Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13 | Psalm 20 | 2 Corinthians 5:6–17 | Mark 4:26–34
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 2 Corinthians 5:16.
The Kingdom of God is so often not what we expect.
Today in our reading from Mark’s Gospel, we heard two parables of Jesus which can help us start to grasp and think about God’s Kingdom. Both involve seeds being sown… and growing in due time. A farmer plants, waits patiently, and harvests when the grain is ripe. A tiny mustard seed grows into a surprisingly large plant. Familiar images, reminding us of the mystery of life that surrounds us every day. The miracles we often look down on, because they seem so common.
It can be easy for us at first glance to assume we know what these parables mean. They sound a lot like other proverbs and words of wisdom that we know: like “everything comes to those who wait”… or “from a tiny acorn comes a mighty oak”. Sayings meant to teach us about the importance of virtues like patience, and hope. But there’s more going on in these parables of Jesus than abstract moral lessons. He’s not simply offering words of wisdom for human life in general… He’s inviting us to rethink our own visions of God’s New Life… to catch a glimpse of how the Living God is at work in the world bringing about His Kingdom in unexpected ways.
To help us understand what’s going on in these parables, let’s turn to our other readings today from 1 Samuel and 2 Corinthians.
In first Samuel, we heard about Israel’s first royal transfer of power. Last week we heard how Israel demanded God give them a king like all the other nations, and so a man named Saul was chosen to lead them as their king. But now, despite his impressive and royal appearance, Saul had proven to be unfaithful, so the LORD sent Samuel the prophet to go to Bethlehem, to the house of a man named Jesse, and anoint one of his sons as another king for God’s people. But as the prophet admired the kingly look of Jesse’s eldest son, “the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Again, this sounds like another well known proverb: “don’t judge a book by its cover”. But the point here is not that Samuel simply needs to set aside his own prejudices (though that may have been worthwhile advice). The point is that the Living God who alone looks on and knows all hearts, was going to choose a king for His people, and Samuel was called to trust in God’s choice… even if that choice was not what he had expected.
As the story goes on, we hear that seven of Jesse’s sons are passed over, until the least among them, the youngest, a boy named David is summoned… and chosen. Overlooked by his father, less impressive than his older brothers, the LORD draws David into His kingdom: from tending his father’s flocks, to shepherding all God’s people… the LORD unexpectedly transformed David’s life forever. This story highlights a pattern that flows throughout all of the Scriptures: God delights in choosing to work through humble and unexpected people… drawing them into His kingdom to take part in His New Life.
Turning now to the second letter to the Corinthians, again we find God’s kingdom is revealed in unexpected ways. There is a lot packed into this passage that we won’t have the chance to discuss this morning, but there are a few crucial points that I think are important to highlight. The first is simply St. Paul’s relationship with the Christians in Corinth. Though he has spent much time and energy trying to build up their faith and love, it seems from his letters that St. Paul was not as impressive as many of them would have liked… not as charismatic, or flashy, as they wanted their leaders to be. But rather than trying to convince them of his own credentials or worthiness as an apostle, St. Paul points them instead to the Good News of Jesus, and the New Reality that it opens up for everyone.
2 Corinthians 6:14, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them”.
At the core of their faith (and ours!) is not a charismatic leader or gifted speaker… it is the love of Christ, who gave His life on the cross, dying and rising again for us all. Like a seed sown in the ground, Jesus chose to face the grave for us, but instead of it being the end, He turned it into a brand new beginning. Unexpectedly… through His death on the cross the Risen Jesus brings us New Life. God’s New Life, which changes how we see everything… and everyone.
Verses 16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” One of the implications St. Paul sees coming from the Gospel is that what Jesus has done for us changes how we must see each other… and even ourselves. Because of the new, unexpected reality Christ brought about in His resurrection, our old ways of seeing and treating each other must give way to God’s love: not based on outward appearances, or our natural preferences… but on what Christ has done for us all… and what He is still doing… drawing us into His kingdom through His Spirit at work in us.
St. Paul had already begun to have his life transformed by the Gospel. He had once been a fierce enemy of the Church, until he encountered the Risen Lord… who changed his life forever, and sent him to go share the Good News with the world. More than anyone, St. Paul understood that trusting in the Risen Jesus changes how we see and treat the people in our lives. It’s not just a private belief… it’s the seeds of a whole new way of life… being planted in our hearts, and meant to bear fruit in all we do. It may not happen overnight… but the Gospel is meant to change us… to make us ready and able to actually live God’s way in the world. N.T. Wright puts it this way: “Paul had originally regarded even the Messiah in the old, prejudiced way. Now he was challenging the Corinthians to see everyone, himself included, not by the standards of their prevailing culture but in the light of the Messiah in whom all things had become new.” God’s new creation is to be found right here, in our common life. Though it may seem at times insignificant in the story of our wider world, Christ turns our lives, our actions, our words… how we see and treat those around us… into seeds of His New Creation, through His Holy Spirit at work in us.
We’ve come a long way from Mark chapter 4, and the two parables we started with, but these passages from 1 Samuel and 2 Corinthians help us to see how these parables fit into God’s story:
First off, they do not stand alone… they point us to Jesus… to God’s Kingdom coming about at last, in and through Him. In Mark’s Gospel, even early on, Jesus was facing opposition. Last week we heard how the religious leaders, and even His family doubted Him… imagining God’s kingdom to look quite different from what He was up to. But this is exactly how God’s Kingdom comes about… surprisingly, unexpectedly, growing from what others might see as inconsequential beginnings… in ways that we are not able to predict, God’s New Creation was coming about. As God had chosen David, not because of appearances, but with an eye to his heart, his faithfulness, so Jesus, God’s Son was sent, even if he was not what other’s expected, to faithfully fulfill God’s rescue mission: drawing us into the action as well, to share in His New Creation.
Remember: God delights in choosing to work through humble and unexpected people… like King David… like St. Paul… the other Apostles… and you and I!
Can we believe that the Living God wants to work through people like us to share His kingdom? Can we believe that the New Creation Jesus has brought to life through His death and resurrection can take root and grow in our lives? Can we believe that the Spirit of God we claim is at work in us can do infinitely more than we could ask or even imagine?
The parables in Mark invite us to plant our faith firmly in Jesus; to trust that in Him, God’s kingdom and New Creation are truly coming about… even if we cannot always see it’s fruit ‘til the time is ripe. To trust that the seeds Christ is sowing, in our actions and our lives, might seem small, but in His faithful power can make a world of difference. To trust that when we are tempted to look down on others, or even look down on ourselves, God’s New Creation in Jesus Christ is truly meant for everyone… drawing us all into the love of God, beyond all expectations.
We have more than words of wisdom, or popular proverbs to rely on. We have the hope that comes from the Good New of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. And in Him, we can share in God’s kingdom and New Life, even today.
I’ll end now with a poem that I think sums up this sermon well. It’s called “A Penny in God’s Pocket”.
A penny in God’s pocket
Of infinitesimal insignificance;
Almost perfectly pointless.
Hidden, not forgotten.
As holy fingers play.
Toying with this secret
Tossed by all the rest.
A penny in God’s pocket.
Almost nothing at all,
But held by One
Who makes all out of nothing.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 78–79.