Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2012
Text: Mark 4:26-34
Beloved in the Lord, this morning Jesus tells us two parables about how the Kingdom of God grows, followed by St. Mark’s explanation of how Jesus taught the people, His own disciples on the one hand, and on the other hand, all the rest who did not believe in Him and were even hostile to Him. “He did not speak to them without a parable,” Mark writes, “but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (Mark 4:34; ESV). Parables are word-pictures, usually with a surprising twist, teaching about the Kingdom of God using illustrations from everyday life. It is often said that Jesus taught the people in parables so that they could more readily understand His teaching. Now, this may be scandalous to your ears, but actually the opposite is true. Jesus taught in parables so that the people would not understand what He was talking about. What? That doesn’t sound right. And yet a few verses prior to our text, Jesus says to His Apostles (quoting the Prophet Isaiah), “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’” (vv. 11-12). Many were given to hear Jesus’ preaching. But of themselves they were incapable of understanding. And there’s the point. If you want to understand the teaching of Jesus, you can’t just take His Word on your own and apply it to your life. You’re incapable of that. You cannot by your own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or understand His Word. You need Jesus to explain it to you. You have to be His disciple to understand it. The apostles didn’t understand the parables, either. That is, until Jesus taught them the meaning privately. You have to be taught the Word. Jesus Himself has to teach you. You need His Spirit to understand. That’s why Jesus taught in parables. So that we who follow Him would ask Him what it means, and be led by Him in His Word to the riches of its meaning for us and for our salvation.
Two such parables in our Gospel this morning. The first is about the seed that a man scatters on the ground. Now, the man can’t make the seed grow. To be sure, he can plant in good soil, water, and fertilize, but ultimately, he can’t make it grow. That’s not how gardening or farming works. The farmer has to go to bed each night and arise each morning trusting that the seed will work by itself. Actually, if he tampers with it too much, it won’t grow. He’ll impede the growth. He has to let the seed work as it was designed to do, as God designed it to work. And what happens? “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (v. 28). Then the farmer will reap his reward from the work of the seed. “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (v. 29). Of course, this parable really isn’t about growing plants. It’s about the Kingdom of God, the Church. The seed is the Word of God. You and I can’t make the Word of the Lord grow. God does that. That’s His job. We are given, as the holy Church, to go out and scatter the seed, to preach the Word, to witness in our daily lives and vocations, to speak the Word to one another, and most especially to hear and love and be filled with that Word ourselves so that the Word can overflow in us to others. We scatter the seed of the Word. But we dare not tamper with it. That could impede the growth. That gets in the way of the Word working as God has designed it. We have to trust the Word to work. This is a great challenge to the Church. In our fallen minds, we always think the Word isn’t enough. It can’t be enough simply to preach and teach and baptize and gather around the altar for the Supper. The Church has to do more, we think, be relevant, be attractive. We tamper with the Word. We downplay less popular teachings in the Word. We invent other teachings that just aren’t there. We’re always looking for a practical application of the Word for this life only, failing to see that the Word of God is finally and ultimately and comprehensively about our Lord Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation that we have in Him through His life, death, and resurrection. Don’t tamper with the Word. Don’t hinder the Word with endless man-made programs designed to “sell” the Church, because when you do, you’re not evangelizing, you’re selling-out the Gospel. Don’t make preaching just another company pitch, be it for the Synod or the district or even the congregation itself. Leave the Word to do its work. Trust it. Trust God who gave it. It’s a powerful Word. God promises that it will never return to Him empty. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth,” says the Lord our God through the Prophet Isaiah; “it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10-11).
The Word of God is powerful and performative. It does what it says. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Law of God kills and condemns us in our sin. The Gospel of God brings new life in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, who is always present and active in His Word. The Holy Spirit instructs us in His holy Word. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, breathed out by Him, so that behind the individual human writers of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is ultimately the Author, so that we can believe every word of Scripture as the infallible and inerrant Word of God, absolutely true, and reliable for salvation. The Word imparts Christ, who is Himself the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is really present in His Word. He is the one speaking to you in Scripture and in preaching. He speaks Himself into your ears and heart by His Holy Spirit in the Word. He speaks Himself into your Baptism as His Word is joined to the water. He speaks your sins forgiven in Holy Absolution. He speaks His body and blood present in His Supper. The seed is the Word. And it works. Just sit back and let it. Relax. Trust God’s promise about that seed. He will bless what is sown and use it to His purpose.
The frustrating part is that we don’t always see what it is that God is doing with His Word. We’d like quick, measurable, spectacular results. That’s not usually what God gives us. Plants take time to grow. They start small, as small as seed. The Kingdom of God starts with the tiny, seemingly insignificant, seed of God’s Word. It’s like a mustard seed, Jesus says. The mustard seed is among the smallest of seeds, but given time and allowed to do what it is designed to do, it grows into one of the largest of all garden plants, an almost tree-like shrub, big enough for birds to make nests in it. That’s what happens with the Word of God. It’s so small. It seems so powerless in a world that utterly despises it. God uses what is weak and small and of no account in this world to accomplish His purposes. The Word, when planted and left to do what God has designed it to do, grows into the Holy Christian Church. It doesn’t happen quickly in the sense that we immediately see measurable, spectacular results. God never promised that. But the Word of the Lord grows. God grows it. We can’t make it grow by our programs and initiatives, or again, by tampering with the Word. That will only get in the way. We go to bed and let God do what He will with His Word. It grows. The Church grows by means of the Word. The Church grows with every Baptism. The Church grows as the Word takes root in the hearts of those who hear. God blesses. And, by the way, we don’t lose members when they die. They don’t leave the Church. They go to heaven, forever confirmed as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. They continue to join us for the Divine Service, from the other side of the altar.
Martin Luther said of the Reformation, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Beloved, the Church of God rests in peace at night and rises with joy in the morning, trusting all to our gracious heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Our sins are forgiven in Christ. We have eternal life. And the Word of the Lord grows, just as He promises. Leave it to Him. Simply bask in His gifts. Bask in the Word. Cling to your Baptism. Come to the Supper. Raise a glass of your favorite beverage with your friends. Enjoy your life. Enjoy one another in the communion of saints. And let the Word do its work. It will. Jesus promises it. The Word of the Lord grows. Jesus teaches us by His Word and Spirit. And the Kingdom ours remaineth. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Quoted by the Rev. Matthew Harrison, http://mercyjourney.blogspot.com/2008/10/while-i-slept-or-drank-wittenberg-beer.html.