I am sure you will recall the hymn,
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne;
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.
One Methodist minister of a previous generation used to twist those last two lines to describe certain preachers:
Ten thousand thousand are their texts,
But all their sermons one.
You will know the sort of preacher who always seems to harp on about the same subject, whatever the Bible passage. You know these preachers are obsessed with one thing. You wonder whether they will ever broaden out and cover what the Apostle Paul called ‘the whole counsel of God’.
There is, however, one theme that keeps recurring in my preaching in recent years. But it can’t be avoided in today’s Lectionary Gospel, because it is front and centre: mission.
And if I do speak often about mission, it’s for this reason: a key element of my vision for the churches I serve is that we give mission priority in our lives. And when something is central to your vision, you can’t mention it enough. I can’t afford to allow us to forget that mission has to dominate our vision. Some people say that the church is here to worship, but we are also here for mission. Indeed, the two are connected. As one preacher put it: ‘Mission exists because worship doesn’t.’
And when you have a vision, you have to keep restating it. It’s surprising how you can certain things from the front of a church, and then discover people haven’t heard what you said. So vision has to be repeated, even if it sounds like you have a one-track mind. And I intend continuing to emphasise mission here.
So we come to this passage – one of my favourites on the subject, and actually the first passage I ever preached on as a Local Preacher On Note. Mission is a theme that makes many Christians nervous for a variety of reasons, but I like this reading, because it reminds us that Jesus uses ordinary disciples in his mission. He has sent out the Twelve in the previous chapter, but this time we read that he appoints ‘seventy others’ and sends them out (verse 1). We don’t know their names. They are the regular disciples without a high profile who are put to work by Jesus.
Not only does it remind us that he uses ordinary followers, there are themes here that address some of our fears.
Firstly, Jesus here shows us that mission has a simple approach. Think of how we have often conceived of mission. If it is evangelism, it has been along the lines that we need a lot of churches to pull together, raise a lot of money and stage evangelistic meetings in large venues such as theatres of football stadia with a big name preacher. They take a lot of organisation, and many things can only be done by experts.
Now I have nothing against the big event. I have been involved in a few, and there are occasions in the Gospels when Jesus speaks to a ‘multitude’. But we do not have that approach here. Instead, Jesus sends out the seventy – the ‘ordinary disciples’, as I have said – and they go without purse, bag or sandals (verse 4). There isn’t a big budget here. There is no importation of a big name celebrity preacher. The only big name person in this story is the One who sends these people out on their mission!
Why is this? Because at heart, all you need for mission is ordinary Christians telling other ordinary people what they have discovered in Jesus and how he has changed them. You don’t need fund-raising or an advertising campaign for that. You just need people who love Jesus.
So it doesn’t matter here that we are a small church. It doesn’t even matter that a lot of us are elderly, and that many of us have health problems. Because none of that need get in the way of us simply telling the story of our faith in Jesus at the right time to our friends, families and neighbours. Do not worry that we lack the energetic young people that some other churches in Addlestone. Do not be disheartened when you see some of the larger churches spending bigger sums of money on various projects. None of these things is a barrier to us getting on with the mission of God. All that mission takes is a bunch of people who love Jesus and who are therefore prepared to tell their story. It doesn’t require big bucks, it doesn’t mean Bible-bashing, it simply requires those who are prepared to tell a love story. And we have such people here – don’t we?
Secondly, Jesus shows us that mission has a simple principle. Again, we don’t always think mission is simple like this, do we? We think that for mission to happen and to be successful, it all depends on us. We must learn techniques, we must deploy them properly, if we are asked questions by non-Christians we must have the right answers up our sleeves … that’s a huge burden to bear, isn’t it? So much effort to expend. So many things we must ensure go right. What a responsibility!
But again, Jesus shows us that mission is rather different from that picture. Yes, there is the general need to be obedient to the call, but mission never did depend on us getting all the mechanics right. Ultimately, it doesn’t depend on us, it depends on God.
And we see that in the reading. I draw your attention to a part of the passage that seems a touch mysterious to some, but which is one of my favourite parts. Hear verses 5 and 6 again:
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
‘If anyone is there who shares in peace’ is an inclusive language way of saying something like this in older language: ‘If a man of peace leaves there.’ Jesus tells his followers to look for men and women of peace. He seems to be telling them to look out for people who show they are receptive to the message, and not to waste their time on those who are scornful.
But here’s the issue for us: how come there are already people who are receptive to the message of Jesus before a disciple of Jesus ever gets to them? What do we make of that? We know it happens. In the book of Acts, the Roman centurion Cornelius is somehow ready for the message that Simon Peter brings, even before he arrives. Missionaries tell stories of going to villages that have never previously been visited by Christians, and encountering people who have had dreams in which Jesus appears to them. What does this all mean?
Basically, it means that God goes ahead of us. That’s why – although we need to be obedience to the call – the success of mission doesn’t depend on us. God shows up in people’s lives before we do, and he prepares them to hear the Good News.
So when we have the courage and love to talk about our faith in Jesus to people, we are looking for signs that God has got there before us. Does something stir in these people? Are there signs of interest? Or are we just being humoured? Worse, are we simply being mocked? It’s worth persisting if God is opening up interest, but if not, then remember what Jesus said about throwing pearls before swine. The fact is, we cannot do the heavy lifting of mission on our own. If God is not lifting the weights for us and enabling our witness to be received, then move on. But if it is being received, stay with it, because God the Holy Spirit is at work and we need to co-operate.
The third and final thought I want to share on this occasion from this passage is that Jesus tells us that mission has a simple message. In the passage, Jesus puts it like this:
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Verses 8-10)
Now perhaps you are thinking, hang on Dave, you said this was a simple message. There’s nothing simple about curing the sick! Give me a chance to expand on this. The message is in the words at the end of that quote: ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ That is the basis for all we do – the message of God’s kingdom. It is a message that God has made Jesus king of creation, despite what the world has done to him. So despite sinful people nailing him to a Cross, God raised him from the dead and vindicated him as his ‘right hand man’, and now people owe him allegiance.
When he reigns, blessings come – and that may include things such as healings. That’s why the Church Council was happy to let a group of Christians from other churches set up outside here each month for an initiative called ‘Healing on the Streets’. You may have seen them recently, and they will start in earnest come September.
We may not all have a healing ministry, but we all have ways of demonstrating the rule of Christ over our life and of others. It may be in being a voice for those suffering injustice. It may be that you can do something practical for those who are poor and in need, as the Food Bank here does. Or perhaps you can get alongside someone who is despised by society, and be an example of Christ’s love to them.
Whatever way it is, the simple message of Christian mission is that God has made Jesus king, and now all are called to bow the knee to him. This is not something we simply speak out, we have to demonstrate it as well. That is why you get the reference in the passage to ‘curing the sick’. It is incumbent upon us not only to call people to follow Jesus as Lord, but to put that into practice in our own lives and give demonstration of the things King Jesus cares about in our world by practical action on our part.
Of course, you may say that the reign of Jesus is a simple message to describe in word and deed, but a challenging one to put into practice, and you would be right. However, we have the help of the Holy Spirit to do this. What is more, the Spirit equips ordinary disciples of Jesus to engage in this mission, and that same Spirit goes ahead to prepare the way in people’s lives.
All in all, Christian mission is much simpler than we have allowed ourselves to believe. So what’s stopping us?
How many people have you come across who seem to have a one-track mind? At secondary school, plenty of the boys had one-track minds: they only thought about girls!
And there are preachers with one-track minds, too. Whatever passage they take, their sermons keep coming back to the same subject. Somebody once parodied them by rewriting the hymn ‘Come, let us join our cheerful songs’. When it came to the lines, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their songs but all their joys are one’, he said, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one.’
Jesus has a one-track mind.
At least, he has when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke. He has a one-track mind for the kingdom of God. You certainly get that here in Mark 4. It is Mark’s great ‘parables of the kingdom’ chapter. We have heard extensively about the Parable of the Sower, along with Jesus’ philosophy of parables. Here, we have the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed – two more that use agricultural images from his day to speak about God’s kingdom. He only speaks in this elusive way to the crowds – all they get is enigma. Only the disciples receive explanations.
For this morning, I’m just going to concentrate on the first parable in our reading, the Parable of the Growing Seed. It moves in three phases: sowing, growing and – this doesn’t rhyme – harvest. What do these tell us about Jesus’ one-track mind subject, the kingdom of God?
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’ (verse 26).
In my last appointment, I used to belong to a group of ministers that met monthly to support one another. When we worshipped together, one of our favourite songs was Paul Oakley’s ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’. One reason that song was important to us was these words:
It’s all about You, Jesus
And all this is for You,
For Your glory and Your fame
It’s not about me
As if You should do things my way
You alone are God,
And I surrender to Your ways
It’s all about you, Jesus. Not about us. A sin church leaders fall into all too readily!
And the sowing of God’s kingdom is all about Jesus, too. The Old Testament often speaks about God as king of his people, but when Jesus comes he announces that the kingdom of God is near. The kingdom is among people, because he has come. The sowing of the kingdom is the sowing of Jesus’ life. The sowing is his incarnation, obedience, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension. In all these, we see close at hand that God reigns.
Yes, when the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary to bring about her miraculous pregnancy, that is the reign of God. When Jesus follows the will of the Father, that is the kingdom. When Jesus proclaims the message and demonstrates it in works of power, that is God’s kingdom at work. When he dies for the sins of the world, that is not the victory of evil but the kingdom conquest of sin. When he is raised from the dead, God’s kingdom triumphs over death. When Jesus ascends to the Father’s right hand, he is reigning on high – it’s the kingdom.
What does this mean for us? The primary sowing has been done. We get to do a secondary sowing of God’s kingdom. Whenever we obey the will of God, we sow the kingdom. Whenever we share the love of God in Christ for people by our words or our deeds, again we sow God’s kingdom in the world. Anything we say or do to point people in the direction of God’s reign over creation is a sowing of the kingdom. Any action that is in harmony with God’s purposes does the same thing.
In other words, Jesus calls us to spend our lives intentionally sowing the kingdom of God. It is not simply when we sing of his kingship on Sunday morning. It is tomorrow morning at work or in the community, when we are the people known to be those who care for the hurting, and who by sacrificial service earn the right to speak about Jesus to people. Tomorrow, we spend time sowing the kingdom as we seek the power of the Holy Spirit to live like Jesus.
‘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.’ (Verses 26-28, italics verses 27-28 mine)
It grows, and the sower doesn’t know how! I find that very helpful for interpreting some of my own experiences in the life of faith.
A few years ago, I had to take charge of a church temporarily when its minister was removed for disciplinary reasons and look after them until a new permanent minister arrived. Within days, I was called to visit a couple. It was Good Friday, and the husband was dying. As far as I am concerned, I simply visited, stayed with them, listened to what the wife had to say and led a prayer before leaving. On Easter Monday, the husband died. I visited again, took the funeral, and so on.
It was nothing remarkable in my eyes. In fact, I looked back and thought I could have done more. But not in the eyes of the widow. Cynthia told others in the church that I had greatly helped her through her bereavement. I can’t understand why she thought that.
Similarly, it has often been the sermons I have thought to be my weakest, or certainly the ones I have found to be the biggest struggle in preparing, that have had the most positive responses from congregations. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Well – it doesn’t make sense to me unless Jesus is onto something here. The sower in the parable sows the seed, but the growth happens without any fancy strategies. Off goes the sower to bed, and the seed gets on with growing from the earth. Jesus doesn’t need our cleverness. He doesn’t need our fancy programmes of action. Nor does he need our techniques. And he certainly doesn’t need us to manipulate people if the kingdom of God is to grow.
How does the growth happen, then? We simply get on with our obedience, however quiet and unflashy, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to bring growth. We obey, the Spirit grows the kingdom, not us.
The Apostle Paul said something very similar, when he was discouraging the immature Christians at Corinth from pursuing a personality cult:
‘What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.’ (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
We plant (that is, we sow – as already described). And we water (that is, we find out what God is doing and join in with it). The growth comes from God, not us.
If that’s the case, then we know both the extent and the limit of our responsibilities in the kingdom of God. The extent of our responsibility is that we are called to faithful obedience to Jesus Christ. We are junior partners in co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
But we are junior partners only. We are responsible for our obedience, but the Holy Spirit is responsible for the kingdom of God’s growth. So let’s get on with obeying Christ, calling on the Holy Spirit to make the kingdom grow.
Here’s how the parable concludes:
‘But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Verse 29)
What happens at a harvest? Why would the harvester use a sickle? When the growing season has come to a conclusion at the end of the summer, the farmer needs to bring the crop that has grown into the barns, separating it from other things that are burned. No longer do wheat and chaff mingle: they go to different destinations.
The harvest of God’s kingdom, then, involves both blessing and judgment. For all that is good, all that have grown in grace and in the knowledge and love of God and Christ, there is blessing. But for those who have sought to strangle the work of the kingdom, all who have been apathetic to the claims of Christ, there is only eternal separation from God’s pure love to contemplate.
This may not be a popular claim to make today, but it is clearly present in the imagery of the parable. Furthermore, Jesus seems to be building on the language of the prophet Joel, who used the picture of a sickle as a way of talking about God’s judgment on the Day of the Lord.
So it’s good news for the fire and brimstone brigade, isn’t it? Those who shout at us in the street, warning us of the coming judgment – they’ve got it right. Haven’t they?
Actually, no. This judgment is in the future, not the present, and it is the prerogative of God, not us. Like everyone else, we shall stand before Christ, dependent upon the mercy of God, a mercy we have found in the Cross, not our own superiority.
I was thinking about this yesterday, when the July 2009 issue of Christianity magazine came through my letterbox. The first column I read every month is the one by Jeff Lucas, and in his piece this month he had this to say:
‘… we followers of Jesus can become holy meddlers on a crusade to sort people out. We (who are so unsorted ourselves) can be quick on the draw with natty little ‘answers’ that are little more than slogans. Instead of just shutting up and listening, we rush to dispense our occasionally silly solutions. I know that the Bible encourages us to nudge and even rebuke each other so that we won’t be caught in insane and life-vandalising sins; but surely that doesn’t mean that today is yet another opportunity to run around looking for people to sort out, pronto.’
God will judge. His main judgment will be in the future. We are not to judge. This is not to eliminate the need for the Church to speak out on all sorts of social evils and to campaign against them. However, it is to say that whenever we need to do so, we must remember that we are sinners saved by grace, not a self-righteous cavalry riding over the hill to rescue poor old God.
Where does this leave the followers of Jesus when it comes to the development of God’s kingdom, then?
We begin by remembering that Jesus has sown the kingdom of God; we are secondary sowers of the word today.
Secondly, sowers are not growers: it is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to grow the kingdom. Our calling is to the life of obedient faith, also by the power of the Spirit.
Finally, there will be a harvest of judgment where righteousness will prevail and evil will be destroyed. But vengeance is not ours. God will judge. We are his witnesses.
Truly, our calling in God’s kingdom is be junior partners with the Holy Spirit. Yes: junior partners.