Text: Mark 4:26-34 (2 Corinthians 5:1-10) W 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Plant. Grow. Harvest.
In the name of him who explained everything to his own disciples, dear friends in Christ: In my line of work I run into a lot of people who readily admit that Jesus was a great teacher and who think they have a pretty good handle on what Jesus said and taught; but who really haven’t had a lot of direct exposure to the Scriptures. What they’ve picked up instead, usually from secondary sources, are three or four stock phrases that they believe pretty much sum up the message and ministry of Jesus. So they’ll be able to quote, “Judge not lest ye be judged”, for instance. They like that one. They’re ready to pull it out on short notice whenever someone suggests that they’re doing something they ought not be doing. It’s a way to silence the critics. And they’ll know, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. That’s good “Jesus-style” advice. Then there’s “Turn the other cheek”; which they generally think is not such good advice. He must not have been serious when he said that. And they’re likely to know “God helps those who help themselves”, which Jesus never actually said, and is in fact diametrically opposed to much of what he did say. They may know a few other phrases too; but in any case, with this kind of low and sometimes erroneous exposure, they think they’ve got a good understanding of what Jesus was all about – so much so that they’re convinced they’d just be wasting their time if they were to actually read from the Bible, or attend a Bible study, or, horror of horrors, actually go to church and sit through an entire service “with all those hypocrites” that are sure to be there. Like I said, I run into folks like that fairly often. My guess is that you do too, don’t you?
Jesus did too. We read that at times there were large crowds flocking to him and following him around. They came for a variety of reasons: some to be healed of diseases and other ailments, some to see if what they’d heard about him was true, and some, most likely, came to hear him speak because they were told that he was a powerful preacher – as indeed he was. But most of them did not stay with Jesus. They’d get a little exposure, think to themselves, “That Jesus sure is somethin’, ain’t he?” and that’s about as far as it would go. And since, as this morning’s Gospel lesson says, Jesus did most of his teaching in parables, the vast majority of people who heard him speak went home suitably impressed with what they heard but without the slightest idea what he was talking about. It was only his disciples – the people who stayed with him all the time – that got the inside scoop and the key to understanding his parables.
And that, my friends, is a large part of why we are here today. We don’t want be counted among those who only think they know what Jesus taught. No. We are his disciples. And a disciple is by definition a student: someone who is learning. It’s someone who has the humility to recognize that “I don’t know it all”, and in the case of a Christian disciple, who wants to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him because he does know it all. And you may be thinking, “But what about you? You’re standing up there talking; you’re not listening to Jesus.” The truth is that I am listening. Though I do a lot of teaching (it is my job, after all) I never lose sight of the fact that I am first and foremost a student. I never approach a text of Scripture assuming that I already know what it says and means. Instead I spend a lot of time every week studying the text I plan to speak on. I go back to the original language and take it apart. I do word studies and look up cross references and a number of other things all for the purpose of listening to what Jesus is saying so that I can then take what I’ve learned and try to explain it to you – because we are all the disciples of Jesus.
And with that in mind, we have before us this morning two fairly short parables of Jesus about the kingdom of God. Both parables have an agricultural theme. In particular, they are both about growth. And it’s especially fitting that we launch into the long Pentecost season with them because that’s what this time of the church year is all about: growing in Christian faith and virtue. Therefore, since we are to be growing, we ought to hear what Jesus has to say about how it’s done. So, here we go: Christian Horticulture 101.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. All by itself the earth produces first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.” What we have in this short parable is the Lord’s overall master plan. He starts with an empty field, he makes an investment in it by scattering seed, which grows in the field of its own accord, finally coming to fruition; and then he reaps the harvest – which, one hopes, is much greater than the original investment.
He who plants is the Lord himself. The seed is his Word. And the ground, well, that would be us. And what we see immediately is that the Lord is active on two levels: first, it is he who prepares the field and scatters the seed of his Word; and second, it’s his Word that does the work in the soil. The soil itself is entirely passive throughout. Without the seed, it’s just lifeless dirt. It’s God’s Word, which is living and active, that brings life to the otherwise dead soil.
It immediately reminds us of the days of creation. The Lord begins with an empty, chaotic, dark, and dead planet. He wants to change it. He wants to improve it. And the way he does that is by speaking to it. Every time he says something, the earth responds. It goes from darkness to light, from chaos to order, and from being empty and dead to being filled with life all by the power of God’s Word. The same is true of us. We come into this world spiritually dark, empty, chaotic, and dead in sin. But the Lord in his infinite love and mercy doesn’t want to leave us that way. He wants to bring us light, fill us with goodness and life, and make us productive for him. So he begins to speak to us. He plants in us the seed of this Word, and all by itself, his Word in us springs to life and grows.
Where Jesus speaks of the one who plants “not knowing how”, the reference is to the human agent through whom the Lord spreads the seed of his Word. I’m sure the Lord knows precisely how his Word does its job; the point is that we don’t. When we baptize an infant or share the Gospel message with someone who hasn’t heard it, we can’t actually see the internal process through which the Word creates the life of faith. We know that it happens. In time we can see the results. But we don’t make the seed germinate. All we can do is spread the seed. It’s the Lord’s work that makes it grow.
Now, what we can do is do our best to make sure that the seed we plant is the best seed available. You get what you plant. If you plant only God’s law, you produce legalists who believe they can work their own way to salvation. If you plant only God’s infinite love and patience, you end up with people who are secure in their sins and who see no need to repent. But if you want Christians who have living faith in their Savior you must plant Christ. You must plant Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, sent into this world to become one of us in order to save sinners; who then suffered, died, and rose again to reconcile us to God and give us life. That’s what we have to plant, and we have to keep on planting it. And then we have to let God do his work.
And this can be something of a frustration. I mean, we all know people who are unbelievers. And we’d like nothing more than for them to come to faith in Jesus and receive the gift of forgiveness and life in him. But all we can do is plant the seed. At that point, it’s out of our hands. We can’t make it germinate and grow. And it very often happens that it doesn’t, which makes us feel bad on account of the person who remains unconverted and makes us think that we’ve only wasted our time and effort. But let me suggest that this is the wrong way to look at it. Again, we aren’t able to see what’s going on in the heart and mind of someone who hears the Word. But we do know that the Word of Christ is the only thing in that person that is living and active, and that it’s doing something in there beneath the soil even if we can’t see it. It may be springing to life – only to then be immediately poisoned and killed by a hostile host. Or perhaps it’s one of those seeds that just takes an extra long time to germinate. We don’t know – and it serves no good purpose for us to worry about it. Instead we can take comfort in knowing that by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and faithfully keeping on with the planting by bearing witness to him we’re doing all that we are able to do, and that the Lord is indeed working through his Word to accomplish the goal he has in mind.
And that really is the main thrust of the first parable: it’s about the power of God’s Word to bring people to faith and life in Christ. The second parable is about just how surprisingly powerful that Word is. Jesus said that the kingdom of God “is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
It’s a parable of proportion. You’d never guess that by looking at a tiny mustard seed that such a seemingly insignificant speck could grow into such a large plant; and yet that’s exactly what it does. So it is with the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of men rise and fall. They grow from the dreams and conquests of ambitious men, they have their day of glory in the sun, and then they are either conquered by enemies who are stronger, or they fade away and decline due to incompetence, apathy, over indulgence, immorality, or a combination thereof. But consider the kingdom of God. It started with one man, a very humble man at that. He never wrote any books, never led an army in battle, never ruled over an earthly kingdom mighty or otherwise. Instead he grew up poor in a backwater no place that had been for the preceding seven centuries subject to larger, more powerful nations. He had a public ministry that lasted barely three years. And then he was killed in the most horrible and humiliating way imaginable. He was buried in a borrowed tomb.
Think how many people believed in him on that Sabbath day he spent in the tomb. There weren’t any. Not one. But the seed, so to speak, had been planted. And on Easter it sprang to life. He appeared to his disciples and they became believers in what he had accomplished by his death and resurrection. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures so that they could see and understand that this was God’s plan all along. Fifty days later, on Pentecost, 120 of his followers had gathered to celebrate his victory. Then the Holy Spirit came upon them, empowering them to be his witnesses, and by close of business that day the number of believers had grown to over 3000. And it on kept growing, night and day, as St. Paul and the other apostles headed off on mission trips to spread the seed of God’s Word and expand his kingdom. Though the Empire of Rome repeatedly tried to stamp it out, it only grew stronger under persecution. Seeing the futility of trying to fight it, Rome declared a truce early in the fourth century, granting Christianity the status of a legal religion in the empire. By the end of that century, it was the official religion of Rome. And Rome has long since fallen, as have many other kingdoms of men; but the kingdom of God continues to grow and expand as strong as ever, so that the “birds of the air”, a reference to people of every nation, culture, and race, continue to find a place to dwell in its shade – the safety and security of knowing Christ Jesus as Savior and King.
That’s the most obvious interpretation of the parable; but let me suggest that the same surprising potential for growth that the Word of God has in the world at large is also attainable in the life of each and every individual Christian. Just as the kingdom of God grows around us, it can grow in us as we continue to receive more and more of Christ’s powerful Word one tiny mustard seed’s measure at a time. It won’t hurt either to weed out the many sins that interfere with our spiritual growth, and ensure that we water and fertilize the Word we receive with mediation, prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, so that the life of faith in us grows to its full potential.
And that’s vital; but it’s important that we see that faith in Christ is not an end in itself. The Lord isn’t planting his Word in us simply to make us believers in Jesus any more than a farmer plants corn because he wants to watch the plants grow. No. The farmer plants because he hopes to harvest something. In the same way, the Lord is planting Christ, the living Word, in us to make us Christ like. He wants us to bear the fruits of faith, among which are kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and self sacrificial love. And so he continues to plant his Word in us, during our daily devotions, our time together here on Sundays and in Bible studies, so that the cycle of planting, growing in faith, and harvesting the fruit of faith can continue …
… Until at last the final harvest comes. Then he will send his angels to put in the sickle for good. That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle lesson. He speaks of these bodies we have now as tents – just temporary dwellings for our souls that will one day be planted like a seed in the ground. But when it’s called to life again by the power of God’s Word, it will spring forth as a new and incorruptible heavenly dwelling in which we will be forever with the Lord. Knowing that this is the final goal, Paul says we are of good courage while we wait here below continuing this process of planting the Word, growing in faith in Christ, and harvesting the righteous fruit of faith, always seeking to please him who is doing this gracious work in and for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In his holy name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!