St Barnabas & St Michael’s, August 24th 2014
Last Saturday, Plymouth Argyle played local rivals Exeter in the first home game of the league this season. A friend of ours who lives in Plymouth is, amazingly, an Exeter supporter. For our purposes this morning she will remain nameless, although some of you may recognise her from this story or from her Facebook page! Anyway, after the game, she described travelling to the match concealing her Exeter shirt under an anorak (although the weather was perfectly dry) … only taking off her camouflage once she was in the stadium, safe among the visiting fans.
I can only assume she also wore her coat home after the game … since Plymouth won 3-0! It might have been different had Exeter won … perhaps then she may have had the courage to be honest about her allegiance. I don’t know. But hearing her story reminded me of the old proverb, Don’t hide your light under a bushel … and I began to muse on ways in which we, as Christians, do something similar … only really being ourselves when we are with other Christians, in a safe place, among friends.
But that’s not the meaning of the proverb, is it? According to The Cambridge Dictionary of Idioms, to hide your light under a bushel means,
… to avoid letting people know you are good at something, usually because you are shy.
And apparently it dates from the 14th century, though there is a footnote that it may have a biblical origin!
Well, we’ve just read that biblical original together … so let’s take a more careful look at what it’s actually all about. Mark 4:21-23 …
(Jesus) said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What is Jesus talking about? Of course you don’t put a lamp under a bed or a basket (the original word meant a largish basket of a certain measure, used to hold grain) … not only would the lamp fail in it’s purpose to light the house, it would also start a fire … perhaps that is what Jesus means by ‘whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed’ … a light that is hidden soon reveals it’s location one way or another!
What is the light in the parable? It’s clearly not as the dictionary would have it, anything to do with our talents and abilities. Whether we think it represents the good news of Jesus, or Jesus himself, we know that you can’t keep either in a box (or beneath a bed or under a basket) … sooner or later, he will break out … Jesus always makes his presence felt … if Jesus is part of your life, you can’t hide the difference it makes. Eventually, someone will ask you a question and you’ll know they’ve noticed something. Jesus cannot be hidden, and if someone is looking for him, they will notice the signs of his presence.
That’s partly why Jesus ends this short parable with the familiar phrase,
If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!
Don’t waste your energy, trying to conceal the fact that you are a Christian, that you have a relationship with Jesus and good news to share. Whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open …
That sounds easy enough to understand, doesn’t it? But I think there’s something else here … think for a moment about why Mark includes the parable of the light here, just here.
Last week, we read the beginning of the chapter, and the story of the Sower and the seed. The next two parables after this one about the light, concern a man who scatters seed on the ground and sees it grow without his help, and then the parable of the mustard seed, the smallest seed in the garden that grows the largest plant.
Seed, light, seed, seed … there must be a reason why Mark places this short parable here among the three seed stories.
Well think about it, what is our initial reaction the first time we hear the story of the lamp? Don’t hide your light under a basket … well, of course you don’t! That would be absurd, ridiculous.
Exactly … what would be more absurd or ridiculous that not sowing the seed? The seed of God’s word? The good news of Jesus? It would be as silly as keeping your lamp under your bed!
Whatever else we learn from this simple little illustration of the lamp – and there is plenty to learn – the reason Mark includes it here is to make the point that once we have Jesus in our lives, once we receive that seed and it takes root, it is ridiculous to think we should or can keep him to ourselves.
But we find sharing Jesus so daunting sometimes, don’t we? So Jesus goes on to share two more parables about the seed to encourage us. But just before we look at them in more detail, let’s look back for a brief moment …
In the parable of the Sower, who is the farmer? We know that the seed is the word of God, Mark tells us that in v14, but who is the farmer? I would guess when we read this parable we usually identify with the seed … we might even admit that we are the seed that grows among the weeds, we have a genuine faith but are often distracted by other things going on in our lives, and we aren’t very fruitful, perhaps we haven’t spoken to anyone about our faith for some time.
Do you ever, I wonder, identify with the farmer?
When he explains the parable of the Sower to his disciples, Jesus says nothing about who the farmer represents. Do we assume that it’s God? Perhaps that’s right … but perhaps Jesus intended the disciples to understand that was their role … after all, as Tim explained last week, the parable of the sower was told shortly after Jesus chose the twelve to be apostles, ‘that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach’ (Mark 3:14). The parable of the Sower then, was to explain to them how different people respond to the gospel in different ways.
The parable of the lamp comes next to show them how ridiculous it would be for them to keep the good news to themselves … the good news is meant for sharing. And if we have the good news, we are meant to pass it on. But for many of us, that is a daunting prospect …
So we come next to the parables of the seed that sprouts and the tiny mustard seed … v26,
(Jesus) also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 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. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
What is the role of the farmer in the parable of the Sower? To sow the seed. Does he make it grow? No … he can do something towards preparing the ground, he can water the seed once it is planted, and he can be ready to harvest the crop when it is ripe, but there is nothing he can actually do to make the seed grow.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote, 3v6,
… the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
God makes things grow … and it is God who nurtures the good news of Jesus in the hearts of those who will one day come to believe and trust in him. So Jesus reassures the disciples he has called to preach in his name … you do your part, and I will do mine … go and share the good news with anyone you meet, but don’t worry if you don’t see immediate results. One day there will be a harvest … but only if you first sow the seed. The rest is up to me. Trust me.
Again (Jesus) said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30f)
Do you ever use mustard seeds in the kitchen? I have a chutney recipe that requires a tablespoon (I think) of black or yellow mustard seeds. And they are a nuisance … they get everywhere. They spill really easily because they are so light, and you can never find them all, as they are so small.
The mustard seed that farmers in this county plant, grows to about chest height, around 45 inches at most. In Jesus’ day, before modern research and development, the humble mustard seed, if unchecked, grew much higher …
This one I believe, grew in the Golan Heights … north east of the sea of Galilee, between modern day Israel and Syria. It would have been a familiar sight to Jesus’ disciples … probably a sign of a neglected garden or abandoned vegetable plot!
Once again, Jesus is reassuring his disciples … when you share the good news about me, it might feel as if you’re not doing much, not contributing a great deal to the growth of my kingdom … but watch and see what I can do if only you say that one word, share a brief testimony, pray for someone who needs me.
So, put yourself in the place of the Farmer in the parable of the Sower … how does it feel?
Preparing the ground might be hard work … moving some of the rocks, breaking up the soil people have trampled over, clearing the weeds as best you can … you never get rid of them completely of course.
Then it’s time to sow – a handful here and there, perhaps a special event, a fun day or a quiz night, or a special service at church. Or maybe you only have opportunity to plant a tiny seed here and there – a smile to a stranger, offering someone a cup of tea, praying quietly when you listen to someone’s story of suffering or hardship, or praising God when they tell you some good news, a new baby, a new job, wishing someone ‘God bless’ as you say goodbye.
It all seems so fruitless, so small … but Jesus says, Trust me, you do your part and I will do mine.
In our first reading this morning we heard these words, James 5:7-8,
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.
The kingdom of God is the Lord coming into the lives of people all around the globe … and like the mustard tree, despite small beginnings, the kingdom of God – which is here and now, and not just in the future – is huge, and growing.
One final word. Between the parable of the Light and the second seed parable, Mark includes these words of Jesus, Mark 4:23-25,
If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear! Consider carefully what you hear, he continued. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.
Time and time again, Jesus warns his disciples that not everyone will understand, not everyone will receive the word of God, or even hear the good news of Jesus they are being told. This is a hard saying … but it’s really quite simple to understand … the closer you listen, the more willing and obedient your response, the more you will hear and understand. Whether you are hearing about Jesus for the first time or you’ve been hearing about Jesus for decades, your response to hearing the word of God will be to draw closer, or to draw away. And those who draw away will eventually stop listening, and fail to understand … but those who draw close will understand more and more of God’s love and purposes and see more and more of Him and his kingdom in the world around them. That’s what it means to hear and accept the word of God … back one final time to the parable of the Sower …
Mark 4:20 … Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.
So are we the seed or the sower? Well, as I hope you’ve realised this morning, we’re both … once we have heard and humbly accepted the word of God planted in us, it’s our turn to go and sow the seed wherever we can … and while we may not see immediate results, we can trust that Jesus will take and use all our prayers and actions and hopes and desires and grow his kingdom. The planting is our job, our role … the growth is his. Be encouraged this morning, that Jesus is doing his part … so don’t be afraid to do yours.