We are in the midst of Mark’s report of the Lord’s teaching one day by the Sea of Galilee. The Lord spoke that day about the kingdom of God, the saving reign of the invisible God as it has been manifest in the world and especially in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The NIV’s “all by itself” is the Greek word αυτομάτη, from which we get our word automatic. Parables often contain clues as to the point being made and here such a clue is found in the inactivity of the farmer. He sows the seed and then does nothing. He watches. Now that, in fact, is not what farmers do. Such a laid back approach would likely produce a crop barely worth harvesting. [France, 213] But it is precisely this point being made. In the kingdom of God the growth of the crop does not depend upon the farmer. The kingdom of God does not depend upon human effort to achieve its aims.
The harvest, as you remember, is often in the Lord’s parables a symbol of the end of the age, the last judgment, and the consummation of history.
The mustard seed was in those days proverbial for something very small. They are over 700 mustard seeds to a gram. And the bush or tree can grow to a height of almost 10 feet. The point obviously is the contrast between the tiny beginning and the impressive final size.
There is a suggestion in the commentaries, based on some statements in the prophets, that birds nesting in branches may be an image of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church of God. In that case, the unnecessary final phrase of verse 32, which we might otherwise take to be simply coloring, emphasizes the breadth of the kingdom at its final size: all the nations on earth contributing citizens.
The NIV’s “as they could understand” is literally “as they were able to hear.” “Hearing” is mentioned for the 10th time in Mark 4. This statement parallels the earlier one in 4:11. The point is that parables enlighten or obscure depending upon a person’s ability to hear, that is, to understand and to discern the meaning. Those who have ears to hear find in them a revelation of God’s ways and means. Those who do not find them confusing and unhelpful.
That is, it is only in association with Jesus that one comes to know the truth.
The two parables we have read continue the theme of the previous material in Mark 4. There is something utterly unexpected, surprising about the kingdom of God. It does not come with a thunder and lightning, as we would expect of the reign of the living God breaking into the world; it comes rather in the way of the seed. As with the parable of the sower earlier, we could hardly imagine a more banal comparison. [Edwards, 142] The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed on the ground and then goes to bed! No one thought the kingdom of God would come like that! And then the seed that was sown grows quietly, almost imperceptibly, with even the farmer unaware of what is really happening below the ground and, later, hardly able to tell that there has been growth from one day to the next.
I have a real sympathy with this parable at this moment in my life. We have been planting bushes in our back yard and do a lot of staring at them these days to see if we can detect some new growth. Some seem to have it but then we’re not sure. Perhaps we’re simply fooling ourselves, the wish being the father of the thought. In any case, nothing happens nearly as quickly as one would wish.
But, says the Lord, don’t be fooled by this slow and unimpressive progress. When the kingdom reaches its consummation, the results will be impressive indeed. An insignificant beginning followed by imperceptible progress, concluded with immeasurable success. That is the history of the kingdom of God and nobody expected that and, even today, the fact that this is how the kingdom grows proves an obstacle and a temptation to many.
Remember, it is plain in the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament that the Lord’s description of the kingdom of God in his parables applies as well to its subsequent history as it does to the history of the gospel during the days of his public ministry. It was a complete surprise that the Messiah did not appear in the world astride a warhorse and ride in conquest of his enemies. It was utterly unexpected that he would come as he did, a carpenter from Nazareth, speaking of repentance and faith and that his reign should culminate in his death on the cross. True enough, he performed many miracles and, after his death, he rose from the dead. But the miracles produced temporary blessings for individuals and did not alter the political situation. And the resurrection was witnessed only by a few of the Lord’s own disciples. He didn’t appear to Pilate or to Caiaphas or to Tiberius in Rome. And once the message began to be widely preached again, after Pentecost, as we said last time, many more refused to believe than believed. The seed was planted but it grew as seed grows: slowly. The point of the Lord’s kingdom parables are reproduced in the teaching of the rest of the New Testament and that teaches us that what the Lord has said here about the kingdom of God will be true of it until the harvest, until the consummation. In other words, this about the seed growing while the farmer sleeps and gets up and about the mustard seed becoming a large plant is a description of the kingdom of God right now, in our day.
When people say nowadays, as they did in Peter’s day, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” they are demonstrating that they haven’t the ears to hear these parables of the Lord. They assume that if Christianity were true, that if the gospel were real, it would prove itself in the world in an entirely public way and we wouldn’t have to wait 2000 years for that proof. They wouldn’t have expected a little seed in the first place and they wouldn’t have expected centuries of quiet, often imperceptible growth ever since. But the Lord said beforehand it would be like a mustard seed growing up into a large garden plant or a field planted with seeds that take time to grow to maturity. The harvest is coming, a great harvest indeed, but we must wait for it. “Even omnipotence works gradually.” [Hodge, 2 Cor., 298]
And, though there is certainly gospel work for Christians to do, and though the Lord uses means to extend his kingdom, in fact this growth of the kingdom of God does not depend on human effort and is not predictable according to human calculations. The farmer may sow the seed, but he has little to do with the growth of the plant until harvest. He waits. That is all he can do. The growth of the kingdom of God is strangely unrelated to human activity. [Edwards, 143]
There is a hymn that is popular in some Christian circles that we do not have in our hymnal and do not sing in this church, though I have sung it and I expect that you have as well. [The idea for this illustration suggested by Edwards, 143] It is by the American Presbyterian William Pierson Merrill and is entitled Rise Up, O men of God. Its popularity is partially due to its being set to a rousing tune by William Walter.It is a very confident hymn of manly action but one that can very doubtfully be harmonized with the Lord’s teaching here about the growth of the kingdom of God and the farmer who day and night waits for his crops to grow in the field and knows very little about how they grow.
Rise up, O men of God!
His kingdom tarries long;
Bring in the day of brotherhood,
And end the night of wrong.
Merrill was a liberal Presbyterian and an advocate of what he called “world brotherhood.” That was also the name of a movement in the liberal wing of the Presbyterian church in the early years of the 20th century with which Merrill was connected. The thought of the hymn was that it was high time for Christian men to take matters into their own hands and bring in the kingdom of God, by which Merrill meant the day of peace and justice. And they could do it.
Rise up, O men of God!
The Church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to her task;
Rise up and make her great.
The 20th century English Congregationalist hymn scholar, Erik Routley, commenting on that verse, says
“It is of the genius of American Protestantism that an author should write of men making the Church great; Englishmen have come to prefer in these latter days the last two lines as their author altered them:
Her strength shall make your spirit strong;
Her service make you great,
which implies that the church makes men great [not the other way round]. But the author does not like the alteration, and it is the original, written in 1897, that follows the genuine American tradition.” [Hymns and Human Life, 229-230]
You see what Routley is saying. Americans do not find congenial the idea that they aren’t able to make something happen, that they can’t accomplish the great thing that needs to be accomplished. Jesus may have said that the kingdom of God goes the way of a farmer who sows his seed and waits to see what comes of it, but it is more American to think that we can use our understanding of genetics and biochemistry to develop better seeds, use fertilizer to cause them to sprout faster, irrigate to increase the speed of growth, and produce bumper harvests in ever shorter growing seasons, and if that is so in agriculture, why not in the spiritual realm.
You see, for a liberal Presbyterian like Merrill, there was nothing surprising, nothing mysterious about the kingdom of God. It was a message about the brotherhood of men and could be brought in by resolute and determined Christian men having done with lesser things – like church suppers and softball teams – and devoting themselves to peace and social justice. Well, the brotherhood movement came to nothing and it does not appear that the kingdom of God was brought in by Merrill’s men rising up or not. And yet, the kingdom has been growing in the field of this world all the while and growth that the Spirit of God has brought to pass even in the modern era – in China, in Africa, in South America almost without churchmen knowing how it came to happen – has surprised us all.
But what is true about the kingdom in general, its progress in the world as a movement of salvation, is true about its more personal and individual dimensions. For the individual believer, his or her heart and life, is also the sphere in which the kingdom of God comes and advances and grows. In fact, in one way or another, every advance of the kingdom of God – as the parable of the sower certainly indicates and as is indicated here as well – is an advance made in one particular human heart and life. In fact there is no advancement of the kingdom of God that is not an advancement of God’s reign in individual human hearts. And the planting and the slow growth and the eventual harvest, these things are as true on the individual level as they are on the corporate. In the language of the Lord’s parables the heads of grain are people, people in whose hearts the seed of God’s Word has taken root.
John Newton in his Cardiphonia has a famous series of three letters to a particular correspondent in which he sets out his view of the typical progress of God’s grace in the individual believer’s life. The fact that there are three letters is due to our verse 28 and its tripartite division of the growth of the plant: first the blade or stalk, then the ear or head, then the full kernel in the head. In his own wise and discerning way, Newton compares those three stages of the growth of grain to three successive, though overlapping stages of spiritual development in the Christian soul, stages he styled desire, conflict, and contemplation. Now, we needn’t conclude that the Lord wanted us to think of specific spiritual states or experiences by speaking of the stalk, the head and the full kernel. But it is a sterile and overly-academic reading of the Gospel that would teach us to deny that Christ is talking about people and the growth of the kingdom of God in them. Christ never speaks of the kingdom of God without a view to actual human beings.
And is not the point he makes here perfectly obvious to every believer precisely because it harmonizes so perfectly with his or her own experience? Has not every Christian encountered this surprising and confusing and discouraging reality of the kingdom in his or her own life? What is happening in one’s life at any moment? How is the seed of the Word of God growing? Who can say? Whether we sleep or get up, the Lord’s work goes on in our lives, though we do not know how.
Listen to this from the great 19th century Anglican bishop, theologian, and hymn-writer, Henry Alford.
“I think that we are all of us apt to look too much to the evidence of sight; — as it were to stand gazing, with those men of Galilee, into heaven, instead of going about and witnessing for Jesus, and leaving his spiritual work to go on as he is pleased to carry it on. Look at the foundations of the spiritual life. Where are they? Just where the foundations of the natural life are. If you or I were allowed to superintend every beating of our own hearts, if we were allowed to watch over every one of the processes so necessary to the sustentation of our natural life [he means the circulatory, the respiratory, the digestive, the nervous systems, etc.], who could ever live and work in the world? Now just so it is under the dispensation of the Spirit, under which we are living, with regard to the spiritual life. Its foundations are deep: they are not always affected by that which goes on upon the surface. The dejection of the Christian, and the exaltation of the spirits of the Christian, may be compared very much to that which goes on upon the surface of the great deep, when we know that the depths below are unmoved. And even so, we may say, the Lord is carrying on his great work in us. How often do we see evidences of this, when great occasions bring it out; the Lord carrying on a work of which men themselves little know. He from heaven working by his Spirit not only under the face of society, but under the face of the individual character. And what comfort this is; to think that it is not every unbelieving doubt, not every dejected feeling, which is an index to our real state before God, but that it is ‘His glory to conceal a matter’, and that we shall find that which we want when it is required; that he will in the day of his trial and of his east wind, bring out that strength to stand the tempest, or that strength to take up and bear the cross, which we need.” [Homilies on the Former Part of the Acts of the Apostles, 25-26]
Alford’s point is simply that the Christian is never more like this farmer, mystified by the growth of his seed, than when thinking about his or her own life and the work of the Holy Spirit within. Do you know right now whether you are growing in the Lord? How are you growing if you think that you are? We talk all the time in the church about growing in grace. But in my experience we think and speak very superficially about this. We tend to mean that we learned a lesson about some aspect of Christian living or we passed through some experience that we feel has changed us for the better. But really? Has it? Will the lesson never need to be learned again? Will we never succumb to that temptation again? Will we always remember that experience and always have the benefit of its lesson? Who can answer such questions as these?
And, what is more, are these even the really important questions to put to ourselves? What we really want to know, I suppose, is whether we love God more today than yesterday and love ourselves less and our neighbor more. And, perhaps still more, do we love our enemies more today than yesterday, for the love of enemies is the most distinctively Christian aspiration because, of course, Jesus loved us when we were his enemies. But show me the mature, practiced, thoughtful, devout Christian who thinks that he or she is definitely growing in these holy loves and that they are more and more crowding out of his or her heart all competing loyalties and, especially, crowding out the love of self. Are you not more likely to hear the wise old Christian say, as one such Christian told me an old Scot saint he knew had said to him: “Laddie, I’m getting worse!” The more a Christian knows of the exquisite holiness and love of God, the less sure he will be that he is growing in grace at all! Isn’t it so?
Theodore Monod, one of the gifted French pastors of the Reveil, the 19th century revival in the French church, wrote a poem describing the various stages of his life in terms of the conflict in his heart between his love of Christ and his love of himself. He began his reflection with his life as an unbeliever:
O the bitter shame and sorrow,
That a time could ever be,
When I let the Saviour’s pity
Plead in vain, and proudly answered:
“All of self, and none of Thee!”
Yet he found me: I beheld him
Bleeding on the accursed tree,
Heard him pray: ‘Forgive them, Father!’
And my wistful heart said faintly:
‘Some of self, and some of Thee!’
After becoming a Christian, however, he realized that the love of self was still a terrible power in his heart. He had to pray and to work to overcome it. He was ashamed to admit it but it was true.
Day by day, His tender mercy,
Healing, helping, full and free,
Sweet and strong, and ah! so patient,
Brought me lower, while I whispered:
‘Less of self, and more of Thee!’
But, like every true Christian he longed for a heart of love for God and man. Monod knew he ought to have it and grieved the measure of pride and selfishness he continued to find within himself. That made him rejoice in nothing so much as the prospect that his heart would someday be free of itself and lost in Christ.
Higher than the highest heaven,
Deeper than the deepest sea,
Lord, thy love at last hath conquered;
Grant me now my supplication:
‘None of self, and all of Thee!’
Where do you find yourself on that most important scale: the scale of love for God and Christ? How have you grown and how has the kingdom of God grown up in you?
Oh no; the progress of the kingdom of God is not an obvious, visible thing. We cannot calculate it; we cannot predict it; we cannot explain it. What we take to be growth often shows itself a weed. What we fear is a weed we sometimes find produces the finest grain. But it all comes so slowly in steps and stages we can hardly identify even afterward. People we think will be saved, never are. People we never imagined becoming Christians do and can hardly say afterward how it happened. Some lives change dramatically, others gradually, some imperceptibly. Some Christians, whose lives we think have wonderfully changed, prove to us later that they are still as they once were. This is the way of it; this has always been the way of the kingdom of God in this world. We can’t always tell who the real Christians are, the real Christians seem to grow so slowly or not at all, and the progress they make – and sometimes it is very impressive progress – seems eerily detached from any effort on their part.
This is the kingdom of God; this is the way of his working in the world, like it or not. That it should all prove so surprising, so mysterious, so secretive may leave us sometimes as confused as it did the Lord’s first disciples. We expected something different. But that this is the way of the kingdom is without doubt. It has been since the days of the Lord’s ministry just as he said it would be, the kingdom growing as a seed and the farmer hardly knowing how. But it is wonderful to know that the kingdom is advancing just as Jesus said it would.
This is not a story anyone would have made up. No, in a concocted tale the kingdom’s growth would have been more dramatic and impressive. That is what everyone expected. Anything less would have been a disappointment. Christians themselves, for that reason, have often been tempted to speak and act as if the kingdom’s growth is more dramatic, more public, and more obvious than it is. Just turn on your Christian television station!
And, to be sure, it has been in some ways for you and for me a disappointment. We wanted faster results. We wanted more impressive results. We wanted the kingdom to come powerfully and dramatically, whether in the world or in our own hearts and lives. But the kingdom of God has gone the way of the seed. But we have two comforts. First, Jesus said the kingdom would progress in this ponderous and step by step fashion. What we have found to be true is precisely what he predicted. Second, having been right about that, we have every reason to believe he is right also about this: the kingdom’s small beginnings are no measure of the harvest to come. It would be the greatest conceivable mistake to think that because the kingdom progresses so slowly, even tediously today, and because its results are in so many ways unimpressive so far, its ending will not be the stupendous, earth-shaking, breathtaking triumph Jesus so often promised it would be.
At the harvest we will care not one whit that the crop took so long to mature.