Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 29, 2015
Jeremiah 33:1, 10-16, Mark 4:26-34
Audio available here.
Artwork by Katie Zimmerman, ’15
Jeremiah 33:1, 10-16 • While he was still confined to the prison quarters, the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah a second
time….The Lord proclaims: You have said about this place, “It is a wasteland, without humans or animals.” Yet in the ravaged and uninhabited towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the sounds of joy and laughter and the voices of the bride and the bridegroom will again be heard. So will the voices of those who say, as thank offerings are brought to the Lord’s temple, “Give thanks to the Lord of heavenly forces, for the Lord is good and his kindness lasts forever.” I will bring back the captives of this land as they were before, says the Lord.
The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims: This wasteland, without humans or animals—and all its towns—will again become pastures for shepherds to care for their flocks. Shepherds will again count their flocks in the towns of the highlands, the western foothills and the arid southern plain, in the land of Benjamin, as well as in the outlying areas of Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, says the Lord. The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.
Mark 4:26-34 • Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.” He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.” With many such parables he continued to give them the word, as much as they were able to hear. He spoke to them only in parables, then explained everything to his disciples when he was alone with them.
Let me just say, partly by way of introduction and partly by way of confession, that I’m not much of a gardener. My dad is the kind of guy who enjoys puttering around in a garden, digging in the dirt, and planting things. I’ve always been terrible at that stuff. Give me a book to read and a comfy couch any day – leave the seeds and the growing seasons to someone else.
So I might be projecting a bit when I say the world of our scriptures can seem a bit alien at times. Both of our passages this evening come from a world of agriculture. There are seeds, pastures, and branches. We have an unfortunate tendency to hear the literature of the Bible as stylized and arcane, and so it’s easy to forget that the original audience of these texts was intimately familiar with seeds and soil, growing and grazing. When Jesus says, “This is what God’s kingdom is like,” and then proceeds to tell a story about a farmer planting a crop, he’s taking a concept that might have seemed rather confusing, even scandalous – the reign or kingdom of God – and putting it into familiar terms for his listeners. For the 21st century North American Christian living in a city with not a farm in sight, the situation is almost reversed. We might not know anything about farming, but we’re so used to language about God’s kingdom that we can tend to tune it out.
In either case, the parables of Jesus take language and images that we know – or at least, that we think we know – and do something surprising, perhaps something shocking. In Mark’s gospel in particular, the parables play a strange function.[i] The imagery is, in the words of preaching scholar Alyce McKenzie, both familiar and strange, conveying a kingdom that is both “breaking into the ordinary world where we dwell” but which, simultaneously, “transcends our attempts to define it.”[ii]
Mark’s Jesus tells the disciples that, while he will explain the meaning of the parables to them – the “insiders,” his closest followers – the “outsiders” will fail to understand. But as the gospel narrative progresses, we – the reader – see the exact opposite happen. In a book-length demonstration of dramatic irony, it is the “outsiders” – including the reader – who come to understand what is happening, while the disciples seem to grow increasingly clueless as the story progresses. Those who should understand, don’t; those who shouldn’t understand, do.
In the two parables that we heard tonight, Jesus both simplifies and complexifies the reign of God by comparing it to seeds. Seeds that are scattered and sown. Seeds that grow without us really knowing how. Seeds that start out ever so small and grow into a big, big plant. Remember that Jesus’ audience hadn’t taken high school biology. There is a wonder, a mystery, to the agricultural imagery. Seeds grow – we know not how. The tiniest of seeds somehow becomes the largest of plants. Jesus reminds us of the miracles that are going on, constantly, quite literally underneath our feet.
What is the kingdom of God like? It is growing, but in unseen ways. It is a miracle, but somewhat of an ordinary one. And it will not look like one might expect a royal kingdom to look like. In the Jewish scriptures, surrounding nations are often depicted as enormous trees, cedars or oaks, mighty but often doomed to fall.[iii] In tonight’s reading from Jeremiah, God promises to restore the glory of the nation through a “Branch to spring up for David” – perhaps it is finally the Israelite’s turn to be a mighty tree. Yet, as the crowds listening to Jesus’ stories would have been well aware, the mustard tree is not, really, the greatest of all the trees. It’s – I mean, it’s big, for a bush, I guess. The growth of God’s kingdom can seem somewhat disappointing at times.
There is not always evidence – at least not the type of evidence that we want – of the growth of God’s reign, the growth of love, of justice, of peace. It is hidden, quiet. It grows in secret, sometimes seemingly in spite of our activity. Its victory is not the type of victory that the world rewards.
It’s with this in mind that I want to us hear tonight’s Advent text from the prophet Jeremiah. As I mentioned before the sermon, it is customary to read just the last few lines of this passage during Advent, to hear the bit about a righteous Branch springing up for David and to say, “Oh, that’s Jesus, the passage is talking about Jesus, Jesus is coming, Christmas is coming, awesome.”
But Jeremiah’s prophetic speech comes to from a time long before Jesus, one in which the Babylonians have destroyed Jerusalem and dragged Jeremiah’s people into exile. Jeremiah himself is in prison. The passage we heard tonight is a rare note of hope for Jeremiah, who is often referred to as the “weeping prophet.” Our verses tonight are from a section of the book called “The Little Book of Consolation” – three chapters that stand out for their promise of future restoration from surrounding themes of desolation and defeat.
And so this Branch that Jeremiah speaks of is one that grows out of deadness, out of seemingly infertile ground. It is a promise to the prophet’s suffering people that the Davidic monarchy will eventually be restored, that Jerusalem will be rebuilt, that in spite of it all God is still a God of justice and of righteousness. But, as Jeremiah emphasizes throughout the rest of the book, the people might have to wait a long, long time. And while Jeremiah is not writing about Jesus, the early church would come to understand such messianic prophecies as fulfilled in Jesus – certainly a very different looking Branch from David’s tree than the people of Jeremiah’s time hoped for and expected. Less of a tall cedar, really, and more of a scraggly mustard bush. By the end of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is crucified, there is as of yet no understanding of the meaning of the empty tomb, and the disciples are scattered in fear. This is what we’ve been waiting for?
Advent is a season of waiting and preparation – the word itself means “coming” or “arrival.” It is not by accident that the Advent season corresponds with the winter season, at least in the regions of the world out of which many of our Advent traditions emerge. We are entering a time of winter, of seeming deadness. Fields will soon seem empty, bereft of life.
“Winter,” the Quaker educator Parker Palmer writes, “is a demanding season. It is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy….Despite all appearances, of course, nature is not dead in winter – it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring. Winter is a time when we are admonished, and even inclined, to do the same for ourselves.” Palmer says that winter serves as a “reminder that times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things.”[iv]
Dormancy, renewal, and deep rest – for the work of God’s reign is often quiet and secret, grown more by gift of the earth than by the frantic activity of us amateur gardeners.
So I invite us into this Advent season: a time to pause and remember the unseen ways that God’s love grows in our midst. And what need we have, right now, for such remembrance. We live in a time, not unlike Jesus’ time, marked by a seemingly unending litany of violence close to home and across the known world. In a time, not unlike Jesus’ time, in which refugees displaced by violence and oppression seek shelter far from home. In a time, not unlike Jesus’ time, when we are often more inclined to manipulate and exploit the earth than to tend and care for it. In a time, not unlike Jesus’ time, when dividing lines of race, religion, and political loyalty seem lethally insurmountable. In a time, not unlike Jesus’ time, when we are surrounded by messages of all that we must do rather than the space and the freedom to become who we are called to be.
Tonight’s readings, then, are reminders for us that God is up to something, even in times like these. Even in times that seem dormant or empty, times when death seems to declare its victory. Remember this. Remember, when life seems to have been drained from your life – when it seems that all around you is iced over or dormant or dead – that the seed of God’s reign, the seed of God’s love and justice, is in the ground, dying to give life, growing in ways that cannot be seen by the unaided eye. Remember that the tiny seeds of community, friendship, and love will grow – perhaps not into what the world considers to be mighty and impregnable, but into what God calls into being.
This is my Advent prayer: that we would be reminded of the invisible growth, the hidden miracles, that we proclaim — in hope, by grace, through faith — will transform the world.
[i] Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today (Westminster John Knox, 2007), 2.
[ii] Ibid., 29.
[iii] Ibid., 47.
[iv] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), 101.