Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
What if…what if you had something you needed to tell people, but you weren’t sure how they would take it. What if you knew that the thing you needed to say was going to make some people avoid you…reject you…even hate you. And what if that thing about you was so unacceptable that it even went against the law?
How would you even start that conversation? Mom, Dad, I need to tell you something really important and I don’t know how you’ll take it. My friend, can I tell you something really personal?
Or would you choose another way to put what you needed to say out there. Maybe you’d slowly let others know that terribly important thing about you in small easily overlooked ways. Ways that people who didn’t want to know about you, or care about you, could just ignore. But ways in which perhaps the people who loved you the most, believed in you, and supported you might begin to glimpse what you’re putting out there and maybe even come to accept it.
If you’ve never had a hard thing to tell people about yourself, you might not understand why Jesus used parables so much. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spoke in parables almost exclusively when he was out teaching publicly. The two parables we heard today come from early in the gospel, when Jesus had only just begun to reveal himself for who he really was.
At first Jesus was nobody much beyond one of the many inerrant Jewish rabbis who taught and preached all over the countryside of Palestine. But to be entirely as God made him to be, Jesus had to begin to reveal himself, his mission, and his destiny. And that was a dangerous task. Parables offered a way for Jesus to talk about God, himself, and the social order without prematurely bringing about the end he knew awaited him.
The parables of the kingdom open up for us in unexpected ways when we listen to them without preconceived notions. It’s necessary to let go of all our usual opinions about the parables. We start by taking Jesus at his word as he tells anyone who will listen, about God’s kingdom.
The people in Jesus’s time expected a messiah who would restore Israel’s kingdom. Their last true king had been taken into captivity nearly six hundred years earlier. King Herod had no royal lineage, but was part of a powerful family, set up by the Romans to manage Jewish affairs.
How could Jesus begin to teach the people that restoring the monarchy was not on God’s list, but upholding Israel’s faith was? How can Jesus teach us today that filling church pews is not God’s plan of salvation, but setting people free from sin to love the world is? Salvation after all isn’t about flying to heaven. It’s about becoming healthy and whole; body, mind, and spirit together. Not so much what we desire, but what God knows we need. Can Jesus even say this to us?
This is why Jesus invites us to imagine a strange yet holy reign where seeds are scattered carelessly, by an unnamed character. That person goes on with life, day after day, unconscious to the seed. It grows according to the wisdom and ways of earth; how can it not? Until one day there is grain ready for the taking. Then the person springs to action and brings in the harvest.
Seeds grow because it’s in them to do that. Love grows because it’s in us to do that. Earth has its trajectory. God’s reign does also. Nothing we do prevents God’s reign from doing what God intends it to do.
Nothing could prevent Jesus from accomplishing God’s aims. Not betrayal, not a cross, not a tomb. Perhaps this is all that Jesus was trying to say. It is a surprising and comforting thought.
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote this:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
It’s almost as if the poet was pondering a parable when she composed that poem. Perhaps even the kingdom parable of the mustard seed. Is it a story of how exceedingly large is God’s reign? Or something altogether different?
Did you ever notice that this mustard seed parable is an improbable riff on the prophecy of Ezekiel 17:22-24? What Israel heard in Ezekiel’s prophecy was that God would restore Israel’s kingdom and the Jerusalem Temple – the noble cedar on the mountain height. It would provide shelter and refuge. It would flourish and overshadow all other trees. This was welcome news as the people faced the power of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and saw their nation crumble.
In the time of Jesus, God’s people were still waiting for that national restoration. Waiting for the messiah to do that wonderful thing. How can Jesus tell them (and us) that God’s Messiah comes with a different kind of power, and an unexpected kind of reign, in spite of nationalistic plans?
And so Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed. This seed is small, like the cedar sprig. It gives shelter to nesting birds so they can bring forth life. But there the similarity ends. Mustard doesn’t grow tall, you know. It grows sideways. It’s anything but royal. It takes over fields and grows in ditches. It’s so surprising, so improbable.
And so is Jesus. He wasn’t what people expected. In Jesus, God’s Word is expanded and exploded. The forgiveness and freedom from sin that Jesus brings goes far beyond the wonders that we expect from God.
Paul is right. This where our confidence should be placed. Not in God doing what God has done before, but in God doing an unexpected new thing. Here is Jesus, the One who invites us to be a new creation. To welcome the reign where, to love as Jesus loves, is to be at home.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.