Monday, June 18, 2012

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

Suppose you are a parent, a mother, or especially on this day a father. You have done all you can to raise your children in the faith. You have fulfilled your God-given responsibility to make sure that they have been baptized, washed by Christ Himself in those blessed waters. You brought them faithfully to the Divine Service, where for years, Sunday after Sunday, they received the gifts that Jesus so abundantly pours out. But then something happened as they reached adulthood; they began to slip, and then to fall. The faith which seemed so firmly rooted, that you had done everything you could to instill and strengthen now appears to be failing. Their worship attendance drops off, until finally they aren’t going at all. You begin to wonder whether they are even Christians anymore. When you bring it up, all it starts is an argument, and so while you may hold your peace when sitting next to them, in prayer you cry out to God. He has never seemed so powerless, His Kingdom so weak, as when the ones you love, whom you raised in the faith, abandon that faith. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Suppose you are the member of a congregation. You can look through the old confirmation pictures and recall the glory days, when the Sunday School was full and you had to get to church early to find a seat. The days when no one worried about the budget, but all simply gave out of their abundance or poverty, and the Lord sustained His church. But the Lord seems to be slacking off now; the abundance that you remember is but a distant memory. Now you are the member of a dwindling congregation; the Sunday School isn’t filled, its barely going. The budget isn’t a minor issue anymore, but consumes so much time and energy that there’s barely any left for the proclamation of the Gospel. You worry about whether your congregation can even continue; will we make it another ten years? God had at one time greatly blessed His Church in this place, but He has never seemed so powerless, His kingdom so weak, as when His churches dwindle and close. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Suppose you are a pastor. You were called to this place to proclaim both Law and Gospel; in fact, your ordination vows made that quite clear before God and His people. You have been superbly trained by the seminary; you know what you need to say and when, but no one wants to hear it. The world doesn’t want to hear about Christ; the people you encounter on the street don’t think they need a Savior. Even amongst your members, the Gospel doesn’t seem to have any effect. It’s a ho-hum, dreary message that seems to be withering the church, not strengthening it. Your members don’t want to hear the Law either, they don’t want to have their sin pointed out. Instead of causing repentance, all the Law seems to do is chase people away, as they run to another church or no church at all. Trying to exercise church discipline on an unrepentant sinner is like kicking over a hornet’s nest, as you bring down the wrath of entire families on your head. God has never seemed so powerless, His Kingdom so weak, as when Law and Gospel, the tools of a pastor, have no effect. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Suppose you are a citizen of this country. You are still proud, you are still patriotic, you would still give up your sons and daughters to fight for her, but you are disillusioned. This country you love seems to be sinking into a cesspool of immorality. Abortion continues to be legal, even endorsed and strongly protected by many of our leaders, and thousands die each day for any reason or no reason at all. Gay marriage has become legal in Iowa without even a vote, continuing the breakdown of marriage and the family that begun with no-fault divorce decades ago. Everywhere we look, couples are living together without marriage and having children out of wedlock, and it will be an entire generation of children who suffer. And now, religious liberty is under attack, as the government wants the power to force religious institutions and religious people to go against their beliefs. God has never seemed so powerless, His kingdom so weak, as when a nation with a majority Christian population undermines Christian morality and freedom. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Our gut response, in each of these situations, is to despair and panic, to become frustrated and angry. We get depressed, we mope around, we complain to ourselves and to others. We are resigned to the fact that things are not going to improve. On the other hand, often our response is to try to fix things, though with our own methods. God had His chance, now it’s my turn! When the world and the church are falling apart around us, the last thing we want to do is trust in God. In anger, in disbelief, in fear, we shake our heads (and our fists) saying, “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Jesus spoke the parables of our Gospel lesson to answer those questions. He taught about seeds and plants to respond to our despair, to our lack of trust. “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. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” Seeds are amazing things. They can lie dormant on your shelf for months or even years, but when you put them into some dirt and add a little water, they grow. The farmer or gardener can try to control a lot of factors, but whether the seed sprouts or not is completely out of his control. Pay close attention to Jesus’ words. The farmer doesn’t do anything; he sleeps and rises and the seed grows, the earth produces the crop by itself. In fact, the farmer doesn’t know how this works; it is all a mystery to him, but he trusts that it will happen, and when it does, he is ready for the harvest.

It’s the same with the Word of God. We sow the seeds through the power of the Holy Spirit, but God alone gives the growth. Parents, and especially fathers, have a God-given responsibility to proclaim God’s Word to their children, they are commanded to bring their sons and daughters to Holy Baptism; in the same way a pastor has the God-given responsibility to proclaim Law and Gospel to the flock entrusted to him. Both parents and pastors will be held accountable before God for those tasks; they cannot reject the responsibility to sow the seed. But God gives the growth. We can water, we can fertilize, but only God can make faith grow. It’s not about your or me, it’s not about the farmer or gardener, but it’s all about Jesus Christ, who makes the seed grow.

The Word does its work, even if we can’t see it, even if it seems to be failing. Jesus works mysteriously, beneath the surface, striving to create and sustain faith in even the most stubborn of hearts. We are like the farmer in His parable; we don’t know how, but Christ brings forth a harvest. “When the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Sometimes we don’t see the harvest, we don’t see the seeds we planted sprout and grow, but we trust that Christ is working. What God does with the seed is His business; our task is simply to cast it into the soil. We entrust the seeds into His hands and pray that He will bring the growth. For the power doesn’t rest in the sower but in the seed.

And this seed, the seed of the Word, is the most humble of seeds. “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” The Word is the smallest, the most humble of seeds, for it proclaims Christ, the humble Savior. He lowered Himself to endure the most humiliating death. He made Himself the smallest of men, the Son of God condemned falsely by church and by state, the Son of God nailed to a cross. In humility He suffered, in humility He died. In humility He allowed Himself to be planted in the ground. Jesus did this for you, for He did this bearing your sin, your sins of despair and fear, your sins of not trusting in His Word or His Kingdom; even your failures to plant the seed were carried upon His beaten and bloody shoulders. He took those sins, along with all others, to the cross and in humility He paid the price for them; He paid the price for you. The Church that lives on His Word, the proclamation of His death for all people, His death for the sin of the world, dwells in the same humility. Steeples fall, congregations close, Sunday Schools wither and attendance declines. The world she lives in plunges from one level of immorality to another, even threatening her very existence.

But take heart, for that smallest of seeds has become the greatest plant. “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.” Jesus Christ, the humble seed, was placed into the ground, He was planted in the earth. But that smallest of seeds made the greatest of plants, for He rose in victory on the third day. He extends forth great branches, and the birds of the air—you, me, and all nations—can find shelter in His shade. In a world gone so terribly wrong, where God seems so powerless and His Kingdom so weak, that is the good news, the reality that sustains us. Even though we cannot always see the results, even though the Kingdom of God seems insignificant, the truth is that God is working, and He has made Christ the greatest plant, where we can all dwell in safety. Despite all appearances, the Kingdom of God is thriving, for it is an eternal kingdom, and what it truly is will be revealed at the harvest on the Last Day. Now we see the humility of the smallest of seeds, but on that Day we will see the glory of the greatest plant. The power of God is hidden, it is mysterious, but it is real, and it will sustain you until you dwell in its shade for eternity. In the Name of the smallest seed who became the greatest plant, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

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