Our dirty little secret
When I was a young person, I would sometimes get to hear a speaker at a youth camp who was really good – he could get everyone laughing so hard you were crying, and then zing in a pointed sentence before you had time to get your defenses up. Jesus was not exactly like that, but he did have a sense of humor and used it effectively – which we will see today. His humor was not because his ideas were trivial – just the opposite – but rather he used humor to teach things that people might be defensive about otherwise.
What could people be defensive about? How about admitting that it feels like God is not doing his job. How about admitting to being frustrated with God – or even admitting that we are angry with God – enough to take matters into our own hands. Those are notions almost no one will own-up to, and yet, listen to the sub-text of a lot of conversation these days, and you might here it there.
Just get people started – about the economy or about the steps being taken now by the administration to address this economic crisis – and people will say everything short of “why is God letting this happen?” And it is not just the economy that produces this subtext, it’s also personal issues, health issues, family issues – even weather issues. What is God doing? or more realistically asked, “why isn’t God doing what he should be doing?”
That is a heavy issue, and it’s summer time, so let’s lighten up – as Jesus did.
First, to this audience of people whose friends and families are mostly tenant farmers whose lives is at stake with every harvest, he tells a story that starts with a ridiculously funny scene:
26 The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
What? Scatter? literally “toss down”? That’s not what you do, you sow seeds; they are precious – you take care; you don’t just “toss” seeds apathetically – who would do that? It’s not just careless, it’s irresponsible and risky – what a fool!
It gets worse;
27 and would sleep and rise night and day,
– and work, right? He didn’t mention that this farmer would work – work his head off, weeding, watering, tending – is this guy doing anything at all? Just sleeping and rising?
and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
Somehow – unlikely and undeservedly as it is – something grows – and the fool doesn’t even know how it happens! Nobody is that bad! Everyone in the ancient world knows why the earth is fertile – it’s God – or the gods – whichever you believe. You’d have to be learning-disabled not to know that!
The next line looks at what is happening out in that pathetic fool’s fields, from his own perspective – the guy who doesn’t care, doesn’t work, and doesn’t know:
28 The earth produces of itself,
– or literally, “automatically” – not by God’s grace or power, it just seems to happen as if no one is in control. Don’t confuse this sentiment with a modern perspective – for the ancient world, this man has lost his mind thinking that things like growth just happen on their own.
But then the scene changes – as they often do in parables:
29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Suddenly the most unlikely thing happens after this carelessness, sloth and impious ignorance – a harvest happens, and he hits the ground running out with his harvesting sickle in his hands – literally, he “puts in the sickle” to cut the grain.
Into this funny story Jesus has just slid in a famous line from the prophet Joel who pictured God’s judgment at the end of time as a harvest:
Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe…for their wickedness is great. (Joel 3:13)
To people who are getting frustrated with God’s apparent lack of attention; to people who may be angry that God seems to be involved in difficulties above his pay-grade; to people ready to take matters into their own hands because it looks like nothing is happening – suddenly, it’s harvest time! There was nothing automatic about what was happening – maybe invisible, but not automatic. God has indeed been at work – and he is no careless, slothful fool. Be careful little hands, what you do! There is a plan at work; there is a purpose being fulfilled – this is a time to trust a bit.
Sowing mustard seeds
But that’s not the only issue Jesus needs to confront with humor – there is more, so he continues with the farming image.
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground,
Now he has his listeners laughing again – using the proper word for “sowing” seeds, Jesus asks them to picture a man sowing a weed! It’s as if he said, “the kingdom of God is like a homeowner who went out to the garden and put in some kudzu” – as people down here have been known to say, “that ain’t gonna happen!” You don’t sow a weed-plant.
Mustard seeds grow into something like a shrub, they say. But then this story gets even more absurd, because this shrub-weed takes off, and grows, and grows, and like in the Jack and the Beanstalk story, becomes a tree – which Jesus describes as the
greatest of all plants, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
There was the zinger that Jesus slid in – the low growing shrub that be came a high-growing tree has such large branches that even the birds can nest in it – this is no random description. This is Ezekiel’s tree – the tree pictured by the prophet as a symbol of the nation of Israel, planted and tended by God: (Ezekiel 17)
22 Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out…
23 On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
24 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…;
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
Here is the point: Jesus has been out in the country side with the Galilean peasantry; people of low social status, marginal people, excluded people, sick people – and yes, he has a bit of a following out there – but look at them! They make Spanky’s Gang look like sophisticated gentlemen. You would be excused for dismissing them if not despising them outright.
But looks can be deceiving. Behind these rag-tag faces, God is at work. This may look like a shrub-weed, but it’s not over ’till it’s over. This little low-lying bush has been purposefully planted – it’s not a volunteer – there has been a gardner at work here. It is going to become a huge tree, big enough for the birds.
Now get this: Jesus is not saying only that this small group of marginalized people will win the “Israel’s Got Talent” show and become rich and famous; although that would be amazing, Jesus is saying something even greater. This group is not just going to be any big tree – this is THE tree! Ezekiel’s tree! This is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the nation of Israel!
“What? This is the kingdom of God?” – they may be asking? Not a new dynasty with a new king David? Not political power? Not ethnic purity and pride? Not vindication and revenge for all we have suffered?
The Kingdom is growing in the dirt
Despite appearances, the secret is that God is at work in that dirt, and what is growing is magnificent. God does not do it like I would, neither in style nor in substance. It may be easy to despise what we see with our eyes today, but do not be deceived, God is at work.
There are several different levels on which we can see this truth, from the global and historical to the modern world of this congregation and even in our own personal lives.
First, globally, the Kingdom of God that started in such a small, insignificant has been quietly having its effect in this world. For example, slavery which was universally accepted in the past is now universally condemned. Democracy has a long way to go, but today, a significant number of the people in the world have some say in who governs them. Women who until very recently were considered property are increasingly able to participate as equals – even in Iran steps are now being taken that just a short time ago would have been impossible. We could go on to speak of education and health care, and countless ways in which the lives of millions of people are better off now than they were in the past. Progress has been slow in coming – that’s true; and there have been long stretches during which it looked like nothing was happening – the seed sat in the groud for months of winter – but looks can be deceiving. God has been at work.
This is also the case in our congregation. We are small – and especially in this summer time of year, appear to be even smaller. But there is right now significant work being done behind the scenes to prepare for the coming harvest. We have completed the survey which we will begin to analyze this week. We have adopted the Acts 16:5 Initiative program of congregational renewal; we are not expecting instant success, but we are expecting that God is doing a new and powerful work here in Gulf Shores that will blossom in his time.
We also know that even despite appearances, God is at work in every one of our lives. It may feel like the world is on auto-pilot and nothing is happening, no one is in charge, but looks can be deceiving. The evidence of this fact is looking backwards, not ahead. Think back to the events of your life – the big good ones and to the times of crisis; can’t you see, looking back, that God was with you in those times too? In fact, looking back, can’t you see how he was working out his purposes – even in those times – to get you through them, and to bring you to where you are today? Were there not two sets of “footprints in the sand” – seen only by looking back?
So this gives us confidence in the present. No matter what is happening in your life, God has not abandoned you. He is not asleep or careless with your life. He is methodically, intentionally working in the dirt below the surface, to produce a rich harvest in his time. Have courage; be patient; trust him. Your life may look like kudzu now, but it’s going to become a fruitful tree, fulfilling the purpose God planted you for. Expect good things; expect new things. This is what Jesus is telling all of us today.