Scripture: Mark 4:26-34
I have always enjoyed singing. Some of my earliest memories are of me, my brother & 2 neighbor friends pretending to be The Monkees, singing in our backyard. And boy, were we good! We sounded just like the real thing – if my mom had the stereo on loud enough. Later I sang in a couple of children’s choirs at church & even in an adult choir as late as my 40’s.
My voice has never been that strong, I have always feared my amateur ability would reveal itself by a wrong note, a missed entry, or – that dread moment for all singers – keeping the sound going a second too long after everyone else has stopped.
You know, when you audition for a choir, especially one with a professional director, often the director will ask you to pick notes out of a chord. They play a chord of 3, or 4 or 5 notes; you can hear it all together, but can you hear the notes individually, & sing each note properly? Friends, it can be a tough test!
Learning to read Jesus’ parables can be a lot like that test. We can all hear the surface meaning of the story: in this case, the secret growth of a seed, or the small seed that becomes a large bush. But can you hear the individual notes that go to make up these chords? I suspect that Jesus’ first hearers had to struggle with it too; that is why Mark says that Jesus explained everything to his disciples in private. Jesus was not being deliberately difficult just for the sake of it. His message was so explosive that this was the only way he could say it.
Take the first chord – the story about the seed that grows in secret. It is so simple as to seem quite innocent. The seed grows secretly, doing its thing unobserved in the earth, & eventually there appears the stalk, the ear of corn, & the swelling corn inside the ear. Then, of course, comes the harvest. That seems straightforward enough.
But listen to the 2 notes inside this chord that give it its peculiar & dangerous undertone. Begin at the end. Cut with the sickle, for the harvest is ripe, reads Joel 3:13. We find that near the end of that short book, which is all about the coming Day of the Lord, the time when, after terrible devastation comes on God’s people, God will restore their fortunes, pour out his Spirit on them, & reap a harvest of judgment against the neighboring nations. That is the vision of the coming Day that many of Jesus’ contemporaries were anticipating. Jesus is telling them that God’s promised moment is indeed coming – but it will not look like what they were expecting. God is not simply vindicating Israel & condemning those outside. No, when judgment comes, it will look rather different. But it will come.
The other note that helps to explain the difference is in the apparently innocent description of how the seed starts to germinate & grow. The farmer, Jesus says, goes to bed & gets up, goes to bed & gets up, night & day… but still does not know how the seed sprouts & grows. The answer, of course, is that the seed is doing what the man is doing. It is sleeping in the soil & then getting up. This is how God’s present creation works: night & day, seedtime & harvest, the cycle of the day & the year mirroring one another within God’s promised dependable order.
But what is the significance of this within the coming of the kingdom? The answer: The seed is laid in the earth & then rises. The word for wakes is one of the regular words for resurrection. And the resurrection, by this stage in Jewish thinking, was not about how individuals would find life after death. It was about how God would dramatically restore Israel’s fortunes, even raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.
The first parable, then, is about the fact that, though Jesus’ ministry in Galilee does not look like the sort of kingdom-of-God-movement people were expecting, it was in fact the seedtime for God’s long-promised & long-awaited harvest. People would not be able to see how God’s promised plant would grow from this seed; but grow it would, & harvest would come. The story is a warning against looking down on the small beginnings, in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, of the great work that God was to do. It can function as a warning, too, against looking down on the small beginnings – a moment of calling, or 2 or 3 people gathering to pray & plan – that often, today, mark the start of some great new initiative that God has in mind.
The second parable, too, has a couple of notes inside its chord that give it a peculiar flavor. The first one comes in the question Jesus asks: What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it?
In one of the best-known passages in the Jewish Bible, Isaiah 40, the prophet asks a remarkably similar question about God himself: To whom will you equate God; to what likeness will you compare him? It is not just an accidental echo. That passage is all about a fresh vision of God, the Creator, coming to rescue his people, coming to restore Israel after her time of devastation. Israel must not think her God is incapable or powerless, on a level with the pagan idols that promise much & do nothing.
So here, nobody should look at Jesus in Galilee, surrounded by a local crowd, & say, “How can this possibly be the beginning of the kingdom of God?” The mustard seed is the smallest at the start, but in the end, it grows into a large shrub. That is Jesus’ picture of what God’s way of working, God’s way of growing the kingdom, is like.
At the end it will be a royal kingdom like those spoken of in Scripture. The other echo, the other note in the chord, comes at the end of the story: the birds of the air make their nests in its shade. Ezekiel & Daniel both use this as an image of a great kingdom, growing like a tree until those around can shelter under it. From Ezekiel 17:23: On Israel’s mountainous highlands I will plant it, & it will send out branches & bear fruit. It will grow into a mighty cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it & find shelter in the shade of its boughs. And Daniel 4:21: With its beautiful leaves & abundant fruit, that had enough food for everyone, with wild animals living under it & birds nesting in its branches. Do not worry, J is saying. Remember who your God is & what he has promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom – the kingdom that will eventually offer renewal to the entire world.
Jesus’ hearers, of course, probably knew their Scriptures better than most of us do. They might be able to pick out the notes in the chord & at least begin to make some sense of it all. The challenge for us, as readers of Jesus’ parables in a vastly different world, is to think out what we have to do to be kingdom-workers & kingdom-explainers, in our day. How can we strike fresh chords so that people will be teased into picking out the notes, & perhaps even into joining in the song?
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. Amen.