we can see its progression: first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head…on to ripeness and harvest. One commentator mentions, and I must take her word for it, “As any good farmer will tell you, patience and hope are the spiritual sustenance for those who labor God’s fields.” It is with patience and hope that we continue to grow, progress, and mature as God-shaped citizens of a baffling kingdom.
But that’s not all… as if this image of God’s workings wasn’t demanding enough to consider, Jesus gives us another: God’s kingdom is not only mysterious, but it is also seemingly vulnerable and insignificant. Of all the plants he could have chosen, Jesus used the mustard seed. As we read from the Psalm (92), the Jewish imagination was well informed with tree language, and how God would allow the righteous to flourish like palm trees and Lebanese cedars. Those make sense enough: palm trees for their fertility and rapid growth and cedars for their stature and aroma. These are things you expect, and I’m sure the disciples expected them. However, Jesus rarely figures into our expectations. Instead of these beautiful, classic images, Jesus slips us an unlikely allusion (unlikely like the weed-like mustard plant or unlikely like a crucified Messiah wearing a crown of thorns).
God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed. Once sown, this seed grows to great size and provides great shade. Jesus takes his audience’s expectations of the kingdom of God, a massive tree of life for all, and subverts it into a bush grown from a tiny seed, whose most noticeable feature is the rest and shade it provides for the insignificant birds of the air. Let us re-order our expectations and ambitions around these. Smallness. Service. These are the images of Jesus’ kingdom. It is not coincidence then that these are also the themes that shape the lives of our great brothers and sisters in the faith. It is in the heritage of the mustard seed that Mother Theresa of Calcutta exclaims, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” She was well schooled in the kingdom of God and was a great ambassador to that dominion of humility, service, and smallness. She understood what we rationalize away: the results of our work shall only be great if they are infused by love and brought about by God; that our mysterious, all-mighty God moves in ostensibly small and seemingly insignificant ways, yet with overpowering and all-consuming love. Theresa’s kingdom-work resembles this mysterious mustard work much more than it resembles the way we are usually tempted to get things done.
We are then confronted with the challenge of Jesus’ words and the testimony of those before us and among us that have chosen to forsake “their own kingdom come,” for “Thy kingdom come.” We can choose to follow and participate in the kingdom of God or we can seek our own ambitions and “lean on our own understanding.”
It is precisely when we make ourselves available to this mysterious and humble way that God yields a bounty of miraculous and useful fruit. And it is in this process that we gain a taste for it and an eye for its presence and methods. We pray that God may strengthen our hands to scatter the good news of Christ and tune our ears, adjust our eyes, and renew our minds to recognize its growth and abundance.
Benediction: And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Helpful Resources: Boring, M. Eugene. Mark (Ntl): A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8. Yale University Press, 2002.
Tolbert, Mary Ann. Sowing the Gospel: Mark's Work in Literary-Historical Perspective. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996.
Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. Preaching the Gospel of Mark: Proclaiming the Power of God. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.