Text: Mark 4:21-34
I’m going to start this morning with a question: “Are you happy with the way the church is?” I mean the Christian church in general. In other words, when you look at the state of the church in this country, and throughout the world, does it reflect the values that Jesus proclaimed? Does it meet the standards that are recorded in the pages of the New Testament? Well, if you’re anything like me, the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. And I say that for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there appears to be a distinct lack of unity within the church. And that is reflected in the myriad of denominations and independent churches. Secondly, the divisions in the church seem to be getting wider and wider. And that can be clearly seen in recent years in regards to the debates over the ordination of women and gay marriage. Thirdly, and particularly in western countries, there is the confusion between church and state. Where the church has found it very comfortable to be an agent of government – and consequently has found that its hands are tied in regards to how it does its welfare. It has also found itself very comfortable in other matters. And yet the legal definitions of life, marriage and a whole host of other things are very different to a biblical understanding. Fourthly, there is the blurring of faith and culture. Where cultural beliefs and expectations are often confused with Christian principles. Fifthly, there is the continuing problem of resources being tied up. Where there’s a reluctance to use the resources that have been provided over the years. And, sixthly, there is the old “Pharisee and Sadducee dilemma”, where people want to keep things the same. They like the church the way it is – they like to keep control. And how dare anyway suggest that it needs to change – even if, it is to return the church back to first principles.
So if you were to ask me whether I am happy with the state of the church, you’ll know my answer. But are you happy with the way church in Australia is? Are you happy with the worldwide church in general?
Well I guess before we get to the question of “what can we do about it?” The first thing we should do, is to check whether we are right. Whether the church has indeed gone off the rails. And a good starting point, is to look at the three short kingdom parables that we read in Mark’s Gospel. Because I believe that in those parables we have the answers to some of these questions.
B. THE PARABLES
1. The Parable of the Lamp
And the first parable was the Parable of the Lamp (Mark 4:21-23).
Now this parable is very simple – common sense really. If we are going to light a lamp, wouldn’t we normally want to place it in the place where we would get the most light? Of course we would. After all what’s the point of lighting a lamp, only to cover it up?
However the point that Jesus was trying to make was that he was the lamp. And that his role in the context of the Kingdom of God was to enlighten and to reveal. As a consequence he wants his lamp to be on show where it would enlighten and reveal the most. And on the basis that he was instructing his disciples about the kingdom, he was letting them know what they had to do. They had to make sure that the lamp was placed in a position that would get the most light, and would not be obstructed by other things.
Effectively he was teaching that a disciple’s task, our task, is to let Jesus shine to the world. We’re not to conceal him, and we’re not to blur him with the restraints of governments or the expectations of culture. We’re not even to hide him away, claiming that faith is a personal thing. Rather we are to use all the resources, gifts and abilities God has given us so that Jesus can shine as brightly as he can to the world.
2. The Following Sayings
The sayings that follows (Mark 4:24-25), develops the theme.
So what we have next is a saying based on an old Jewish proverb. And it originally would have meant that “the more you give, the more you will be given back”.
However, with this proverb, Jesus has given it a twist. Because in the context of his kingdom parables, it takes on the meaning, “the more we listen to parables, the more that we allow the kingdom to part of our lives, and the more God’s ways will be open to our understanding.” But with the reverse being true too, “If we don’t pursue the kingdom, if we don’t seek more about God, then we will lose what little we had in the first place”.
Now this parable makes clear that understanding God, and understanding the kingdom is not something we can do or achieve on or own. We need God’s help.
So being a kingdom person means that we need to pursue an understanding of God. The status quo, leaving things the same, is not good enough. We need to put ourselves in places where we can learn and be taught. Because it’s not something we can do on our own.
Like the first parable, this saying makes it clear there is no room for solo Christians. But it does require a commitment of time. And it does require a commitment to go beyond the superficial.
3. The Parable of the Growth of the Seed
And had we been in any doubt, the second parable, the Parable of the Growth of the Seed (Mark 4:26-29), develops the necessity of growth and change further.
Now this parable has a number of features, one of which is that there is little significance placed on the seed. Yes, seed is needed to grow something – but that’s about as far as it goes in this story. Of far greater significance, though, is the idea that the plant grows without any further human involvement. God does the rest. And, perhaps the most important aspect of the whole parable, is that the plant grows to its full potential, ready for harvest.
In other words it is God who grows his kingdom, not us. So everything we do should be God-centred. But not only that, the purpose of sowing the seed in the first place is so that the plant which developed could grow, ready to be harvested. And in the context of a kingdom parable, that means that people can grow and be ready for Judgment Day.
What this parable suggests, then, is that the church was never intended to become a human institution. It was never meant to be something that we might like to control. Indeed the church is supposed to be God’s creation. It should be organic, living, growing, and developing. But to God’s tune, not ours. And our focus should be, to do our part in growing and preparing for God’s kingdom, with Judgment Day particularly in mind.
4. The Parable of the Mustard Seed
So we come our third parable, the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32), which really describes what will happen, if we can take heed of the other two.
Now the reality is, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed. However it does produce a large shrub in which birds can nest. And that I think that is the most important point of the parable.
Because Jesus’ point wasn’t just that we should develop and grow ourselves (although there’s merit in that). But rather that we should develop and grow so that we can provide sanctuary for others. In other words, the kingdom is not just about us. It’s about what we can give to others too. But it does require us to be willing to be grown in the first place.
So how does this all compare? How does my image of the worldwide church compare with the kingdom as described in Jesus’s parables?
After all, does the church allow Jesus and his kingdom to shine out, clearly, and uninterrupted to the world? Is the church reflected by members who are keen to learn more and more about themselves and about their God? Is the church committed to growing to its full potential, and to prepare people to meet their maker? And does the church create a haven for others, so they may be nurtured and encouraged in the faith? Or has the whole thing become blurred and confusing?
So does the church reflect Jesus’ values? I don’t think so. And that means for me there’s a problem, a really big problem. But what is the solution? Well I think for many, the problem is too big. After all how do you fix a problem of that magnitude? And because it’s such a big problem, does that mean there is nothing we can do?
Well I think, that no matter what is going on in the larger Christian world, we can at least try to fix up our small patch of it. We can at least try, with God’s help, to fix up any inconsistences at home.
So in the context of our own part of the Christian world:
Firstly, is there’s a distinct lack of unity within our churches, with different people going different ways? And if there is, what can we do about it?
Well in the kingdom parables we’ve looked at, we have illustrations that there is only one leader in the church – God himself. Consequently no other people or groups have a legitimate place. So any solution to any problem of lack of unity will require the need for us to focus in on God, and not ourselves. We need to accept that the church should not be about what we want, rather it should be about what God wants. And it can only be that, if we are prepared to immerse ourselves in his word, communicate with each other, ask him what he wants. And most importantly be willing to carry out his wishes – no matter where that may take us.
Secondly, does our church suffer the confusion between church and state? And if it does, how do we fix it?
Well in the first kingdom parable, we read of the need to make sure that Jesus was shining out as light to the world through us. However I’m not sure how you can do that, whilst at the same time entering into government contracts, not all of which are conducive to the free promotion of the Christian faith. Even being a marriage celebrant is a problem, where the concept and legal definition of marriage are so different to a biblical understanding.
The solution, difficult as it maybe, then, is for the church to move away from the interdependence of government and church. That way Jesus can shine through the church unhindered by contractual restraints.
Thirdly, is there is a blurring of faith and culture (because this again would affect how we allow Jesus to shine)? And if so, how do we combat that?
Well, the reality is that many non-churched people have expectations of the church, which go beyond the church’s reason to exist. And the church’s role in baptisms on demand, weddings, funerals, government welfare, etc. are just some of the areas where those expectations have been met. And those expectations have been compounded , by a tendency within the church to carry on its business in a culturally business-like manner, rather than in a manner fitting for people who have faith in God, and who trust in God to provide for their needs.
Is it any wonder, then, that many non-Christians have a very distorted view of the Christian faith, and a misunderstanding of the role of the church? Jesus is shining, yes, but through a haze of cultural expectations.
So we need to remove that blur. We need to take a very different stance. And we need to refocus on the principles in the parables – to grow and ready ourselves and others for the second coming.
Fourthly, is there is a problem with resources being tied up? And if so what do should we do with them?
Well if the last parable was about creating a haven where others can nest, we should be using all the resources that are available to us right now, to do that very thing.
You know in many churches there is a tendency to stash things away for a rainy day, for a time when things are really bad. However, I’m going to tell you, it’s not a good idea. Because we are supposed to be people who depend upon God, and not our own resources (something the sower in the third parable was very conscious of). But in any event, it’s been pouring down with rain in the western church for many years.
And, fifthly, are we facing the old “Pharisee and Sadducee dilemma”? And if so, what can we do?
Now I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a church that has not been affected by this problem. Wherever I’ve been, there has always been someone, or a small group, who have wanted to be in control, who have wanted things done their way.
The problem is, that this sort of control is a denial of not just one of the parables, but all three. All three parables shout “change”, “growth”, “the need to grow to our full potential”, and “the need to be ready for Judgement Day”. As a consequence there is no room in the church for things to stay the same, no matter how much we like things done in a particular way.
The solution? Well, it’s simple in theory. And that is to avoid being part of any such discussions or schemes. And to refer any involved in such schemes to a higher authority. In other words we should not be part of any power base on which their position depends.
Of course, like all the other solutions that’s not easy. But the question is: who is supposed to be in charge of the worldwide church, our parish, or even our own church? God! And we should never forget that.
Now I began today by asking a question: “Are you happy with the way the church is?” We have also now compared the church as it is, with the way that the church should be, as described in three kingdom parables recorded by Mark.
Now we may not be happy with the church in general. And we may not know how we can possibly fix up so big an issue. But we can at least try to clean up our own little part of the Christian world.
Yes we need God’s help. But if we take the mustard seed approach, we can start small, and we can make a difference. But it will require a willingness to let Jesus and his kingdom shine out, clearly, to the world. It will require church members to be keen to learn more and more about themselves and about their God. It will require us to be willing to grow to our full potential, and to become prepared to meet our maker. And it will require us to make ourselves a haven for others, so they may be nurtured and encouraged in the faith.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis