Lamps & Seeds

Jesus loves parables.

All of the parables in the text we are going to read today are about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is one of those phrases we throw around a lot at church. What is the Kingdom of God, really? This elusive, out of reach, seemingly unattainable goal. Something we can’t quite grasp. Something we can’t quite explain.

I can only imagine the disciples’ frustration when they ask Jesus these same questions about the Kingdom of God and he responds with stories about seeds and lamps.

Jesus says, “Those who have ears to hear, listen.”

Jesus’ teaching in parables adds the elusiveness of trying to figure out exactly where and when and how and what the kingdom of God is. It’s clear that Jesus’ goal is not to be one that comes in and teaches everyone the “right” way to do things. He wants to draw the listeners into active, discerning listening. He wants them to grow in understanding.

So let’s listen together: what is this secret kingdom of God?

When the Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah, they were confident they knew how he would arrive: in great fanfare, in military conquest. But he arrived secretly, telling stories of lamps and seeds.

plant

The Lamp

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Mark 4:21-25, NRSV

If we read this parable as most translations tell us as a regular old lamp, the allusions are clear: those who are ‘enlightened’ are able to hear the parables that Jesus telling. Those who do not understand are left in the dark.

If we explore the Greek word erchomai which is translated here as “brought,” the parable’s meaning differs slightly. 616 out of 643 times in the Bible, this word is translated to “Come.” If the lamp “comes” then this isn’t just a regular old lamp. This is a special lamp.

The lamp could be two things. It could be Jesus. At the telling of the parable, Jesus is not currently understood and recognized but eventually, the light of Jesus will shine who he is will be boldly and openly proclaimed. The lamp could be the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom that remains hidden. A lamp that stays under a blanket. But it is still there, the kingdom is still shining. At the time of Jesus’ telling, the kingdom is remaining hidden but there will come a time when the blanket will be pulled off and the light of the kingdom will shine for everyone to see.

The Jews had many preconceived notions about what their Messiah would be like. They thought he would be a Messiah who conquered with armies. A messiah who was nobly born and acted like a regular king. But he wasn’t. Jesus came, eating with social outcasts and healing the sick. He came quietly, changing their notions of what a Messiah was before they even knew he was the Messiah.

I wonder if this is the same for the kingdom of God and Christians today. Many people have all these preconceived notions of who Christians are. And, unfortunately, these are mostly negative. I’ve had many an experience where I’ve met someone and told them I’m a pastor and immediately the conversation is over. They’ve shut down completely. Or they get defensive. Or the conversation just gets really awkward. Can we change people’s perceptions of who Christians are the way Jesus did? Can the kingdom of God be furthered through our anonymous good deeds? In Jesus’ ministry, he eventually took the blanket off of his lamp and proclaimed that he was the son of God. At some point, the same needs to be done in our conversations with others. When do we need to tell them about our faith? These are a few questions to ponder as we consider the hiddenness of the kingdom of God in this parable.

Jesus continues his secretiveness about the kingdom of God in the telling of another parable.

Growing Seed

He 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.”

Mark 4:26-29, NRSV

Is the kingdom of God like the farmer? Is it comparable to the seed’s growth? Jesus doesn’t explain this parable, at least not to us. We are left in the dark, on the outside, wondering what secrets the kingdom of God could possibly be revealed in comparing it to a growing seed.

It seems, to me, that Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of God to the farmer’s inactivity and lack of understanding. When the kingdom of God grows, one may not know quite how it is managing to grow. Last summer, one of my flourishing ivy plants got spiders on it. Little red spiders that unfortunately you can’t really see until it’s too late. Quickly, my ivy leaves began to fade and die. I tried desperately, spraying my plant with soap and water. I took it and washed each individual leaf, every stalk. But the spiders came back every time. Eventually, I gave up. I put it in the back porch so that the spiders would not spread to other plants and ignored it for awhile. A few weeks later, I went to go and throw it out. As I was walking with it out the door, I stopped and looked at this now very decrepit plant. It did not have a single healthy looking leaf on it. In a moment of compassion, I didn’t throw it out and instead left it outside on our back steps. A few weeks later, I was walking by it and noticed three small new green leaves on my ivy. It had survived and was growing again. Despite my inattention, despite my giving up. In the moment after I had tried so hard to revive it, when I had finally given it up and gave it one last chance, it came back.

Perhaps that is my own parable: the kingdom of God is like an ivy plant.  I look at our world today and can resonate with the baffled farmer. Really? The Kingdom of God is here? Where? But the ivy, the growing seed and Jesus tell us that amidst our news, amidst our lockdown, amidst our planet dying, amidst wars and domestic violence and racism and hungry people and our futile efforts there is a tiny ivy leaf unfurling to the Son.

The kingdom of God is here.

Mustard Seeds

Scripture: 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 in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:30-32

I love stories with small beginnings. Stories of businesses that change the world but start in garages. Stories of movements that begin with one person putting a sign in their window. Stories of lives saved by one word or one sentence said to a stranger.

This parable is another of a small beginning. A tiny mustard seed grows and grows and grows and grows and grows. Small beginnings do not mean small endings. I don’t know much about mustard plants but I do know about garlic mustard that tries to invade my garden each year. And it grows and grows and grows and grows. I did a bit of research on mustard plants in the middle east and they seem to have the same effect. Despite the smallness of their seed they grow and grow and grow and grow.

A tiny leaf of an ivy plant does not stay tiny. When our world seems overwhelming and the elusive, secret Kingdom of God seems beyond our reach, Jesus isn’t asking for us to perform giant miracles that will further the kingdom of God. Jesus takes our smallness. Jesus takes our lack of power. He cherishes the small things we do. Jesus take the tiny mustard seeds that we have to offer and says “Don’t worry, it will grow into something big.”

Conclusion

So where is it? What is it? What is this secret kingdom of God that comes hiding its light under a blanket, a kingdom that remains despite our inactivity, a kingdom that flourishes despite our futile efforts?

Jesus shows us the kingdom of God in Mark. It’s a place where people are restored to healthy and sanity. A place where social outcasts are invited into homes to dine. A place where cups of cold water are given out. A place where children are valued and welcomed. A place where the disciples learn that salvation is found in self-denial and self-sacrifice.

That doesn’t sound much different to what the kingdom of God may look like around us today which, to me, sounds awfully hopeful. Hope is a dangerous thing. It’s in a piece of tiny rope that we hold onto to try and get out of a pit. It’s in the last ditch effort to try and get an ivy plant to survive. It is the tiny whisper that tells us not to give up on our dreams.

Go out this week with hope. Go out this week with ears to hear and eyes to see where the kingdom of God is sneaking in. Look to see where the kingdom of God is spreading out. Listen to hear where the kingdom of God is taking over little corners of the world. Look for places of hope. Dangerous hope that people are clinging to. Hope that changes lives in ways small and large. Aid and assist in that hope however and wherever you can.

The kingdom of God is hard to define because it is so complex. But it’s out there, in our lives, waiting for us to throw our seeds out on the ground in hope that something will grow. It’s out there, waiting for us to take our blanket off our light and shine. It’s out there, waiting for us to plant our mustard seed that will turn into a bountiful, beautiful, wild, uncontrollable harvest.

May God give us the eyes to see and ears to hear.

Amen.