Jesus 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.”
Today, our journey into Mark’s gospel continues. Last week, we started this long season of green by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that in the middle of all the human chaos, and the divided messy nature of human relationships, Jesus stays the course of bringing new life to us and to the world.
Today, we return to more familiar parables: Parables of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those to whom Jesus was teaching and preaching. When Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different from ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected.
The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval – a powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever again being ruled over by foreigners. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centered in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place, as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria.
Into this expectant time Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how they would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the
smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of garden weeds.
These parables would not have described a Kingdom like that which the crowds would have expected. This was not the Kingdom of God they were looking for.
Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what the Kingdom should look like.
These days, just like those first century followers of Jesus, we too are in a moment of expectation. The world is waiting for things to get back to normal, for our pandemic misery to end, for all our pent-up desires for our favourite outings and gatherings to finally happen.
But we are also reeling. Reeling from the discovery at Kamloops Residential school two weeks ago. Reeling from the next tragedy and reminder that we are a broken and divided house in Canada. Reeling from the terror attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Reeling from day after day of multiple COVID deaths in our province, including the death of a teenager this week.
And this experience of tragedy pushes us to ask for, to demand, to expect something of our leaders, of those in charge. To demand and expect a response from God.
Our hopes for the future, our hopes for the present can look a lot like the hopes and expectations of the crowds listening to Jesus today, wanting some very specific things because of our world in need, because of the cries for justice from the oppressed, grieving, and marginalized.
Yet, today, we know that this parable of Jesus’ is about defying expectations, about doing the unexpected. God is asking us, in the middle of the chaos, to step back and consider just what the Kingdom of God might look like.
So let me ask a question. And it is for the gardeners among us, in particular.
Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?
I can’t think of any.
You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look very similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown.
In the best of times, churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.
As human beings in this moment, most of us are longing to regain some predictability into our lives (every day might feel the same as the last, but our weeks and months feel impossible to plan for). We want to go back to a world that is predictable and safe. We long for a world that isn’t blindsiding us every week with another tragedy or another big news story or another thing to get all worked up about.
But the Kingdom of God is simply not that way.
God is up to something that is not safe or predictable or manageable. Scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes God ends up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field – mustard seeds that grow into wild, weed-like over-powering bushes.
This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into a living plant.
And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and threatening to take over.
As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the Church. And then God has other ideas, seizing opportunities to throw us out of our comfort zones, to call us to find new and unexpected ways of being. God demands that we give up our narrow vision of the world, and instead embrace the wide-open, possibility-filled vision that God has for us.
We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within our imagination and expectations. The Kingdom of God appears and grows in unexpected places from surprising seeds.
The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.
To people who have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like, to the Israelites of the 1st Century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would never have predicted from the seed.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness.
The Kingdom of God is meeting us on our screens, in our social media pages, in the outpouring of righteous outrage and compassionate support for survivors of residential schools and Indigenous communities, for the family and community of victims of the London terror attack, and for Muslims across the country.
And in the scattered seeds of the Kingdom, God is reminding us that there is more work for us to do in order to achieve reconciliation – the work of justice, education, and change is upon us. God is reminding us that there is a new and unknown way of being the Church and a community of faith ahead for us, even if we don’t know what that will look like.
New plants growing from the most surprising of places.
So as we struggle in this moment to find a world that meets our expectations, that conforms to a controllable, manageable state… we are reminded that God is busy with other plans.
God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life.
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