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Sermon – Fourth Sunday of Pentecost

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Sermon Preached by Reverend Michael Hillier on Sunday, 16 June 2024.

Mark 4.26 – 34

I recall a moment here in Adelaide many years ago in a lecture by Bill Hybels, the senior pastor at the Willows Creek Community Church in Chicago. Though he spoke at length, his words were overshadowed by a particular story about articulating one’s faith in unexpected situations.

Hybels was holidaying with his wife on a small boat in the Caribbean. Just over the way, moored for the night, was a massive yacht with guests. Hybels and his wife were invited for pre-dinner drinks and rowed their dinghy across.

They spent a pleasant hour or so mingling with the others on the yacht, and in the conversation, it came up that he was a church pastor. The time came for them to leave, and his wife clambered down the rope ladder and into their dinghy first. Then he followed. The other guests, with their cocktails, were all lined up and looking down from the rail above.

Just as he got one foot into the dinghy with the other foot still on the rope ladder, one of the guests above called out to him, saying, ‘Hey Bill, what’s a Christian?’

What do you say when you’re in that position, one foot in the dinghy and one foot on the rope ladder, and the sea fills the gap beneath you? It might be added that these guests were in drinking mode and not looking for a lengthy answer. It was more a polite question but still a curious one.

So, what can we learn from this situation? It’s not just a story; it’s a lesson in the importance of understanding our beliefs and being able to express them, even in unexpected situations. It’s about having some reserved thoughts we can draw upon when needed. The specific words may vary, but the key is to be prepared.

The story came to mind as I thought about today’s Gospel reading. I don’t want to dwell on the yachting tale, but it does emphasise the importance of knowing what we believe, why we believe it, and why it is important to us. Just a few simple, straightforward talking points: it’s not about us becoming theologians or biblical scholars. Even I would fail that test!

I thought of it in trying to puzzle out why Mark chose to include these two particular parables—of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed becoming a large bush—rather than other parables. He tells us in verse 33 that Jesus spoke many such parables, so why choose to include these particular ones rather than others? Also, He only spoke to the crowds by telling a story. Why? So, let’s explore this puzzle to see what we might learn, beginning with why He told stories.

Jesus was an extremely bright, perceptive thinker with a sharp debating mind. He could be very gentle and homely with the ordinary person genuinely seeking. But with those trying to score points or put Him down, well, you would come off second best, if not third.

He had thought out His approach to proclaiming the gospel’s good news. He also knew that most people needed help with the finer points of philosophy and would become lost in abstract arguments, ending up none the wiser. But He knew that people remember stories, particularly stories that continue to bubble away in people’s minds as they try to figure them out. You can always tell it’s a good movie or drama series when you continue to think about its storyline later.

So, He told stories that grew from everyday life in a rural setting and spoke to people’s lives. In short, they could identify with what He was saying. But why these two?

This is why the Hybels story that I began with is similar. Jesus and Hybels had thought out beforehand what they would say and their approach. I don’t mean the exact wording, but how they would respond in a general sense if a particular situation arose. Let me leave Hybels and focus on Jesus, His approach, and His intentions in telling these two stories: the seed grows quietly, with people unaware, and the mustard seed grows into a great bush.

If He had chosen, Jesus could have had a lovely time for three years doing Ministry. He could have told stories, offered wise words at appropriate moments, and healed a few people. In other words, He could have filled up space and still ended up as one of the great figures of history.

But He chose to do things differently. Yes, he did say His task was to do the will of his Father. But He had also clearly considered how He would conduct His ministry and how it would unfold. Indeed, the Temptations at the beginning of His ministry had to do with this. And these two parables today fit in with this thinking.

With these two parables, people don’t have to do anything; they don’t have to change
themselves; instead, they have to notice how the truth of these parables works out in their lives both now and in the days to come. So let me draw out some points to see this, beginning with the first, the seed growing secretly.

Curiously, there is nothing about the man having to plough and nothing about struggling with drought and storms. Instead, the man sleeps. And then, at the end, we notice that when the grain is ripe, the man goes in with his sickle for the time of harvest has come. This is a direct reference to Joel 3.13, which speaks of the coming Day of the Lord when God restores His people and pours His spirit upon them after they have endured much.

The temptation is always to think that what we do counts (and at one level, it does). So we try to force the situation, making a mess of it. Back then, the Zealots, like the Islamic State today or the Russian Revolution, tried to force things, two of which were intended as apocalyptic events.

Some were determined to violently force the hand of God and bring about the End. Or, again, think how the Pharisees thought they could bring about the End by completely obeying the law.

But like children, we are meant to have a carefree attitude, trust God and His purposes for us, and know He is working out His plan of salvation. It is not up to us. It is up to God. This is not a sign that we don’t have our part to play. But trusting God is the key. This is an overarching point that Jesus was to make clear.

And we will misunderstand the End anyway, just as the Jews in the time of the prophet Joel did, for they thought the End was to restore the fortunes of Israel. God had then and has even now a larger view than this.

Then, briefly, the parable of the mustard seed becoming the greatest of all shrubs with the birds sheltering in its shade. This has echoes of Ezekiel and Daniel. They speak of a great kingdom with other nations sheltering in its shade. Like we do with the USA. Perhaps Jesus is thinking of a time when all nations shall be gathered into God’s Kingdom, sheltering in its shade. From small beginnings, great things come!

What might that say to us and our parish? What might come from the tiny seeds of mission we plant in numerous ways within the parish? Just plant those seeds and leave the rest to God.

In conclusion, think deeply about what your Christian faith means to you and be ready to articulate confidently how you and our parish can live that out. Give it your all, have faith in God, and let Him take care of the rest, for growth happens mysteriously and is up to Him.