Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Proper 6 of Series B (Mark 4:26-34)

“When the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, for the harvest has come.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, I will always be a farmer. The Lord has led me toward a different vocation, but a part of me will always love the life in which I was raised. I grew up with the sound (and smell) of pigs, with baby calves in the spring and mean bulls keeping an eye on me. I grew up with the soil of God’s beautiful earth in my hands, watching dad or grandpa drive the tractor back and forth. For my family, life had a rhythm, and this rhythm had nothing to do with us. We were on someone else’s schedule, whether it was the growing season for crops or the pregnancy of cattle. There was little that we could do to alter it. Spring and summer would come whether we were ready or not, and we were the ones who had to adapt. Each year could hold a disaster, too much rain or too little, and there was nothing that mere humans could do about it. We all knew it- all of my relatives knew it, all of our neighbors knew it, all of the old farmers at the cafe drinking coffee knew it. But that didn’t mean we always liked it, or ever completely accepted it.

It’s simply a part of human nature. We want to be in control, we want to have all the answers. We look around us at a world spiraling out of control, and we want to get a handle on it, to somehow slow it down or turn it in the other direction. At least a farmer has a pretty good idea of the rhythm of nature; when we look around our world, we have no idea what will happen next. It is important to stay current on what is happening in the world, but doing so without falling into despair is almost impossible. Gay activists continue their assault on marriage and the family, while at the same time an abortion doctor is killed, sparking a harsh backlash against all who support the sanctity of life. And scariest of all, we are losing our rights to speak against sin in the public square. But you do not have to tune to 24-hour news channels to see a world spinning out of control. Sometimes we only have to look around us, sometimes into our own homes, or at our own lives.

In times like these, we want to speak the words of the Gospel to others, we want to proclaim the message of hope and peace to a world that has neither. And this doesn’t necessarily mean mission trips or handing out pamphlets, often we simply want to see our friends and family brought into or back to the faith. Children or grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents and other relatives, our coworkers, our good friends- we want them to be part of the body of Christ, and so we do our best to speak to them about Jesus and what He has done for them. We plant seeds, but then we desire control, we want to cause the growth, we want to do everything. “And He said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.’” We want to have control because it seems like God is slacking off, we can’t understand how He is working.

It is the same way with our own salvation- we want to be the boss, we want to cause our own growth, we want to be active. But that is precisely how we fell into sin in the first place. Adam and Eve wanted to have control, they weren’t going to let God run things. They second-guessed their Creator, and then they fell into sin, plunging us all into rebellion. And now we are conceived and born in opposition to God. We were born with the ability to do a lot, but every act is in opposition to Him, rebelling against His will and His ways. Since the day Adam and Eve fell into sin humanity has been trying to reach God, to somehow attain our own salvation, and the simple fact is that while we can do much to rebel against God, we cannot do anything to accomplish our own salvation.

“The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.” Without human help, without human advice, in fact counter to every way that fallen humanity would’ve planned its own salvation, God brought forth deliverance. His plan was one of seeming insignificance, seeming weakness, seeming defeat, but in that insignificance, weakness, and defeat God would provide the victory. In Genesis chapter three God promised a ‘seed,’ an object of complete unimportance, that would accomplish salvation. But that was not the half of it. “And He said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.’”

Fallen humanity could not save itself, it had no control over eternity, but instead faced the sure and certain penalty of eternal death, and so God sent forth His Seed in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, true God in human flesh. He truly was “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” born in a stable, raised by a carpenter, one who grew up to be a dirt-poor wandering rabbi. Jesus appeared to all who saw Him in complete and total humility. He made Himself low, insignificant, and weak. But His life would only show part of his humiliation- His death would proclaim it to all people. Jesus declared to His disciples in the Gospel according to St. John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This seed, this mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” Jesus Christ Himself, was cast into the ground and died. The promised Seed was hung high upon the tree of the cross, the righteous Branch proclaimed by Jeremiah was nailed to the wood. There Jesus suffered, there Jesus bled, there Jesus died, and He suffered, bled, and died to deliver you. This was God’s plan from the beginning, that we, who have no control over our own salvation, would be delivered by the humility and death of the very Son of God.

But that is not the end of the story. “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants.” Jesus Christ, the promised Seed, fell into the ground and died, He was buried for three days. But on that glorious Easter Sunday He rose, and He rose to be exalted for the purpose of granting eternal salvation to you and me, He rose to establish His Church, His very body, which would grow into a magnificent plant. And that plant, His Church, now casts new seed into this world.

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.” The seed is the Word of God, the very Word that proclaims the work of the promised Seed for the salvation of all. That seed is planted in human hearts through His Church, which by means of the Holy Spirit proclaims that Word and baptizes people in the washing of the water with the Word. That is how you came to faith, through the Word of God read, proclaimed, or taught, or through the blessed washing of Baptism. As much as we humans want to take part, it is the Holy Spirit that brings forth growth. Sometimes that growth is strong, sometimes the plant nearly withers, and sometimes it appears dead for years, even decades. But all along the Holy Spirit is working through the means that have been appointed. He works through the Word, He brings to mind the waters of Holy Baptism, and soon He adds another means, the gift of the Supper of Christ’s very own Body and Blood, given and shed for our sin on the cross, and now given to us for the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” We cannot create growth by ourselves, but we can stunt it by avoiding the gifts Christ wants to give us. That is where humans are active. We cannot create faith in the heart of another, but we can bring them into contact with the Word of God as much as possible, leaving it to the Holy Spirit to cause the growth.

The Word produces fruit, in God’s own way and in His own time. “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” That is the day that we look forward to- the day of harvest, the day of Resurrection, the Last Day. It is on that Day that God will gather us in, all those who have been covered with the blood of the Lamb, redeemed through His death and resurrection. On that Day we will dwell with Christ in the Resurrection life He won for us forever.

But for now, we remain in a world out of control. What shelter can we have in the storms of this life? “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The only place that we can find shelter is in Jesus Christ, the promised Seed that has now through His death and Resurrection become a mighty tree. We dwell under His cross, for it is through His sacrifice on the cross that we have forgiveness, life and salvation. Every other ‘tree’ in our world promising shelter is just like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it provides no protection, no shade in a world spinning out of control. Instead we dwell in Christ’s branches, we dwell under His shade through prayer, through the Word, through the Sacraments, and through this community of believers He has placed us in.

And as we find shelter in the branches, we spread the seed of the Word to others. Just like the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, this seed seems insignificant, and often we can’t tell if it is causing any growth. But we still cast the seed, and we pray, we pray that the Holy Spirit would work faith in Christ through His Word, we pray that God would keep His promise to make His Word fruitful. We do not have ultimate control, as much as we would like to, but that does not keep us from casting seed. We do so in the shelter of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His cross, receiving the forgiveness of sins and looking toward the harvest day. On that day we will dwell in the branches of our Savior forever, delivered from death and hell to live before Him in eternity. May the Lord preserve us and strengthen our faith through Word and Sacrament until that day, Amen.

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