Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon: Mark 4: 21-34 Kingdom Parables

Last week, we tuned in to the Match of the Day highlights of one day of Jesus’ teaching. The main focus was on the parable of the sower - how the same seed is scattered over different sorts of soils, but the soils produce vastly different responses. We then got the inside track on what the parable is all about - the sowing of God’s word, and how people respond to it. Now, on Match of the Day, they’ll include bits from each of the games that have taken place, and from our reading this morning, we see that it’s further highlights from the same day of teaching.

Do you see that at the end of our reading, in verse 33? ‘With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.’ (33-34). We’re getting to listen in as Jesus speaks ‘the word’ - as he sows the good seed. There were many similar parables, but Mark is giving us these four so that we can hear Jesus’ words, and so that his word will produce a harvest in and among us.

That harvest theme comes in the two kingdom parables, which we’ll come to in a moment or two, but first, Jesus gives us two parables to encourage us to listen up, and to encourage us to think about the word that we’re hearing.

Maybe over the past week, you’ve been pondering the parable of the sower. You’ve been thinking about which of the soils you are. You’ve been reflecting on the ways in which you sow the seed of the word, and the responses that you’ve seen. Well here, Jesus is encouraging us to keep pondering, keep thinking about what we’ve heard him say.

In verse 21, Jesus asks a question. ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?’ So, even though there’s a quare stretch in the evenings, and the days are getting longer, there still comes a time when you need to turn on a lamp. For us, they’re electric, just a flick of the switch. For the people hearing Jesus that day, it would have been an oil lamp. But whether it’s electric or oil, the principle is the same. Would you turn on a lamp, and then cover it up, or put it under the bed? Answer - no, of course not! What good would it be?

He then continues by saying: ‘Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?’ With electric lamps, they’re probably in place on a table or unit. With oil lamps, they would be put on a stand. Why? So that things could be seen.

‘For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ (22-23).

Now, I must confess that I’ve been struggling to grasp what Jesus is saying here. And especially how it fits into this day of teaching. But I think I’ve got it now - and I think it helps us to see what Jesus is saying. Have you heard of a lightbulb moment? It’s the moment when you suddenly ‘get it’ - when you realise what something means. The Collins English Dictionary defines it as ‘a moment of sudden inspiration, revelation or recognition.’

Before it, we were in the dark about something, but now we can see it and understand it. And just as God’s word is like seed sown in our hearts, so it is also a light, or lamp. It shines in our darkness and helps us to see. Remember how last week (11), the secret of the kingdom of God’ had been given to the disciples? Jesus is encouraging all who hear to think about what they’ve heard - ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Because it’s as we think, and ponder, and reflect, that God’s word will turn on the light, and we’ll get it! We’ll have that lightbulb moment (or oil lamp moment!) as we hear what Jesus is saying.

And the next parable builds on that encouragement to listen, and particularly, (24) ‘Consider carefully what you hear.’ Think about it - because the more receptive you are, the more you’ll be given. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you - and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’ (24-25).

These days we bring along our own shopping bags, and you normally know what you’re planning to buy, so you have the right number of bags with you. But here, the image is of something being given out, and you get as much as you’re willing to receive. So imagine that grain is being given out, for free. The bigger the bag or container you bring, the more you’ll be given. Or, imagine an all-you-can-eat buffet. When you’re going there, you make sure you’re hungry, you’re ready to eat lots, because you can eat as much as you can eat. But if you go and only want one piece of toast, then it would be a waste!

But what is being given out is more precious than an all-you-can-eat buffet; more precious than grain; what’s being given out is God’s word. The hungrier you are for it, the more God will give you. The more you take in, the more you will be given. One commentator suggests that while in primary school, to be called big ears would be an insult - this is what Jesus wants us to have, spiritually speaking. When you sit down to read your Bible, or when you come to church, are your ears big, ready to listen, to take in what God is saying? With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

So let’s ask God to shine his light in our hearts, to help us to grasp his word. And let’s ask God to give us big appetites and big ears to hear his word to us. Because when we do that, then we come to the promised harvest. This is how we’ll produce the thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold crop from the parable of the sower. And we see the harvest in the two parables of the kingdom from verse 26 on.

‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces corn... As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’ (26-29).

Jesus is teaching us how the kingdom of God comes. At the start, comes the sowing - the seed is scattered on the ground. And at the end, comes the harvesting. By then the plant has grown and is ready and ripe.

So how did it come about? Does it depend on the farmer? Not really - so long as the seed is sown, he doesn’t really have anything else to do with it until harvest time. Whether he slept from sowing time until harvest, the plant would grow. Whether he tried to stay awake the whole time, he wouldn’t make any difference to it. He doesn’t even know how it works - he just knows it does. Seed into soil equals a harvest.

And, building on the parable of the sower, we know that the seed is the word, God’s word. So when the word has been sown in the good soil, the harvest will come - you can depend on it. We can’t do anything to help propagate the seeds, we don’t need to keep digging them up to see if anything is happening below the surface. We can trust that God’s word sown in peoples’ hearts will bring a harvest.

You might have heard Martin Luther’s summary of how the reformation came about just over 500 years ago. ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.’

That was Luther’s summary - I did nothing; the Word did everything. I don’t think I’d like Wittenberg beer; I don’t like any beer. But am I content to preach the word and let the word do the work? Are you? That’s what Jesus is saying - when we sow, the word grows and produces a harvest.

In God’s kingdom, his word is effective. But then Jesus goes on to show how in God’s kingdom, his word is also exponential. Look at verse 30:

‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.’ (30-32).

The contrast here is between how it starts, and how it ends up. You have the smallness of the mustard seed, something very tiny, 1-2 millimetres (0.039 to 0.079 in). It’s so small, unimpressive, it looks like it wouldn’t amount to much. Yet it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, big enough for birds to perch in its shade. The smallest becomes the biggest. We’ve a similar saying - great oaks from little acorns grow.

And Jesus says this is what God’s kingdom is like. It seems so small, so unimpressive - just Jesus, and his twelve apostles. But history shows how that ragtag bunch has grown into something much bigger. A while back, Regatta clothing company were running a special advertising campaign looking back at the history of the company, how a group of people had started to make affordable outdoor products back in 1981. Here was their strapline: ‘There were 12 of us. Now there are millions.’

Couldn’t that be our strapline? There were 12 of us, but now there are billions. And it’s because God’s kingdom is like the mustard seed, starting small but growing exponentially, beyond all expectation. You’re invited to become part of his kingdom, and it comes about as God’s word is sown and grows in your heart - as you hungrily hear God’s word, and as God gives you the lightbulb moment of understanding. The harvest is coming. God’s word is effective, beyond all expectation.

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th March 2019.

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