Sermon: Pentecost 4, 17 June 2018, Dr Ruth Shatford, St Alban’s

ST ALBAN’S EPPING.  SUNDAY 17TH JUNE 2susus018.  FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Dr Ruth Shatford

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13,  Psalm 20,  2 Corinthians 5:6-17,  Mark 4: 26-34

Our gospel reading this morning is from early in Mark’s gospel, not long after Jesus’ public ministry had begun.  Mark’s is the earliest gospel and provided much of the material that Matthew and Luke included; they seem often to actually quote him.  It is thought to have been written about 65 CE, about 32 years after Jesus’ death, and to be in essence the record of Peter’s narrating and preaching.  So, we actually have here an eyewitness witness account of what Peter said.  This record is considered important as the earliest surviving life of Jesus. Mark is also considered very reliable – the son of a well to do woman – another Mary, who lived in Jerusalem.  Her house was a rallying point or meeting place for the very early church.  So Mark grew up with the stories of Jesus and his friends.  I think it is useful for us today to fill in those very early chapters of Mark that precede our gospel reading.  Mark’s view of Jesus is clear – about those who heard Jesus’ teaching, he often says things such as “they were astonished”…”they were amazed”…” they were filled with awe”…”they were utterly astounded”.  In his first chapter, he announces quite assertively “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  So if we are looking for it, this is the essential gospel.  Part way into chapter 1, Mark says “The Kingdom of God is here.”.  Then he tells stories of Jesus wandering the Galilee and teaching and healing.  In chapter 3, Jesus becomes angry and grieves the people’s hardness of heart.  We are then told the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.  Next he calls the twelve disciples to be with him in his ministry, and then in somewhat of an anticlimax, we are told he went home.  This however gives us an interesting insight.  His family went outdoors to try to pull him inside away from the crowd that was gathering and tried to restrain him as people were saying he was out of his mind.  When people in the crowd called and told him that his family were there asking for him he replied “Who are my mother and my brothers?”.  And this is where we are pulled into the story.  Looking at those sitting around him, he said “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

It had seemed a firm but calm beginning to the gospel, but it turned out to be loaded with tension and it is against this background that Jesus began his preaching in parables.  When the twelve and those who were around him asked him about the parables, he said “To you has been given the secret (or the mystery) of the Kingdom of God.”.

Most of the parables are about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ main message is about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus had not come to contribute to a new ethic, nor to teach some loftier idea of God.

Mark starts out saying: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”  So, the good news of the New Testament is that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of all the hope of Israel, the one who has come to bring in the promised Kingdom of God.  In various contexts, that assertion has remained at the very heart of the Church’s gospel.

Jesus said “I must preach the Kingdom of God to other cities because for this purpose I was sent.  Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”

We first encounter the phrase “the Kingdom of God” in the preaching of the forerunner cousin of Jesus – John the Baptist, who said “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”.

The Kingdom has both a present and future sense as we pray in the prayer Jesus taught his friends.  We begin by acknowledging God as father in heaven and then we are bidden to pray “Your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in Heaven.”

Luke 17:21 says The Kingdom of God is within you.”.

So what is this Kingdom of God that seems absolutely central to our faith?  It is not about geography or place; it is about the dynamic reality of God’s presence and power within the creation and within the lives of God’s people.

This Kingdom of God would have been a familiar Old Testament concept to Jesus’ hearers, even if not in those very words.  The notion means God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s realm or God’s empire.  The idea that God is King over all creation, sovereign ruler of the universe permeates the Old Testament.  There was also the idea that God would rule over Israel in a special way that made the Israelites wish for a present, visible king such as surrounding nations had.  We saw this last week in our Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel.  This is likely why Jesus found it necessary to hide himself on occasion to stop being seized by the crowd and set up as an earthly king.

In creating the world, God had given dominion/lordship/kingship to Adam who turned sinfully away from his charge.  This dominion mandate given to Adam was renewed with Abraham, who was told “Kings shall come from you”.  Dominion was a gift from God in the context of God’s saving redemption of a sinful people.  It was enshrined in the sacrificial system that was so central in Israel’s national life.    But successive kings, Saul and David among them, failed to rule over Israel in righteousness.  In the face of kingly corruption and failure, and despite Israel’s earthly failure, God does not abandon his plan to rule over the whole world through his appointed human king.

Many prophetic passages revealed that the only hope for the establishment of an enduring and faithful kingdom in Israel lies in a future work for God’s redemption.  The prophets connect the deliverance of God’s people with the reestablishment of God’s kingdom.   The prophets speak of God as the one who will sovreignly usher in his end time Kingdom, accomplishing this through a kingly messiah figure.  Two passages in Isaiah stand out as significant for understanding the coming ministry of Jesus.  There is reference to the coming of a servant of the Lord who “shall be high and lifted up and be exalted”.  Paradoxically this will come about through his own suffering.  The suffering and death of God’s kingly servant are both necessary for the establishment of the end time Kingdom and are the means by which it will be established.  Daniel’s vision of an end time “Son of Man” speaks of the one who will establish dominion over all the nations, a dominion that will never pass away or be destroyed.

The reign of God is to be ushered in by a suffering servant who paradoxically is also a triumphant heavenly deliverer. This was well understood by Jesus, but was a difficult concept for the Jews to comprehend or accept, because they simply expected a triumphant king, in a military sense.  So it is with a sense of expectation, that Mark’s gospel moves into reporting the parables; in these parables,  Jesus sought to enlighten his disciples as to the nature of the kingdom of God which he proclaimed was at hand.  To understand something of the Kingdom of God, we need to understand this Old Testament concept.  The future hope of the prophets set the anticipation with which Mark’s gospel opens.   The saving reign of God foretold by Isaiah was breaking into the world in Jesus’ person and ministry.  So we turn to the gospel reading to see something of what Jesus taught about the nature of the Kingdom of God.

In the light of the growing opposition to him, to his family’s concern and his fellow Jews’ failure to understand him, Jesus tells a series of parables about growth.  It seems as if the Kingdom of God defies definition or even description, but is best illustrated with stories.  The fact that Mark tells these two apparently simple stories, but Matthew and Luke do not use them raises questions. The material from just 24 of Mark’s 661 verses does not appear in those other two gospels.  At least, this should signal that we need to approach our interpretation with caution.  Are they uncomfortable with these two parables?  Do they not regard them as of the essence of Jesus’ teaching?  Or, dare I ask if they did not really understand them, so chose to omit them?  Today’s gospel is the report of two of Jesus’ parables of growth.  Jesus is not simply telling stories, but from the lives of his listeners, is seeking some point of contact between their everyday experience and what one commentator calls the “indescribable wonder of the Kingdom of God”.   Another scholar suggests that there is no easy take-home message for us from these two parables.  They invite us to engage our imaginations and follow the possibilities and incongruities – that we distinguish between a world that is planned, linear and logical and one that is filled with mysteries and surprises into which a sovereign God invites us.  Let me explain a little.  In the first parable, the seed is planted and then seemingly of its own accord grows till it is ready to be harvested.   Is this a tale that tells us to become farmers for God, sowing the seed of God’s reign?  Maybe, but tradition has said that the harvest belongs to the risen Christ, not to us. So is Jesus the farmer who plants and harvests?  When our days are marked by struggle and suffering, and we long for evidence of Jesus’ presence, where is he between the sowing and the harvest?  Those in Mark’s community wanted to hurry the kingdom of God along as some of us with missionary zeal want to do.  But then we read that the coming of the harvest in the parable – the coming of the Kingdom of God to human kind, is somehow automatic and not of our doing.  So, what is the lesson of this apparently deceptively simple parable?  It does not explain the Kingdom, but it confronts us with its power and implications and demands a response from us.

The second parable also needs imaginative placing of ourselves into the story and we need to think.  Mustard seed is useful medicinally and for flavouring and preserving food, but the bush is actually a garden pest that no one would have sown deliberately in an ordinary garden.  The superlatives in the telling of the story are not actually accurate; the mustard seed is tiny, but not the smallest of seeds.  The mustard bush grows large, but it is not the largest of all shrubs.  This exaggeration is to make the hearer pay attention and to realise that the seed is indeed very small and the shrub very large.  To the original hearers of Jesus, the images would have been very encouraging.  The Kingdom of God was starting up in a tiny way in their midst.  But the image of the size of the shrub giving shelter to the birds, symbolises the nations that flock to Israel’s God on the glorious day of the Lord – a future that is bigger than imaginable at the time to the little band of followers.  The point being made is one of contrast  – what we see now and what we will see.  The parable invites us to believe that God’s reign – the good that God does bring and will bring – will happen.  The two parables defy failure.  They assert an optimism.  The coming of God’s reign was a way of talking about an overcoming of powers that oppressed people, whether as individuals or communities.  It would be good news for the poor and hungry.  Its goal was not a state of individual bliss but a community of justice and peace.

William Loader, whose work I always read with interest when he comments on the weekly readings, says the message of parables such as these should not be reduced to naïve or dogmatic optimism.  He says that set within the pain of their context, they are much more realistic, encouraging us to defy hopelessness and to believe that nothing will serve our interests, nor those of the people surrounding us, better than to allow ourselves to be part of God’s reign, or in other words, God’s life and love in the world.   When we are concerned that our efforts for God and for good, seem to have little impact, these parables encourage us to allow our God to be God, to work in surprising and mysterious ways.  The silent action of a faithful God will, in God’s own time, bear fruit to his glory.