Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taking Shelter, Scattering Seeds

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Mark 4:26-34
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells two parables or stories about “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God exists wherever the Holy Spirit empowers a person to believe in Jesus Christ as the only way to life with God and so, repents of sin and surrenders their whole life to Christ.

But we live in a fallen, sinful world. Sin exists within and around us, which is why it’s so important for Christians to confess our sins, ask God’s help to resist the temptation to sin, and put our lives in the hands of Jesus every day.

Yet, given the simple fact that sin so clearly has our world, our nation, and this community by the throat, we may feel reason to question whether the kingdom of God is present or if it hasn't been completely overrun by evil.

In these two parables, Jesus encourages us not to give in to despair!

Yes, disrespect for God’s Name, thievery and murder of all kinds, injustice to the poor, violations of God’s will that human beings have sexual intimacy only with persons of the opposite sex to whom they are married for life, reputation-damaging gossip, materialism, and all sorts of other sins fill our world.

Yet, the kingdom of God is still among us, still growing, and still able to usher into eternity with God anyone who dares to break with the world, repent of sin, and give their lives to Jesus Christ.

Turn to our lesson, Mark 4:26-34, in the pew Bibles.

The first parable Jesus tells in the lesson is found in Mark 4:26-29. Look what Jesus says in the first few verses there: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.”

Here, Jesus introduces us to a reckless farmer. He scatters seed. He doesn’t bother with things like watering, hoeing to remove weeds, or laying on manure. He just scatters and goes through his daily routine, sleeping at night, waking in the morning. This man’s job--his only job, apparently--is to scatter the seed and wait and presumably, pray.

Folks, that’s our job as Christians, too. The seed of God’s kingdom in this parable is our word--our witness--about the gospel, the story of how Jesus Christ makes people right with God.

We use that word gospel, the modern rendering of an old English compound word, “God’s spell” or “God’s news,” all the time. But we ought to remind ourselves of what the gospel is.

Look at the passage of Scripture that Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell”: John 3:16. Jesus says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

All human beings are born in sin and we deserve death, everlasting separation from God, punishment in hell. But God loves us so much that He sent God the Son, Jesus, to take the punishment for sin we deserve. He did that on a cross. There, Jesus died in our places. Then, God the Father raised Jesus up from the dead, so that all who surrender their lives--all their past sins and current temptations, all their present needs, and all their future lives, earthly and eternal--to Jesus, will have forgiveness of sin, the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, and the everlasting life with God for which human beings were first made.

God graciously offers these free gifts to all who trust in Jesus. This is the gospel and Jesus says that this good news is scattered by one means only: through you and me.

We are the farmers whose one and only job as Christians is to tell others the good news about Jesus. We’re to scatter the seed of God’s kingdom, then leave the growth and cultivation of that seed to God.

That’s a simple mission.

Yet it seems that when we Christians interact with our spiritually-disconnected friends, we find it easier to talk about anything or everything but the gospel.

But have you noticed something?

While we Christians fail to tell others the good news about Jesus and our churches get involved with politics and social issues and social gatherings and focus more on accommodating the world by telling people things like, “It’s OK if you shack up, cause boys will be boys and girls will be girls; it’s OK if you don’t believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and physically rose from the dead because we’ve never known anyone but Him like that either,” while we’re talking about everything but the gospel, the world is embracing all sorts of new evil, walking farther away from God.

In Acts 1:11, the crucified and risen Jesus, just before He ascended into heaven, told the eleven apostles and, through them, told us: “You shall be witnesses of Me.”

If you’re a baptized believer in Jesus Christ, you are one of His witnesses, called to scatter the seed of the Gospel.

The only question is: Will we be faithful or unfaithful witnesses?

We just had a murder trial in Logan. What would have happened if all the witnesses called on sat on the stand and provided no information on the case? The jury would have been unable to make a decision.

If we Christians, who have been called to be witnesses for Christ, fail to tell others about Christ, they are unable to make a judgment about whether to receive the new life in God’s kingdom that Jesus offers

The stakes are so high! Heaven and hell for all the people we may interact with in our lives depends on whether we Christians will be faithful witnesses for Christ or not!

Look at what Jesus says in Mark 4:29, at the end of the first parable: “But when the grain ripens, immediately He puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

It’s pretty clear to me that the “He” here is not the farmer who scatters the seed in the first few verses of the parable.

Turn to Joel 3:13. This passage from the Old Testament prophet is what lay behind Jesus’ words here. It says: “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, go down; for the winepress is full, the vats overflow--for their wickedness is great.”

Both this passage from Joel and the words of Jesus in Mark 4:29, are about the ultimate judgment that will come to this world. The world will hurtle along from one evil day to the next. Evil will overflow through the life of the world. Those who refuse to repent and believe in Jesus will keep on sinning unrepentantly and never blink an eye.

Then God will wield His sickle. This world will come to an end. Only the seeds that have borne grain--only those who believe in Jesus Christ--will rise again.

This is why you and I must get over ourselves, get over our fears, and ask the Holy Spirit each day to present us with opportunities to scatter the seed of the gospel. We need to ask God to give us time in our conversations with our neighbors, friends, and family members to tell them that surrender to Jesus Christ is the only way to life with God. We need to ask God to help us scatter the seeds of His kingdom each day!

But how do we quiet Lutheran Christians do that? How do we find a way to scatter the seed of the gospel so that others can come to eternal life with God? Here are a few steps you can take toward being a faithful witness for Christ:
  • Maintain intimacy with Christ. Use what we Lutherans call "the means of grace," the routes God takes to fill us with faith, to give you a closer walk with Jesus Christ. These include God's Word, which we need to study, and Holy Communion. They also include prayer, conversation with the Lord. Through each, Christ draws us closer to Himself and fills us with assurance that "nothing in all creation"--not even our halting, imperfect attempts to give witness for the eternity of hope we have as believers in Jesus--can separate us from the love of God, given through Christ.
  • Live in daily repentance and renewal. Repentance is changing our minds about our sins and turning to God for the forgiveness He offers through Christ. When we do this, God will renew us, helping us to live more faithfully. Two major things will happen when we live in daily repentance and renewal. First, God helps us to avoid sins that might harm us, harm others, or harm our relationship with God. Second, God helps others see the authenticity of our faith. As the bumper stickers put it, "Christians aren't perfect; just forgiven." When others see that we are admittedly imperfect people who seek each day to orient our lives to the will of God, it will enhance the credibility of our witness for Christ.
  • Be intentional about forming friendships with spiritually-disconnected people. Jesus was always reaching out to unbelieving people. Many came to follow Him. God's Holy Spirit can empower us to reach out to the same kinds of people and, as we share our witness for Jesus with them, some of them too, will come to follow Jesus.
  • Remember your own story. Real witnessing for Christ doesn't usually come when we share Bible tracts with people, but at the intersection of God's story, our story, and the story of our unbelieving friend. Remember how God has given you the undeserved gift of life with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Remember the sins for which Christ daily gives you forgiveness. Be ready to share the story of your relationship with Christ with others at the opportune moments.
  • Be kind. Romans 2:4 says that the kindness of God is given in order to lead us to repentance. God has been kind to us. Although we deserve death and condemnation, He has patiently given us time to become acquainted with His Son, repent for our sins, and believe in Jesus. Be kind, patient, and forbearing toward your disbelieving friends. Give them the time and space to experience God's love so that they too, can come to believe in Christ.
    When the gospel--the kingdom of God--takes hold in a person’s life, it brings indescribable comfort and hope and peace.

    In the second parable, Jesus tells us more about the kingdom of God. Look at how He describes it in Mark 4:30-32. He begins with a question: “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it?”

    When hearing Jesus say this, His first listeners probably thought of similar words from the Old Testament. Turn to Isaiah 40:18. Written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah challenges God’s ancient people, Israel, to get a fresh picture of what God is like. He writes: “To whom will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?” The similarity between these words and those spoken by Jesus are so similar that we can be certain the words written by the prophet in Isaiah 40 form a backdrop for Jesus' words in our gospel lesson.

    After these opening questions, Isaiah warns that you can’t compare God to the carved images that an artist might sculpt or to any picture our imaginations might create. God is greater than anything we can conceive. Then Isaiah writes in verse 24 of the princes and supposedly important people of this world: “Scarcely shall they be planted, scarcely shall they be sown, scarcely shall their stock take root in the earth, when He [when God] will also blow on them, and they will wither, and the whirlwind will take them away like stubble.”  Those who think that they're "all that" and that they don't need God may thrive for a time. But only God can give life to dead people and what will those who think they have no need of God do when they face God on the last day of this broken, dying world?

    Now, go back to Mark 4 and look at Jesus second parable, verses 31-32. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, “is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on the earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

    Listen: In a world with so much tragedy and sadness and sin, it can be easy for us to lose sight of the fact that the ultimate fate of all the world still is in the hands of almighty God. The kingdom of God may seem as small and insignificant as a little mustard seed in this great big universe. But those who surrender to Jesus Christ are not alone and this fallen world is not the final destination of those who trust in Christ!

    In my first parish one day, I went to visit a woman who was dying of cancer. She had undergone much more pain than she would have otherwise because she had consented to taking experimental treatments at the University of Michigan hospital, allowing doctors to learn more about her particular cancer and its treatment. She was back in the hospital in Defiance, Ohio, barely able to breathe, near death.

    “Are you mad at God?” I asked her. Gasping, she drew in the air to say, “I was.” Then, using her thumb to point to the wall behind her, where a cross hung above her bed, she said, “But now I know that He’s always been right here. He won’t let me go.”

    She left this life shortly thereafter. But not before she had learned to take shelter in the arms of the God Who has shared our death so that those who trust in Him, even when they die, can share His life for eternity. She trusted in Jesus and so, lived in peace and died with hope.

    That woman taught me that all the wealth, power, and even good health that some may enjoy in this world are all destined to be taken from them and in the end, all that will stand for eternity will be the God we know in Jesus Christ--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--and those to whom God gives life through their faith in Jesus.

    It may not always be so clear in this world where reality has gotten jumbled by sin and death, but those who have Jesus as their God and king know the truth of words in verses 13-15 of today’s psalm, Psalm 92: “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God...They shall be fresh and flourishing, to declare that the Lord is upright: [God] is my rock...”

    May God be your rock.

    May you daily let the seed of His kingdom be planted and grow in you.

    May you daily scatter the seed of Christ’s good news so that, believing in Jesus, they may live with God forever.

    And may you take shelter in the arms of the God Who never lets go of those who trust in Him.


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