Some Facebook friends and family members 'heard' me lamenting about the sermon that just refused to be written last Saturday evening. At their request, here is a portion of the sermon that finally emerged after I got out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work. In a time of struggle in our congregation, our denomination, and the whole world, it was a profound joy to declare that God's kingdom is indeed visible!
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.
[Jesus] also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth 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 except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
There is something we pray for every week in worship, maybe even every day in our personal prayers, yet we don’t have any idea what it really means – or what it would really look like. That something is the kingdom of God. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But which one of us has any idea what God’s kingdom really looks or feels like? We may have a good idea of the outcomes we hope for when we plan and pray, but we don’t know God’s will.
In the gospel text for today, we find that Jesus has already gotten his ministry organized. In the first three chapters of Mark, we read that he has been baptized by John; he has announced that the kingdom of God has come near; he has called his first disciples; he has been on a preaching tour of Galilee; he has already begun his healing ministry. He’s been very busy.
Now he has returned to Capernaum and begins teaching large crowds by the sea. Such an extremely large crowd has gathered, to see him and hear what he has to say, that Jesus gets in a boat and puts out onto the water and begins to teach the crowd gathered all along the shore.
So what does Jesus teach – and how? He begins teaching about the kingdom of God; but he teaches in parables. This fourth chapter of Mark begins with the familiar parable of the sower, and an explanation for that parable.
You probably remember that story. Seeds fall on the path, on rocky ground, among the weeds, and on good soil. Those on the path are snatched up by birds. Those in rocky ground start to grow, then wither away. Those among the weeds are choked out and yield no grain. Only the seeds sown in good soil flourish and finally produce a plentiful harvest. Jesus later explains what he meant to the disciples, describing each situation in terms of people who hear the word of the Lord and their responses to that word.
Then we reach today’s text – two short little stories that are practically riddles. Stories that can be very difficult to understand. And this time, no explanation is included in the gospel. In the gospel text for today, we have two short little stories that are practically riddles. Stories that can be very difficult to understand.
What do those parables tell us? How can we understand or recognize God’s kingdom through those two short little stories? Is the kingdom of God present now, in times of struggle and strife? Here’s one way we can understand them:
First: The kingdom of God is growing and changing even when we don’t understand how it happens.
Second: The kingdom of God is like a small country church which grows and flourishes and through its life does the work of the Lord, providing ministry for the least of God’s creatures. Ministry like feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and caring for the sick and the grieving.
What does the kingdom of God look like or sound like? How does the kingdom of God affect us here and now? All I can do is to share these examples with you:
I recently saw the kingdom of God at work in a large group of people – over 500 of us - who gathered from across the entire state at synod assembly to worship God and serve God together in spite of our differences of opinion about serious issues facing the church.
I’ve seen the kingdom of God in the company of those I have visited this week, as I have listened to their stories of pain and fear, and then prayed with them and shared Holy Communion with them, rejoicing in God’s love and grace.
I saw the kingdom of God Friday afternoon and evening, in a group of people that worked together to prepare, serve, and clean up after a meal in our fellowship hall; and in the group of people who gathered to enjoy that meal and support the youth ministry of this congregation.
I saw the kingdom of God Saturday, in the smiles and service of small groups of people who gathered to feed the homeless and help with projects here at church.
I have heard the kingdom of God in the music and laughter and conversation and prayer shared at the table in these gatherings.
Where have you experienced the kingdom of God this week? What stories can you tell others? Of course, we don’t see the fullness of the kingdom yet, but it has already drawn near and we definitely see glimpses of it if we look for them.
We see the kingdom of God when we gather to do ministry together in groups, large or small, for the benefit of others. We see the kingdom of God whenever we gather for prayer and study, when we cultivate the “good soil” and nurture the seed of the word.
We see the kingdom of God when we gather for worship and ministry together even when we don’t all agree about the important issues. We see the kingdom of God – we are the kingdom of God - at work in the world in our prayer and service, study and worship. The kingdom of God is growing and changing even when we don’t understand how it happens. The kingdom of God will yield a surprisingly plentiful harvest, in God’s time, according to God’s will.
Want to learn just a little bit of Hebrew? Co amar Adonai. That’s the beginning of today’s first reading from Ezekiel. Co amar Adonai. Thus says the Lord. When we read those words in the Old Testament, we know that God is speaking directly to the chosen people.
And in this passage we read a promise of what God will do. A promise of surprising things, in a text that sounds much like the parable of the mustard seed combined with a touch of the Beatitudes:
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will do surprising things… I will take a sprig and create a new tree, and cause it to grow into a noble cedar. Everyone will be able to take shelter in the shade of this mighty tree.
All the other trees will know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I will surprise people by drying up the green tree and making the dry tree flourish.
And the final line, the reason we know that it can happen:
I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.
Co amar Adonai! Thus says the Lord!. The almighty God, creator of heaven and earth has declared it so – and he will do it.
We can pray gladly for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done. God will cause surprising things to happen. God will bring a bountiful harvest from unexplained places. God wills it, and it will be so. Thanks be to God.