Our New Testament reading today is from Mark 4:21-34. Listen for God’s word to you….
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
He also said, “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.”
He also said, “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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
In our text for today, we have four parables in a very short space and each has its own point. First, there is the parable of the lamp. Jesus asks a very basic question, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?” Of course, the answer is that a lamp is brought in to be put on a lampstand. You don’t light a lamp and then hide the light. Just so, truth is meant to be seen. The light of Christ in us is meant to be seen and shared.
Jesus says that one day all things will be laid bare; there will be no more secrets. In other words, the truth cannot ultimately be hidden. Sometimes we try to hide the truth, but that way of living does not work for long.
Think of Copernicus who lived in the early 16th century. He was the one who made the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe; the earth revolves around the sun and not the sun around the earth. Copernicus kept his discovery a secret for thirty years. Then, when he was on his deathbed in 1543, Copernicus persuaded a printer to publish his great work, Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies.
In the early 17th century, Galileo learned of Copernicus’ theory and publicly stated his belief in it. In 1616, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church summoned Galileo to Rome to present his beliefs. The hierarchy of the Church denied these beliefs categorically. Galileo gave in, figuring it was better to conform than to give up his life. For many years, he remained silent.
However, when Urban VIII became Pope, Galileo thought he would try again, thinking Urban might be more open to a new line of thinking than the last pope. Galileo was wrong. He had to sign a recantation in order to avoid execution, but he could not avoid prison. Later, Galileo was even denied burial in his family tomb.
Lest we blame the Catholic Church alone for shortsightedness, it is important to remember that even Martin Luther opposed Galileo. Furthermore, despite the fact that few could accept the truth at first, eventually everyone has come to accept the understanding of our solar system first propounded by Copernicus and Galileo. It took 350 years, but in 1992 then pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo had been right and that the Church had been wrong. As Andrew Melville once said, “It lies not in your power to hang or exile the truth.”
Jesus’ second parable in this collection is the parable of the measure. The point of this parable is that a person’s getting is determined by his giving. This is true in many areas of life. The more diligence a student gives to his or her studies, the more he or she will get out of them. The more energy and devotion we give to worship, the more we will get out of worship. The more love we give to the people in our lives, the more love we will get in return.
Our giving also has a snowball effect. When we give more diligence to our studies, we learn more, and this learning lays the foundation for even more learning in the future. Those who give their heart’s devotion to worship, lay the foundation for growing ever deeper in their worship of the Lord and getting more and more out of that worship over time. The more we show love to others, the more others will want to be our friends.
However, Jesus says the converse is also true. If we fail to give diligence to our studies, devotion to worship, love to the people in our lives, then even the little that we have will be taken away from us. The adage is true “use it or lose it”. If we do not put to good use the intelligence we do have, we slowly find our mental capacities slipping away. If we do not take care of our bodies through proper nutrition and exercise, we lose physical energy and fitness over time. If we do not develop our skills in service of our jobs, eventually we may lose the jobs we had in the first place.
However, more than anything else, I believe we need to apply this parable to the issue of love. To illustrate what I mean, think back with me to the 1950s, and the acclaimed play by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun. As you may remember, it was turned into a movie with Sidney Poitier in the lead role. After Sidney Poitier’s character, Walter,
… gets cheated out of a large sum of money, he makes the unpopular and demeaning decision to accept a buy-out of their new home from a white community association that didn’t want a black family moving into their neighborhood.
Walter’s sister, Beneatha, emphatically tells her mother, Lena, “He’s no brother of mine. That individual in that room from this day on is no brother of mine!”
Lena admonishes her daughter, “You’re feeling that you’re better than he is today? Yes? What did you tell him a minute ago, that he wasn’t a man? Yes? You, give him up for me? You’ve written his epitaph, too—like the rest of the world? Well, who gave you the privilege?”
“Momma, will you be on my side for once? Now, you saw what he did. You saw him down there on his knees. Wasn’t it you who taught me to despise any man who would do that? Who would do what he’s going to do?”
“Yes, yes, I taught you that. Me and your Daddy. But I thought I taught you something else, too. I thought I taught you to love him.”
“Love him? There’s nothing left to love.”
“There’s always something left to love. Have you cried for that boy today? Now, I don’t mean for yourself and for the family because we lost the money. I mean for him, and what he’s gone through! God help him, what it’s done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When he’s done good and made things easy for everybody? Oh, no. It’s when he’s at his lowest and he can’t believe in himself because the world done whipped him so. When you start measuring somebody, measure them right, child. You make sure you take into account the hills and valleys he’s come to, to get to wherever he is.”
The measure we give to others will be the measure we get back, and the measure we always need to give is a heaping measure of love, even or especially when we think others do not deserve it. Then, when we seem undeserving, when we are down, God will send someone to measure that love back into our lives.
The third parable that Jesus uses here is another parable about seeds.
This parable tells us a few things. First, it tells us something about the helplessness of human beings. The farmer is not the one who makes the seeds grow. In fact, do we human beings really understand what makes a seed grow? Oh, I know about water, and soil and sunshine and all that. However, every seed really has the secret of life and growth inside of it. We can arrange seeds so that they have the best water, the best soil, the best sunlight, but we do not actually make seeds grow.
The same is true of the kingdom of God. We can get in the way of it. We can hinder it. Or we can do things to make room for the growth of the kingdom. However, we do not actually make the kingdom grow. God does.
I have seen the truth of this with churches. I have served in churches that did not grow and I have served in churches that did. You can be doing all the right things in a church, but if it is not the right time and place, if God does not want it to happen then and there, then it is not going to happen. God is the one who adds to the church and makes it grow. Sometimes human beings try to take the credit for that, but the credit belongs to God.
So we learn some things about the kingdom in this parable. Often, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to things in nature. Growth is often imperceptible in nature. The same is true of kingdom growth. We can quantify numerical growth and even structural/ministry growth in a church. However, we cannot quantify spiritual growth.
Still, Jesus says that kingdom growth is constant, just like growth in nature. The seed grows day and night, even though that growth is sometimes imperceptible. The same is true of the kingdom. We may not see that kingdom growth happening here and now as we would like, but that is because our vision is limited. Do you realize that around the world today, and every day, more people are being added to the Church of Jesus Christ than the number who were added on the Day of Pentecost? We may not see it happening because it is not under our noses, but the kingdom is advancing constantly.
Nature’s growth is oftentimes unstoppable as well. Think of a little green weed that pushes through a concrete sidewalk in the city. Is that not amazing? Furthermore, the growth of the kingdom of God is even more unstoppable than that. God is going to accomplish his purpose for the world.
Thirdly, this parable tells us something about consummation. The harvest is coming. We may not see the kingdom harvest coming right now. Jesus said that even he did not know the day or the hour, not in the same way we know that there will be a natural harvest every autumn. However, the final harvest is coming nonetheless. Therefore, we need to be patient as we wait for God’s final victory; we need to prepare for it, by working for the kingdom now. Furthermore, we can also look forward to the final kingdom harvest in hope because as Paul said, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
The fourth parable that Jesus uses in this brief passage is another parable about seeds, it is the parable of the mustard seed. This little story shows us that we need to be careful about reading the Bible as though it were a science book. It is not and this parable is an example of that fact. Jesus says here that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds on earth, when in point of fact it is not. I have read that the smallest seed in the world comes from an orchid and it weighs only 1/35,000,000th of an ounce. However, Jesus thought of the mustard seed as the tiniest seed that he knew, in his humanity, and his first listeners probably agreed with him so the story made sense to them.
The mustard seed that Jesus was talking about did in fact grow to be something like a tree. Some of these plants could grow to be taller than a horse with a rider on top. Birds were attracted by the little black seeds of this mustard plant and could often be found all around them.
Jesus was using an image that would be familiar to anyone who read the Hebrew Scriptures. Great empires were often compared to a tree where birds find shelter in the branches. Therefore, it probably came as no surprise to Jesus’ first audience that he would compare the kingdom of God to a tree.
This parable has much to teach us. First, we learn from this story that we should not be disappointed with small beginnings. The mustard plant starts very small but grows to be rather large. So it is with the kingdom of God. Sometimes when we sow for the kingdom what we sow starts out small, but we can trust that by God’s grace, it will grow big.
This parable speaks of the Church. The Church began with one person, and now billions around the world are finding shade in its tree.
Furthermore, the Church is like a tree with all kinds of birds in it. We may think that certain birds in the tree are rather strange, but that is what we should expect with a big tree sheltering birds from all over the world. William Barclay once wrote, “We have a tendency to brand as a heretic anyone who does not think as we do.”
How much better is the example of John Wesley who said, “We think and we let think.” “I have no more right,” Wesley said, “to object to a man for holding a different opinion from mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair.” Wesley had one greeting for everyone, “Is thy heart as my heart? Then give me thy hand!” Before Wesley, the German theologian Rupert Meldenius had a wonderful slogan:
In essentials unity,
In non-essentials liberty,
In all things love
I believe we need to make that our slogan. Furthermore, we need to learn once again what things are essentials to our Christian faith, what are non-essentials, and how to practice love toward those with whom we may disagree about the essentials and the non-essentials.
In summary, these four parables of Jesus teach us four important lessons:
· The truth is meant to be seen
· What you get is determined by what you give
· Kingdom growth is unstoppable so you better get on board
· The church is like a tree with many birds, and a few nuts, so learn to love them!
Let me close with this story from William Barclay….
Once a new church was being built. One of its great features was to be a stained glass window. The committee in charge searched for a subject for the window and finally decided on the lines of the hymn,
“Around the throne of God in heaven
Thousands of children stand.”
They employed a great artist to paint the picture from which the window would be made. He began the work and fell in love with the task. Finally he finished it. He went to bed and fell asleep but in the night he seemed to hear a noise in his studio; he went into the studio to investigate; and there he saw a stranger with a brush and a palette in his hands working at his picture. “Stop!” he cried. “You’ll ruin my picture.” “I think,” said the stranger,” “that you have ruined it already.” “How’s that?” said the artist. “Well, said the stranger, “you have many colours on your palette but you have used only one for the faces of the children. Who told you that in heaven there were only children whose faces were white?” “No one,” said the artist. “I just thought of it that way.” “Look!” said the stranger. “I will make some of their faces yellow, and some brown, and some black, and some red. They are all there, for they have all answered my call.” “Your call?” said the artist. “Who are you?” The stranger smiled. “Once long ago I said, ‘Let the children come to me and don’t stop them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven’—and I’m still saying it.” Then the artist realized that it was the Master himself, and as he did so, he vanished from his sight. The picture looked so much more wonderful now with its black and yellow and red and brown children as well as white.
In the morning the artist awoke and rushed through to his studio. His picture was just as he had left it; and he knew that it had all been a dream. Although that very day the committee was coming to examine the picture he seized his brushes and his paints, and began to paint the children of every colour and of every race throughout all the world. When the committee arrived they thought the picture very beautiful and one whispered gently, “Why! It’s God’s family at home.”
The question is: will we let the truth shine for all to see, or will we suppress it? Will we measure to others in love or in judgment? Will we get on board with God’s unstoppable kingdom growth, or criticize from the sidelines? Will we paint the picture of God’s kingdom tree the way he wants it, or the way we want it, with children of every color, every race, every gender, every orientation, or will we paint the inhabitants of God’s kingdom tree to look just like us?