Mark 4 – Jesus Teaches the Kingdom

This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 30, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives. You can view worship and sermons at BBUMC.org, YouTube, Vimeo, or Facebook. I’ve also embedded the sermon below.

Here’s the sermon preached. Quite frankly, I think biting off all three parables plus a little extra stuff – trying to cover the majority of the chapter – is probably a little too much and overwhelming. That’s probably why the preached version is 21 minutes (about 6 minutes longer than I’d like).

Today’s sermon explores Mark 4 and specifically, Mark 3:26-32.

This is the clip I reference at the beginning of the sermon, but we didn’t not view the clip during worship.
“View to Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of the Beatitudes.” (Wikimedia Commons, Gugganij)

“Who’s coming with me?” That’s what Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry Maguire, asks in a pivotal scene in the 1996 film, Jerry Maguire. Jerry’s recently had an epiphany of sorts that leads him to rethink everything about his career as a sports management agent. He writes an impassioned manifesto. His bosses, however, can’t imagine the future Jerry sees, so they fire him. But, in a you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit moment, Jerry announces to his whole office that he’s starting a new firm, with a new approach, and he calls people come along: “Who’s coming with me?”

Jesus enters the Gospel of Mark with that sort of freshness and passion. His first words are his own call: “The kingdom of God is near. Change your hearts and lives and believe this good news” (Mk 1:15). Implied in this announcement is Jerry’s question, “Who’s coming with me into the kingdom of God?”

Through Mark 4, we see that people are coming with Jesus: crowds, people for healing, disciples, and critics. Yet, very few of them have grasped fully his vision, his manifesto, of what the world could and should actually be like, what the kingdom of God is like. And so, in today’s passage, Jesus sits down like any rabbi teaching with authority would, in a boat, with a natural amphitheater of people listening, to teach about the kingdom of God.

As we see today, Jesus taught “many things…in parables” (Mk 4:2). In one sense, Jesus taught in parables because it was a particularly Jewish way of teaching at the time. He told stories of everyday life that people could remember as they returned to their homes, so that they’d be able to keep pondering the story and see ever deeper meaning in them. Even so, he knew that vision of the kingdom of God he was embodying, proclaiming, and teaching was too much for people to grasp all at once. That’s why he referred to God’s calling of Isaiah (Is 6:9-10) when he explained his use of parables to the Twelve (Mk 4:12): people would “look but not see” and “hear but not understand.”  In this, he admits that he’s teaching in parables so that his vision of the kingdom of God can grow in people, just like in the three parables Mark records in Mark 4.

First, he tells the parable of the soil. This one might be most familiar for us, which is why I didn’t read it today. He says that a farmer casts seed in the conventional way of planting, but that the seed – the Word of God – doesn’t grow equally in all places. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten up by birds, other seeds sprout and then whither in rocky soil, other seeds are choked out by thorns, and other seeds grow to a miraculous harvest from good soil.

We can hear a number of things from the parable of the soil, especially if we look at it from a few perspectives. First, because Mark includes Jesus’ interpretation of the parable to his inner core of disciples, people of every age – from Jesus’s first hearers, to Mark’s listeners, to us today – can hear the soils as an allegory. In an allegory, each thing represents something else – such as, the rocky soil is like people who receive God’s good news quickly, but then fall away when life gets hard. In this, we can hear Jesus calling us to be “good soil” as opposed to the other types of soil – to root out the thorns and rocks of our lives. Read this way, Jesus plants a seed of hope that we too can be like good soil, in which God’s good news of Jesus can grow and flourish.

Stepping backward in time, as though we were First Century, Roman Christians listening to Mark’s gospel read in our house church gatherings, we can hear the parable as an explanation of why some people responded to the good news of Jesus and followed him, and why others did not. In this, Jesus plants a seed of hope: the movement of The Way of Jesus will grow and flourish.

Stepping back further in time, to Jesus’ day, the parable of soils reveals something earth shattering for those with ears to hear. The key here is in the size of the harvest: thirty to one, sixty to one, or a hundred to one. According to Ched Meyer in his Markan commentary Say to This Mountain, “[A] bumper crop for a Palestinian farmer was at best six-fold” (pg 40). The people gathered were or knew subsistence farmers who were barely making it. If their crop failed, they went into debt to plant the next year. If they failed to pay their debts, with interest, it grew and grew, until their only choice was to sell their land to the next wealthy landowner and become something of an indentured share cropper. Jesus’s harvest is so much beyond what they could imagine that it would mean a complete shift in their lives. They’d be able to get themselves out of debt, and likely keep their family out debt for generations, if not also their neighbors. If the kingdom of God is like this, then what Jesus is really proposing is a whole new way of doing business, like Jerry Maquire. Perhaps he’s suggesting that the biblical law of Jubilee would actually be followed: that, in the kingdom of God, all debts are forgiven and land is returned to its prior owners every fiftieth year (Lev 25, 27). In this, he plants a seed of hope for a new kingdom, a new reality, and a new economic system. And he’s saying, “Can you hear it? Can you see it? Now, who’s coming with me?”

The next two parables are shorter as Jesus continues to reveal more about what God’s kingdom is like. First, he says that the kingdom of God is like one who plants, waters, waits, and then harvests. There’s nothing miraculous here, and actually, the farmer has very little control. We can prepare the soil and provide nutrients, but the actual growth is, to some degree, beyond our control. But here’s the thing, when First Century Jews heard about a harvest, their minds would have immediately jumped to God’s promises in the prophets, like Joel 3. They believed in, and longed for, a day when God would restore the people of Israel, and the image God uses to describe this is harvest. Jesus plants a seed of hope for the people longing for God’s restorative presence, proclaiming that God will grow God’s kingdom.

Then Mark tells us one more of Jesus’s many parables, that of the mustard seed. Again, the main thing is the image of growth: from something small, like a seed, something larger grows. But like the previous parables, with the mustard seed, Jesus is building upon the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, like in Ezekiel 17. There, God promises to restore the people of Israel, to save them from exile, using the image of a tree: God will plant a tree in Israel that will flourish and give shelter to birds of every kind (Ez 17:22-24, cf. Dan 4:12, 21). By using this imagery, Jesus plants a seed of prophetic hope to his first hearers, to his disciples, and to Mark’s readers of every age. God will restore them, small and subjugated to the empire as they are. God’s kingdom movement will be blessed with growth, so that they can be a blessing to all others.

Jesus tells these parables, these stories, because he knows that the kingdom of God is more subversive than can be handled or told solely in facts and statements, in Jesus’ day, and perhaps also in ours. Religious systems, of Jesus’s day and our own, seem to degenerate into systems of morals: do this, avoid that, and you’ll be blessed. But Jesus’s parables teach us that the kingdom of God isn’t something that we earn, labor for, or try harder for. In Jesus’s day and our own, people of faith sometimes get fearful: afraid that God’s kingdom is beyond us, or that powers and forces might overcome God’s kingdom movement. But Jesus teaches today that no one can keep us out of the kingdom of God and no person or power can prevent God’s bountiful harvest. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is something God plants, God waters, God grows, and God waits patiently to harvest. Jesus proclaims that in him, God’s kingdom is growing among us – an act of God’s grace. Jesus plants seeds of hope for people struggling to see God’s presence and work in our lives, so that we can follow him daily.

“So,” Jesus asks, “Can you hear it? Can you see it?” and “Who’s coming with me?” Can we be a community of discipleship, everyday practices of holiness, as a response to God’s patient planting of grace in our lives? Can we be a people of patience and trust, living with and proclaiming assurance of God’s care, faithfulness, and presence? Can we be a people of Kingdom purpose: to grow in Christ, and in our growth, to be a blessing to others? Can we be a people who let God’s kingdom grow in us: to be a people in which we empower people for meaningful work that receive just wages (shaped by Jubilee, not profit); to be a people who challenge the –isms of our day as contrary to the kingdom of God; to be a people who receive salvation in Christ foremost as a gift and a way of life that blesses others?

But, lest we think everything is clear, Mark tells us of Jesus calming the storm, after which, the disciples still ask, “Who is this?” And with that, we can see that the kingdom of God is an ongoing journey for each of us to intentionally keep learning, keep following Jesus, keep responding to him as he calls, “Who’s coming with me?” Jesus plants a seed of hope in us, so that we can follow him daily.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Each of these parables could preach on their own. What sermon or message is God giving you from a particular parable today?
  2. As I mentioned, one reading of the parable of the soils relates to the biblical idea of the “Year of Jubilee” (see Leviticus 25). Do some research on this idea/biblical law, and then explore, with questions like, “What would be different if we lived into the idea of Jubilee?” Is it feasible? Did God really mean it? What are the results of not ever living into the idea of the Jubilee law? (Arguably, living into the Jubilee law may have changed the lives of the people of Israel. See Isaiah 1-3 with an eye toward economic justice. Does Jubilee solve some of their problems?)
  3. Dig into the harvest image related to Joel 3:13. How is the harvest Jesus is proclaiming relate to Joel? How is it different? What do you make of the differences?
  4. Dig into the tree/bush/shrub as a sign of blessing and promise (Mk 4:30-32) and some related passages (Daniel 4:12 and Ezekiel 17:23). How does God use this image differently in each of these passages? What do we conclude about the tree and Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed and bush?
  5. Jesus reveals what the kingdom of God is like in these parables. He also bears the kingdom of God fully in himself. How do we see Jesus, in other parts of the gospel, embodying these parables? Are there allegorical pairs we could assign to parts of the parables in the gospel? What about in our lives? For example, how are we like a mustard seed?
  6. Why does Jesus cross to the “other side” (Mk 4:35)? What might this mean for how we understand his mission?
  7. Considering Jesus’s calming of the sea, how do you experience, or need to experience, Jesus calming seas in your life?

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