Sermons since the New Year: 29 January 2012

29 January 2012 – The Kingdom of God is Like – Mark 4.1-2, 26-29

“He wasn’t much to look at.” In his book, Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner opens his description of the apostle Paul with this statement. What he’s alluding to is a description of Paul handed down to us through the apocryphal writing known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla in which Paul is described as: “Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and with a rather large nose.”[1]  One gets the idea that he would not have made the cover of any magazine, because he simply wasn’t much to look at.

I wonder if much the same was muttered by those who observed the rag tag group that followed an eccentric Jewish carpenter across the Galilean countryside, because they weren’t much to look at either according to the gospel writers.

Oh, certainly Jesus was a high point, a bright shining star in this rather dismal-looking band. He spoke with power and authority; healed diseases; cast out demons; 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, they made Jesus look like he needed help choosing better friends.

In Mark 4, we learn that Jesus has been preaching and teaching and, as usual, large crowds gathered around. They were surrounding him so tightly that he needed some air, some space to breathe. So, Jesus hopped in a boat and from just off the shore began to teach them in parables—those witty and intriguing, yet equally perplexing and troubling stories of his.

“How shall we image, how shall we paint, how shall we illustrate the Kingdom, the Reign of God?” This is Jesus’ sermon topic for the afternoon. The probing question he seeks to answer.

And what he seek to convey is 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 me: it isn’t much to look at.

It’s ordinary. Commonplace. Nothing much going on. Nothing much to be seen. Seemingly, and at first glance, at least.

And so, its only fitting that Jesus seeks to picture the Kingdom using a practice that the crowds were so used to seeing and observing—something so familiar and commonplace—that they often missed it.

“The Kingdom of God is like sowing seed,” Jesus says.

“Like what?” I can almost hear them murmuring to themselves. “What did he just say?”

To say that the kingdom of God is like sowing seed is kind of like telling us that the Kingdom of God is like waking up and going to work.

The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who casts seed upon the soil, and then goes to sleep night after night while the crops grow at their own pace, by their own volition and for reasons beyond the farmer’s comprehension.  In the meantime, the farmer can only wait—patiently, steadfastly, faithfully—until the proper time to set out for harvest.

“This is what the kingdom of God is like,” Jesus says, and it is now that the disciples’ question (recorded in another gospel) becomes our question: “Jesus, why do you have to speak in parables? Why can’t you just speak plainly?”

After all, this parable is somewhat confusing in a few details.  For example, what does Jesus mean when he says that the farmer doesn’t know how the sown seed sprouts, grows and eventually produces a harvestable crop?

Surely any farmer worth his or her “salt” would understand this process.  You plant a seed in good soil, give it adequate water, and then you wait.  You can get up day in and day out and look out at the field, you can pull the weeds and you can do your best to deter anything that might harm the crops, but ultimately you are forced to wait until the crop is ripe, ready for harvest.

Almost everyone in Jesus’ audience would also have known the how and the why of the growth cycle.  They could trace out the steps, and there were likely many farmers in the crowd that day who had done just what Jesus described year after year. Yet for all their knowledge, this Jewish carpenter offers a humbling reminder that neither they nor we can truly answer the deeper question of why it works that way.

We may be able to describe the technical reasons about why a seed buried in the soil produces a crop.  We may even be able to provide the optimum growing conditions through soil analysis.  Yet, the ultimate “why?” question behind the process remains a mystery.  Planting, burying a seed in the ground and waiting for life to emerge from barrenness remains a magical process no matter how old or well-educated we may be, because it is life bursting forth from mystery.

So maybe the cycle of sowing and reaping is the point of this parable.  Maybe the process of sowing, of burying a tiny, insignificant seed and waiting to see what emerges reveals that in this Kingdom or Reign of God, smallness comes before greatness; humility before honor; death before life; burial before resurrection; brokenness before redemption; and barrenness before a bountiful harvest.

There is a movie, which has become a modern-day classic, that tells the story of a man who heads off to Iowa with his family to become a farmer. Yet he proves to be a rather poor farmer because he hears a voice and plows under part of his crop to build, of all things, a baseball field.

It’s utter foolishness and absolute folly. A waste of money. A waste of good land.  This farmer’s lunacy results in a seemingly useless and needless baseball field sitting empty and barren on the rich, fertile Iowa soil that should have been covered with corn.  And absolutely nothing happens…for a season at least.

Then one day a man shows up out of nowhere, out of “thin air” you might say, and the next day he brings a few of his friends and the next day a few more and a few more and a few more. And sooner than later dreams long forgotten—hopes dead and buried—are resurrected and redeemed as life bursts forth from mystery.

But here is the “catch,” the mystery of the drama: only those who believe can see the otherwise empty baseball field become a “field of dreams.”

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 looks barren despite the life growing within.

You see, it’s often the unrevealed and hidden life that is most vital.  It is a mysterious redemption, a majestic and unexpected transformation that often arises out of apparent “nothingness” without our knowing.

And it is, more often than not, these times between the times when nothing visible manifests, when the field lies barren, that prove to be the most crucial, transformative, expansive moments of life.

So we arrive back at Jesus’ initial question: How shall we picture the Kingdom today in these sacred moments that make up our lives?

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?  Or hope bubbling up from the despair of a loss, a tragedy, a failure, a barrenness, a brokenness?

Or maybe it looks like that rag-tag band of disciples following an eccentric Jewish carpenter around for a long while—much too long for our liking—before something significant and of substance emerges in and through their lives.

Or perhaps for us, this day, this week, this month, this year, this life, it is something more ordinary, more commonplace, more easily missed still: offering food and drink and clothing, offering presence and companionship, offering forgiveness and love, offering compassion and empathy, offering a welcoming smile or a listening ear, offering glimpses and glimmers of abundant, expansive life in Jesus’ name.  And suddenly, ex nihilo, out of nowhere, as if a magician waved a wand and said “abracadabra,” you realize that the needy, “not much to look at” neighbor whom you helped in Jesus’ name has been transformed as your eyes meet and you see the face of God, of Jesus, of life, of love in one another.

You see, Jesus tells us that it’s often the times of seeming barrenness out of which the most vibrant life emerges.  And this is just as true of people as it is of fields.

Which means that some day—whether today or tomorrow or decades from now—we shall see that the once barren fields are now ripe for harvest, and the fields of brokenness and despair are now the fields where hopes and dreams find new life.

We just need eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts open to believe that the Kingdom, the merciful Reign of God is, even now, in our midst, right under our noses and waiting to burst forth with new life.

In the meantime, in the barren time, in the waiting time, we are called to sow a seed of grace here, a seed of mercy there, a seed of compassion here, a seed of forgiveness there, knowing that the soil, the field, the people in whom we sow such seeds might not be much to look at right now, but we sow in faith 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 all see, we shall all know and we shall all of us together proclaim that the Kingdom of God, the Reign of Love, the Reign of Life, has indeed come.  It is in the hope of this promised future that we say, “Thanks be to God!”  AMEN.

[1]             Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, “Paul,” (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 129-133.


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