A sermon based upon Mark 4:26-34
Who was Jesus? Most Christians today would say something like: “He’s the Son of God” or the “dying & rising Savior.” Those traditional doctrines arose among Jesus’ followers in the generations after his death, mostly thanks to the Apostle Paul’s theological innovations plus the Gospel of John. They are theological claims about Jesus… statements of faith in Jesus, the Christ/Messiah.
However, if you were in his presence -- in Jesus’ own day -- people would have given many different kinds of answers, based on how they actually experienced him in their society. Some saw him as a healer, a miracle-worker; others as a trouble-maker, a threat to law & order. Some would say he’s a liberator or a prophet; others, a “heretic” blasphemer, or an “agitator”, a community organizer.
What you would have seen in Jesus kind-of depended on whether you liked his movement (which he called “Good News” or the “Gospel”), or you rejected it. The folks who accepted Jesus’ message and ministry became his “disciples” -- his followers, his community -- and began to live Jesus’ Gospel as best they could. Those who did not appreciate Jesus’ innovations either left it alone (couldn’t be bothered, stayed with the status quo), or they opposed it.
Jesus was a healer, a miracle-worker; no, he was a trouble-maker, a threat! He was a liberator, a prophet; no, he was a “heretic”. But there was one thing Jesus’ friends and foes alike would have agreed on: Jesus was a powerful teacher… colorful & memorable!
When we scan the pages of the four Gospels included in our Bible, we find Jesus teaching in many different ways.
In the text we heard this morning, plus the story of the Sower that I shared with the children, we heard three “parables” from Jesus. One about the sowing of seed (on four different kinds of soil), one about the sprouting of seeds (growing into ripe ears of grain), and one about how a single tiny mustard seed can grow into a large shrub (filled not only with hundreds of new seeds, but branches filled with nesting birds). In all three stories: little becomes much… if the soil conditions are right, and we give the seeds sufficient time to mature.
Mark concludes this series of gardening stories by telling his audience: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He [Jesus] did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”
So, the stories Jesus told were for everybody -- anybody who was listening. (!) But he took time to explain to his followers why he was telling stories like this -- simple observations about gardening -- and what they could mean if they were applied to a person’s life.
This was one way that Jesus found effective as a “teacher”. In his book “We Make the Road by Walking”, Brian McLaren outlines six different ways that Jesus taught (and I quote from Chapter 22):
First, Jesus instructed through “signs” and “wonders”. By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatized God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life. By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s Reign empowers people who are weak or trapped. By calming a storm, Jesus displayed God’s desire to bring peace. And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying [forces] and oppressive forces…
… whether those forces were military, political, economic, social, or personal. [Put simply: Jesus frees us!]
Second, Jesus gave what we might call “public lectures”. Crowds would gather for a mass “teach-in” on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee. Whole neighborhoods might jam into a single house… and then spread around the open doors and windows, eager to catch even a few words. People came to hear Jesus at weekly synagogue gatherings. Or they might catch word that Jesus was down at the beach, sitting in a boat, his voice rising above the sound of lapping waves and calling seagulls… to engage the minds and hearts of thousands standing on the sand [or in the shallows].
Third, he taught at surprising, unplanned, impromptu moments – in transit from here to there… at a well along a road [through Samaria], at a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up, in some public place when a group of his critics tried to ambush Jesus with a “gotcha” question. (!) You always needed to pay attention, because with Jesus, any moment could become a “teaching moment”.
Fourth (says Brian McLaren), Jesus saved much of his most important teaching for private retreats and field trips with his disciples. He worked hard to break away from the crowds so [that] he could mentor those who would carry on his work [after he was gone]. Certain places seemed the ideal setting for certain lessons.
Fifth, Jesus taught through what we might call “public demonstrations”. For example, he once led a protest march into Jerusalem, performing a kind of “guerrilla-theater” dramatization of a royal entry -- while denouncing with tears the city’s ignorance of what makes for peace! Once he staged an act of civil disobedience in the Temple, stopping business as usual and dramatically delivering some important words of instruction and warning. …
Once Jesus demonstrated an alternative economy based on [sharing] generosity rather than [selfish] greed, inspired by a small boy’s donation of fish sandwiches.
Sixth, Jesus loved to teach through finely-crafted works of short fiction called “parables”… [such as the three we heard this morning]. He often introduced these parables with these words: “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” [Listen up! Pay attention! Get it? Got it? Good!]
Brian McLaren says that Jesus knew that most adults quickly sort messages into “either/or” categories… I agree, or I disagree… I like it, or I don’t… familiar, or “strange”. In so doing, they react and argue without actually hearing (and thinking about) what is being said. Jesus’ parables drew his hearers into deeper thought by engaging their imagination, and by inviting interpretation instead of reaction and argument. In this way, parables put people into the position of children, who are more attracted to stories than to arguments. Faced with a parable, listeners were invited to give matters a second thought. They could then ask questions… stay curious… and seek something deeper than agreement or dis-agreement – namely, meaning. [So writes Brian McLaren.]
In all these overlapping ways, Jesus truly was a master teacher – a “rabbi”, to use a Jewish title of respect. As a teacher who used all these varieties of ways to instruct the people who were around him, Jesus was capable of transforming people’s lives with a message of unfathomed depth and unexpected imagination.
Which begs the question: What was the substance of Jesus’ message? What was his point [in all these teachings]? Well, sooner or later, anyone who came to listen to Jesus would hear one phrase repeated again and again. In Mark’s Gospel (and in Luke), it’s the “kingdom of God” or (in Matthew’s version) the kingdom of “heaven”.
Sadly, people today hear these words (“the Kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of Heaven”) and think it means either “where righteous people go when they die”… or “the perfect new world order that God will create in the end-times after destroying this hopeless mess we’re in now.” (!) These are misunderstandings that McLaren says many people believe “with complete and unquestioning certainty”.
For Jesus, however, the Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now! [Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.]
What Jesus was talking about -- teaching about, demonstrating in public -- wasn’t a distant future reality. It was (he said) “at hand”! To be at hand means to be “within reach” today.
To better understand this term -- so pregnant with meaning -- we have to realize that “kingdoms” were the dominant social, political, and economic reality of Jesus’ day. Contemporary concepts like a “nation-state”, a government, a society, an economic system… a culture, an empire, perhaps even “civilization”… all resonate in that one old-fashioned word: “kingdom”. [Modern translators who want to avoid the masculine, hierarchical, and territorial connotations of an archaic term like “kingdom” have substituted “the Reign” of God, the “Realm” of God, and the “Rule” of God. Jesus said the Kingdom.]
Brian McLaren contrasts the “kingdom of God” with the kingdom (or empire) of Rome. You see, that was the dominant kingdom in which Jesus lived, and upon whose orders he was crucified. The Roman Empire was (and I quote) a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom. They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments. The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution. …
The ultimate form of torture and execution was reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the Regime. That was crucifixion! It was through crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire that Jesus did his most radical [& memorable] teaching of all.
Yes, he taught great truths through (1) signs and wonders, (2) public lectures, (3) impromptu teachings, (4) special retreats and field trips, (5) public demonstrations, and (6) parables. But when Jesus mounted the Cross… and prayed for God’s forgiveness on those very people who put him there!… it was such a deeply emotional experience for those who knew him -- who had followed him and who would carry his ministry forward in Jesus’ name – that it became an indelible image for those who call themselves “Christian” [crucified!].
By being crucified (writes Brian McLaren), Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based, [military] dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best (or only!) option. By going to the Cross, Jesus demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s Kingdom wins, not by shedding the blood of its enemies, but through [commitment to non-violence and] gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies.
By going to the Cross, Jesus taught that God’s Kingdom grows not through conquest, but by not backing down, by seeing things through to the bitter end. … It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering. In short (writes McLaren), on the Cross, Jesus demonstrated God’s non-violent non-compliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be. He showed God to be a different kind of King, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.
Rabbi Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, not of Herod! --the Kingdom of God, not of Caesar! It was a different kind of King-dom altogether.
A couple years ago on Palm Sunday, I pointed out that the crowd was acclaiming Jesus as their King (“Hosanna!”). Riding on that donkey in a parade with cheering, palm-waving crowds he was playing the part of Messiah: the “long-awaited” royal Son of David.
That was not acceptable to the Romans. The Jews already had a King – Herod, appointed by Caesar himself! They didn’t need a new one, authorized by public acclaim of the people. After all, in the ancient world – like so many nation-states in our own day still -- there was not a government of the people by the people and for the people! No… Israel was part of an empire -- occupied territory (the military province of Syria) -- with a bureaucratic hierarchy imposed on the population. Israel was a monarchy, yes; but their kingdom was not a representative form of democracy! It was an oligarchy, an elite hierarchy of wealth & power. Jesus was teaching them an alternative!
The Jesus movement – the Kingdom of God, his Church – was to be its opposite! No “insider” citizens and “outsider” slaves. No… Everyone was to be included, regardless of social rank, gender, past history, or personal shortcoming. No hierarchy; no exclusion. No separating of saint from sinner, “purity” cult from “common” life.(!) No higher-ranking rulers lording over low-class servant-class people. No…Jesus was there for the left-outs and left-overs, for tax-collectors and tax-payers, sinful women & shameful men! He was there for all!
Rabbi Jesus, the Master Teacher, was right there with them: in the midst of dirt and danger, in the midst of the unclear and the unclean. He was there when people’s hope seemed out of reach, and he always turned up there where he was needed… even when it was least expected. Born in a barn, raised in a small town, never had much money, never wrote a book or recorded a hit song… But the ordinary people knew he was God’s idea of a King: Heaven on Earth!
Brian McLaren asks: How would we translate Jesus’ radical and dynamic understanding of the kingdom of God into our context today?
He proposes (and I quote): Perhaps a term like “global commonwealth of God” comes close – not a world divided up and ruled by nations, corporations, and privileged individuals [of wealth], but a world with enough abundance for everyone to share. (Maybe.)
Or perhaps: “God’s regenerative economy” would work – challenging our economies based on competition, greed, and extraction [exploitation]. Maybe “God’s beloved community” or “God’s holy eco-system” could help – suggesting a reverent connectedness in dynamic and creative harmony. Or perhaps “God’s sustainable society” or “God’s movement for mutual liberation” could communicate the dynamism of this radical new vision of life, freedom, and community.
Frankly, in my opinion, those are all a bit “abstract” and “wordy.” I get the “reign” of God, the “realm” of God, as substitutes for the “kingdom” of God, but I tend to “zone out” when I hear words like “commonwealth, regenerative, and holy eco-system”.
Interestingly, when the Gospel of John was written (at least a generation after Mark’s original, and a number of years after Matthew and Luke were written), the kingdom of God was translated into other terms entirely – life, life in its fullness, abundant life, life in the age to come, and so forth. Brian McLaren speaks in terms of “alive-ness”.
But, in the end, however we name it – the kingdom of “heaven”, the kingdom of God, God’s cooperative economy, the Reign of God, God’s sustainable society, even “holy aliveness” – the Gospels agree that it is the one thing most worth seeking in life, because in seeking it, we will find everything else worth having. We are encouraged to “seek first” the kingdom of heaven -- the realm of justice and love of God – and in that way become a student of (a disciple of) the one great subject that Jesus came to teach in so many creative ways.
 McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking”, New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, 2014
 Ibid, page 103