Sermon, September 18, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade

The Shade of the Mustard Seed
Mark 4:21-5:43

This morning during the praise choruses we heard and sang about three short parables of the kingdom (the lamp and two parables of seeds). And now weÕve heard three demonstrations of JesusÕ power (the peace of the water; the pigs in the water; and the president of the synagogueÕs daughter). Actually, there are four or five miracles of power in these texts, but Mark sandwiches a couple of them inside of other, larger stories, so in MarkÕs narrative it comes out in three stories.

Three callings of disciples at the beginning of the gospel, interspersed with three entries into houses. And now that Jesus has begun teaching, we have three short parable passages and three passages of miraculous power. Are we beginning to figure out what number might be MarkÕs favorite?

ItÕs a lot of text to cover. One of the consequences of trying to get through the whole gospel in time to start our Fire & Reign Emphasis in January is that occasionally we have to tackle some larger sections of text. We could probably do a sermon apiece on each of these three parables and three miracles of power. But they all six also fit together with a single message and sometimes itÕs good to see how larger segments of the book work as a unit. I hope that dividing it up into smaller pieces has helped to make the parts of the unit identifiable.

It should be fairly easy to see that all three of the short parables make the very same point, each in their own way.  A lamp might be in a secret place for a while -- under a basket, under the bed--, but it doesnÕt come to its purpose until it finally goes up on a lampstand and fills up the whole room with light. It may be secret for a while, but when it arrives at its purpose high up on the lampstand then its big and illuminating and not a secret at all.

Seeds get planted in the ground and one sees them about as well as a lamp thatÕs hidden under the bed. Day after day, night after night, the gardener or the farmer goes about his cultivating and weeding without seeing anything that is going on under the ground. Finally, all by itself (the Greek word there is ÒautomateÓ), the seed sends up a blade, then an ear, and finally a full field of harvest. From inconspicuous little seeds to big, fruitful harvest, and the growth is all the miraculous, but natural and inevitable work of God.

Third, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Small. Proverbially small. But the plant it produces can become one of the largest garden plants. So big it can even provide branches and shade for birds to enjoy. Small when you see its beginnings, but impressively large and fruitful when you see what it is destined to become.

All three parables remind us that there are little things, obscure things, inconspicuous things, secret things, that donÕt give you the whole picture, that donÕt tell you the rest of the story, when thatÕs all youÕre looking at.

Now, notice how thatÕs a theme that continues to run through all three of the passages about miraculous power, too.

The disciples are out in a boat with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee and a huge windstorm comes up. The Sea of Galilee lies about 700 ft below sea level and nearby to the northeast Mt Hermon rises up 9200 ft above sea levels. The exchange of cold air from the mountain and warm air rising from the sea causes frequent gale-force storms in that region. The word Mark uses for storm here is one you could use for a hurricane.

So picture the scene there in vv.35 to the end of ch. 4. A hurricane whips over a helpless bunch of people huddling down below sea level. And the disciples are terrified for their lives. We have recent reason to understand why! And then in another interesting parallel, the powers that you are counting upon to help appear to be sleeping. The evacuating busses are left to be flooded in their parking lot. The local emergency plans are going ignored. Jesus is down inside the boat sleeping on a pillow! The disciples are shaking him and asking him, DonÕt you even care that weÕre perishing?

But despite all the initial appearances that no help is coming and that Jesus doesnÕt care, that is not the whole picture; that is not the rest of the story. Calmly, confidently, Jesus comes up from the hull of the boat and rebukes the wind and the wind obeys. Peace prevails. There is a great calm. And a vital, key question that expresses the secret -- the one at the heart of the parables and the one at the heart of MarkÕs Gospel: Who is this man, that even the wind and sea obey him?

In chapter 5, Mark relates for us two more stories of the miraculous power of Jesus at work, a power that comes unexpectedly out of its unnoticed place in the obscurity of the noise and the din of the crowds or the confusion of a possessed man hollering and beating himself with rocks among the tombs.

In 5:1-20 we hear this well-known account of Jesus coming to a man possessed of a legion of demons. Not just one demon, but a hurricane of demons had taken possession of this poor soul. Chains couldnÕt bind him, shackles couldnÕt hold him. Read v.5: ÒNo one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.Ó

Night and day. The very same phrase that was used of the farmer waiting for his seeds to turn into a fruitful harvest. Do you think Mark wants us to see a connection here between a parable of constant waiting for something that is miraculous that we donÕt yet see and this manÕs waiting night and day among the tombs for some way to be free of his torments -- some way to come out of the tombs! I think Mark is making that connection between the parables and JesusÕ miraculous powers pretty deliberate and plain for us.

Just like he rebuked the wind and the sea, Jesus rebukes the legion of demons that are tormenting this man, and they obey him. This whirlwind of demons comes out of the man and enters a herd of pigs, and the pigs go charging down the hill into the water and are drowned. There is so much power on display here that people from the country and even from as far as the city come out to see this man sitting as calmly as the peaceful sea after Jesus rebuked the hurricane. And the reaction in both cases is the same: so much untamed power is on display that v.15 says Òthey were afraid.Ó

The secret about ready to break out of the ground and blossom into a powerful harvest only grows more pressing: Who is this man, that even the wind and the sea and a thousand demons obey him. As the healed demoniac goes home to proclaim how much Jesus had done for him, everyone who witnessed the miracle is still marvelling at the end of the account in v.20.

And then comes the third and the greatest miracle of them all. First the blade, and then the ear. Now the full harvest is about to appear. Jesus is going to give life to the dead.

Jairus, the ruler or president of the synagogue, a man of status in the Jewish community approaches Jesus with a situation that appears almost hopeless. His daughter is dying. He has heard of JesusÕ power, and he pleads with him to come and help his poor little girl.

Before Jesus gets to JairusÕs house, another female approaches him, unseen, from behind, and touches his garment in hopes of being healed. She is like JairusÕs daughter, almost hopeless: having a discharge of blood for twelve years, just exactly as long as v.42 says the girl had been alive; having suffered much under many physicians, having spent all she had trying to get well, having gotten no better, but actually going from bad to worse. She was as much at the end of her resources as the little girl was of hers.

By the end of both of these sandwiched stories, Jesus had transformed both their apparently hopeless situations into life and health in the presence of amazed onlookers who have to be asking themselves, Who is this man, that even the wind and the sea and a thousand demons and even life and death itself obey him? Who is this man?

But the demons know the answer (5:7): This man is the Son of the Most High God. And the healed demoniac knew the answer to the secret (5:19-20): When Jesus told him to go home and tell everyone what the Lord had done for him, and how he had mercy on him, he went away telling everyone how much Jesus had done for him.

This morning I want to draw just three conclusions from these three parables and three portrayals of power in the texts weÕve looked at.

The first conclusion is that the answer to the secret at the heart of Jesus parables is this: In the person of this man Jesus, the seed of the Kingdom of God that God had planted in Israel so long ago was now beginning to push through the soil. The Messiah, the King of the Kingdom, was here.

The lamp under the bed, the seed hiding in the ground, the mustard seed in all its almost microscopic tinyness: these are all pictures of Jesus, himself. We might be tempted to read the lamp like Òthis little light of mineÓ that I shouldnÕt hide under a bushel, but let it shine. And it might refer to my witness for Jesus by some extension. But Jesus is talking first about himself.

This is especially clear from the unusual way he talks about the lamp in 4:21. Most of the English translations smooth this over by saying, Òa lamp (or a candle) is brought  in.Ó But Jesus says literally, Òa lamp does not come in to be put under a basket.Ó Who is it in MarkÕs gospel that weÕve found Òcoming inÓ to houses to bind strong men and illumine dark places and plunder goods? The light of the world is Jesus. The seed of the harvest that will be the Reign of God is Jesus.

So why does Jesus talk about himself as hid under a basket or as seed plowed under the ground, or as a mustard seed, so small one can barely see it? Because in JesusÕ time, the people of Israel to whom he came and to whom he had been promised had been hearing GodÕs promise of a kingdom and they were looking for that kingdom to be as bright as the sun and as full as an enormous field of grain, and as mighty as an oak tree. And so they were unprepared to recognize their king when he was born in a cattle feeder and grew up in an obscure village in Galilee and worst of all was executed as an enemy of the state.

Jesus was warning those who had eyes to see and ears to hear not to miss the big picture, not to neglect the rest of the story. The humanness of Jesus, and the offense of the cross are not arguments against Jesus being the hope of the world. As Paul reminded the Corinthians in our call to worship, ÒGod chooses what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.Ó  (1 Cor 1:21) ÒIt pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.Ó

The secret at the heart of Jesus parables is that the Messiah, the King of the Kingdom, was here in the person of Jesus Christ.

The second conclusion is an extension of the unexpected obscurity and humanness of Jesus the Messiah. By his parables and his miracles of power, Jesus means for us to understand that: When the storms in our lives seem severe and the Reign of God seems remote, the smallness of the seed we see today is not evidence against the greatness and the certainty of the coming harvest.

Hurricanes may strike on lakes that lie below sea level, and Jesus may appear to be asleep. But there is still no cause to fear. The Master of the wind and the sea is on board. If he is at rest, we can rest.

A thousand demons may torment your life today or make you feel as if youÕre already living among the tombs. As it did for the demoniac at Gerasa, Jesus may allow you to cry out and be bruised with your shackles night and day for years. At the right time, when weÕre ready to proclaim how much the Lord has done for us and how he has mercy on us, the power of Christ is sufficient to send our unclean spirits crashing to the bottom of the sea, along with all the unclean animals we may have spent our life tending.

Even death is no object against the power of the Messiah. Death takes nothing away from the promises of God. The body they may kill. GodÕs truth abideth still. And his kingdom is forever. Some day when every earthly hope gives out and death appears to be taking the upper hand, weÕll hear JesusÕ words over us: Talitha Cumi! Rise! Enter the Kingdom of God.

One may not see the whole harvest in the field yet. But one could have the confidence of every farmer that when seed goes into the soil, the eventual outcome, even if we donÕt know how it comes about, is that a crop of plants is going to follow.

The third conclusion I want to draw from these six texts we have looked at this morning follows as an application from the first two conclusions. The certainty and greatness of the harvest that is promised in and despite the smallness of the seed that we see means that we walk by faith and not by sight. And that doesnÕt mean timidly and fearfully because we canÕt know that anything good is coming. It means confidently and restfully because although the seed grows by itself, and we, the farmer donÕt see the crop yet, we know it is planted and we know the harvest is coming. Big. Majestic. Trustworthy.

Do not fear! Only believe!