Mark 4: a fruitful gospel

In Mark 4, we get various parables about preaching and the Kingdom of God. A lot of these are quite well known, especially the first, which is the Parable of the Sower. The interesting thing is, though, that other than the initial planting in each of the parables, the farmer does not do much else until harvest.

First, in the Parable of the Sower, the farmer only does that. He casts the seed. The rest of what happens is not really due to any effort on his part. The destruction of the seed is not because of faulty action of the farmer; there is no judgement on him for where his seed lands. Then the seed that does produce the crop does so because of the soil, not the efforts of the farmer. Even the multiplication of fruit seems arbitrary. Jesus says that some seeds produce crop thirty times the original, some sixty, some one hundred. What Jesus doesn’t tell us is the reason. He doesn’t say, because the farmer was diligent in his weeding, watering and fertilising. It just says the seed that fell on good soil produced crop of some number.

In another parable within this chapter, it seems to be making this point more explicitly. Again it uses an analogy of seeds. Verses 27-28 says,

Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

The passage literally tells us that it does not matter what the farmer does. The farmer could rest or toil, but the seed, which symbolises the Kingdom of God here, grows regardless. The farmer does not even know how it grows; we, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t know how the Kingdom of God grows either. The seed produces crop all by itself.

Of course, that does not mean that God does not use us and that we do not have a role in spreading the gospel. (This has been used as an argument against mission; it’s up to God not us.) But what it does tell us is that it is not under our control. So I don’t know why some churches are number obsessed when the Bible literally says, sometimes it’s thirty, sometimes it’s one hundred but there is no reason. Basically, our job is to sow the seeds. Then we watch as God allows his Kingdom to take root and to grow. And what a marvellous miracle that is.

1 Peter 5: A lesson in humility

1 Peter reminds us of the need for humility. He directs this both to the leaders and to the flock. The leaders are to be humble shepherds, gently guiding them. They are not to lord it over them, and they are to serve eagerly, because God has entrusted this job to them. This is a really beautiful picture of leadership: one where the leaders are compassionate, joyful, wise and understanding.

The humility, however, is not just for the leaders. The younger people in the church are to submit to their elders. The motivation for this humility is interesting: because it is what God wants and God delights in the humble.

Often, we equate humility with modesty: a playing down of our achievements. But there is more to it than that, I think. There is an inherent knowledge that God is King and that we are sinful and fallen. Where Paul writes that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of who I am the worst” in 1 Timothy 1:15, that is an expression of humility. When we recognise our dire need to God, we will be eager to find leaders to guide us; we will refrain from think ourselves better than those we lead.

Therefore, when Peter tells us to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, it is this. It is us recognising that God is in control, he is mighty, his purposes prevail; whereas we are weak, poor and not in control of our surroundings. But, in this comes blessing. God will lift us up. Also, when we recognise that our situations are beyond us, it becomes easy to cast our anxieties on God. He cares and he is capable to help us. I know that the act of letting God take control of my life and my problems requires a great act of will-power. I arrogantly assume I can handle it but it is obvious I can’t.

The next few verses perhaps then give us cause for anxiety: the devil is on the prowl. I don’t know, but my list of worries often excludes this one (it’s usually where I put my passport or about some plan). Are we, then, called to think about this more often. We are meant to be in a state of readiness, prepared to go into battle. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel that way.

Another interesting thought, is that we are to stand firm in the faith but with humility and grace. We are to have absolute confidence in the faith we have. But this is not born out of our intellectual capabilities or knowing the right answers. In fact it’s the opposite. We know we can’t fathom the acts and purposes of God. They are far beyond our reason. But because of that, we can be confident in something greater than ourselves.

We are, therefore, called to fight knowing that we have the victor on our side.

Why democracy will always fail us

I am sat in Cambodia, seven hours ahead of the UK, watching the general election results roll in. I’m also hovering on social media watching responses to exit polls and election predictions. Having been in Cambodia for the run up to this election and having not been living in the UK for quite some time, I’ve been really surprised by the intensity of people’s social media posts. They speak of depression, despair, broken friendships, lives changed irreversibly for the worse. Now, I’m not saying these elections are not significant, but I’m really shocked at the emotional weight of yesterday. I perhaps understand it from my friends who are not Christians, but I’m probably seeing it more from my Christian friends. They’re writing about dashed hopes and painful fears of what these results will mean.

Before I go further, I want to deflect the potential barrage of complaints and questions and accusations. I do believe Christians should be involved politically. I do think we should exercise our right to vote. (I had to organise a proxy vote to get my ballot in the box.) I do think that Christians should speak God’s truth in the public sphere. I do think we should fight against injustice and fight for mercy. And here’s the massive “but”…

Christians should not misplace their hope in political systems.

There will always be blurred lines between political ideologies and faith. But we should not get the two confused. Faith is for our belief in Jesus. Do not put faith in the people and the powers of this world. There are a few interesting reasons for this.

The knowledge of good and evil

In the Garden of Eden, there were two fruit trees. One was the tree of life. The other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The former, humans could eat from; the latter would result in certain death. It’s interesting to think that before Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they were innocent of the distinction between the two. God had that knowledge. (He had called his creation “good” after all.) Man did not.

A lot of our political intentions or ideas are born out of our view of what is good and what is evil. Yes, we can believe we have a biblical perspective on our politics, but our wisdom is limited. It was the arrogance that man can be like God and that they could possibly know what is truly right that led Eve to reach for the fruit. It is the same arrogance today that is dividing friends and communities. Despite having tasted the fruit, we will never know good and evil as God does and we should humble ourselves and remember this. Furthermore, partaking in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil only heaped calamity and despair upon humanity. Why, then, are we so surprised that our political attempts to discern good and evil result in much the same?

Human sin

After the fall, sin entered humanity. Every heart is full of it. We are all destitute and depraved. As a result, every human system, institution, ideology is flawed. Sin runs through it like a seam through marble. Sin, therefore, invades our politics and parliaments, our chambers and churches, our banks and our ballot boxes. No where and nothing is free from the blood-red stain of sin.

We can see how sin is infiltrating our politics each day. Deceitful campaigns, Russian hackers, sleazy candidates all point to a fallen humanity. This is by no means a new thing in politics.

Just take a look at the Old Testament leaders: Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, Solomon. Each of these people were sinful and flawed. They lied, murdered, jealously clung onto power, and had multiple sexual scandals. If the Twitter witch-hunt existed back then, they would have descended on them like a pack of ravenous vultures. Even though many of these people were seen as good, God-honouring leaders, they still had massive moral failures. If the Israelites could not place their certain hopes on these political leaders, how can we be expected to do the same to the leaders of today?

Saul, perhaps, is the most obvious example where political hopes fell gravely short. The Israelites were desperate for a change in their political system. They wanted a monarchy, just like all the other countries around them. God gave them what they wanted; he gave them Saul. Saul was a cowardly, insecure, jealous, bumbling fool of a man. The hopes of the Israelites were gravely misplaced.

The Christmas Story

So, what then do we do with this? Where do we place our hopes? Well, as the UK prepares for Christmas, they need to look no further than the story it celebrates.

Jesus, the King of kings, was not born into a palace (like the Magi assumed he would). He was born into a dirty stable in some provincial backwater. Jesus, vulnerable and lowly, was twice victim of the political world around him. First, he had to flee to Egypt in his infancy; second, one of the world’s greatest political machines churned him up and spat him out in a humiliating and horrific death. Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, victorious and glorious. Instead he trotted in on a juvenile donkey. Jesus did not challenge Caesar or bring an end to the oppressive rule of the Romans. Instead, he ushered in a mustard-seed kingdom, no bigger than a widow’s coin.

Jesus’ kingdom is political but never in the way that we imagine it to be. It is subversive and upside-down and defies systems and party lines.

So, rather than putting your hopes in an election, or dwelling on fears caused by the future government, remember the Christmas story.

Remember the lines from O Little Town of Bethlehem:

The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.

Remember what that little baby came to do. For it is not the cross on a voting slip that can save the world. It is the cross on which Jesus died that has already accomplished this.

Let us pray:

Our Father who is in Heaven,

Your name is holy; you alone are good.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We do not rely on earthly kingdoms or pledge allegiance to human flags. Instead, we humbly kneel by a lowly manger and declare we will follow you and your ways.
We come now to adore you. We place our hopes in you. We give our fears into your hands.
Forgive us, Lord, for the times we have been arrogant. Forgive for when we desired to taste of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Forgive us when we have been unkind in our words and deeds. Teach us your ways. Help us discern your plans in all this.

In Jesus’ name,
Amen.