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The Coming and Growth of the Kingdom


Mark 4:1-20; 26-32

Agriculture is a science. Today’s farmer doesn’t step out into a field and throw seed around willy-nilly. Instead he does germination tests on the seed he’s about to sow; he fertilizes the land with scientifically prepared materials; he cultivates the soil with highly technicized farm machinery; he treats the soil chemically to eliminate anything that might blight the crop.  Finally the farmer is ready to plant.

At the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry this was unknown. A farmer who wanted to plant simply picked up a handful of seed and threw it. The wind scattered it.  Some of the seed managed to fall on fertile soil, while some did not.


I: — The first parable we are examining today is that of the sower.  It’s about someone who simply scatters seed, keeps on scattering seed, never relents in scattering seed, and then awaits the harvest, knowing that there’s nothing else to be done.

To whom is this parable addressed?   It’s addressed to discouraged disciples. The disciples weren’t long following Jesus and embodying his mission before discouragement overtook them.  They noticed that religious leaders bitterly opposed the master.  His own family thought him deranged and deemed him a public embarrassment. The crowds, while often large, were also largely superficial and fickle.  The disciples began asking themselves, “Why are the results of our work so meagre? We have discerned the kingdom of God , present among us inasmuch as Christ the king is present with us, and it seems that most others couldn’t care less.  Or if they do care, they misunderstand the kingdom more often than not. And even if they don’t misunderstand it, they appear so easily deflected from it, so quick to give it up when difficulty comes upon them, so ready to acclaim Jesus today and accommodate his detractors tomorrow.  In light of all this, what are we supposed to do?  Perhaps we should expect less from our work, even give up on it.”

To discouraged disciples, then and now, Jesus replies, “A farmer scattered seed.  Not all of the seed ultimately yielded a harvest.  In fact most of the seed didn’t produce a harvest. But some of it did. Some of it always will. Therefore you fellows should keep on sowing. Sowing is the only responsibility you have.  It isn’t up to you to decide how effective your work is.  Simply know that your work is never pointless; some of the seed you sow will unfailingly yield a harvest.”

When my family lived in Edmonton (1938-1949) my father went to the Federal Penitentiary every Sunday afternoon for eleven years to conduct worship for convicts doing “hard time” and to preach at the service as well.         One day when I was about fifteen years old myself and had newly become aware of the “hard cases” who inhabit maximum security penitentiaries and I was beginning to wonder how some of these fellows would have looked upon my dad, I asked my father, “Did you ever see any results of the eleven years you spent in the prison?”   He looked at me as though I were benighted, as if I were ignorant of the way the gospel works and the faithfulness required of those who are wedded to its mission. He looked at me squarely and said quietly, “I never did it because I expected to see results. I did it because it was right.” In other words, my father believed the parable.  He believed that his sole responsibility was to sow.  (I must tell you, however, that one day when my parents were sitting together on an Edmonton streetcar a young man boarded the car, recognized my father, and leaned over to have a few words with him. My mother asked my dad who the young man was.  “One of the fellows I saw every Sunday afternoon”, said my dad; “he’s been released, and he wanted to tell me how grateful he is for the turnaround in his life.”)

I am asked constantly, “Shouldn’t the church be concerned with converting people?”   My reply always startles people who assume they know what I’m going to say. “No”, I answer; “the church should never be concerned with converting people.  Only the Holy Spirit (that is, God himself in his most intense, intimate presence and power) can turn people to himself.  Our responsibility is never to convert; our responsibility is to bear witness, to commend, to evangelize.  Witness is our responsibility; effectiveness is God’s responsibility.” At this point the person who asked the question is often startled, surprised that her gentle question drew such an emphatic response.  Even so, I’m not finished.  “Any church that tries to convert (“tries” since no church can, God alone being able to convert) invariably persecutes.  Sooner or later it will persecute.  What’s more, any church that tries to convert people to God announces to the world that it doesn’t believe in God, since it doesn’t trust God to do God’s own work, the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus tells disciples of any era that their responsibility is to sow seed, and keep on sowing it.  What happens after that is beyond their control and therefore not their concern. They should ensure that they don’t fail to fulfil their commission, even as they trust God to fulfil his promise. They should ensure that they continue to do what they have been charged to do, and leave God to do what he has pledged himself to do.  Anything else is an expression of atheism.

From time-to-time I hear it said of a minister that he’s had an effective ministry and as a result he’s a success. The success of Rev. Snodgrass demonstrates his effectiveness.  I don’t understand this talk.  Is Rev. Snodgrass successful inasmuch as Sunday crowds are large?  A burlesque show would draw an even bigger crowd.  Does it mean that cash flow has increased?  A congregational lottery would boost the cash flow out of sight.

Perhaps someone wants to say that genuine “success” in anyone’s ministry is stronger discipleship among those to whom the minister ministers; not to mention self-disregarding love for each other, as well as greater sensitivity to God’s Spirit, and of course more resolute, cheerful obedience. Yes.  This, and this alone is genuine “success” – and this is known only to God. It’s impossible to measure all of this and write it up for the year-end congregational report. All of this is known to God alone, and he alone is to be credited for it.  Fruitfulness (what we label “success”) is his prerogative; faithful sowing is our task.

In the parable we are probing together Jesus makes it plain that most of the seed the farmer sows, whether it germinates and grows for a while or not, doesn’t last long enough to produce a harvest. But some of it does; some of it always does. Only 25% of the seed sown comes to harvest, yet the harvest that it yields is magnificent: 30-fold, 60-fold, even 100-fold.

To disciples discouraged by the apparently meagre results of their work Jesus says, “A farmer sowed a lot of seed. Not much of it produced anything that lasted. Most of it didn’t. But the seed that did produce produced abundantly, overwhelmingly.  You make sure that you keep sowing.”

II: — The second parable we are looking at today is brief.  We are told in a few lines that seed was planted and overnight it grew – how? – “the farmer knew not how.”   This parable is addressed to disciples who are prone to deny the mystery of the kingdom.

All of us live in a world where we rightly seek to “know how”. Seeking to know how is not only permitted in the natural realm; it’s mandated by God. What we call the “creation mandate” in Genesis; the command to till the soil and subdue the threatening elements of the universe – not only may we do this; we must, since God has mandated us to do it.

In order for explorers to explore the farthest reaches of the world they had to have navigational “know how”. In order to keep sailors alive at sea for long periods someone had to know something about vitamin deficiency. In order to perform pain-relieving surgery someone had to know how to stop bleeding and administer anaesthetics and minimize post-surgical infection. In order to give us large quantities of affordable food and clothing and drinkable water and pension plans and mortgage insurance, “know how” had to mushroom exponentially.

In all of this there’s no mystery. What isn’t known of the natural world at this moment is still knowable in principle, and will be known shortly.  The profoundest mystery, on the other hand, pertains to the kingdom of God . In other words, when we are dealing not with the natural world but with realms beyond nature, above nature, we shall never be able to penetrate the mystery of God’s unique operation in our midst, God’s unique operation in any individual’s heart.

I’m always amused when someone proffers a psycho-social explanation for the apostle Paul’s turnaround.  It’s suggested that since he tormented the early church, believing as he did that Christians were out to destroy the truth of Israel , he must have had a terribly guilty conscience about it all, and one day his overstressed conscience snapped and he could no longer deny the truth of the gospel. I’m amused because there’s no suggestion anywhere in scripture that Paul was conscience-stricken in the slightest.  In the days when he harassed the church he was as happy as a pig in mud. He thought he was supporting God’s cause. He was sure he was helping to rid the world of an error so erroneous it could only be called a scourge. Then one day it happened. What happened? The seed that someone had planted in Paul grew. How?   No one knows how. There’s mystery here that no one can penetrate; no one can explain; and therefore no one can explain away – that is, demystify.

Lest I be accused of tooting my own horn I shall speak only briefly of my summons to the ministry.  I mentioned once to a sophisticated man that I was fourteen when I knew that I had received a commission from the hand of the crucified (even though I didn’t speak of it this way when I was fourteen.) “Ridiculous”, this fellow snorted; “you couldn’t have known this when you were fourteen.” I said nothing. Throughout high school I wanted to be a lawyer; went to university with a law career in mind. In the course of preparing for legal studies I fell in love with philosophy; adjusted my plans so as to become a professor of philosophy – even as I continued to suffer from my disobedience.         One day I capitulated, admitted that the Hound of Heaven was bugging me to death, and have never looked back.         Yes, I’m aware of people who speak exactly like this and are currently living in psychiatric hospitals.  But I’m not deranged, and therefore such a ready-to-hand simplistic pseudo-explanation won’t do.  I’m aware that all kinds of naturalistic explanations can be advanced – pure speculation, worthless and unprovable – as to how I must have confused my father with God almighty and secretly wanted to please my mother even as childhood anxieties were unsatisfactorily resolved etc., etc., etc. It’s all nonsense. Then what’s the explanation?   There is none – apart from “the farmer knew not how.”   God’s secret penetration and secret preparation are irreducibly mysterious just because of the mystery that names itself GOD.

The mistake we must never make is to think that what’s mysterious – incapable of explanation – is by that fact unreal. Just the opposite is the case. What’s actual – the natural world that all the sciences and social sciences explore — isn’t mysterious, however much remains to be known, since it’s all explainable in principle.  What’s profoundly mysterious – the inexplicable intersection of God’s life with your life and mine and all that arises from this intersection – this is more than actual; this is ultimately real.  How does it all work? We know not how.


III: — The last parable, two of them in fact, are addressed to disciples possessing stunted imaginations. “Just imagine”, says Jesus; “From the tiniest beginnings (in ancient Palestine mustard seed was thought to be the smallest of all seeds) of your work and witness something so very large will come that no one will be able to assess its significance. Just imagine”, Jesus continues; “from a smidgen of yeast that is inserted into dough, the entire batch is leavened and swells hugely.  Now it’s all expanded in a way that is unforeseeable – unforeseeable, that is, until we see it.”

From the tiniest seed, the mustard seed, Jesus insists, there comes forth a shrub, a tree in whose branches perch the birds of the air.  “Birds of the air” is a rabbinic expression that means “all the Gentile nations of the world”.  Jesus is telling unimaginative disciples that from their small numbers (twelve, at first, one of whom proved unhelpful); from such a pathetically small number, from their supposedly simplistic message, from their apparently insignificant mission, there will come – what?  There will come that kingdom which gathers in people of every nation and language and outlook as Gentiles of every description will one day owe everything that is their glory to this handful of Jews who are beginning to wonder if they shouldn’t go back to their fishing.

We know that on the first Easter morning the disciples had decided to go back to their fishing. When the risen One appeared to them he said, “You want to fish?  Then fish. And tell me what you’ve caught.” John’s gospel reports that 153 fish were caught – vastly more than the disciples had ever seen in one net in their fishing days.  Then John adds a line we need to linger over: “And the net didn’t break.” In Israel of old it was said that there were 153 different Gentile peoples.  When eleven Jews fish, and their fishing is accompanied by the risen One’s efficacy, there is created a church that can no more be rent than the body of Christ can be shredded; a church that comprehends all the nations just because that kingdom to which the church points is the whole creation healed. “Can’t you see it?” says Jesus to disciples who lack imagination.   “Can’t you anticipate it more confidently than you can the sun’s rising tomorrow morning?”

Rev. Donald MacLeod, adjunct professor at Tyndale Seminary, and retired only months ago from the Presbyterian congregation in Trenton , Ontario ; upon retiring MacLeod and his wife travelled to China to see where his grandfather had gone in 1897.  His grandfather had been the first Christian in a town.  In 1900 grandfather MacLeod had built a house (it’s still standing, intact) for the wife he brought to it in 1901.  Three weeks ago, when Donald MacLeod went to this particular Chinese city of 60,000 people, he found 20,000 Christians there, worshipping in 38 different facilities (i.e., 500 Christians per church venue – and all of this in a country that has been anti-Christian communist for 60 years.) The Chinese people fell on him, showering him with gifts, eager to see the photographs of his grandfather he had brought with him.  The Chinese people poured out their gratitude for his grandfather; his grandfather, after all, had brought them that gospel which remains dearer to them than life.  All it takes is the tiniest bit of leaven – one man – to give rise to 20,000 Chinese Christians in the midst of totalitarian hostility.

As for yeast, what institution in our society hasn’t been leavened by the yeast of the kingdom? John Wesley was appalled when he visited prisons in Eighteenth Century England. One hundred men, women and children languished in one room the size of the sanctuary of a small church building. Men beat up men. Women were violated. Children were molested. Many adults were there only on account of debts they couldn’t pay.  By the time Wesley’s kingdom-yeast had worked its leavening, each convict had his own cell (modelled on a monk’s cell — penitentiaries were to help convicts become penitent), where each convict’s cell protected him or her from molestation at the hands of fellow inmates.

Think of hospitals and the care of the sick; the treatment of the mentally ill (it was a giant step forward when they were regarded as ill, not stupid; ill, not deliberately obstreperous); employment insurance, children’s aid; the criminal justice system, founded as it is on the Decalogue. What is there in our society that hasn’t been leavened by the yeast of the kingdom?

If we think that some of the yeast appears to be coming out of the dough, then we need to be reminded that it’s the responsibility of the Christian community to ensure that the yeast is always being re-inserted into the dough. We mustn’t throw up our hands and say, “But our yeast is so small and the dough is so big.” That, after all, is the precisely the point of the parable: the tiniest bit of yeast affects the entire batch of dough.   As we are resolute here, we shall recover our confidence too that from beginnings as small as mustard seed there arises something that no one can measure.


Concerning the coming and growth of the kingdom – a kingdom that is real and therefore that can never be shaken, the book of Hebrews reminds us — Jesus paints pictures that the world will never forget.

Disciples who are discouraged are assured that their sole responsibility is sowing, since God has promised that regardless of how little of it germinates and perdures, its harvest is nothing less than magnificent.

Disciples who are prone to deny the mystery of the kingdom are reminded that there is no human explanation for the unique work of God.

Disciples who lack imagination are reminded that from the smallest beginning something arises of cosmic significance, and from the unnoticeable operation of yeast something comes forth that no one can fail to notice.


Mark tells us that Jesus came into Galilee announcing, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Turn around.  Face it. And live from this day in the new creation that it is.”


                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             April 2006