April 29, 2018
Mark 4: 26-34
Does anyone remember a country-pop singer, songwriter called Ray Stevens? (show of hands) His career started back in the 70s. He had a song called “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show?” Anyone ever heard it? You can find it on you-tube.
“How would you respond to that question”? If Jesus came back today and preached on television, would he wear a Rolex? (show of hands) Back when Ray Stevens first sang that song, the late Paul Harvey - remember him? - I used to listen to him on the radio years ago. He interviewed several television evangelists to see how they would answer that question.
Jerry Falwell replied:
“I do not subscribe to the ‘theology of prosperity’...
I wear an inexpensive watch.
I think Jesus would too.”
Evelyn Roberts, wife of televangelist Oral Roberts, said:
“Jesus wore a seamless robe, doubtless a gift from an admirer, but sufficiently valuable so that Roman soldiers cast lots for the garment.
He was not afraid to wear nice things.
To maximize his ministry, he would need television.
For television programs he would need to tell time.
Would Jesus wear a Rolex? Why not?"
Robert Schuller thought ‘not’.
I wonder what Joel Orsteen would say today? He preaches the prosperity gospel to a mega church in Texas and to millions on TV. He looks and sounds like the Rolex type. - probably yes.
Paul Harvey, after relating the televangelists’ responses, closed with these words:
“Would Jesus wear a Rolex on TV?
More likely, he would move about unnoticed
within the ranks of the Salvation Army. Which he does."
I think Paul Harvey got it right. The Kingdom of God that Jesus talked incessantly about was not populated with Rolex watches, Gucci bags, Teslas and private jets. That was more like the Kingdom of Caesar, or the Caesars in our time. I think Jesus had something else in mind.
Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark are about the Kingdom of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” Throughout the gospels he talks about the Kingdom of God, or in Matthew, he calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. Scholars think Matthew, out of reverence, avoided using God’s name like most Jews of his time.
When I first arrived at seminary, I remember hearing the phrase “Kingdom of God” a lot, and I have to admit, I was a bit fuzzy about what exactly it meant. What was Jesus talking about? If you had to draw a picture of the Kingdom of God, what would it look like? How would you describe it? Is it here on this earth? - or in the afterlife? - or both? (solicit answers)
It has more than one meaning in the gospels:
~ ~ points to the power of God active in Jesus’ work as a healer and exorcist
~ ~ mystical meaning referring to the presence of God
~ ~ refers to community
~ ~ refers to the Kingdom at the end of history or beyond history - what we call heaven
~ ~ political meaning - “Kingdom” is a political term - the Jews of that time knew all about Kingdoms and domination systems and powerful, wealthy elites who ruled over them. “Kingdom” had a very concrete meaning for them.
~ ~ and it was a religious metaphor - The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not.
This is not exclusively Christian thought. The Quran speaks of what happens after our spirit leaves our body: “In paradise, which the righteous have been promised, many rivers flow; there are rivers of unpolluted water; there are rivers of milk, which is always fresh; there are rivers of delicious wine; and there are rivers of clarified honey. In paradise the righteous shall eat every kind of fruit, and they will be protected by the Lord. The unrighteous will live in hell, where they will drink scalding water which will tear their bowels.”
New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan tells us: “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.” So maybe it’s up to us to create that kingdom.
It’s next to impossible to describe God. We have to use metaphors. (God is an underground river - God is a Good Shepherd) They teach us about the attributes of God. If we have difficulty describing God, how can we describe the Kingdom of God? Well, Jesus did it through parables - small stories to make his point. They were Jesus’ teaching tool. He used them all the time.
In today’s scripture passage Jesus says that the Kingdom of God doesn’t look anything like the Kingdom of Caesar. It’s not showy or ostentatious. Here he goes back to images his listeners understood: planting seeds in the earth.
“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.”
Sowing seeds is a rather inauspicious start to describing the Kingdom of God. But think about the power of some seeds when fully grown: how their roots can crack great boulders, or your sidewalk, or the foundation of your house. Plants provide food and shelter for animals. They make our life possible.
In this parable, notice that the farmer isn’t doing anything - sort of like me when I have plants, sitting back and watching them grow, forgetting to feed and water them. But think about all the billions of seeds that take root each year without human intervention. I drove past burn areas in California while on vacation. It almost seems like a miracle when you see green sprouting up on those charred hillsides.
The point here is not the work of the farmer, but the mysterious work of the seed. It grows so slowly you can’t see it growing. I once cut back a dying plant to nothing and set the pot on the stairwell to my basement - no light or water for months. I had given up on it. And one day months later I turned on the light, and to my amazement it was sprouting green! I moved it to the porch where I watered it, and it grew into a beautiful plant then.
The Kingdom of God is like this slow but steady growth. Our role is to cast the seed into the waiting ground, not to dictate in what way or at what pace it will bear fruit. I think about my call to ministry. It took years and went through many incarnations. Hundreds of seeds were planted along the way. Some took root, some didn’t. But I truly believe it was God working in mysterious ways in those seeds which was the life force behind my growth. Sometimes I even fought against it. But God doesn’t give up. That life force doesn’t die. And I continue to grow in new and surprising ways.
Jesus also said,
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? Is it 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.”
Jesus is not talking maple trees here. He’s talking tiny mustard seeds which grow to shrubs about 10 to 12 feet tall. As I drove up the central coast of California whole hillsides were covered in yellow mustard plants. It was a sight to behold!
The Kingdom of God has its beginnings in small, barely visible, seemingly inconsequential phenomena. It might not look like much to begin with, but just wait!
The kingdom of God is all around us, all the time. But Jesus said it’s so small and inconspicuous that we are unlikely to even notice its presence in our midst. The noise and glitter of the world drowns it out, demanding our attention. But look out! - once it takes root - amazing things may happen.
By preaching in parables, Jesus lets each of us make the good news our own story through our own experiences. That’s what happened for me as I read these parables over and over again. As I was swept up in the story I became part of a new parable, the parable of my life.
I thought about all the small seeds we plant here at Eliot, how some have taken root and are growing. Taken all together, our individual experiences of the kingdom, our personal stories of God’s work in our lives end up creating a new gospel. Yes, God is still speaking.
Did any stories come up for you as you heard these parables? If not, think about why are you here today? Someone planted a seed. Who was it? When did it happen? Let’s think about what seeds we want to be planting in the coming months here at Eliot. How do we create a little bit of the Kingdom of God right here.
I want to leave you with a description of the kingdom of God by the Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, who combines Hinduism with Christianity. He describes it this way:
Even if life gave you at one time everything you wanted - wealth,
power, friends - after a while you would again become dissatisfied
and need something more. But there is one thing that can never
become stale to you - joy itself. Happiness that is delightfully varied,
though its essence is changeless, is the inner experience everyone is seeking. Lasting, ever-new joy is God. Finding this Joy within, you will find it in everything without. In God you will tap the Reservoir of perennial, unending bliss.
That, to me, is the Kingdom of God. If achieved, we would have no need of Rolex watches. There would be no Caesars. We would experience the Kingdom of God here on earth, and maybe someday beyond.