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PASTOR: MAX STERNJACOB
A Lamp Under a Basket
And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
The Parable of the Seed Growing
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out 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 without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
—Mark 4:21-34 ESV
Good morning, Emmaus. My name is Max, I am one of the pastors here at Emmaus, and I am excited to bring you round two of the parables of the kingdom. If you’ve been with us, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Mark, as we were just talking about, get those journals, get your guide, and follow along with us. But, all up through chapter 4, Mark has been giving us glimpses and little insights here and there, that the message of Jesus, in a nutshell, could be described as saying that the kingdom of God has come, the kingdom of God is near. However, there hasn’t been much discussion about explaining what that kingdom is, until we get to chapter 4, where Jesus starts telling parables.
And, when he does start speaking in parables, we see in the previous parable, the parable of the soils, that in the explanation of that parable, Jesus actually quotes Isaiah 6, which on the surface kind of sounds like Jesus is saying he’s purposefully trying to make it difficult for people to actually hear him and understand him. But, as we should do always, we should let scripture interpret scripture, and the parable that’s right after the parable of the soils, he starts by talking about light, by talking about a light that’s set on a stand, and not hidden. And, just as it would be silly for someone to take a lamp and hide it under a bed, or a basket, or a bowl, Jesus is saying that, no, the kingdom is actually on display, and it’s supposed to be revealed, and it’s supposed to be known, and experienced. And so, I hope this morning, what we can accomplish by looking at this smattering of various parables in the latter half of chapter 4, is to start to see what Jesus’ big themes are about the kingdom, what is it like, what is it like for us to experience it, and how can we know if it’s actually here. So, would you pray with me, and let’s jump into Mark chapter 4.
We recognize that the beauty of your word is that we can study it our whole lives and never come to its depths. And so, we ask, today, that you would allow us just one more step in better understanding who you are, and better understanding who we are, and better understanding your kingdom. Would you use Jesus’ words here to cut through to our soul, and to help us to see your kingdom, and to live in your kingdom in a more profound way than when we came. God, help me to explain your words accurately and faithfully. I need your help, would you please give it, and would you help my friends and my family in this room to help us to hear, as Jesus says, to have ears to hear. In Jesus’ good name, amen.
So, we’re going to be jumping through these parables together, and I think there’s just three straightforward themes that permeate all three of these parables that Jesus uses here, and that is these - that the light of Jesus will not be hidden, that God will see to it that His Kingdom grows, and that God’s kingdom starts small, and grows large.
Mark 4:21 … And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” …
See, before we jump into these series of parables, we want to remember the parable of the soils that came right before it. If you were with us last week, we talked about the fact that God’s miraculous yield in that parable is kind of the point. The point that Jesus is trying to make, is that 25% of the seed that goes out produces a yield of 100 fold, which is just, in that day, no one ever had that kind of return. And now, Jesus is saying, the light that is coming is having an effect, but it’s having an effect similar to the parable we just talked about in the parable of the soils, is that what happens is the light comes, but there’s not an immediate effect. There’s not an immediate result. If you were with us last week, we talked about that the roots grow first, and the roots grow in a way that’s unseen. See, the patience and slowness, and the steadiness of the kingdom is coming, because that is the healthiest kind of growth.
And, I think as I was reading and studying Mark, one of the things that came up, is there’s a man named William Carey. Have you guys heard of William Carey before? He’s actually known as the father of modern missions. He was a missionary to India. In fact, if you’re interested, I got most of this information from a biography, that we actually have in our lending library, and it just goes through his whole life. And, one of the things about William Carey, is that he actually repeatedly, in his life, came back to this passage in Mark, and the similar cross references that we have in Matthew and Luke, of this parable of the light that’s on display. And, it was one of those things that fed his entire life and ministry. He’s constantly talking about that his job was to put God’s light on display for the world.
And, his life was kind of interesting. As he was preparing to become ordained, he actually failed twice. He went through all of the steps and went to school, and then he had to go preach a sermon, and he preached a sermon, and they cut him. They said, nope, come back later. And, after years of studying, he finally got ordained, and then he decided … I’m going to go to India. And, as he goes to India, he served as a missionary faithfully for seven years before he had his first conversion. Seven years of faithful work before he saw any fruit. And, William Carey used this passage of the gospels to fuel his life and ministry, to say, that is exactly what we’re doing. We put Jesus Christs’ light on display, we sow seeds faithfully, and the growth is up to God.
I. THE LIGHT OF JESUS WILL NOT BE HIDDEN (Mark 4:21-25)
See, what Jesus is about to get into, here, is to talk about subverting our expectations about what kingdoms are like, and especially what God’s kingdom is like. And, he does that by saying, first and foremost, a parable of the light. And, Jesus says, Jesus’ light will not be hidden. Now, the first point, there, that Jesus makes is that if you hide the light, you misuse it. If you hide it, you misuse it. Verse 21 … “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” … Now, remember, in that day, the light was fire, right? It wasn’t just a battery operated flashlight that you could turn on and off. So, you can imagine that for him to say, if you brought in a lamp and put it under your bed … what’s going to happen? What happens if you put it under a basket? What were baskets made out of? Both their beds and their baskets were flammable, right? So, he says, if you take the light and try to hide it, you’re misusing it. And, not only are you misusing it, because the light was brought in so that you could see, but if you misuse it, it’s going to go bad for you, right? You’re going to cause damage. You’re going to burn something down.
Jesus is saying that if you hide it, you misuse it. See, in those days when you did not have electricity, and you did not have flashlights, and all you had was fire, flame, to light and illumine things at night, you start to see real quickly how light and darkness became a very vivid metaphor for Jesus to use, because if you did not have any sort of flame, and you were inside a house, you were literally in utter darkness, right? You had nothing to see by. Light is necessary for life, not just so that you can move around, but, you know, I was reading in some of the books that my kids enjoy reading about the nature, and the food chain, and it has this chart, and it shows the food chain, and at the bottom of the food chain is phytoplankton. It’s the smallest little tiny microscopic creatures that little tiny fish eat, and then bigger fish eat those fish, right? But, actually, what’s not on that chart, I was realizing, is the sun. Right? Because, the only reason why the phytoplankton at the base of the food chain can exist is cause there’s light that fuels them. Light fuels creation. Our whole creation is dependent on light. It creates the seasons, it has power, and Jesus is saying that, likewise, the light of the kingdom is necessary for light, and you misuse it when you hide it.
See, and the purpose of light is not just to sustain creation, but you and me, we need light. We can’t see without light, and the purpose of light is to reveal things for us to be able to see. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this happen, but when I used to work for the county, we had to wear boots, and we also had to keep our boots looking shiny. And, I had bought a new pair of boots once, and I had shined them all up, ready to wear for the first time for my shift, and I also had a pair of brown boots for working around the house. And, I had to get up for my shift early in the morning, it was dark, and I didn’t like to turn on lights, and so I literally went, I was tired, and I forgot that I was supposed to be wearing my new boots. But, what ended up happening is that I grabbed the left brown boot, and then I grabbed the right black boot, I put them on, and then I went to work. And, when I got to the locker room to change, I look down, and I go … oh no. Right? I mean, and I didn’t have any other boots. So, that day I worked my shift with a brown boot and a black boot on, and I got many, many comments about that.
But, without light, we can’t see. Without light, we make mistakes, we make mismatches, right? We can’t see without the light. So, Jesus is talking about a misuse of the light, and what light is for, and then he turns and he makes a statement here that is actually pretty significant. It’s actually scary. What does he say? Look at Mark 4:24 … And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” …
Sounds like a warning to me. What is he warning us of? Well, I think what he’s trying to get at, here he’s warning us that you can misuse light, but if you misuse it, you will lose it. If you hide the light of Jesus - because Jesus says if you try to hide the light of his kingdom, Jesus says you will actually lose his kingdom altogether. If you hide it, you will lose it. See, the people of Israel, that were hearing Jesus, and the religious leaders who had already, clearly, up until Mark chapter 4, we’ve seen it again and again, their conflict with Jesus, the tension that he had with them, they had some light. They had some of the revelation of God about who he was, and what he was like, and what he was doing in the world. But, they use that light, they use that revelation about God’s kingdom to segregate themselves from the nations, to pit themselves against God’s creation, and to actually use it to prop themselves up instead of God. And, they also used it to reject God’s message in the prophets, and now they’re using that same volition that God had given them, to reject Jesus himself. Right?
Right before this is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, right? And, they use the knowledge they had about God’s creation, about angels and demons, and they said, God is against Jesus, because Jesus is doing these miraculous things by the power of Satan. So, they actually use the revelation that God had given them about the way the world and the universe worked, not to actually receive the kingdom of God, but to actually condemn what God was doing. They hid it, and Jesus is saying, you’re on a trajectory to lose it. He says, to the one who has, more will be given. But, to the one who has not, even what you have will be taken away. He is telling his hearers that, though you may have some light, if you reject me, even what you have will be taken away. That’s a powerful thing, isn’t it?
Jesus is saying something very substantial here, and we should not just gloss over it, and say, well, that was for them. Because, for us, we stand many years removed from this original talk, this original parable, and we have more revelation than they had, than the original hearers. And so, if we reject Jesus with even more of that light, how much more are we liable, how much more do we condemn ourselves for the rejection and the misuse of the light of Jesus and his kingdom?
See, Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels, something that is very important to hear. He elsewhere, in John chapter 8, says … I am the light of the world … and, in Matthew 5 … you are the light of the world … What is he talking about here? Well, I went to Biola University for my undergrad, and when I was there they were building a new library, which made it kind of fun because the old library wasn’t really in use, and the new library wasn’t in use, so they literally just had, like, a basement with books in it, and good luck trying to find things in there. But, it finally did open, and as their project completed, I remember the first time I walked into the building. I actually have a picture of it, and this is the front of the library. And, when you walked in, it says … I am the light of the world … And then, when you go in and you come back out, it says … You are the light of the world … And, I remember walking into that library, and that made an impression on me, that there’s something to be said, that when we come to Christ, we come to him because he is the light of the world, but then he sends us out, as light, and we hear that in John 8 and Matthew 5.
And, when Jesus talks about himself, and says .... I am the light of the world … What he’s saying there is that, you have no other option than to live by what I say, because he’s the light. See, Jesus doesn’t just say, I’m pointing to the light. He’s saying, he is the way, he is the light itself. Come. And, if Jesus is not that, if when Jesus says, I am the light, we go … well, maybe that is a little bit of an overstatement … if Jesus is not actually the true light, then he is utter darkness, because he is lying, and that’s what darkness is. See, we’re faced here right away, after the parable of the sowers, Jesus jumps right in and says, there is no middle ground. Either you see me as the light that will illuminate God’s kingdom, and you receive it and use it the way it was meant to be used, or else you reject it, and you will lose even what you have.
See, what does he mean, though, when he says, now you are the light of the world? Is he saying that now we all become little saviors to everybody? No. I think what he means, is that we take on Jesus’ character. We take on the revelatory character of Jesus, because Christians go into the world because they are a part of a new kingdom, and they start to reveal things. They start to shine the light of the kingdom in dark places. They start to point out the mismatches, right? They start to say, your shoes don’t match. That is not the right way to do that. Right?
See, God uses us to bring the light of his kingdom, to bring the imperfections and the sin that exists in our world, to ultimately point people to the true light. That’s our job. But, as we know, have you ever tried to start a fire without matches? We know that fire has to have some kind of an external source, right? Things don’t just spontaneously combust. There has to be a flame, fire, or a heat from outside that causes things to light, and it’s the same with us, is it not? When Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels that you are the light of the world, he does not mean you need to go rub some sticks together. He says, I will make you the light. I will bring the fire, right? And we see that he does, right? In Acts. The Spirit of God comes with fire, and regenerates his people, and makes his church, and sends them out.
See, God alone is the only one that can do that. And, we know that we’re on the right track in interpreting these parables, because that was the point of the parable of the sowers, that’s the point of the parable of the light, and now we see that not only has Jesus’ current teaching illuminated that, but the whole of the old testament also talks this way. If you really want to understand Mark, if you went to the Bible workshops with Pastor Matt, he did a great job of this, but you’ve got to understand the Old Testament, particularly, you’ve got to understand Isaiah. Because the book of Mark starts with saying that Jesus’ life and ministry is the fulfillment of everything that Isaiah talked about. And, Isaiah chapter 60, verse 1-5, it captures from the Old Testament, God’s plan for his kingdom. And, I want to read it to you because this is exactly the heritage that we have. And, the reason why you’re in this room right now is because Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Let me read it to you …
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
—Isaiah 60:1-5 ESV
See, all of the Old Testament is pointing to the fulfillment of what Jesus is doing right here. Jesus comes, and he says, God’s kingdom is now coming, and is near to you now, and everything that God promised that he would do for his people, he is doing. And, what’s the point of all of this in Isaiah 60? He says that I will make you bright, I will put my glory on you, and people will see your brightness, and what will happen? They will respond, and they will come and worship God because of you. They will come, the nations will come, and they’ll come bringing their treasures. They’ll come bringing their people. They will come into my kingdom because of the work that I am doing in you, by you being reflectors of my light.
See, God’s kingdom is growing, right? See, creation, fall, redemption, restoration, right? God is doing something, and God sees to it that his kingdom will grow, and that’s our next theme here.
II. GOD WILL SEE TO IT THAT HIS KINGDOM GROWS (Mark 4:26-29)
Let’s read the next section here …
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” …
See, Jesus here is saying that God is doing something, his kingdom is growing, and look at the reaction of the man. He doesn’t know how it’s happening. Right? We mentioned last week if you were with us, that all peoples in the ancient near east saw agriculture, saw growing things as some sort of divine action. And, everyone basically had a god that they would attribute that to. Jesus is saying that the true God, Yahweh, is the one who is behind that. We do not know how things grow. Sure, we might be able to have the steps, we know DNA is involved in there somewhere. But, really, when you think about it, the mystery of something that could start as a seed and grow into a giant, you know, redwood tree, it’s a miraculous thing, right? That, everything that that large 300 foot tree is, is in this. And, Jesus is saying that God will see to his growth, and it’s miraculous when it happens. We saw that in the parable of the sowers, we’re seeing that here, that the farmer goes out, sows the seed, and he knows not how.
There’s a mystery to it. There’s a mystery of the growth of the kingdom. Something is happening. I don’t know if you’ve ever reseeded your lawn. You go out, and you roto till the dirt, and you fertilize the dirt, and you go out there and you throw all the seed, and then you water like crazy, and then you water like crazy, and you water more, and a day goes by, and a day goes by, and a day goes by, and then you go out there and you get down on your hands and knees and you’re like … uh … nothing. And then, you water some more, you go to sleep, you repeat, you repeat, you keep doing it, and all of a sudden you go out, and what happens? Between literally one day and the next day, all of a sudden there’s a slight tinge of green on the lawn. How did that happen?
See, something was happening, you just couldn’t see it. Then, all of a sudden we see it. We know that roots grow first, right? Then shoots, then trees, then forests. It’s the already and not yet of the kingdom, right? Jesus is saying here, there’s a parable, here, of a man that goes out and sows seed, and as sure as that seed will grow, there’s a certainty to it, there’s a mystery to it, it’s happening, it just hasn’t been seen yet. It just hasn’t come into its fullness yet, but it’s going to happen. The dominoes are falling. It’s only a matter of time.
See, the kingdom is here, Jesus says, the kingdom is here, but it’s not fully realized. It’s already here, but it’s not yet completed. We don’t know how God is going to use our obedience, we don’t know when it will fully be ushered in, but we keep working. We keep going. We keep watering. It’s our little acts of obedience. There’s a certainty to it, right? The man just assumes, I need to go out and water, because something is going to happen. And, what we see here, is there’s a routine, right? There’s a, I go to bed, and I get up, and I keep watering, I keep planting, I keep sowing, and all of a sudden it grows, and it when it grows, he doesn’t know how. So, even though there’s a mystery to it, even though there is something we don’t fully understand, there is a certainly to it, is there not?
Elsewhere in scripture we read about this. In James chapter 5:7-8, he writes to his friends …
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
—James 5:7-8 ESV
So, he says just like a farmer needs to be patient, you need to be patient. We know that God’s done something, we know that he is doing something, and we know that he will do something. But, for you, you need to be patient. And, we mentioned this passage last week in 1 Corinthians 3, where the church that Paul’s writing to in Corinth is struggling with conflicts, and one of the major conflicts is basically kind of a celebrity culture, if you will, where they’re all kind of saying, well I’m a disciple of Peter, and I’m a disciple of Paul, and I’m a disciple of Apollos, and Paul writes to them and says … don’t you understand that we’re all supposed to be disciples of Jesus? And, he says in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9 …
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
—1 Corinthians 3:6-9 ESV
See, Paul is reminding his hearers the same kind of tone and message that Jesus is giving here in the parable, is that you plant, you water, but God causes the growth. The fruit springs up, and we know not how. See, it’s slow.
And, one thing that struck me as I was reading this, is that it says he sleeps. I want to ask you something. How is it that he can sleep? Do you guys have trouble sleeping? He sleeps, because he has a confidence, right? He sleeps, because he knows that he doesn’t have to solve all the problems. Do you have trouble sleeping? Why do you have trouble sleeping? I would submit to you that you have trouble sleeping, because you think you have something more that you’re supposed to be doing, right? You can’t get a good night’s sleep because your conscience isn’t clear. You can’t sleep because you think you have God’s job, right? This parable says he plants, he takes care of it, and then he goes to sleep. He’s not up worrying about it, because he’s confident that God is going to do his work, that he does not need to take God’s job back from him and worry about it.
See, what would it look like for you to actually go to bed tonight, and not worry that you have to somehow have God’s job on all the things that are affecting you? What would that look like? See, Jesus is getting at something here that we need to understand, that his light will not be hidden. There’s a warning about it being taken away. We need to see that God will see to it that his light and that his kingdom grows, but we also need to understand - which Jesus explains to us in the next parable - that though it may start small, it will grow large. Jesus’ kingdom starts small, and grows large. Look at Mark 4:30 …
III. THE KINGDOM OF GOD STARTS SMALL AND GROWS LARGE (Mark 4:30-34)
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
—Mark 4:30-32 ESV
See, Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed, but more importantly, he doesn’t just say, it’s like a mustard seed. He’s comparing to what a mustard seed does. That’s the real parable. He’s not just saying that the kingdom is small, although there is part of that. Because, at this point, there’s only 12 of them, right? But, he says, it’s not just about the smallness, it’s about what happens to it. Well, it grows large, and it grows miraculously, just like the parable of the sowers. In fact, it grows so large that the birds of the air come to rest in it. In fact, it’s something interesting when you read Matthew 13 and Luke 13, they’re the same parable but there’s a little twist, and I want to read it to you, and I want you to see if you catch it …
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
—Matthew 13:31 ESV
See, what Matthew and Luke both say here, a little bit different than Mark, but I think they’re getting at the heart of what Jesus is trying to say here, is that the miraculous growth of the kingdom is something that started out small, and grows large, but it’s not just that it grows large, it actually becomes something different. Mark points out here, that it’s one of the largest garden plants, or better translated here, maybe an herb. And, mustard plants do get large. They get about maybe 12 feet tall. But, Matthew and Luke say it actually becomes something different, it transforms from an herb to a tree. And, only God can take something in its nature and change it, right? He says it changes into a tree so that the birds of the tree come and make their nests in its branches.
See, Jesus is trying to say something about the nature of the kingdom here. He’s saying, I’m telling you something about the kingdom, and I don’t want you to start trying to import all of your ideas about kingdoms into what I’m saying. Cause, people are saying, oh, he’s talking about the kingdom. I know what kingdoms are like. I’ve experienced them. I’m living in a kingdom right now. I know what that’s like. It’s just like all the other kingdoms. But, Jesus says, no, it’s not like that. It’s something completely different. And, he does that in a couple of ways, which I want to get to. But, first of all, let’s just contrast the description of Jesus’ kingdom to the contrast of the kingdom of their day.
The immediate context for at least the people who would have been the original hearers here, is that just a couple decades before, the Hellenisation happened, with the Greeks conquering all of the middle east. Alexander the Great comes in, his kingdom comes into town, and everybody knew he was there, because he came in like a hammer. He came in and just disposed people of their land, got rid of all the kings, got rid of all the leaders, took all their treasure, right? There were only two kinds of people in Alexander the Great’s kingdom … people who fought against him and died, and the people who were in his kingdom, the people who were left over. That’s what the knew kingdoms were like. That’s the kingdom they knew, is that a kingdom comes in, and it just changes everything, it comes in like a hammer, it just destroys everything, and then we prop up some new leader, and it just starts all over again.
But, Jesus is saying something different here. He’s saying the nature of my kingdom is different than that. The nature of my kingdom is not like a boulder, it’s like a seed. And, a seed comes in softly, it comes in quietly. A boulder comes in and just tears through the ground and leaves a trench in its path, but a seed comes in, and it does its work slowly, oftentimes unseen for quite a while. The seed comes in organically, gradually, and gently, the boulder comes in suddenly and coercively. The boulder breaks the ground, but the seed transforms the ground, right? The boulder doesn’t do much of anything to change the environment, but if a seed is left to itself, pretty soon deserts become forests. See, boulders come in with just sheer power, but the seed comes in and transforms it, because God’s kingdom is like a seed. It transforms things in their nature, it doesn’t just come through and scratch the surface.
See, I have a picture for you that I want to show you. On the surface, you would think that boulder’s pretty strong. And, if you were to compare a big boulder like that and a tiny little seed, you’d probably say the boulder wins every time. But, left to itself, and over time, with faithful watering, look what happens. See, Jesus’ kingdom is like this. It doesn’t come in like Alexander the Great. It doesn’t come in and just dispose of everyone else. It comes in, and it radically transforms and breaks things down, that on the surface you would think could never be broken. Seeds, roots, shoots, trees, forests, fruit, seeds, roots, shoots, trees, forests … this is how God’s kingdom works, and that should be lifegiving to us.
It should be lifegiving to us, because we don’t have to do all of God’s work all at once. See, that’s why you can’t go to sleep at night, because you think, I’ve got to get it all done right now. But, that’s not how God’s kingdom works. See, the other thing here that’s important to see, is that when he talks about the seed growing up into a large tree where the birds of the air come and make nests in his branches, something that the totality of all the gospels are getting at here, is that, again, there’s background, right? There’s the Old Testament background to this, and we can’t go through it all right here, but I’d encourage you to read Ezekiel 17, Ezekiel 30, Isaiah 60, go read it on your own, and even the previous parable is alluding to this, right? What happens in the parable? Where are the birds? They come in and they take the seed, and they fly away so that nothing can grow.
But, see, now in this parable, the very same creatures, the birds that just took the seed, now have a place to rest because of the seed. The very birds that just stole the seed, are now benefiting from the seed. See, this is God’s upside down kingdom. In the background of Ezekiel and Isaiah, they talk about the nations being the birds of the air, that the nations would come and rest in the kingdom of God. They use this vivid imagery of all of the birds of the air migrating to God’s great kingdom, which is described as a tree, and some of that was in our liturgy this morning. They come and they find rest, come and find shalom, they come and find sabbath in God’s kingdom. And, this is the upside down nature of the kingdom, the very creatures that just one moment ago were stealing the seed, are now benefiting from the seed, making nests in the branches.
And, it’s this upside down kingdom that forces us to realize something, here, when read Jesus’ parable sand we hear them today, is that there is a necessity for us to let Jesus explain his kingdom. Because, we, just like the original hearers, we hear kingdom language and we import all of our cultural ideas about what kingdom is, so we have to stop and say, no, I’m going to let Jesus define and explain his kingdom, because everything that Jesus is describing here is upside down and backwards from the way that I understand, and the way that I would do it. I would come in hard and strong, I would come in and dig a hole, and bring in those boulders. But Jesus says, no, it comes in like a seed. You don’t understand. And, I’m going to come in with my anxiety, and I’m going to work my tail off at the end of the day, and I’m going to stay up all night worrying about it. No, it comes in differently than that. You can rest. You can sleep.
So, there’s a necessity that we need to let Jesus define his kingdom, and we know that that’s necessary, because look at the response of the disciples. Why is he even teaching in parables over and over and over again in the first place? He’s doing it because his listeners don’t get it. He has to teach them, because it’s not like anything they’ve ever known. But, here’s my question … why didn’t Jesus just put the kingdom of God into a sentence or do some kind of venn diagram of flow chart or something? Why didn’t he just give us the numbers? Can’t you just give it to me in a sentence, Jesus? Why all the stories?
See, what I think here, and what I want you to hear, my friends, is that Jesus is describing a real thing. The kingdom of God is not just an idea. It’s a real kingdom. And, if it’s a real thing, if it’s a real kingdom, then just simple propositions and assertions is not enough to capture the reality of that thing. We know this is true, because we do this all the time. If I was to ask you right now, if you’re married, describe your marriage. Describe to me that real thing you have. What would you do? Would you pull out your calendar and show me your schedule? There’s my marriage, on paper. Would you pull out your budget and show me all your bills? Would you show me your ring? What would you do to describe your marriage? Well, poets have been doing that for a long time, right? When people try to describe real things, what do they do? They describe it with analogies, they describe it with parables, they describe it with metaphors. Because it’s real, you can’t encapsulate it with just assertions. You have to describe it deeper than that, right?
Do you guys know who Andrew Peterson, the musician, is? We listen to him a lot in our car, as we drive. He has a song called Dancing in the Mine Fields. Have you heard that song? That’s how he describes his marriage. It’s a good picture, right? He says, my marriage is like dancing in the mine fields, sailing in the storm. That’s what he calls it. When you go to describe something like marriage, you go to describe something that’s real, and tangible, and beautiful, you’re a force to try to use analogies and metaphors and parables to describe it, and that’s why Jesus is using these parables, because he’s saying it’s real, it’s here, and in order to experience it, you need to understand it, but in order to understand it, you have to dive deep. I can’t just list it out in a sentence or show you a chart.
See, C.S. Lewis said it this way …
People...suppose that allegory is a disguise, a way of saying obscurely what could have been said more clearly. But in fact, all good allegory exists not to hide but to reveal; to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.
—C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress
See, C.S. Lewis is getting at something that we all intuitively know, which is that if we’re trying to describe something real, we have to rely on metaphor and analogy. But, see, what we often will do is this, though. We’ll take those analogies, we’ll take those metaphors of Jesus, no less, and try to insert our preconceived notions to fit what we think God’s kingdom should be like. But, if Jesus is actually talking about a kingdom, friends, the question is, is he the king? Who’s the king of the kingdom? And, if you come to Jesus’ kingdom, if you come to God’s kingdom, and you think … I’m going to insert my expectations, I’m going to insert my understanding, I’m going to insert my desires into God’s kingdom, then who’s the king? You are, or at least you’re trying to be. See, Jesus taught in a way that turned everything upside down. And, we know we’re in good company, friends, because Jesus’ closest disciples did the same thing, which is why he had to say it over and over again.
Later on in Mark, just a couple of chapters ahead, Mark 10:42, they’re all fighting about what the kingdom’s going to be like, and who’s going to be in charge, and Mark says in chapter 10 … Jesus calls to them and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rules of the Gentiles lorded over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them, but it shall not be so among you, for whoever will be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave. For, even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for ransom for many.”
See, Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand the kingdom. They’re all still fighting, who’s going to be in charge, and Jesus says … you know what my kingdom’s like? My kingdom is the God of the universe, the God who made everything, maybe to put it another way … the largest and most powerful being became the smallest, like a seed, and came into the world, and was buried, so that something could grow. He didn’t come in swinging, he didn’t come in like a boulder, he didn’t come in like Alexander the Great, he came in like a seed.
Now, if you’re like me, I want Jesus to be my king. How do I do that? Jesus, help me. I want you to be my king, but I recognize in my life, over and over again, I still am fighting you because I want to be king, too. Well, there’s another place where a mustard seed is used to explain something about God’s kingdom. In Matthew 17, Jesus uses the mustard seed again, and he says this … that it’s the size of your faith, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell the mountain to move here, and it would move, and nothing would be impossible. See, the disciples had gone out, and they were trying to basically usher in God’s kingdom, they were going out, Jesus sent them out and said, I want you to preach the gospel, I want you to heal people, I want you to exorcise demons, and then they encountered this situation they couldn’t fix. They encountered a demon they couldn’t exercise, and they fail, and they come back to Jesus, and they say, why couldn’t we do this? And he says, it’s because you didn’t have faith. And they’re like, well, I want faith. How much faith do I have to have? Jesus says, you have to have the faith of a mustard seed. What does that mean?
See, if you’re like me, we’re constantly fighting Jesus’ kingship in our lives. But, the good news is that all you need is mustard sized faith. What does that mean? It means that it’s not the size of your faith, it’s the object of your faith that matters. See, I’m indebted to Timothy Keller who uses this analogy, he says, a strong faith in a weak object will kill you, but a weak faith in a strong object will save your life, right? If you’re falling off a cliff and you reach out for a strong root to hold you up, all you need is a little faith for that root to hold you, cause it’s the object that matters, it’s not the amount of faith I’m putting in it, right? But, I can have a lot of faith and reach out and grab a weak object, and what happens? I fall.
See, when we’re faced with God’s kingdom, when we’re faced with the light of the kingdom coming into the world, we’re faced with the reality that, by ourselves, we cannot receive the light, by ourselves we cannot be the light, and by ourselves we can grow God’s kingdom. So, what are we left with? We’re left with faith the size of a mustard seed.
And, that’s why every week when we gather as a church, we gather around Jesus’ table. That’s why we do that, because it’s a demonstration of us coming to the table with a mustard sized faith of saying, my only hope is to receive from Jesus what he needs to give me. I’m not coming to it bringing my own meal - I hope you didn’t pack your lunch and try to bring it with you for communion. We come and we receive Jesus’ meal. We come to Jesus’ kingdom, and we have to stop and say, will I let Jesus actually be the king? Will I let him define what the kingdom is? See, that’s what communion is, is that we come, and we say, the one who made the universe came and condescended, and became small like a seed for us, for our good.
Let’s read this one last passage as we prepare for communion. John 12:24-26 …
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him …
Let’s pray. Father, as we prepare to come to your table, will you help us today to see, maybe for the first time - and I’m sure for many of us in here - to see for the thousandth time - that our only hope is that you would be the king, that our only hope is that we would rest and trust that you came like a seed to be buried in the earth to die, so that a mighty tree might grow, and that mighty nations might fall, and that your people would come and find rest in you. God, would you help us to see the kingdom the way your son sees it, and would you help us to live as if you are actually in charge. So, as we come to the table, would you help us, God. In Jesus’ name, amen.