The question whether the cup is half full or half empty is a futile exercise in semantics. Either way there is an insufficient amount of coffee in the cup. — Ann O. Nymous
The largest cabbage ever recorded was grown by a gardener north of Anchorage, Alaska. Yes, you read that right: Alaska. The same man also holds records for the largest cauliflower and, horrors kids, the largest head of broccoli. The Alaska state fair seem to have a yearly competition concerning these things, which suggests that there are some scary looking veggies up by the arctic circle.
Wonder not why, of all places, Alaska is blessed with this size of little children’s nightmares. It is simply a matter of place. Apparently these veggies are fond of a simply ingredient to their growth: Sunlight. For the month of June Anchorage civil authorities list “not applicable” for the times of civil twilight. In other words: It is light for a whole month. Further north “not applicable” is listed for sunset and sunrise as well, in some places for all of June, and much of May and July.
Chapter 4 of Mark is a collection of agricultural parables. The two parables for today, the parable of the unseen growth and the parable of the mustard seed, are parables about the kingdom of God. Both are somehow focused on growth. In one the crop is growing while the farmer is about other things. Once the Kingdom is planted, forces beyond this farmer make the rest happen. The second one is about a really really small seed that none the less will grow into a fairly large bush.
By this time the parable of the sower and seed has been spoken to the crowd and explained. It, remarkably, does not share the introduction that it is about the kingdom. A further parable follows on the lamp under the bushel. It seems to be encouragement to speak the word as is the followup: The more you speak the more will be given you to say. (4:21-23; 24-25) Maybe, in the light of the first parable, the takeaway ought to be: Once you get it, you see it, though that sounds too much like an internet headline.
Back to our parables: Research in the field plant biology has years ago answered the question: how does a plant grow and what does it need. Chemists have long ago figured out what to put into the soil to make growth happen better, quicker, larger, and more manageable. Microbiologists has figured how to make the plant act like itself but at the same time a lot like another plant that is more resistant to many and various diseases or bugs, or how to be resistant to the herbicide that the farmer, who in our days is not merely sitting by, might spray on the field.
The same microbiologists are on the way to figuring out how a tiny seed grows an organism that in turn might be of substantial size. Sequoias, for example, grow from a seed about 5 mm, less than 1/4 inch. Somehow cell division and that sort of thing makes things happen, though some parts of the process are still not understood to this day. Yet, it is in the nature of “seed” to work out how to wake up, root the future plant, and grow a sprout to break the surface.
The parable is spoken into a place where reliance on the process to do its thing was all there was. Then, there was no theorizing about why things grew: God ordained the plant to do so. God permitted the rain to fall. God either sent pests to diminish the crop or God led those pests to other places. God permitted the sun to shine and in that way things grew and there was a harvest. Similar: God ordained that a seed unseemly and little would become a plant many times its original size.
These were people who did believe that God does direct “the stars in their courses,” as hymn LBW 577 would insist. God’s will was done in riches and in famine, depending whether favor or wrath were raining from heaven. God was involved somehow directly, personally, at every stage and level, even the ones unseen.
“If this is how God deals with the plants that grow every year how much more will God shepherd the kingdom into your midst, oh ye of little faith.” These parables are a call to faith, a call to not get overly worried about how common or unseemly the in-breaking of the kingdom is.
The question: Can God really bring in the long hoped for reign through the carpenter’s son from Galilee, is by this time in the Gospel an appropriate question as is the question: “How.” The questioning will become more intense. Can salvation come though a messiah that is being crucified?
There is something strangely apocalyptic about these texts. There is secrecy. The “crowd” does not get things explained to them. (4:34) A special language of images that is offered here. (4:11) One understands or one does not and it depends if the one who is authorized has ordained that one understands. One puts faith in Jesus or one does not. But as one has faith, the kingdom somehow is opened. That seems to be the point of 4:24-25.
At what point do you reach your limit while watching the world around and finally say: Nope. God has left the building. To paraphrase Don McLean: At what point are you fairly sure that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost have caught the last train toward the coast?
Look at the Pharisees who became Jesus’ opponents the moment he forgave sins and who solidified their position when Jesus healed on a day that they felt anyone aware of God should not do so since it was “work.” (2:5, 3:6) If God can take a day off then can the world run without divine attention? It would seem so. If life can be lived in relative perfection by applying the necessary protections from sin and sinners, is the Forgiveness of sin, presumably something only God can actually do (2:7), needed? If, as a pharisee would insist, one can a righteous life, what is left for God to do? See to crop growth and water supply as well as a bit of sunlight and that would be it, right? That can then be done in advance so God is really not need on Sabbath after all, but can, so to speak, mail it in? Not even the pharisees would have accepted this type of questioning since they with everyone else assumed that God ran things in ways no one understood. Yet, if God is needed on Sabbath why is the work of God in Jesus on Sabbath rejected?
As you look at the news and the currents in society that it reports these days, do you get any hint that God is still figured into the equation of daily life? Modern pharisees have fewer limitations on their thinking as they believe in biology more than God. I recently read a commentary about social interaction of the 2nd decade of the 21st century. The writer, whose name I fail to remember today, argued that current millennial culture and attitude was best understood as a tribal culture that had no room for forgiveness. His case was that at the first sign of wrong or sin proscribed by tribal agreement, a social media storm tends to erupt that is followed by a “shunning.” This, writes the author, is a generation that has learned to use the “unfriend” button. Those who have done wrong in the tribe’s eyes are no longer allowed to speak on any subject and neither were the offender’s parents and siblings or their offspring. It reminds us of last weeks text where Jesus’ family try to prevent such a fate. The gloomy article’s conclusion was that decades of negative political culture on both sides of the aisle had led there and that there was no easy way out — have a nice day.
We read an attempt by the pharisees to have Jesus “de-friended” last week in chapter 3. (3:22ff) Out there somewhere is a paralytic whose infirmity was healed after his sins were forgiven. Will he matter somehow in the kingdom of God? As what has happened to him grows on him and those like him, will it matter? A seed transforms utterly when, under the right conditions, it awakes and does what it is meant to do. These who have met with what Jesus has done in them, will they likewise transform and if they do, will it matter? As they go and tell what God has done for them, will they matter? Will their lives and ours speak to the presence of God?