Every week, I spend a lot of time editing my sermon and every week I boil it down even more to about 5 minutes. I’m talking about preparing the children’s message. One person told me that he always likes the children’s message because it gives him an idea in a nutshell of what the sermon is going to be about. Children’s sermons often get high-jacked by the children but their intent is to bring the message down to a simple message with an illustration.
In a certain sense that is what Jesus does when he teaches here. He takes huge realities and boils them down to a simple picture so that his listeners can grasp what he is saying. Here Jesus brings the message of the kingdom of God down to us in 3 short children’s messages so that we can grasp it. Jesus explains the main message of the kingdom in Mark 4:21-34.
This illustration is very simple: a lamp is not intended to be placed under a bowl or under a bed but on a stand where it can illuminate the whole room. Now Jesus literally says, “Does the lamp come for the purpose of being placed under a bowl or under the bed? Does it not come for the purpose of being placed on a lampstand?” Now we know that if we call to a lamp to “come,” it will stay right there. Lamps, being inanimate, do not come but are brought and that is why it is translated that way in many translations. Jesus is speaking clearly of himself as the lamp that has been lit and has come.
Moreover, Jesus speaks of “the” lamp, not “a” lamp. The parable of the lamp points specifically to Jesus and is not just a bit of folk wisdom about lamps in general. In this parable, Jesus is making a statement about himself and his mission in the coming kingdom. A man would not light a clay lamp to hide its light under a bowl. In the same way, God has not brought the kingdom in the person of Jesus for the purpose of hiding his divinity and dignity. A day is coming when Jesus will be known by all as the one who brings the kingdom.
The first part of this parable highlights the benefits of listening carefully. If this rich word of Jesus is accepted with joy, then in like measure a rich measure will be received when the kingdom is fully revealed and even more! The second coming of Jesus will result in a salvation far richer than anyone can possibly anticipate. The second part carries the thought one step further: what will ultimately be received in the Kingdom of God will depend upon how a person possesses it now. The one who believes will receive from the Lord Jesus in double measure. But the one who refuses the word will receive even more loss; whatever he had will be taken from him.
Interestingly, Mark alone records the little parable of the growth of the seed. With its reflection on sowing, growth and harvest it may have been a further development of the parable of the sower in verses 1-20. In the parable of the sower, significant attention was given to both sowing the seed and the resistance and obstruction encountered by the seed. In contrast, this parable of the seed is oriented to the power released through the actual seed.
The emphasis is the powerful force that the kingdom of God unleashes! Between the planting and the harvest, something amazing happens. The seed germinates, sprouts and matures in a mysterious manner that goes almost unnoticed, which is emphasized in the “does not know how.”
The point is that the kingdom of God comes mysteriously, by God’s initiative and without human intervention. Moreover, there will certainly be a harvest in spite of the farmer’s temporary inactivity because the power is in the seed. The seed which is sown is the authoritative proclamation of Jesus. The proclamation of the gospel is the promise and pledge of the ultimate realization of the kingdom; it comes mysteriously, but irresistibly. Moreover, the kingdom comes in ways that don’t make sense to most in the world.
In this last parable Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. In Jewish thought the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds. So the contrast is between the smallest of the seeds and tallest of the shrubs. The kingdom is compared to what happens to the mustard seed. The birds of the air add to the picture of just how great the plant has now become. Though insignificant in the beginning, the matured bush provides strength and protection for those who come and find safety in its branches.
The parable is a picture of the kingdom as seen in Jesus’ person. Jesus’ appearance may be characterized by weakness and apparent insignificance, but remember the mustard seed! The day will come with the kingdom of God will surpass in glory the mightiest kingdoms of the earth. The kingdom of God seemed to have a very meager beginning. It was just one renegade rabbi followed by a rag-tag group of men. In the world’s eyes, this movement was as insignificant as could possibly be.
In his book The New Conspirators, Tom Sine talks about the meager beginnings of this kingdom. It begins with a baby born in a stall in a tiny village in the Roman Empire. But Jesus’ empire would be utterly different from any other empire. Sine writes, “It came on a donkey’s back. Its ‘imperial council’ was comprised of a handful of unemployed fishermen, a couple of I.R.S. agents, prostitutes and some other hangers-on. Jesus demonstrated how to wield his imperial power by washing feet, telling stories and playing with kids. Jesus’ empire is based on the absurd values that the last should be first, losers are winners and the most influential in this empire should clean toilets... The resources to run this empire were basins, towels and leftover lunches. This empire also developed a reputation for constant partying – almost always with the wrong kind of people.”
Sine concludes, “Seriously, is this any way to run an empire? Imagine what would happen if you ran a political, economic or even a religious institution with these bizarre values. Clearly it wouldn’t have much of a future. These values might even get the leader assassinated. It is essential we remember that this unlikely empire is destined to defeat the evil that victimizes our lives and brutalizes God’s world.”
Mark concludes this group of parables with a summary statement which indicates that he has selected illustrations of Jesus’ teaching from many other parables. Through the means of parables Jesus was proclaiming God’s word. Jesus spoke the word as the multitude was able to hear it. And Jesus adapted it to the level of understanding that he found in his listeners. In contrast, Jesus explained “all things” to his own disciples. There is mystery to the multitude but revealing and disclosure to his disciples. Not until the resurrection would it be revealed fully to all people.
Let’s recognize our influence in the world around us as seen in the light on the stand. We have the power of light within us in a world often darkened by sin. When the electricity goes out during the night there is little we can do in the dark if you have no light. If you try to read... well, it just doesn’t work because you cannot see the words. But when light is shined in that darkness, you can do read and understand! We are that powerful light in a sin-darkened world. We are to bring the light of Christ into the world so that people can understand and find life, purpose and meaning. It is only in Jesus that things in life can make sense. It is only in Jesus that people can look at the world and understand it or at least know that there is more to life than just what we see.
I have been watching a video course on photography and the instructors have been saying over and over that too many people put their cameras away right after sunset. In fact, they said that after sunset is one of the best times to take photographs because the ambient light from the sun still is reflecting on the sky and that reflected light puts a beautiful light on the world around us. We are the reflected light of Christ shining in the darkness and while it may seem pretty dark, we are the best light for others to see things as they really are.
You see, we have the power of the kingdom of God in us and we can influence those in our church body and in our own communities in beautiful ways! Through teaching or encouraging or just by being there and letting others see what a disciple of Jesus Christ does. The kingdom is here and it’s growing because God is using us to help it grow. Let’s be that powerful light that reflects Jesus’ light into this world.