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.
What kind of book is the Bible? Some see it is a book as rules. Others say it is God’s love letter to us.
Me, I see it increasingly as the story of God’s mission. (Which means that any rules tell us what pleases the God who loves us and has saved us. And which means that if it is a love letter, it is addressed to the world, not just God’s favoured ones.)
No, right from the beginning, God is on mission. And he is on mission in a particular way. God does not shout from a distance, expecting us to come where he is. From the start, he comes onto our territory. He is the first missionary, coming walking in the Garden of Eden, calling out, ‘Where are you, Adam?’ In the Incarnation, Jesus is ‘the Word … made flesh [who] dwelt among us’. In this parable, the landowner keeps going to where the workers are, rather than expecting them to turn up at his vineyard.
So God is a missional God, and this sermon attempts to explore some characteristics of our missional God.
The missional God is the sovereign God. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ he says to those who complain (verse 15a).
What do we mean when we talk about God being sovereign? Some of us get nervous, because we know how this has been used in history. In the Calvinist tradition, affirming the sovereign God has been used to advance the idea that God chooses some people to be saved and others to be damned. That’s not what I mean.
The sovereign God can do what he chooses, but what does he choose to do? It will be consistent with his character. The sovereign God wants his reign to be accepted everywhere, and so he reaches out to all. If he is truly sovereign, then he wants that reign to be embraced universally. Not all will accept the summons to his kingdom. Some will resist and face eternity without him. But it is his will that none should perish. And so, just as the landowner in the parable keeps going back to hire more labourers, so God keeps searching for more people who will turn from their former ways to follow his Son.
What does this mean for us? We are called to share in God’s mission. If God wants his reign to be embraced by all people in all places, then this is fundamental to the nature of the Church. Christianity is a missionary faith. Mission is not something we leave to those who are keen. It is something for all of us.
Yesterday, I was at Synod. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference were with us. Our current President, Stephen Poxon, is Chair of the North Lancashire District. His District has twinned with three overseas Methodist Conferences. One of them is the Methodist Church in Uruguay. There are only six hundred Methodists in Uruguay, spread across twenty-five congregations. A Uruguayan Methodist visiting the UK said to Stephen Poxon, ‘There’s something I don’t understand about British Methodism. Back home, every single Methodist church has a community project. Why isn’t that so in British Methodist churches?’
I think that Uruguayan Methodist had a point. If the missional God wants to see his sovereignty acknowledged everywhere, then mission has to be our top priority, even our defining characteristic as the church.
Some of the famous quotes from the last century really come into their own here – like when William Temple said the church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of those who weren’t its members. Or when the theologian Emil Brunner said that the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. We are a missionary church, or we are no church at all. That much is certain if the missional God is sovereign.
The missional God is generous. ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ he says to the moaners (verse 15b).
What does it mean for the missional God to be generous? In the parable, it’s quite clear. He has promised a day’s wages to everyone who comes and works for him. The surprise comes at the end when he gives just as much to those who have worked for less than a day. He doesn’t give them what they’ve earned – which wouldn’t be enough to live on – but what they need – namely the rate for a whole day.
On the surface, this makes it sound like God is a socialist: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.’ But capitalists like this parable too, because the landowner is free to do what he likes with his wealth. Jesus didn’t tell this parable in order for people to fit it into the political philosophies that would come two thousand years after his hearers.
No, the Gospel is a message of divine generosity. All we need for salvation has been provided for us in Christ. In his Incarnation, he lived our life. In his death, he took away the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he began God’s New Creation. We have everything we need in Christ. It has been generously provided in Christ, at immense personal cost.
God is on a mission to share his generous love. We are called to share the message of divine generosity to all people. But here’s the issue: the spirit of the message needs to fit the content of the message. So a message of God’s generosity needs to be couched in a generous spirit.
However, is that how we are perceived by non-Christians? One thing the Vice-President of Conference said at yesterday’s Synod was this. He talked about having visited the Greenbelt Festival for the first time. While he was there, he encountered a seminar led by a cross-party group of Christian MPs. Together, they explained to their sorrow that in Parliament the Christian Church is generally assumed to be a critical organisation. We are known far more for what we are against than for what we favour.
Might it be that if we want to encourage people to embrace the generous love of God, we need to adopt a generous attitude towards them? Debbie and I try to get involved in the community that centres around our children’s primary school. We have tried to befriend two or three single mums, who have each had two children by different fathers, and they have not married the fathers. Then there are two families where the husband and wife have recently split up. In one case, we can understand why the wife kicked the husband out. In the other case, we can’t. But we have tried to be available and demonstrate Christian love to them.
There are some Christians who think the first thing we should have done was condemn sex outside marriage and divorce in these cases. I want to make clear that Debbie and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage. There is a time and a place for talking about right and wrong. But how will people have a chance of believing in a generous God if we do not offer a generous spirit towards them? Believing that our missional God is generous calls all Christians to undertake acts of selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love in the name of Christ for those yet to discover his love.
Our missional God is merciful: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (verse 16)
Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. It is a message of God’s loving mercy for sinners. In Christ and Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and new life. Such is the mercy of God that he sends his Church everywhere in his Name to proclaim and demonstrate the mercy he longs to extend to all.
I expect we’re all used to speaking about the mercy of God like that. But when Jesus has the landowner say that the last will be first and the first will be last, the culture of mercy is extended further. That mercy is so fundamental to God’s kingdom that notions of order and rank are outlawed. One commentator on the parables puts it this way:
‘Earlier Jesus taught that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Lk 12:47-48); now he makes plain that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. The perfection of the life to come, by definition, does not allow for them.’
No superiority, no rank in the kingdom: we all need the mercy of God in Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven. The idea that because I am a minister I am more important is anathema to the Gospel. I should not expect to sit at the front of church like some worldly dignitary.
The early Church recognised this radical application of the Gospel: they even elevated slaves to the rank of bishop. They did not care for the world’s way of status. The Good News changed all that. Sometimes I see it in today’s Church, other times I don’t.
What does this have to do with mission? When we are obsessed with title or power, we start valuing some people less than others. While there may be certain ways in which the older approaches to rank and status are passing away today – such as the decline in respect for the Royal Family – other forms of the problem rise up to take its place. So we have an obsession with celebrity that seems to be about the kind of people our culture claims to be more important than others.
Now giving people differing value undermines the Gospel. God’s love in Christ is every bit as much for the least and the lowest as it is for the most and the highest. A true proclamation and living-out of the Gospel will have nothing to do with mimicking the world’s love of status. Nor will it fall into that contemporary trap, the making of Christian celebrities.
Rather, it will be counter-cultural. God loves all people, and that means he loves the poor and the obscure every bit as much as the rich and the famous. The Gospel is for our neighbours and the poor of the world.
One last example from yesterday’s Synod. Stephanie and I attended a workshop about mission opportunities in schools. It was led by a young woman from the Luton Churches’ Education Trust. Forty churches in Luton support this trust. It employs over twenty staff to work in secondary schools and with local teenagers. They don’t just do the normal schools work of RE lessons and assemblies. They also work with the sort of young people who are shunned or despised – those with ADHD, or who self-harm. As far as they were concerned, these children were as valuable as the gifted ones with the A* grades. That makes Gospel sense.
This parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s heart beats a missionary rhythm. If we are truly to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, then mission will define what we are about. We shall have a passion to take the Gospel everywhere. We shall proclaim God’s generous love in Christ with a generous spirit. And God’s mercy for all will mean we are as interested in sharing that love with the broken as with the headline-makers.
I nearly included today’s Old Testament lesson from Jonah in the service. It’s the part of Jonah’s story where he complains to God that the sinners of Nineveh have repented at the sound of his preaching, and received the grace of God. If we have the heart of Christ, then may we not be moaners like Jonah. May we be people who rejoice when the missing find their way back to God. And may we press on with the Gospel, that there may be many more occasions for such rejoicing.