Sermon at 10 a.m. at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – Trinity 3 – 17th June 2018
Ezekiel 17 vv 22 – E The natural world as a parable of God’s Kingdom
Mark 4 vv 26 – 34 The parables of the process of growth of the plant and of the magnitude of growth from the mustard seed
Theme: The kingdom of God
- Introduction. What did you make of the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel 17? Puzzled? If you have a church Bible to hand you may like to turn up the reading on page 812 of the Old Testament. The Archbishop of Canterbury invited the Church of England to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ during the days between Ascension and Pentecost. Nicky provided displays and organised an afternoon for us to reflect on these displays and to gather together at the end of the afternoon to pray. She has written about this in the recent Quarterly News. In today’s two readings we have three parables of the kingdom. I find the whole concept of the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, used interchangeably by the gospel writers, is somewhat puzzling. I hope that together this morning we may understand and apply a little bit more of Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the whole Bible about God’s kingdom.
- OT parable. Firstly then to our OT reading from Ezekiel 17 on page 812 of the Church Bibles. Let’s first of all be clear that what we find in the last section of the chapter is a parable. Look at the opening of the chapter. “The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel.” Strictly speaking what follows are not parables but allegories. A parable conveys a single truth about an obscure subject, using a familiar setting. Just one basic meaning. An allegory contains many aspects of a subject, many parallels.
Should you wonder whether the opening verse of Ezekiel 17 refers only to the first 21 verses, there is continuity of thought throughout the chapter.
The time of this chapter is between the first exile of Judah to Babylon in 597 BC and the siege of Jerusalem, followed by the second deportation in 586 BC. At the beginning of the chapter there are two eagles. We are told in the middle of the chapter (vv 11 on) that the first eagle represents the king of Babylon, that is the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar, who took hold of the top of the cedar (v 3), representing the Davidic King, Jehoiachin, and installed a puppet king, Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle. Zedekiah breaks with Nebuchadnezzar and turns to the second eagle, the King of Egypt, for help. Neither eagle has resulted in Judah’s independence. God comes to the rescue in our reading today. V 22, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of cedar’.” In other words God will take direct control in establishing his kingdom. Therefore today’s OT reading is a looking forward to the establishment of the kingdom of God, with a continuation of the Davidic line. One feature to notice is that given in verses 23 and 24, “Under it (the noble cedar) every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” This surely is something that is coming to fulfilment in our own days. The Church, as the visible embodiment on earth of the kingdom of God, is now established in some measure in every country of the world.
Let us now turn to the parables of Jesus, son of David and son of God who 600 years later re-established the kingdom but in a form unexpected by most people in Judah.
- The parable of the hidden growth. The first parable of Jesus in our gospel for today occurs in Mark’s gospel only and is a little difficult to understand. Who is sowing the seed and who is reaping the harvest? Is it God or is it a human agency?
One needs to understand the context. At the beginning of Mark 4 we have the parable of the sower, a parable that Jesus teaches to the crowd to discourage anyone from making a superficial response in deciding to follow him. Now with the twelve, Jesus gives some amplification, some teaching to guide the apostles in their subsequent ministry. He says to them “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”, not just for casual interest but as a guide to action. They will be the ones to sow the seed, in the preaching of the gospel. They will be the ones in the reaping of the harvest, not in the sense of the final harvest at the day of judgement, but in the more immediate future. Jesus has already said to them after a period of his own active ministry, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matt 9 vv 37, 38). However the harvest of the Kingdom of God is not all down to human effort. It is a cooperative effort. The apostle, the evangelist, the ordinary Christian makes the gospel known. But just as we do not understand the hidden work of growth from the seed, nor do we understand the hidden work of The Spirit of God in a person’s life. We need to pray for the person to be open to the gospel.
Let me give you a personal example, based on the initiative of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. We were invited during the days between Ascension and Pentecost to pray for five people to come to a living faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. I prayed for a near neighbour in Hadlow, an engineering friend and his wife, an engineering colleague and a relative of Julia. To one, who likes a challenge, I lent a Christian magazine with an article about an ascent of Mont Blanc, another to whom I was exchanging information by E mail about lighting, I included a description of Holman Hunt’s painting of Jesus, the Light of the World, and to another who is dying of cancer, I wrote a letter including something about the Christian’s resurrection hope. For the others I prayed that someone else would sow a seed. As yet I await the outcome.
I believe that one needs to sow a seed in a way that seeks to communicate the gospel boldly, sensitively and relevantly, to the individual.
- Parable of the mustard seed. We come now to the second of Jesus’ parables in today’s gospel, the parable of the mustard seed. Maybe in school days you grew mustard or cress on wet blotting paper and you will be aware of the smallness of the seed. Did you notice that each of you has a mustard seed? Look carefully at your Sunday notice sheet if you have not already found it. My seed packet says harvest in 4 to 6 days, that would be of the plant as something about 2 inches high. In 1943 my parents took over the tenancy of a small, 72 acre, farm in Rutland. In the first couple of years or so we had a contract with Colmans to grow mustard. The seed is the vital ingredient for making the mustard. I recall my mother cutting open hessian farm sacks and sewing them together to line the wagons in which we would bring the harvested mustard plants in from the field, in due course to go in the threshing machine. The sacking was to retain the small seeds that were ripe enough to open the pods and drop out and were so small that they would drop through the cracks in the floors of the wagons. By contrast the plants before harvesting were something like four feet tall and might well have grown more if left uncut. In England we might use the analogy of the acorn and the oak tree but mustard was an excellent basis in Palestine for Jesus’ parable of growth.
The aim of the parable is to encourage Jesus’ disciples, not only in the first century but also in the 21st century. Don’t be discouraged by small beginnings. Jesus spent three years of ministry training 12 people, one of whom became a traitor; nonetheless an 8% drop out from a demanding course is a good outcome. At the end of this course Jesus would leave them to carry on his work, not on their own of course, because they would be encouraged and empowered by the Holy Spirit. However Jesus didn’t want them to be discouraged in the enormous task of preaching the gospel and making disciples of all nations. A worldwide commission could seem rather daunting to a motley collection of fishermen, a tax collector and others of limited education. They were the small mustard seed.
That mustard seed actually grew rapidly. Reading the Acts of the Apostles we find even before the day of Pentecost, in chapter 1, that there are about 120 believers gathered in prayer. Then on the day of Pentecost, following Peter’s challenging sermon, 3000 were added to their number. The end of Chapter 2 records that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Persecution, following the stoning of Stephen, thrust the great cloud of witnesses out from Jerusalem to Egypt, to India and many other countries. It is though only now some 2,000 years later that we can look around and say that the Christian faith is truly a global movement. There is not a country in the world without Christians although not as yet an organised Church in N Korea.
Let us not be despondent in England. Yes, the Church is much smaller than it was 100 or even 50 years ago. Churches are growing, particularly in our big cities where the needs of people are being met. Those who in a time of austerity have been hardest hit. We saw something of that in this year’s Unlock Walk; read Doreen’s report in the recent quarterly news.
The kingdom of God is wider than individual conversion. The phrase ‘Your kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer is immediately followed by, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The will of God includes the transformation of society, people living together in harmony, the care of God’s creation.
- Application. Let us prayerfully and positively, both as a Church and individually, work to establish the Kingdom of God here in Hadlow, in our places of work and recreation, in our families and amongst our friends. May we then rejoice and praise God for the hidden growth from small beginnings, as the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives transforming individuals and society to the glory of God.
Word count 1790 Christopher Miles