Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, "The Automatic Seed"

            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. We live in an automated age. A long list of conveniences relieve the drudgery of daily work, or simplify our daily tasks. We have automatic dishwashers to do our dishes, automatic sprinklers to water our yards, autopilot mechanisms that steer airplanes over long flights, automatic self-cleaning ovens, automatic coffee machines, automatic apps that send our pictures and files into “the Cloud”, and all sorts of other modern innovations that supposedly simplify our lives. Well in today’s reading we discover a much older innovation, a much older “automatic system” that has been at work for ages. It is the kingdom of God. How is it automatic, you ask?
            Jesus tells a parable, that the kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed on the ground. Waking and sleeping, the farmer passes his days, and the seed sprouts and grows, but not by his knowledge or observation. Then in verse 28 our translations say: “The earth produces by itself.” By itself is the Greek word: automatic. Of course “automatic” means “by itself.” But did we ever stop to think how God’s kingdom really operates? That God Himself is at work, and that He has invested His power and potential and energy into the seed that grows His kingdom?! Think how a natural seed has the information, the plant’s DNA, quietly locked inside as it lies dormant, waiting for the day when it’s planted in the soil. It has all the potential and capacity to grow into whatever plant it came from. For the mustard seed, it has the capacity to grow into a sprawling, bushy, leafy green tree with spreading branches the birds can nest in. For the kingdom of God, the seed comes from God Himself, and contains His information—i.e. the Word—and this contains all the instructions and potential for the growth and spread of His kingdom.
            So when the Word of God, that “automatic seed,” is planted, it grows into the kingdom of God. The Word of God is the “information” that makes the kingdom grow. It is the great good news of salvation, the Word of what God has done for us, so that we might know it and believe it. It’s life-saving information, it’s information that is powerful to deliver what it speaks. Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins! And you are forgiven! Jesus rose from the dead to bring us eternal life! And life eternal is yours! The Word of God is also invested with God’s power and potential. Jesus, who spoke this Word of life doesn’t have to be visibly present in order for His Word to accomplish its work. Yet neither is Jesus absent, as He Himself is present in His Word, and working through it. Just like the farmer plants the seed, and then goes about His daily work until the time of harvest, so also the Word of God works automatically in an unseen and mysterious way. The growth doesn’t happen because of our anxious observation, it isn’t aided by our digging around the seed to see if it’s sprouted yet. It isn’t rushed along by our sweating and nudging. But rather it grows because Jesus is at work in His Word.
            God’s Word is planted in people’s hearts. Yours, mine, and all who hear the Word. We’re all part of the mission of scattering that seed out to new soil. It falls where it will, without discrimination. And then the automatic action of the Spirit and the Word takes over. When the Word sprouts and grows in our hearts, faith in Jesus comes alive and we become living members of His church. Many seeds have been planted, and many more are being planted every day. Every time the Word of God, the Good News of salvation in Jesus is spoken, another seed drops into the soil. It lands in someone’s heart. Jesus, the planter, will return when the harvest is ready. Then He will gather in the fruit of the harvest, bringing all believers into His heavenly kingdom.
            This parable takes aim at our problem with patience. Quite often we lack the kind of “kingdom patience” that remembers that God gives the growth spontaneously through the power He has invested in the Word. We’re not in control of the sprouting of the seed or the growing of the seed to maturity. The author Eugene Peterson describes the kind of patience God’s kingdom involves. Impatience, he says, is a refusal to endure, or to wait. It’s a rushed hurry to see immediate results or progress.
            But he says the patience that Scripture teaches us is a “giant sequoia patience.” How long did it take for the giant sequoia to grow? Have you ever stood at the foot of a sequoia, or some other comparably massive and ancient tree, and pondered how many centuries it took to grow to its full height and girth? Or how many bustling and busy forest animals and birds raced up and down its trunk and through its branches, and across its roots, while it slowly, methodically grew year by year? Peterson says that God’s kingdom “ignites a sense of urgency [in us], but it quenches shortcuts and hurry, for the times are in God’s hands.” God’s kingdom is like a giant sequoia that has been planted, and grows through generation after generation. Or better, as Jesus said, like a mustard tree that grows up and sprawls outward. The kingdom is in constant growth, but the growth is measurable more on the scale of tree ring-years, not minutes and hours. This is not to say that the operation of God’s kingdom is always slow, but to again acknowledge that it happens in God’s timing. For example, a missionary may work for years with no visible evidence of success, yet may in a short period of time see a sudden flourishing of God’s kingdom around him as God determines the time for His planted Word to sprout and grow.
            Sometimes we want too much to be in control of the results of God’s Word when it is at work. We’re concerned about the timing and the results. We want to measure and track its progress. We want to hurry to the harvest. We want to know when someone will believe. But Jesus says that when the harvest is ready, He immediately sends the sickle. God doesn’t miss His timing. In fact part of our problem, is trying to put God on our time, instead of living on His. I like those T-shirts that say, “I stay on Hawaiian time.” They should make another one that says, “I stay on God’s time.” In God’s time we may or may not see the seed sprout. In God’s time there might be a whole lot of waiting (and agonizing—not that it helps—that’s our problem) before His Word takes effect. In God’s time the Word might work in such a fast and surprising way, that you never could have expected it. God’s time is simply that—His own. The sooner we appreciate and accept that, the more at peace we will be with letting His Word do its work.
            Since God’s Word and kingdom does work in this way, we are freed to have the “giant sequoia patience” that realizes God is planting a tree. His kingdom will grow and flourish at its own pace, and under His power and operation. This relieves us from the frenzy and anxiety of thinking that the “kingdom building” falls on us, and that without our efforts the seed won’t sprout. But neither is it an invitation to inactivity, as though we have nothing do. We should always be about the work of scattering more seed. Broadcasting the Word of God to new soil, new hearts, hoping that it will find a place there. But entrusting the results completely to God, and resting in the knowledge that we have faithfully carried out our duty in telling the Word. And it is also a call to prayer, as we pray “thy kingdom come”—knowing that God’s kingdom comes “by itself (automatically!!) even without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may come among us also.” So we actively engage in prayer for God’s kingdom to come among us. That Jesus’ Word would work, grow, and bear fruit among us. And again with prayer, the results are in God’s hands, not ours.
            All of this frees us from the disappointment that sometimes occurs when we don’t see immediate results. Life in the church has its shortcomings and disappointments. Sometimes the growth of the kingdom around us doesn’t look too impressive. Sometimes believers let each other down and we wonder if God is really at work. Sometimes we see more sinner than saint in ourselves and each other. Sometimes we make bold and impassioned attempts to get the Word out, and yet it seems as though the message falls flat. Or no one is there to listen. Hearts may seem cold and unchanged. Sometimes we ache with the question of why our family member or friend, with whom we have shared the gospel, has not yet believed. Or has gone astray.
            But when we have entrusted the results to God, we’re freed from this disillusionment—with ourselves, our efforts, the community of faith, with those who haven’t yet believed, or even with the expected growth of God’s kingdom. We’re freed from the illusion that we were in control of any of it. We’re freed to turn it back over to God and rest in the knowledge that God’s method of working is like the growth of a plant or tree. Invisible, spontaneous, and mysterious. And we recall how that Word brought us and others into the kingdom—it’s through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us and our salvation! That message brought us into the kingdom, when His seed sprouted and took root in our hearts. For some it happened quickly, for others it took many years. Have the same patience with others.
            This kingdom that Jesus planted does have a final goal. Each day leads and draws us closer to that day of harvest, the last day, when the grain is full and ripe and the sickle brings in the wheat. The day when the Lord returns with His angels to bring in the full harvest. Not a day late, not a day too soon, all on God’s time. We know the plan, we know the outcome, we know that Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place in heaven, we know that His death on the cross and resurrection are what bring us there. The challenge of faith is to realize and believe that God is working out this purpose even now, to see that His kingdom is growing and enlarging, scattering and taking new life, even as sometimes we see no earthly evidence of it. Even when the church and its efforts seem meager and small. Even when we sinners in the church struggle and pray, and fear that our efforts have gone to waste. Through such small beginnings, and through seemingly humble progress, God’s kingdom will grow to achieve its great and universal goal, to bring God’s “absolute and unchallenged reign…over His people.” Like the humble mustard seed that grows into a sprawling and leafy tree, God’s kingdom and His Word may not seem like much when it’s sown, but just wait for it to reach its full glory and splendor!
            All this will happen through the marvelous automatic growth and power that Jesus invested in His Word. This should give us great and certain confidence in God’s Word and what it can accomplish, even when we don’t understand how it is possible. Automatic appliances and conveniences may or may not truly simplify our lives. Sometimes they only add additional layers of complexity. But the greatest innovation of God’s kingdom, His automatic seed, the Word, truly does simplify our lives. It brings us the peace of knowing Jesus Christ, the peace of sins forgiven full and free, not by our effort, but by the great effort and love of our God. Like a shady mustard tree spreading its branches, His kingdom brings us a place of shelter and security. Like birds nested in its branches, we don’t need to be driven by the worries or cares of this world, but can rest in the carefree knowledge that God is our provider. And it simplifies the work of evangelism and missions, knowing that all we have to do is get the Word out, and that marvelous seed and God’s Spirit will do the rest. God is truly at work in all of our lives and in our church. May we grow in our humble acceptance of this truth, and in the process gain a giant sequoia-like patience that trusts that God’s kingdom will grow to completion in His own timing. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What is “automatic” about the kingdom of God? Read Mark 4:26-29. What is it that has this power invested in it, to operate by itself in people’s hearts? Re-read the parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-9. How has God invested His power into His Word? Isaiah 45:10-11
  2. What is the “information” that gives the Word of God it’s saving and life-giving power? I.e. what is the message? Retell in a simple way what Jesus has done, in a way that you could share with someone else.
  3. How does the fact that the seed grows without our observation or understanding change the way that you think about your role in bringing someone to faith? Does it relieve your anxiety? Make you more eager to share the Word and let it do its work? Make you trust more in God’s ability to work even when we don’t understand?
  4. What does impatience cause us to do? What is the kind of patience that the kingdom of God teaches us? Describe the longer view of the kingdom and its growth. What kind of objectives does God have?
  5. How does God determine when the harvest is ready? Will we know the time? Matthew 24:14, 32-36.
  6. How should we be “broadcasting” the seed? How is the growth of God’s kingdom an invitation to prayer? Matthew 6:10
  7. What disappointments and disillusionments does the parable about the growth of God’s kingdom free us from? In the daily life of the church, what outward signs seem to question the growth? What is the surprise in the end, about the church and it’s humble beginnings? Cf. the mustard seed. How does it all simplify our life in the church?

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