Times, we have been told, change. And they do, even quite radically. In particular, times for the church in the United States and western Europe have not only changed, they’ve changed in ways that don’t look so good for us.
For one thing, as we are constantly told, we are failing to reach our young people.
More, a whole culture once thought of as Judeo-Christian is moving from indifference to Christianity to hostility toward it (and not a minute too soon, the New Atheists would tell us).
Today, the dismal science of statistics says more Americans profess “no religion” than do all those who profess Episcopalianism, Methodism, and Lutheranism combined.1
How do we Christians confront these changes, changes that seem clearly beyond our control?
In this context of threatening change, I want to look at Mark 4:26–29, a parable found solely in Mark’s Gospel: “He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’ ”2
There’s something about that seed that isn’t in our control. Even the parable itself doesn’t conform itself easily to the tidy control of interpreters. The sower and the reaper seem to be the same person. But if it’s Jesus, why is He so ignorant of how the seed grows? If it’s a farmer, how could a mere human be an end-time harvester (there is clear allusion in the text to the end-time language of Joel 3:13)? And, besides, everybody knows that you don’t just throw seed on the ground and walk away.
In truth, though, the parable is more mysterious than obscure. If a certain elusiveness about identities exists here, I suspect it has to do with the larger truth that the human story takes place, not independently, but firmly inside the divine story. In other words, we can’t neatly dissect out what God does from what God’s people do.
Paul can say, “I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10); or again, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13, NASB). What we plant comes to nothing without the Divine Planter; what we harvest is but a taste of the final harvest; and yet God, in His wisdom, has determined that our labor should, somehow, matter.
Nonetheless, we need to be reminded that the gift of life, that the power of the seed itself, is not ours to produce, manage, or control. In this parable, set in a context of seed parables, it’s all about the seed.
Yes, it’s all about the seed. Either the seed is good or it’s not. Before you get anxious about mulching, fertilizing, watering, and weeding, remember that none of that will do any good if you plant marbles, no matter how beautiful and nicely sculpted those marbles might be or how diligently you mulch, fertilize, water, or weed them.
Imagine a magnificent green field, full of plants. But it’s worse to have such a wonderfully green field if all you see are weeds. For, as the disturbing parable in Matthew 13 reminds us, wheat and weeds look a good deal alike, especially when they are young. Thus, we can be seduced. We can look at results produced by CEO-types who have replaced pastoral duties with administrative ones and be persuaded that we—whose efforts seem to produce much more meager results—have it all wrong and, thus, these worldly tools are what is really essential. In contrast, the parable in Mark emphasizes the complete passivity of the farmer once he has sown the seed.
In short, if the seed isn’t good, nothing else matters. We must, therefore, be careful about tampering with the seed. Yes, of course, we interpret and apply in contexts, and painting the seed blue in a blue world—if you use nontoxic paint—won’t likely be fatal. But we must maintain the integrity of the whole. Chopping the seed up into tiny pieces, on the theory that just a very little, too little really to be recognizable, will be easier for folks to get down, and the rest can be provided later, is fatal. (That Bill Hybels and the seeker-sensitive movement have had the courage to recognize and own up to their failures at such points is to be commended.)
We must have the whole gospel. Leaving out the hard parts—sin, self-sacrifice, and suffering, for instance—and the symbols that remind us of these things in worship, is worse than nothing at all. Why? Because it can inoculate folks against the gospel in the same way that exposure to a pathogen in a dose too small to give us a disease can make us immune to the disease altogether.
But just as bad as leaving critical stuff out is adding stuff that doesn’t belong, creating a gospel injected with alien material, tailored to allow us to do what we want but probably shouldn’t. Consider, by analogy, seeds engineered to tolerate high doses of herbicide (known as a genetically modified organism, or GMO). Plants grown from such seeds have already been implicated in the colony collapse phenomenon decimating honey bee populations, and in the deaths of monarch butterflies. Such causal chains are hard to prove, but it should hardly surprise anyone that creating poison tolerance and then using more and more poison is bad for living things.
While the example is a contemporary one, the danger in its basic shape is anything but new. Paul had to counter those who thought he was teaching that we should sin in order that grace might abound. Should we today, for instance, be reassured by those preachers who tell us to feel free to be our fallen selves and act out our fallen impulses and accumulate our worldly goods indefinitely, without any pangs of conscience (and, indeed, to see all this freedom and accumulation as a clear sign of God’s generous love and blessing)? Don’t count on it. That is GMO seed, which brings short-term gain but long-term disaster.
Not the faintest idea
There’s something about good seed. Plant that, and nothing else. And then let it alone and go about your daily business in peace. Of course, there’s the watering and the weeding. Jesus knew that. It’s just that all these other activities are not the point of the parable. The text’s verb forms tell us that the planting is a one-time event; the sleeping and rising continue. We can let things be and go on living our lives, once we have done the essential thing. It’s just not true that everything stops the minute we stop our frantic efforts. No, the seed grows “automatically,” of itself.
The seed takes root and springs up because of what it is. Something about the seed is fitted to the soil, to the human heart. The appearance of fruit is gradual. If the development has a sort of orderliness, it is often only a general one, not one that specifies this many leaves of just this shade of green or this many blossoms arranged just so. God’s way of working in each heart is particular to that heart. And we haven’t the faintest idea how it happens, much less the knowledge to engineer it. I repeat, we haven’t the faintest idea how it happens, how God’s kingdom comes, shoot by tender shoot. Forecasts, projections, and busy strategies deceive us.
Gurus of today’s church culture have bought into a contrary view, the idea that we should figure out what God is doing in the world and get on board. Yet, surely, Jesus told this parable at least in part to reassure His disciples because evidence of the growth of the kingdom in His own day was so slight. And surely anyone looking for what God was doing in the world around a.d. 30 would hardly have started with a wandering Galilean nobody from nowhere. Furthermore, Jesus Himself seemed, as Thielicke put it, “to ignore with a sovereign indifference the . . . ‘world-historical perspective’ of his mission” and instead persisted in tending to the nobodies of the world, being obedient in small and immediate matters, and letting the rest go.3 That is not quite what large church leaders are generally advised to do. Granted that the contexts, and to some extent the responsibilities, are different, but there is surely still a lesson to be learned here.
The hidden things
The problem with the current mind-set runs deeper still. Very often, when God has been doing His most important work—as He did through the thoroughly immoral and unjust execution of Jesus—we would have been morally obligated, not to get on board, but to oppose it with all our strength. As Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “ ‘The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born’ ” (Matt. 26:24). God’s ways of bringing His kingdom are more mysterious than we can know. Our duty is not to fathom these ways but to be obedient to what the Lord tells us to do. In the context of Mark’s parable, obedience would lead us to plant good seed, and then be at peace.
In fact, many of the most important things in life are like the growth of that mysterious seed, things that fretting and labor cannot produce once we have done the right thing. We cannot make someone love us or forgive us; we can only accept these good gifts. We cannot even will something as superficially straightforward as the understanding of a sermon or the recognition of a face. We can will the reading or the listening or the looking, but not the understanding or the recognition. Striving for happiness makes it ever more beyond our reach. How often what counts most is least in our control.
These good things that we cannot force into existence come, if they come at all, in ways as ordinary as they are mysterious. We love and, sometimes, are loved in return. We repent and suddenly know, deeper than words, that God welcomes us home. We read and do understand; we look and rejoice in recognizing the face of a long-absent friend. If we deny the mystery, try to contain or control it, we are left with nothing but the grinding wheels of our own machinery. The miracle of it all is a hidden thing, just as the miraculous quality of all of life is hidden under its sheer familiarity.
But hidden, too, are more ominous things. These are not the point of Mark’s parable, but we can hardly help but notice them. So far as we can tell, God Himself seems to allow all sorts of things that make us doubt a harvest is even conceivable. We see not just a barren field, but stones, weeds, floods, blazing heat, voracious insects, and marauding strangers. We see the vast empire of opponents to God’s kingdom, the endless assaults of evil that can lead us to wonder if God is, really, doing anything at all.
So be it. Sleep and rise, night and day, and be at peace. It must be that even in the midst of evil, precisely in the darkness of the seed hidden in the earth, God is somehow ensuring that all will not be lost but will be brought to fulfillment in the end. If He were not working in the dark, the seed would not sprout at all. Let the wretched outward appearance go.
Signs of the kingdom
At the same time, it’s also OK to notice the sound green shoots, stalks, perhaps even heads of grain; that is, it is OK to notice signs of the kingdom even, or maybe, especially, in fields that are not yours. It may be that someone else, and not you at all, will see the growth in your own field. That way we are less likely to get confused about where the growth comes from.
One of the finest pastors I have ever known, a person whose own life has been marked by relentless suffering, loves to look for signs of the kingdom. He finds them in surprising places. Favorites of his have been episodes of the popular old television series M*A*S*H, where (believe it or not) he spies green shoots everywhere. Some are plain enough: one recognizes things like so-called enemy soldiers cared for with the same grace and skill as anyone else or orphaned children loved and provided with toys.
But don’t neglect to notice the less obvious signs—like the goofy gurney races when the hospital unit was, for once, empty. Or the futile and entertaining bombing missions of “Five O’Clock Charlie,” whose plane arrived daily like clockwork and every single time missed its target—the only question being by how much. Desperate hilarity and terrible courage in impossible situations, these, too, can be signs of the kingdom, things to celebrate and for which to give thanks. Every hint of love, grace, and wholesome laughter augurs something better to come.
Remember, it’s all about the seed. There’s something about that seed that assures the harvest. It’s like the mushroom a tiny child can crumple in her hand but still has enough life to push through pavement and come out whole. Any sensible person would have said it was impossible. But there it is.
Who would have dreamed that Joshua Josephson, the Nobody from nowhere, born in a barn, executed at thirty years of age, betrayed by one of His tiny band of a dozen followers and denied by another, would be the Source of a faith and hope that spans the globe? Who would ever have supposed that the violently suppressed churches of Russia and China, pushed underground, kept alive at times by faithful grandmothers with mere fragments of the Bible, would survive to put up not just green shoots but fields fruitful and ripe? Who would have thought that a sermon preached or a word spoken by, well, you, might be the very word that sets another human life on an entirely new course?
Yes, times are changing. Fortunately, our God doesn’t. Therefore, preach that Word. Sow good seed and be at peace, rejoicing confidently in every sign of the kingdom. For God’s own promise means that the harvest is sure.
1. Quoted in Martin Marty’s newsletter Context, January 2010, 6.
2. Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are from the New International Version of the Bible.
3. Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 89.