Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34
What is stronger than God, more evil than the devil, poor people have it in abundance, rich people do not need it at all and if you eat it you will die?
I received this riddle years ago in an email. It claimed that if I forwarded it to so many of my friends, the answer would immediately pop up on my computer. To the great relief, I’m sure, of my friends, I did not forward it because I knew what would happen. No matter how many people you forward emails like this to, NOTHING happens. If I’d forwarded this email to a million people, NOTHING would pop up on my computer!
And then it hit me….that was the answer….Nothing is stronger than God, Nothing is more evil than the devil, Poor people have nothing, Rich people need nothing and if you eat nothing you will die. And whether I forwarded this email or not, nothing was going to happen. It was one of the most interesting riddles I’ve come across and I’ve been fascinated with it ever since.
Riddles are wonderful things to ponder. You hear them and, at first, you cannot figure out what they mean. Like watching a magician, we are puzzled and, often
times, our minds cannot let them go. We keep turning them over and over in our heads. But, unlike a magic trick, which when we figure out how it works we often feel duped, a riddle is most interesting when we have figured it out.
In many ways, a parable is a riddle. This was, for whatever reason, Jesus preferred teaching method especially when it came to talking about the Kingdom of God. Now, sometimes, that is very frustrating for us. I do not know about you, but I sometimes think—ah, Jesus, if you would just say what you mean! I wonder if we’d be able to really understand it if he did. Perhaps, Jesus also wanted his disciples and us to ponder a bit more on what the Kingdom of God is, who he is and what our faith is, taking time to think it through rather than just having an answer. Even a simple riddle, like the one I told at the beginning about nothing, gives a something for our minds to chew on and states a truism a little bit more complex than just saying God is the strongest thing in the world.
We have two parables in our gospel lesson for today, both of which are very interesting and are likely connected to each other as well. The first parable is about a guy planting seeds. This parable is not about how to be a good farmer or the science of agriculture. This parable is about something else altogether. It is about the kingdom of God.
Sometimes, parables are easier to understand if we get inside them, so to speak. For example, with the very well known parable of the Good Samaritan, we could imagine ourselves as the pious person who passes by the injured man on the road or the good man who stops to help. Or perhaps we may even imagine ourselves to be the injured one, hoping against hope that someone will stop and help.
With today’s parable, this is a little easier because there is only one person in it. So, let’s get inside. We go to scatter our seed. Good time of the year to be thinking about this, too, isn’t it? Easier to imagine it in the spring and summer months. The parable says we sleep and rise—in other words, time passes by. The seed we’ve planted grows into a sprout and then a plant and then produces grain, though we do not know how this happens. Now, of course, we do know scientifically how this happens and it is quite possible that even people during Jesus’ time knew how it all worked. Agriculture is by no means a modern science. However, can you make a seed sprout? Do we really know how it works? The mechanics of it, certainly, but can any of us take a seed or two in our hands and, by the force of our willpower, make a plant grow? Well, of course not. But we are certainly able to take advantage of the fact that it does! And as soon as these plants in our little story mature, we are quick to run out and harvest them! In a sense, we receive the benefit food, and therefore life, but all we have to do is show up.
Jesus says that this is like the Kingdom of God. Hmm. So, the Kingdom of God is something of which we may not fully understand the workings and could not create on our own, but something from which we receive benefit by just showing up for the abundant harvest.
One of the interesting things about the Kingdom of God parables is that they are a riddle within a riddle. At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus say that the Kingdom of God has come near to us. Literally it says the sovereign reign of God is right before us! It is standing right in front of you. The Kingdom of God is, in a manner of speaking, Jesus himself. So when he tells parables about the Kingdom, he is also speaking about himself and our relationship with him. Let’s re word our conclusion: the Kingdom of God or Jesus is someone that we may not fully understand, but we receive the benefit of relationship with him just by showing up for the abundant harvest.
Now let’s look at the second parable/riddle. This time, Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God again, and he is still using seeds and plants to make the point. The Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that, when planted, grows into a tremendously large shrub which is many times over the size of the seed! It even becomes a home for birds. It is a vision of life! The Kingdom of God, in fact, Jesus himself and our relationship with him may look small and not particularly powerful or important, but just as with the mustard seed, great and mighty things come from it and life lived here is abundant.
We can see this in Jesus’ life. Who would have thought that a baby, born to poor parents in an animal stall would amount to anything? Who would have thought that a guy who was executed on a cross would be the one who saves the world? Who would have thought that a dead person could come to life? Who would have thought that a man who lived about 2 millennia ago would have anything to do with us? Who would think a tiny seed would grow into a huge plant?
Parables, like riddles, are to be pondered. Like magic tricks, they intrigue us, confuse us and draw us in. But, unlike silly card tricks, we never really get to the bottom of all that a parable is the first time we get what it means. In fact, parables tend to have multiple layers and deeper meanings and are valuable across generations and throughout lifetimes. So what does it mean that our relationship with Jesus, seeming small, is actually incredibly huge, powerful and capable of sustaining life? What does it mean that Jesus, though we may not understand all of him, gives us the blessing of life with him?
There is one really important thing that I think it means to us at Shepherd of the Hills. Even when things seem small, when it seems that we have a small attendance at worship because there are so many people on vacation, or when it seems that our ministries do not have as big of an affect on the area or in the wider church as larger congregations just because we are so small, we know that Jesus is not small. Our relationship with Jesus—our place in the Kingdom of God—may be no bigger than a mustard seed, but it is all God needs. From the mustard seed that is Shepherd of the Hills, a thriving, life supporting ministry can and does grow.
We also do not need to know exactly how it will happen. We do not need to know every detail of how our ministry will form and grow. We do not need to have every detail planned out in advance before we make a move in one direction or another. We DO need to be about the business of being gardeners who trust that God will do the growing while we use our time scattering seeds of ministry. We DO need to show up for the harvest.
So how else is the Kingdom of God like the gardener scattering seed? Like the tiny mustard seed? Let us all spend time thinking on this over the week. I pray that God will grow seeds of his Son in all our lives, that we will remain hopeful in this mustard seed church, and that we will show up, glad for the harvest!