Jesus teaches in Parables
Mark 4: 21 - 34
These sayings of Jesus in verses 21-25 of Mark 4 have been collected by Mark and put together in a kind of edited fashion. They are recorded in different contexts in Matthew’s Gospel for example. Firstly, then, our Christian Faith is not something we are to be ashamed of. We are not meant to keep quiet about it either. And our Christianity is supposed to have some visible and verifiable evidence to it. Former American President Jimmy Carter was a nominal Christian but he was challenged by a preacher who asked the question. “If you are charged with being a Christian - is there any evidence to convict you?”. We light our Church building up in winter so that everyone who passes by can see that there is a living congregation here. But sometimes it is hard to stand up and be counted. In the Church of Scotland today it is much easier just to keep your head down and not make any waves. There are always issues and occasions that require people to speak up but not many have the courage to do so. One of the greatest challenges facing Christianity in our country is to raise its profile in the public mind. How often are Christians portrayed poorly or badly in films and dramas on television, for example? You rarely see Christianity admired in popular culture. It needs to happen again. It is important for everyone that Jesus Christ’s light is shed abroad in our lives and times.
In the times of the early Christians, many had to decide if they wanted to be faithful Christians at the cost of much, and for some, their lives. Worship of the Roman Emperor Caesar was obligatory as a mark of political loyalty. It was a means of keeping the Empire together. It was a personality cult. On certain days, in town and village squares, citizens were ordered to present small sacrifices (perhaps of wine or olive oil) and offer them to the Emperor. If they did so they received a certificate of compliance and could go on living in peace. Christians could do this and then carry on being Christians. No one would bother them. Perhaps many did so. They kept their Christianity quiet, below the radar, so that it would not get them into any trouble. Others however, refused this simple obligation on the grounds that it was idolatry and they would not compromise the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Some, as we know, paid with their lives for this - often in cruel and barbaric ways.
Next Jesus teaches that we cannot hide all the time. We cannot hide our wrongdoing from God. We cannot hide our Christian faith for ever. Remember Peter during the arrest of Jesus? Cursing and swearing that he’d never seen the man and hadn’t a clue who He was. But the same Peter stood up publicly against the Jewish authorities and led the establishment of the Church in Jerusalem - only weeks after his strenuous efforts to keep quiet the fact that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. Is it time for you to stand up and be counted? The Church itself needs people of faith and courage because we live in difficult and challenging times and it is all too easy to give in to the spirit of the age.
With the measure you use, it will be measured to you - and even more. This is common sense. If an athlete trains well the athlete will gain the benefits of good performances. If a child is learning to play a musical instrument and keeps going, he or she will end up after years of patience, being able to play. People say that coming to Church is boring but that is because they themselves are boring. If they bring nothing with them to Church - they will get nothing out of it. If your Christianity does not interest or inspire you, you’ll never progress or increase in the Christian life. If you are a good neighbour, people will be a good neighbour to you. And though you may not always see the results, if you give your family a good example, it will pay off eventually for them. If you give generously to Christ’s Church you will be blessed in doing so. If you give little, you will have equivalent return.
The saying 'Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him' seems unfair and unjust. It is true of everything however. There is an Ayrshire colloquialism which encapsulates this truth. 'Fat pigs get it a’. There is a concise phrase that also reflects this issue. 'Use it or lose it'. In the game of rugby, the team carrying the ball forward must use it positively by gaining metres of possession or recycling the ball - or else - the referee stops the game and gives the ball to the other team. This seems a perverse rule. Against Ireland two weeks ago, the Scottish team made a great run of 50 - 60 metres to within striking distance of the Irish line. Then they held on to the ball in the scrum for a moment too long and were penalised. 'Use it or lose it'. This saying seems relevant to the inexorable growth of supermarket chains like Tesco. They keep getting bigger and getting more. Small shops lose trade and are closing all the time. Lots of petrol stations have closed all over the country because they don’t sell enough fuel to make a profit. It is the way of the market but it is true of the exercise of faith also.
Some people come to Church less and less, and then rarely and then not at all. Their faith dies within them. They may want to be associated with Jesus Christ and with Christianity and with the Church, but that which kindled interest and commitment at one stage of their life has fragmented and disintegrated. A few others keep going and grow in faith and understanding over the years until they become strong and useful and helpful members of Christ’s Church. The become elders and they lead organisations. From their number come ministers and deacons and parish workers. In other churches, such people become priests and bishops. It is easy to fall away from Christian Faith and there are many excuses you can give yourself for doing so. 'Use it or lose it'.
Jesus’ parable about the growth of seeds in the ground is one of His more obvious. Even today, for all our science and genetic engineering, the actual process of growth of seeds in the ground is one which we do not control. Although much is said and written about evolution and the age of the earth and the way it has been formed, we as human beings, are still totally dependent on the physical laws of creation for our life and existence. We do not and cannot control the atmosphere around earth. It is affected by the solar system and the other planets, especially of course, the sun. Global warming and climate change there may be, there always has been and there always will be - our own input on its own is not the sole determinant. We can irrigate fields as long as there is sufficient water supply nearby. But we cannot irrigate large desert areas like the Sahara and make them fertile for millions of humanity. We have central heating but we cannot control a new ice age if it comes. Even another winter of extreme temperatures in Scotland will do much damage and we will just have to pick up the pieces. All this does not make agnostics and atheists into believers in God. But they and we together share our collective vulnerability and dependence. We Christians pray for our Maker’s help and kind providence not just for ourselves but for everyone.
But Jesus’ parable was about spiritual growth. His was a comparison between the germinating process of seeds on the ground and the germinating process of God’s kingdom in human lives. In all of us spiritual growth is uneven. Some mature faster and achieve greater things. Other don’t seem to be making much progress on the surface. There are many improvements of the human condition compared with the past and in centuries to come people will reflect on our conditions and environment and think us poor and struggling. Christianity is expanding and growing throughout the world. Here, in our own country, it may be that those who seek the Living Lord, are learning much more in adversity than we did when it was acceptable to be a Christian. The hidden purposes of God are being worked out in your life and in mine. Others may not see them and even we might find it difficult to recognise them. But with patience harvest will come. Growth is for a purpose. There is an end product - your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, your salvation, your eternal life. And that for everyone.
The mustard seed was the smallest of seeds. When Jesus challenged his disciples by saying to them ‘if you have faith as small as that of a mustard seed’ he was suggesting that even the smallest amount of faith can bring great blessings. A microscopic mustard seed could grow into a tree the size of a small apple tree or a large hawthorn bush. Birds loved the little black mustard seeds and were always present where they were. Small things and small beginnings can lead to amazing results in time. The tree is an image of the Church of Jesus as it became. From His one life, today over two billion worship. Billions of acts of human kindness have been completed in Jesus’ name over the centuries. Great charitable and humanitarian agencies have been formed. Cures for illnesses have been found. Peace has been made between enemies. Lost souls have found the love of God. All - from Jesus’ one, obscure, hidden life in a backwater place in the Roman Empire - a life snuffed out in early years, seemingly a failure.
Are we as a congregation sharing in this growth and expansion? It does not look like it on the surface. In terms of numbers we are not growing substantially. In terms of hidden spiritual growth, who can tell. Only you know what it means to you to come to Church. Only you know what you have learned over the years. And only you can put what you have learned into practice. It seems as if in Scotland the Church is shrinking in size and influence. Maybe its light will shine all the more clearly however. I think there is something missing. There is an indifference within the church by many; there is lack of faith; lack of commitment; lack of energy; lack of enthusiasm’; lack of love of Jesus Christ. That’s something that you can help. You can become fired up and empowered by the Gospel. You can decide to prioritise Jesus Christ in your life. That’s they key to growth.
Jesus taught in parables. The gift of the Gospel in wrapping. His spirit lives and works within you and me also. When we let Him.