Seed. Soil. Sickle. All everyday things for a farmer. But also the teaching tools of God-made-man: “Listen, a sower went to sow...” (Mark 4:3). When we left off with the Gospel of Mark a month ago, Jesus forced the disciples, the Pharisees, his family, the crowds to all take a stand and decide just who they think he is, why he acts the way he does. Is he out of his mind, or is he the sanity of God in a world gone mad (Mark 3:6-35)? Enough of the crowd didn't think he was deranged or depraved: when he again “began to teach beside the sea,” the crowd came to him in such numbers he had to get into a boat to spin his stories (Mark 4:1-2). This crowd had passed the first test. They were ready to hear something a bit more advanced now, and Jesus would speak their language – most Galileans were from farming villages and towns, so Jesus will preach in Agriculturese.
Jesus teaches the crowds in parables, in proverbs and riddles and analogies and stories, that both unveil the truth and force us to decide how badly we want to know. Will we come to him and sit next to the Twelve and learn how to understand, or will we let the story slip by us (Mark 4:10-12)? But these parables don't just convey ideas, as if they had one point and then let you move on. The longer parables especially are like houses: you walk inside, you check out all the rooms, you make yourself comfortable there, you view the world through each of the windows and learn to understand. That's what stories are for: to go live in for a while and learn there. Jesus and his kingdom news are “the word that redescribes the world” – interpret everything through him. And after this set of parables, harvest time is never the same, because everything farmers do now screams the kingdom. And I do think that Jesus has a few main points he wants us to know for sure.
First, the kingdom starts small. What does it look like when God reasserts his rightful claim over the earth, when God establishes his people again, when God sits on his throne and has things his way? You'd think it would be about a big display of power – striding right to the circles of biggest influence, bringing the kings and presidents and prime ministers of all the nations to heel. That's not what Jesus says, though. That isn't how God does things. That's how the kingdoms of this world do things. When God stakes his claim, he slips in under the radar. If you blink, if you aren't paying attention, you'll miss him.
Historically, it started with a popular carpenter-turned-traveling-teacher and his ragtag bunch of followers – mostly fishermen, peasants, other disreputable sorts – roaming the hills and villages and coastlines of the backwoods. Think: God could have picked all sorts of ways to stake his claim. He could have come to earth to be born in a palace, raised in purple robes and golden finery, negotiate with dignitaries and win the allegiance of all with bread and circuses. He could have come as a warrior commanding a dozen angel legions, sweeping the globe like Alexander the Great in mighty conquest, slicing down everything that stood in his path, until no one had the option of not hearing him out (cf. Matthew 26:53). He could have overwhelmed the earth as a vast cosmic presence, suffusing the very air we breathe with his undeniable glory.
But he didn't do that. God staked his claim to be king by showing up dressed as a slave (Philippians 2:7-8). The Gospels reveal a man who toiled under the boiling Middle Eastern sun, grew up in a small peasant village the other villages mocked, was run out of his own hometown, trained a crew of mostly average blue-collar types to be like him, refused to cater to the hot-headed crowds... and we're supposed to believe that this is the opening chord of the most majestic movement in the Creator's magnum opus? That this is how God stakes his claim to be Lord of all things at all times and places in all ways?
Yeah – that's exactly what Jesus says. The kingdom isn't like a meteorite that tumbles down from the sky and turns the world and its ways into a crater, reshaped by force and momentum into its own image. The kingdom isn't like a marauding army marching through the land. The kingdom isn't like a great golden idol, visible and obvious and full of instant splendor. The kingdom is like a seed – not just any seed, but a tiny one (Mark 4:30). Have you ever held a mustard seed in the palm of your hand? I have. It doesn't dwarf much except maybe a grain of sand. A mustard seed could roll along the back of a grain of rice. It's tiny! But a mustard seed becomes a great big mustard bush – the smallest seed you'd find in Galilee turns into something pretty impressive, “the greatest of all shrubs” (Mark 4:31-32).
Centuries before, Nebuchadnezzar dreamt that his mighty empire was like a tall tree in the middle of the whole earth, feeding all peoples, drawing all animals to take shelter in his shade, letting the birds of the air perch there, “and from it all living beings were fed” (Daniel 4:10-12). Ezekiel described Assyria the same way, as a tree that “towered high above all the trees of the field,” and “all the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs, … and in its shade all great nations lived” (Ezekiel 31:5-6). But God chopped Assyria down, “and all the peoples of the earth went away from its shade and left it” (Ezekiel 31:12), and the same happened in Nebuchadnezzar's dream: “Cut down the tree … Let the animals flee from under it, and the birds from its branches” (Daniel 4:14).
Starting big, aspiring to glory and dominion through mortal pride – that's a good way to end up as a log, as firewood. Starting out as a little seed, growing by God's tending, the kingdom of King Jesus becomes what Babylon and Assyria never were: “Under it every 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” (Ezekiel 17:23-24). Turns out that God is a surprisingly big fan of humility – that's how he works, that's how he stakes his own claim: with a small seed, down in the cracks where no one of worldly importance sees – but in the end, with room enough for birds one and all (Mark 4:32).
Time and again, Jesus proves his word true. The kingdom latches onto our lives in a lot of mustard-seed ways. When we're all out of food, when we don't know what tomorrow holds, the Spirit pokes us in the heart 'til we give our last two pennies like the poor widow at the temple, somehow finding faith that God will give us tomorrow's bread when tomorrow comes. That's a mustard seed. When we fall and cry out to Jesus to lift us back up, when we get a fresh start, when we put in the effort to earn that white chip for being twenty-four hours sober and have to take it one day at a time, and by miracle and discipline the next day sees another day's victory – that's a mustard seed. When we swallow our pride and go out of our way to apologize to someone we wronged ten, twenty, thirty years ago – that's a mustard seed. When we show just one soul lost in darkness that Christ is the Light their world needs – that's a mustard seed. And from that mustard seed, from that small beginning, is where God time and time again grows the stuff of his kingdom. Hidden in that, in what Jesus meek and lowly is up to, is the seed for what Caesars of every age could only dream of.
Second, the kingdom grows in secret. “God moves in a mysterious way / his wonders to perform,” and none so mysterious as how the kingdom works, how God uses small things despised by the worldly wise to achieve more than could ever be thought. God bursts onto the human scene in what the invincible Romans would've seen as a Third World mud puddle, and how on earth – how even in heaven – does God get worldwide rule out of that? How does the strength of God get magnified in the weakness of mortal obscurity? How does the glory of God sneak around under humility's cloak and ignite a thousand fires? It's like seed poured far and wide, buried under the dirt. Nobody's watching it, nobody's measuring it. God makes it work: “First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain” (Mark 4:28). How does it sprout, how does it grow? Even the farmhands don't know how (Mark 4:27). That's what God taking charge is like. We don't see it, we don't understand it; his ways are higher than ours, craftier than ours (Isaiah 55:9). But there in our smallness, in our weakness, God's work takes root and germinates beneath the surface when we aren't even looking.
Third, the kingdom calls us to take a good, hard look at where we stand and what our hearts are like. That's what Jesus means by telling us his headline story, what Jesus treats as Intro to Parables 101 (Mark 4:13). He knew, the crowd knew, we know that most of the people listening to him were not ready to take up their cross and follow him into the jaws of death and live with self-denial and purpose along the way (Mark 8:34). They might like Jesus, they might have a fondness for him, but to stake this world and the next on him, to risk torture and shame for his sake, to prioritize him over everything else – that's a tall order, and our appetites are often so small, so scattered. Why isn't the kingdom changing everyone, if it's here? What gives?
Jesus explains with a story. Feast your ears on this, he says – picture Jesus the Farmer, leading his chosen farmhands out into his field, bulging pouches at their waists, full of the truth of God, full of the good news of the kingdom (Mark 4:14). He could keep his pouches buckled and bolted shut, could grab the plow and pull it through the field. But he doesn't – partly because that was the Baptist's job. He could scrutinize each patch and stick the seed in the ground, grain by grain, kernel by kernel, careful to dole it out like it's a limited edition. But he doesn't. He could stand in the middle of the best ground and toss it there. But he doesn't. Instead, he roams through the whole field, tossing out seed like no worldly-sane farmer ever would. He tosses it east, west, north, south; he tosses it here, he tosses it there, he tosses it without a worry where it'll land. He's irresponsible, or would be if rationing were the rule of the game. Jesus is too kind to stingily ration out his words of grace while today's still called today.
So why doesn't the seed sprout everywhere? Why doesn't the kingdom show up in everyone's life the same way? The problem isn't the seed. The problem is the soil. Some people, Jesus says, just have no room for the news he's bringing. It isn't that it doesn't hit their ears; it's that it doesn't lodge itself in what's between their ears before it sails out the other side. It's like seed that falls on the path, the dense dirt packed tight by continual footsteps. It's hard. If it were a hotel, the sign would be, “No vacancy,” “No admittance.” The door is locked. The bell rings, no one answers. The gospel is a package left on the doorstep in a bad neighborhood. If you leave seed out on the path, you won't have time to plow; the birds will come and peck away the seeds, and what good does that do for that patch of ground (Mark 4:4)? None.
That was true of a lot of people in Jesus' day. Pharisees came and heard him teach, we know that. They came to spy on him, to keep tabs on him, to trip him up. Some days, every public word Jesus said was heard by a Pharisee. Imagine getting to spend a whole day listening to each syllable from Jesus' lips! But it does no good unless we're receptive. Otherwise, it's in one ear and out the other. Satan snatches the seed away, shields his barren prize from the risk of penetration. It's the curse of being hard of heart, being unbending, unyielding to what God has to say. It wasn't just the Pharisees, either. I'm sure there were plenty of Galilean farmers who muttered to themselves that they just couldn't be bothered to walk a mile to hear yet another teacher propound his nuggets of wisdom when there's work to be done and it's such a nice day out. And there may have been those in the crowd who came, who heard, who appreciated, and who went back to their lives as if it was all just a nice day's outing.
It's true today, too. To the modern American mind, “religion” at its most tolerable is a hobby you might have, just like sports or stamp-collecting: maybe you're into it, maybe you're not. Or else it's a disposition: some people are hard-wired to be “religious,” most aren't, just like some are hard-wired to be really outgoing but others aren't. That's the modern American way of saying, “Hi, I'm packed-down soil; there's no room in me for a seed; I'd rather not see anything grow here and disrupt what I'm all about.” I'm sure you know people who just have no time, no interest, for the gospel, no thirst for anything higher or deeper than working their 9-to-5 and enjoying their diversions. I'm sure you also know people who like to come to church, to hear a pretty message, and who then go back to their lives unchanged – again, like a nice day's outing once a week. I fear that's an easy trap – the trap of dense dirt, and just as dull as dirt in the end.
Sometimes, we're the packed-down soil – maybe not toward the gospel as a whole, but toward a word from God that we just don't like or just don't care to take seriously. I'm not immune. There have been times in my life where I've known what God was calling me to do, and I let that word go in one ear and out the other. I hardened myself to it, and I let the devil snatch it from the stony surface of my heart – in retrospect, much to my hurt (Mark 4:15). I wouldn't be surprised if you've been in those same shoes once or twice. We're prone to pick and choose; we're prone to resent what the kingdom means in practice – that God is boss, and we aren't; that he knows what's best, even if we don't want it. Sometimes, we read in the Bible or hear in a sermon what God says about marriage, or generosity, or forgiveness, or the image of God in every human from womb to tomb, or defending the poor and the socially marginalized – and we just don't like it. We hear the word, we decide we don't want that part, and we harden ourselves. But frequency of a sin is no excuse for rationalizing it. Don't be packed-down when God has something to tell you. And don't think of church as a hobby or a preference or a nice day's outing.
Some people are like packed-down soil. Others are like rocky soil: they have room for the message of God's kingdom on their terms of ease and comfort (Mark 4:5). When everything's cheery, they're the perfect image of what the kingdom looks like! Or so you'd think. They burn bright from the very start; they shoot up and stand tall before most get off the ground. In fair weather, they're model believers who “receive the word with joy” (Mark 4:16). But only in fair weather. And not all weather is fair. They're addicted to prosperity, attached to ease. Their problem is that they aren't deep; they're rocky and shallow, warm and nurturing on the surface but only the surface. When the going gets tough, they get desiccated, dried out: “When trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). See, without roots, there's no gathering moisture. And without a reserve of moisture to carry us through the dry times, there's scorching in our future.
That's the story of a lot of people in the crowds Jesus was addressing. So long as Jesus gives them free bread and fish, so long as they get their three square meals a day and don't stub their toes, they're ecstatic about Jesus. He's the best, he's the champ, he's the king! But what about when Jesus doesn't multiply the loaves? What about when we don't just stub our toes, but find them dangling above the dirt with nails in our hands and feet like his? It's one thing to follow Jesus when he's handing out gifts quicker than Oprah. It's another thing to follow Jesus when he's treading the Way of Sorrows with bleeding, cross-bearing back as the mobs spit and jeer.
Too often, we want the gospel to be an avenue to prosperity and popularity, to sophistication and success. We want it to mean all the benefits – better health, bigger bank accounts, exciting friends and that nice warm feeling like life served us up a big pitcher of lemonade. But Jesus didn't tell people to come and take up their Ferraris and drive after him. Jesus promised us unpopularity. “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you don't belong to the world, but I've chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Don't be surprised when following Jesus is the hard road. And don't be surprised when things don't work out like you planned – when tragedy strikes, when everything falls short, when you feel a target on your back. The question is, when that time comes, when the sun is hot and high in the sky, have we let the kingdom get its roots deep into us or not (Mark 4:6)? If we haven't, if following Jesus is just part of our uppermost layers but doesn't stretch down to the heart of who we are, if we aren't immersed in what he says and in living relationship with him, then what God's done in us won't outlast the easy season. If it doesn't go deep, it won't endure. And remember: the sun's hardship provides the energy to help the crop grow, if it has roots with withstand the heat. God's work in us will grow precisely because of the hardship, unless we let it wither away instead.
Some people are like packed-down dirt. Some are like rocky soil, shallow and impenetrable to the root if not the seed. And others are like thorn-infested soil (Mark 4:7). The problem isn't that they don't want to make room for Jesus. And the problem isn't that the message can't lay down roots. The problem is that the kingdom message doesn't get them all to itself. There are plenty of plants, plenty of attachments we can cultivate as our priorities. Jesus compares them to thorns and thistles (Mark 4:18). The kingdom gets in, God does his work, but it gets strangled and crowded out by competitors – first and foremost among which are “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things” (Mark 4:19). There's a peril in hardship, but there's also a peril in plenty: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food I need, or I shall be full and deny you and say, 'Who is the LORD?'” (Proverbs 30:7-8).
And isn't that the truth? Surely some in the crowd then were followers like this: they'd like to walk with Jesus, they're enthused for his message, but it isn't the hard times that get them, it's the good times. Today, this may be a predominant sector of the church in America. We call ourselves Christian, we're steeled and ready for hardship; the romance of the martyr, the large brushstrokes of heroism, have an appeal to us; but what's really a challenge isn't to die for him but to daily live for him, especially amidst a world of temptations and distractions. We're a distracted culture. When the gospel presents itself as a stark matter of life and death, we can see with clarity. But what about when the temptation is subtle and pleasant? What about when the gospel is one neon sign among so many? When the going gets not-so-tough, we get scatterbrained.
The devil's got many tactics, and a lot of them look like this: “You don't have to choose! You can love Jesus and that TV in the store window. You can follow Jesus and keep your job,” and so on. The thing is, it isn't just about laying an outward claim to loving and following Jesus – the thorny soil does that. But thorny soil is always a fan of Jesus-plus: Jesus-plus-wealth, Jesus-plus-comfort. Instead of letting Jesus be our world, we fit Jesus into our world, letting him rent an apartment in the city of us. It seems possible, because it lets us keep Jesus – or so we think. But the kingdom is about fruitfulness, about growth; and all those cares of the world, all the lure of upper- or middle-class wealth, can choke what God wants to do in us, if we don't scrutinize ourselves, if we don't diligently uproot anything that threatens to compete with God's kingdom. There's no kingdom productivity without kingdom exclusivity – no reaping the rewards of God raising and cultivating us unless we let him and him alone claim all of us. But if we stay soft to receive Jesus' message, if we let his kingdom get deep within us to withstand the rough times, if we rip off other loyalties and have a laser-like focus on his kingdom – then all that's left is to be like the good soil, where the kingdom can grow and grow and grow (Mark 4:8).
Fourth, the kingdom is fruitful in the end. After its small start, after its mysterious growth, after dealing with soil quality, the kingdom wins. This isn't a big crazy gamble, betting all we've got on a creation-wide lottery, constantly fretting whether we've backed the loser in the big scheme of things. The kingdom ends up as a vast tree with room for all, guaranteed (Mark 4:32). The kingdom yields good grain and a harvest that's thirty, sixty, a hundred times the seed sown – more than enough to make up for any that fell on packed-down, rocky, or thorny soil (Mark 4:20). In fact, the value of the soil is determined by one and only one factor: in the end, how fruitful is it? It isn't a question of whether the kingdom will be fruitful – it will. God's claim to be king isn't staked in vain. The question is whether our lives will contribute to the total crop yield, and by how much. The question is what we let the kingdom do with us.
Fifth, the kingdom calls us to listen and understand the message. Jesus says it outright: “Pay attention to what you hear” (Mark 4:24), and if you can reach up to the side of your head and feel an ear there, use it (Mark 4:23)! The point isn't to let the kingdom pass us by. It's also not to seal the kingdom up like a ship in a bottle. Who gets a lamp and turns it on, just to cover it up so you can't see it shine (Mark 4:21)? If you go to the trouble to get a lamp, you want to see it brighten the whole room. It isn't for hiding; it's for unhiding. It isn't to keep a secret; it's to make things known (Mark 4:22). God is staking his claim as king – king of you, king of me, king of Jerusalem and Rome and America, king of all heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is. And he's doing it by making himself known in Jesus. Jesus is the secret of the kingdom. Jesus is God in action: starting small, working mysteriously, spreading the message, bearing praiseworthy fruit through his extended body, the church. Jesus is the kingdom's open mystery: hidden only to those who won't approach him, who won't get close, who won't devote their minds and hearts to exploring his unfathomable depths (Mark 4:11). To all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the kingdom is open right now, while there's still time, if we'll just come to Jesus and learn: the more we learn, the more we're ready to hear, and that's all that matters (Mark 4:24-25).
And so there's one call above all: be ready, be ripe. As soon as enough grain is ripe, that's the appointed time for harvest, that's when the sickle comes out (Mark 4:29). In most other Jewish teaching from that time, whenever someone told a story about the harvest, the main point was judgment: harvest is the time when everything bad is destroyed, harvest is all about judgment. And Jesus doesn't reject that point. He clearly teaches about judgment day. But Jesus puts the emphasis somewhere new. Jesus stresses that harvest is a time of joy, because harvest is a time to finally enjoy the fruit that all that long history of sowing, sprouting, growing was for.
So many people think that Christians only have faith in Jesus because they want to avoid hell. That's only a start, at best – we trust Jesus, we follow Jesus, because we've fallen in love and want to be fruitful for him. When the day of harvest comes, we want to put a big grin on his face as he sees how our lives have come to full fruition. That's what it's all about: being ready for the harvest, yearning to be a reason for heaven and earth to thirty, sixty, a hundred times more celebrate that Great Harvest Home of God eternally in his kingdom. May we live now the lives of fruitfulness that say we're wholly on-board with God's claim to kingship as Jesus lives it out. “Lord of harvest, grant that we / wholesome grain and pure may be.”