“He wasn’t much to look at.” In his book Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner opens his description about the apostle Paul with this statement. What he’s alluding to is the description of Paul handed down to us through the apocryphal writing known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. For here Buechner notes that Paul is described as: “Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and with a rather large nose.” One gets the idea that he would not have made the cover of any magazine, nor been one of the so-called “beautiful people,” whoever they are. He simply wasn’t much to look at.
And I wonder if much the same was muttered by those who observed the rag tag group following an eccentric Jewish carpenter across the Galilean countryside. They weren’t much to look at either. Oh, certainly Jesus was a high point, a bright shining star in this rather dismal-looking band. He spoke with power and authority; he healed diseases; he cast out demons; and he had even raised a dead man some said. Yet, that was about all that could be said about his disciples—they followed a man who made them all look good; while, more often than not, Jesus looked like he needed some help choosing better friends.
In Mark 4 we learn that Jesus has been preaching and teaching, and, as usual, large crowds started gathering around. They press in so much that he needs some air, some space to breathe. So, he hops in a boat and from just off the shore begins to teach them in parables—those witty and intriguing, yet equally perplexing and troubling stories of his. How shall we image the Kingdom of God? This is Jesus’ sermon topic for the afternoon. The probing question he seeks to answer. Or does he?
In short, he tells them that the Kingdom—viewed at the present time and from certain angles at least—is a lot like his disciples, a lot like Paul, a lot like you and I: it wasn’t (and usually isn’t) much to look at. Ordinary. Commonplace. Lots of expectation with a big let down. Nothing much going on. Nothing much to be seen. Seemingly, and at first glance, at least. And so, its only fitting that Jesus pictures the Kingdom with a practice that the crowds were so used to seeing and observing—something so familiar and commonplace—that they often missed it because, to be perfectly honest, “it wasn’t much to look at.”
The Kingdom of God is like sowing seed. Like what? I can almost hear them murmuring to themselves. What did he just say? That’s like telling us that the Kingdom of God is like driving to work everyday. The Kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seed. The Kingdom of God is like a man or woman going to work day in and day out. And to make sure they get it, he tells them this three times with three stories about sowing seed and waiting for the harvest. Either they, like us so often (too often), were slow learners or the Kingdom really is like the sowing of a seed. Or, maybe a little bit of both.
The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who casts seed upon the soil, and then goes to sleep night after night awaiting the time for harvest. The crops grow—for that is how the process works—and the farmer can only wait—patiently, steadfastly, faithfully—until the proper time and only then set out to harvest. Or, to put it in our own context: the kingdom of God is like a person who goes to work everyday, fulfilling their role in the company, which then grows and prospers because they (and others) do their job, working and waiting patiently and diligently and faithfully until the proper time for reaping what has been sown. But what does agriculture have to do with the Kingdom anyway? More specifically, what does agriculture (or, even an adaptation to the business cycle) have to do with you and me? Is this really what the Kingdom is like? And the disciples’ question becomes our question: Jesus, why do you have to keep speaking in parables? Why can’t you just speak plainly?
What does Jesus mean that they don’t know how the soil produces the crop? What does He mean when he says we don’t know how the company produces large dividends and high stock prices? Look around you Jesus; the crowds are full of farmers. They know how it works. And if you’re unsure maybe someone from the multitude could sit you down and give you a few pointers, you being a carpenter’s son and all. These people knew why the seed grew and produced a crop. That’s simply knowledge of the agricultural cycle. You plant a seed in good soil, give it adequate water and feed, and then you have to wait. You get up day in and day out and you cannot speed up the growth, but must wait until the crop is ripe, ready for harvest. The initial audience knew the how and why of this growth cycle, just like we know how the business cycle works. They could trace out the steps and reasons, they knew the process. Yet for all their knowledge this Jewish carpenter steps in with a humbling reminder of their smallness and God’s greatness, for neither they nor we can truly answer the question of why it works that way. Only God knows why he chose to create a world where seed must be sown in the soil—where it must be buried and “die” before new life can come forth. Only God, in his infinite wisdom, knows why the seed sown in the soil produces a crop. We know the why but yet we do not.
And maybe the cycle is in itself a parable. Maybe God’s very creation expresses and shouts the nature and purposes of God. Maybe the parable proclaims that in this Kingdom, smallness comes before greatness; humility before honor; death before life, burial before resurrection, and brokenness before redemption. Maybe creation itself points to and explains the cross—a death and burial that triumphs through seeming defeat: destroying, transforming and redeeming death so that those who are die may have new life.
A movie that has become a modern-day classic tells of a man who heads off to Iowa with his family to become a farmer. Yet he proves to be a rather poor one at that. You see, he hears a voice and plows under part of his crop to build, of all things, a baseball field. Foolishness and folly. A waste of money. A waste of good land. Now all that is there is a useless baseball field, devoid of crops, empty and barren. For a season at least. Then a man shows up, and he brings his friends. And sooner than later dreams long forgotten—hopes dead and buried—are resurrected and redeemed. But only those who believe can see the redemption of dreams and hopes and destinies on the otherwise empty baseball field placed awkwardly in the midst of an Iowa corn field. And the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is a lot like that.
For a long time the Kingdom is like crops sown in the ground—it isn’t much to look at. For a season, the field may look barren despite the life growing within. But often it’s the unrevealed and hidden life which is most vital, and this mysterious redemption often occurs without our knowing. It is, more often than not, these times between the times when nothing visible manifests, when the field lay barren, that are the most crucial. And so we arrive back at Jesus’ initial question: How shall we picture the Kingdom today? This day?
Could it look like dreams reborn on Iowa farmland that can only be seen by those who believe? Could it look like life sprouting up from seemingly barren land which hid life within for a season? Hope bubbling up from the despair of a loss, a tragedy, a failure, a barrenness, a brokenness?
Or an itinerant preacher stepping onto history’s stage begging the question, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” to be answered, only in due time, with “it can and it has.”
Or maybe it looks like a rag-tag band of disciples following an eccentric Jewish carpenter around for a long while—too long for our liking—before something significant and of substance emerges.
Or a child who wanders from home to squander his days in wild and extravagant living; until some day—whether months or years down the road—something shifts, and that which was hidden underneath the surface emerges, and the Kingdom manifests. He decides to go Home.
Or possibly like three women, mourning and weeping over the death of their rabbi, walking toward his tomb wondering “who will roll the stone away?” only to find that their grief has been redeemed by a different question: “why do you look for the living one among the dead?”
Or maybe it looks like two weary pilgrims, traveling down a dusty road pained over the loss of their beloved Messiah, the one they hoped would bring the Kingdom of God. Barren, distraught, anguished, without hope—going to bed night and day hoping beyond hope to see some sign of life, some hope to counter the darkness and despair. And the King walks with them all the while, sowing the seed of the Kingdom, and then waiting through the long journey to a village named Emmaus until the time for harvest.
Or maybe something more ordinary still: offering food and drink and clothing, offering presence and companionship, offering compassion and understanding…in Jesus’ Name…only to find that the Jesus in whose name you offer love is the Jesus whom you are loving. And the Kingdom manifests itself in service of the King.
Often the times of seeming barrenness are when the most vibrant life emerges. And this is just as true of people as it is of fields.
And some day—whether today or tomorrow or decades from now—we shall see that the once barren fields are now ripe for harvest, we shall see that the fields of brokenness and despair are now the fields where hopes and dreams find new life. If only we had eyes to see, ears to hear, and patience to endure, we would, I believe, find that the Kingdom of God was, is, and ever will be in our midst even when, maybe especially when, we know it not.
And in the meantime, in the here and the now, there is only to sow the seed and then wait the long wait for the coming harvest. In hope-full waiting and faith-full longing we abide, trusting that one day—some glorious day—we shall see that what once “wasn’t much to look at” has, by God’s grace, become something to behold. And on that day, we shall see, we shall all know, and we shall all of us together proclaim that the Kingdom of God has indeed come.
 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures.