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Pentecost 4, “God Grows His Garden”

Pastor Gary Wong June 28, 2020

Mark 4:26-34

26 He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain-- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come." 30 Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 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." 33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Do you like nursery rhymes? Even though I learned some in grade school, I didn’t really like them because I didn’t always understand them. For instance, one of the rhymes goes like this: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary—how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maidens all in a row.” Now the first part is pretty straightforward. This rhyme is about someone named Mary who seemed to have a hard time getting along with people. Mary also had quite the garden. But I couldn’t figure out what silver bells, cockle shells and pretty maidens all in a row had to do with a garden. Come to think of it, I couldn’t answer the question posed in this rhyme. San Francisco doesn’t have a lot of green space; so, I didn’t see a lot of gardens growing up. I didn’t see or realize that my morning Corn Flakes and Wheaties started as seeds growing in a field until I moved to the Midwest.

Today’s lesson speaks about gardens and fields. Jesus answers the question, “How does a garden grow?” Our Savior, however, isn’t talking about a vegetable garden or a field planted with crops; Jesus is talking about a spiritual garden and a harvest of souls. Jesus was talking about the kingdom of God. Jesus taught this lesson to a huge crowd from a boat near the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Those Jews were hard working, God fearing people who believed in the promise of a Savior. Even though Jesus had grown up in nearby Nazareth, he really didn’t make a big impression in his early years. People knew of him but didn’t know a lot about him. If we could have asked one of his contemporaries to tell us about our Savior, he might have said, “Sure—I know Jesus. He’s the oldest son of Joseph and Mary. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a carpenter, As far as looks go, he’s the spitting image of his mom. He’s kind, well spoken, and would never hurt a flea. Jesus never misses going to the synagogue. Other than that, I don’t know much about him; he kind of keeps to himself.”

Jesus, however, came out of the shadows when he turned thirty. That’s when this carpenter’s son turned rabbi began teaching and preaching in the synagogues and throughout Galilee. Jesus was not like other rabbis. Rather than focusing on the traditions of the elders, Jesus taught about the kingdom of God with authority. Jesus knew his Scriptures and showed himself to be a masterful teacher. Jesus had a way of relating to all people, regardless of their age, background, or schooling, and taught them in such a way that they could understand. One of Jesus’ favorite teaching tools was the parable—an earthly story with a divine meaning. Our lesson includes two of Jesus’ parables; both were about farming. Jesus knew his audience and he knew what stories would help them understand the spiritual truths he was teaching them. Most of the people living in that part of Galilee were either fishermen or farmers. Even if they weren’t farmers, everyone was familiar with the sight of a farmer cultivating his field, sowing the seed, and harvesting the crop. Jesus talking to the people of Galilee about farming is like talking to a Minnesotan about the snow and cold of winter and the heat and humidity of summer. Just as we get the weather, they got farming.

Jesus’ first parable is the familiar picture of a farmer sowing seeds. What does the farmer do after he sows the seed? In Jesus’ day, not a lot; other than weeding, the farmer’s work was pretty much done until it was time to harvest. Day after day, night after night, he got up in the morning and went to bed at night. Whether he was out in his fields or not, the crop kept growing. Eventually, he saw the blade, then the ear, and then the full grain in the ear. Even though he saw the crop grow right before his eyes, he really had nothing to do with the growing process. The crop grew because of the heat and light from the sun, the nutrients in the soil and the water that came from the sky. The farmer knew that he couldn’t take credit for any of those things—the soil, the sunshine, and the rain all come from God.

The fact that God is totally responsible for the growth of the seed is the point of Jesus’ parable. Jesus compares the simple, straightforward story of the growing seed to the deeper truth about the growth of God’s kingdom. From beginning to end, it’s all about God. Because of his love and only by his grace, God makes us members of his kingdom. Please understand. We don’t deserve nor enjoy the status of being God’s dearly loved children because of anything we’ve done or because of who we are. To the contrary, we were born outside of God’s kingdom. The Bible teaches that we were spiritually “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Because we were born sinners, we were useless, lifeless clods of dirt. Because of the sins we continuously commit day and night, we deserve to return to the dust of the ground from which we came. Like dead branches, we deserve to burn in the everlasting fires of hell.

Death and hell are what we deserve; fortunately, that’s not how God chose to deal with us. Rather than death, God chose to give us life. How? The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit works through God’s Word and the sacraments to create and strengthen faith. The gospel is the power of God for our salvation. Jesus taught Nicodemus that truth when he declared, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Jesus was talking about baptism. After the pastor (or any Christian) has applied water and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” that individual has new life in Christ. However, we can’t see any outward change in the person who was just baptized. Yet, all who witness a baptism have seen a miracle take place. Hymn 300 in Christian Worship accurately captures what happens in baptism: “Here we bring a child of nature; home we take a new born creature. Now God’s precious son or daughter, born again of Word and water” (CW 300 v.4). By the power of God’s Word connected with the water of baptism, all of that person’s sins have been washed away. The child who once was spiritually dead is now alive. He is a child of God and member of God’s kingdom. Through the invisible working of the Spirit, he has been given the priceless gift of faith.

The other means of grace by which God’s kingdom grows is God’s Word. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul declares, “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Ro. 10:17). In other words, the gospel, the good news that Jesus is our Savior from sin, also creates faith in an unbeliever’s heart. The writer to the Hebrews tells us, “The Word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). God’s Word has the power to turn stone cold hearts filled with sin into living hearts filled with the Spirit. I am living proof of that power. Some of you know that I became a Christian when I was 35 years old. At that time I had been taking a Bible Information Class taught by a WELS pastor. One day, I was home alone reading my Bible. To this day, I can’t tell you which book, chapter or verse I was reading when it happened. In an instant, I knew that Jesus was my Savior. An incredible feeling of joy and peace came over me. I knew, without a doubt, that I was God’s child and that heaven is my home. What caused this change? It was the quiet yet powerful whisper of the gospel that created faith in my heart.

After I came to faith, I was baptized to strengthen my faith, which is an important point of our lesson. What are we to do once the Holy Spirit has planted the seed of faith in our hearts? We use the means of grace to strengthen our faith. Our faith grows as we read, learn, and apply God’s Word to our lives. Parents teach their toddlers about Jesus by reading simple Bible stories. School age children learn about our Savior in Sunday School, while adults grow in their faith in adult Bible class and spending time in God’s Word at home. There’s more. Once God has made us members of his kingdom, he gives us roles to play in its growth. God gives us the privilege and joy of being sowers of his seed. As Jesus’ disciples, our Savior tells us to “go into the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mk. 16:15). God gives us the motivation and the tools to be a Peter or a Paul. Look around and we will see the people God has put in our lives with whom we can share the gospel.

The second parable about the mustard seed teaches us that the kingdom of God starts small. We don’t always see it grow. In fact, many more people may reject our message than believe it. We are often mocked and ridiculed for our beliefs. More and more, Christians are labeled as bigots and racists; speaking the truth of the Bible is called hate speech. In the face of growing opposition and a seeming lack of success, we may become discouraged and tempted to give up. These parables encourage us to continue to proclaim the gospel. God chooses the time and circumstances of when he brings people into his kingdom. He can harvest huge numbers as he did on the Day of Pentecost when three thousand men were baptized after hearing God’s Word. He can also grow his kingdom one soul at a time. He adds to his kingdom every time a baby is baptized. Then there are the late bloomers like me.

God’s kingdom grows much like a garden. Because of his love and by his grace, God has made us members through faith in Christ. Each of us now has a role in his kingdom. As St. Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6). As we faithfully proclaim the gospel, God’s kingdom grows. It starts off small, but eventually will become a huge multitude of believers praising God around his heavenly throne. Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Let’s ask the Lord of the harvest to send us into his fields so that there will be a rich harvest on the last day. Amen.

“Lord of the Living Harvest” (CW 559)

Text: John S. B. Monsell, 1811-75, abr., alt.

Lord of the living harvest That ripens o’er the plain,

Where angels will gather Their sheaves of golden grain,

Accept our hands to labor, Our hearts to trust and love,

And be with us to hasten Your kingdom from above.

As lab’rers in your vineyard, Lord give us work to do,

Content to bear the burden Of weary days for you,

To ask no other wages When you will call us home

Than to have shared the labor That makes your kingdom come.

Be with us, God the Father; Be with us God the Son

And God the Holy Spirit, Most blessed three in One.

Make us your faithful servants You rightly to adore,

And fill us with your blessing Both now and evermore.

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