WIND AND WAVES
(June 26, 2005, Sermon Notes)
Jesus said that God’s kingdom would grow from a mustard seed into a tree that shelters the world (Mk. 4:30-32). Now Jesus demonstrates that He has the power to overcome all obstacles to that kingdom’s growth.
JESUS’ REBUKE OF THE STORM (4:35-39)
On the day Jesus tells the parables, He leaves the crowds on the shore to cross, with His followers, to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Those who don’t have Jesus because they want to use Him lose Him, but those who do have Him get to receive more from Him (see Mk. 4:25).
The lesson begins en route. A great wind arises and the waves batter the boat. But Jesus is asleep on a pillow â€” like Jonah, yet without sin.
The disciples wake Him up. “Don’t you care that we’re being destroyed?” they ask, sounding a bit like the demons who expect Jesus to destroy them (Mk. 1:24). They want Jesus to help them bail. But Jesus rebukes the wind (like the demon in Mk. 1:25) and commands the sea to be peaceful. The “great wind” becomes a “great calm.”
This story echoes several others. In the beginning, God ruled the waters, separating them and causing dry land to appear. At the Exodus, He parted the Red Sea for Israel to cross through, which Ps. 77 describes as a triumph over the waters. Several psalms describe Yahweh as the one who calms the sea (Ps. 65:7, where the sea = Gentile world; 89:9; and esp. 107:23-32).
The same God who made the world and rescued Israel is backing Jesus’ mission. Jesus has His authority. He is the new Adam with dominion over all things, the new David who rules even the Gentiles, and He has the authority to calm the raging nations and advance His kingdom.
JESUS’ REBUKE OF THE DISCIPLES (4:40-41)
Jesus then asks the disciples why they are so fearful and how it is that they have no faith. The problem wasn’t that they called on Him; the problem was that they did so in unbelieving fear. Jesus has sent them on a mission, but they didn’t trust Him to protect them as they carried it out.
Jesus’ sleep isn’t just a demonstration of His trust in God; it’s also a test which exposes the disciples’ lack of faith. As in the Psalms, where God appears to be sleeping (Ps. 44:23) only later to wake up and rescue His people (Ps. 78:65), Jesus sleeps and then rises to help.
That’s what He’ll do later on. When the wicked rage like the storm, He’ll sleep in death. But when He rises, He’ll calm the storm and conquer the nations. Even after that, storms will arise. But Jesus calls us to trust Him and call on Him in faith. (In mercy, He hears and rescues â€” as He does here â€” even when we call in unbelieving fear.)
The disciples don’t respond in faith even after the rebuke. The “great wind” replaced by the “great calm” fills them with “great fear” of Jesus. They’re more afraid of Him than they were of the storm, it seems. They wonder who He can be if even the wind and sea obey Him. And Mark leaves us to answer that question.
A year ago today, I married an amazing woman and she has grown in beauty and glory since then. Happy first anniversary, Moriah! Your worth is far above rubies and my heart safely trusts you. Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all (Prov. 31:10, 29).
After several failed attempts and false starts, followed by a long hiatus when I didn’t read anything heavy at all, I’ve started reading John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory again. My repeated readings of the opening chapters haven’t been wasted, however: each time I read this stuff I get some more out of it.
This time through the Introduction, I was struck (not for the first time) by the ironic shift which Milbank describes in both contemporary political theology and modern social theory.
Contemporary political theologians, in part because they don’t fully subscribe to the faith once delivered anymore but also because they want to be able to cooperate with non-Christians in society, have tended to affirm the “scientific” and “humanistic” approaches of sociology, letting sociology define the problems and suggest the remedies and leaving “religion” to the side.
Meanwhile, modern social theory, under the influence of Nietzsche, has come to believe that there is no neutrality and that every view presupposes a “metanarrative” which is religious or mythical in nature. Indeed, Nietzsche’s own suspicion, Milbank notes, “embodies an ontology of power and conflict which is simply another mythos, a kind of re-invented paganism” (p. 2).
And here’s the irony:
An extraordinary contrast therefore emerges between political theology on the one hand, and postmodern and post-Nietzschean social theory on the other. Theology accepts secularization and the autonomy of secular reason; social theory increasingly finds secularization paradoxical, and implies that the mythic-religious can never be left behind. Political theology is intellectually atheistic; post-Nietzschean social theory suggests the practical inescapability of worship (p. 3).
All of this, by the way, sounds at times as if Milbank is channelling Van Til.
I’m pleased to be able to welcome one of my long-time friends, Glenda Mathes to the blogging world. I met Glenda when I was interning at First Christian Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, where she was the church secretary. She is an award-winning Iowa poet and now works as a freelance journalist.
Announcing the arrival of our daughter, Aletheia Rose Barach.
She was born on Saturday, June 11, 2005 at 9:28AM, weighing 8lbs 3oz and 20″ long. Aletheia and Mom are both doing well and are happy to be home. Moriah will be posting pictures shortly.
We’re very thankful to the Lord for this great blessing. Rejoice with us!
In His parable about the mustard seed (Mark 4:31-32), Jesus uses the language of Daniel 4 and Ezekiel 17 (and especially 17:22-23) to describe the amazing growth of the kingdom. It will become so large that the birds will seek shade in its branches.
But in Ezekiel 17, what grows into a huge tree is a cedar branch, whereas in Jesus’ parable, however, what grows is a mustard seed. It appears that Jesus is using slightly different imagery, but I wonder why. He doesn’t change the picture of what the kingdom will look like in the end (a huge plant, sheltering the birds) but He does use a different image for the beginning, an image that emphasizes the smallness and apparent insignificance of the starting point.
I’m not persuaded that Jesus is being ironic by depicting the kingdom, as Donahue and Harrington suggest, “not as a lofty cedar but as a mustard bush.” I certainly don’t think that Jesus’ imagery is meant to replace the imagery of Ezekiel 17, as if that earlier imagery was wrong. But perhaps Jesus is correcting some notions of what the kingdom would be like. If Israel thought that being a cedar tree meant being exactly like Babylon (Dan. 4) or the other nations of the world, then hearing the kingdom compared to a gigantic mustard bush might have been shocking.
Of course, the image that Jesus uses, the mustard seed, emphasizes the smallness of the beginning. Perhaps it was possible that when Israel heard the promise in Ezekiel 17, she prided herself on still being a cedar branch and so Jesus uses a different image to correct that pride. The point in Ezekiel’s parable is the same as that of Jesus: the essential nobility and kingdom-worthiness of Israel (“We’re a cedar tree!”) but the smallness and apparently unpromising character of the beginning.
Furthermore, that mustard seed is thrown down on the ground and then rises again. And that also corrects a false image of the kingdom. Ezekiel’s parable simply speaks of a return from exile, of a branch being transplanted into the soil of the Promised Land again. Jesus’ parable speaks of a seed being put in the ground and rising. The kingdom doesn’t simply start with a world conquest. It grows into a world empire because it starts with death and resurrection.
At the end of Mark 3, Jesus identifies two categories, insiders and outsiders. Those who are seated around Him are the insiders, the true members of His family. But those who do not come to Him and listen to Him are the outsiders, in spite of their physical relationship to Him. Mary and Jesus’ brothers are left outside while tax gatherers and others are inside.
That distinction is emphasized when Jesus starts telling parables. When His followers, with the twelve disciples, ask about the parables, Jesus tells them that they have been given to know the mystery of God’s kingdom, but “to those who are outside, all things come in parables.” The insiders get the knowledge; the outsiders get everything in parables. Jesus then goes on to explain the parable of the soil to His followers.
At the end of the parable section in Mark 4, Mark tells us again that Jesus did not speak to the crowds without using parables, but that He explained everything to His disciples. That is what we have already seen in this chapter: the outsiders got only the parable of the soil, but the insiders get the explanation, too.
As readers of this Gospel, we get the explanation of the parable of the soils, which suggests that we are being treated as insiders. But what about the other explanations? It sounds as if Jesus also explained His other parables â€” the parable of the seed’s growth (4:26-29), for instance, and the parable of the mustard seed (4:30-32) â€” but we don’t get to hear the explanation of those parables.
Why not? My guess is that Mark wants us to grow in wisdom so that we are able to figure these parables out on our own. And my further guess is that Mark wants us to realize that the explanation of these parables depends, not only on our knowledge of God’s previous revelation (which we call the Old Testament) but also on the rest of the story he’s telling, namely, the Gospel of Mark itself.
If we read the Gospel all the way to the end, we should realize, for instance, what it means for the kingdom to start like a seed being thrown down on the ground and then to rise in a new and more glorious form.
We should also realize what it means for the kingdom not to come all at once, for Israel not to be ready for the harvest but to need planting, and for there to be a period of slow growth before the sower sends out the sickle to reap the harvest. In fact, Mark probably assumes that we’ve read Matthew and we know that Jesus taught His disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out reapers (Matt. 9:37-38; cf. Luke 10:2).
The parables appear to be left unexplained, but Mark hasn’t left us in the position of outsiders who receive only parables. He also hasn’t simply handed everything to us so that we no longer need to struggle and grow. Rather, he treats us as insiders and gives us an explanation, but the explanation he gives is the rest of the story.
In Mark 4:21, Jesus tells the parable of the lamp: “The lamp does not come to be put under a basket or under a bed, does it? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? Because something is not hidden which will not be revealed nor does anything become hidden except that it might be manifest.”
Jesus appears to be talking about His own ministry: His coming is the coming of “the lamp,” which reveals the things that have been hidden and kept secret. Some things are hidden and secret now, Jesus is saying, and I take Him to be using what is sometimes called the divine passive: God hid these things and kept them secret. But they are hidden and secret for a time only so that later on they might be revealed. And Jesus is the light through whom these things are brought to light.
But when Jesus identifies Himself as “the lamp,” I wonder if He isn’t alluding to the menorah, the lampstand in the Holy Place, which is spoken of as “the lamp” frequently (cf. the LXX of Ex. 25:37 [2x]; 27:20; 30:8 [2x]; 37:19, 23; 39:37; 40:4, 25; Lev. 24:2, 4; Num. 4:9; 8:2 [2x], 3; 1 Sam. 3:3; 1 K 7:49; 1 Chr. 28:15; 2 Chr. 20, 21; 13:11; 2 Chr. 29:7; Zech. 4:2 [2x]).
In the Old Covenant, as Peter Leithart points out, the lamp was under a basket, namely, the tabernacle or the Temple itself. The light shone only on the Holy Place; it didn’t shine out into Israel and the rest of the world. God had hidden that light, but Jesus comes as the light. In and through Him, the light which once was hidden will shine out to the world, revealing what God had always purposed the mystery that was hidden and kept secret in the Old Covenant.
Jesus is also, I think, speaking about His own ministry. Jesus is the light, but He’s keeping His light under a basket for a while. He isn’t allowing demons to speak about Him. He is using parables instead of teaching in an open and straightforward way. For now, He’s David hiding from Saul and that necessitates some degree of secrecy. But He assures His disciples that one day all that was kept secret will be made plain. And so for now, they’re going to have to pay careful attention to what He says.
The other night, Moriah and I watched Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. It’s a thoughtful film, well written, nicely directed, and well worth your time. Moriah and I found ourselves discussing it several times over the next few days.
DARK SAYINGS: LIGHT, BASKETS, AND SEED
(June 5, 2005, Sermon Notes)
Jesus preached that God’s kingdom was near and that Israel had to repent and trust Him. When opposition arose, Jesus began to teach in parables, stories that often subverted Israel’s expectations of the kingdom.
THE REVELATION OF THE KINGDOM (4:21-25)
In the parables of the light and the baskets, Jesus may still be speaking privately to His followers (4:21, 24: “to them”).
Jesus says that “the lamp comes” to be put, not under a basket or bed, but on the lampstand because “nothing has been hidden that won’t be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret except that it might be manifest. Some things are hidden for a while, but only so that later they may be revealed. So the lamp too can’t stay hidden but must be put on the stand.
This parable might apply to the whole Old Covenant. Things were hidden â€” the lamp itself was under a basket (the tabernacle) â€” but now, in Jesus, the light is shining and God’s hidden plans are being revealed.
It also applies to Jesus’ ministry. Jesus acts and speaks in a mysterious way, because for now He’s like David hiding from Saul, but one day everything will be plain. And then the disciples will have to make sure that Jesus’ light shines out and isn’t hidden any longer.
To do that, we must listen. Jesus’ next parable is about baskets: the basket you use is the basket that God will use in giving to you. Those who listen to Jesus in faith will keep receiving more and more. Those who listen superficially get little and will eventually lose all the blessings they do have.
THE GROWTH OF THE KINGDOM (4:26-34)
In the next two parables, Jesus talks to the crowd about seed again. A sower (probably Jesus) scatters seed and while he sleeps and rises the seed does, too, growing up mysteriously “by itself” until the harvest.
The kingdom doesn’t come all at once. Israel herself isn’t ready for harvest. But seed is being planted and is growing up. Jesus will sleep and rise and so will His followers before the harvest comes. But it’s coming!
Jesus then invites the crowd to join Him in adopting the right image of the kingdom: “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?” The proper image is this: the kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed thrown on the ground and then growing into a huge bush that gives shade to birds.
The last half of that image is a familiar description of world empires and emperors (Dan. 4:10ff.; Ezek. 17:1-10, 22-24), but the first part was shocking. The kingdom would start as a tiny seed thrown on the ground. It would start, that is, with Jesus, like David hiding from Saul, and then dying. But from that seed comes a kingdom that gives shelter to the world.
The parables demand a choice. Only those inside hear the explanation and only those who submit to the king come inside. But all who measure with big baskets receive the kingdom and grow into a rich harvest.
In Mark 4:19, Jesus identifies the thorns that can choke the seed as “the concerns of this age, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things.” That first phrase is often translated “the cares of this world” (e.g,. NKJV), and is then understood to refer to various earthly concerns.
And it’s true that our various concerns as we live in this world can become thorns that choke the word. A passion for sports can keep you out of church on Sunday. Love for a family member can prompt you to leave the church when that ungodly family member is put under church discipline. Work can take over your life so that your big concern is getting ahead and not serving the Lord.
All of those things are true and I believe they are valid applications of Jesus’ warning in Mark 4. But I wonder if those things are the primary things Jesus has in mind. Jesus doesn’t speak here about the concerns of “earthly life” but of the cares or concerns of “this age.”
I suspect that phrase refers to the age of the Old Covenant. Old Covenant concerns can become a thorn that chokes the word, that keeps Jesus’ message from bearing fruit.
What are some of those Old Covenant concerns?
The land, for one. Israel is now back in the Promised Land and is passionately concerned about the land. But following Jesus will lead to a situation in which the land doesn’t matter anymore. Jesus even tells a rich man to sell his possessions, which, I suspect, would include the land that had been in his family for centuries. But in the New Covenant there would be no “Holy Land,” no inherited lots which had to remain in the family. And those who wanted to cling to the land â€” and especially those who resented the Roman presence in Israel as a threat to their Old Covenant inheritance â€” could allow that concern to keep them from following Jesus. The good news that the kingdom is here sounds great until one realizes that it doesn’t mean the elimination of the Roman threat and the restoration of your piece of turf.
The temple is another Old Covenant concern. In the Old Covenant, it was a valid concern. But zeal for the temple could lead to rejection of Jesus. If Jesus is seen as a threat to the temple, then away with Jesus! Concern for the temple can be a thorn that chokes the word.
In fact, all of the riches that Israel was enjoying in the Promised Land at this particular time could be thorns. If Israel began to believe that those riches were a sign that God was blessing her and that therefore she had no need to repent, then those riches become “deceitful.” They are misleading people, keeping them from doing what God wants them to do. Those who listen to the lies these riches tell let them choke the word.
What about “desires for other things”? I’m not sure. Perhaps it could refer to the desires for the things that the Gentiles have. Perhaps it’s just a more general phrase, to indicate that Jesus’ warning doesn’t concern only the “cares of this age” or “the deceitfulness of riches,” but encompasses any of our desires for things other than the word. Thus, it would lead to the ordinary applications mentioned above: Jesus and His Word must take precedence over all the other concerns of our lives.
In his lectures on the theology of Mark’s Gospel, Jeff Meyers points out that the parable of the soils does not indicate that a person can be only one sort of soil his whole life long. Rather, you can be one sort of soil at one time and another at another.
The evidence is found in the text of Mark’s Gospel. As I mentioned in my sermon notes a couple of days ago, Peter has been receiving Jesus’ word but when Jesus begins to talk about His suffering and death Peter suddenly acts as if he’s the path. The word doesn’t sink in. Satan snatches it away. In fact, Jesus even refers to Peter as “Satan,” perhaps because Peter, like Satan, is trying to snatch the seed away from others as well.
Or consider what happens with all the disciples in the end. Though they all received Jesus’ word gladly in many ways, when persecution arose â€” when Jesus was arrested and they all feared for their lives â€” they all abandoned Jesus. Jesus knew they would. In Mark 14:27, He said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of me this night.” That word “stumble” is the same word Jesus uses when He explains the parable in Mark 4: those who are rocky soil “stumble” when persecution arises (4:17). That’s what all the disciples did, which implies that at this point all the disciples were behaving as rocky soil.
But Jesus then restored His disciples (though not Judas, whose growth was choked out by the thorns in his life, 4:18-19) so that they bore fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred. And every believer can be confident that, even though he falls in various ways and responds sometimes as a wrong sort of soil, God will make him and preserve him as good soil so that he bears a rich crop for God.
But because the parable is not describing four unchangeable situations, four static soils, but rather describes four responses of which we, as believers, are still capable, it ought to warn all of us to receive the word properly, to keep responding in faith, to hang on to the word, to be good soil so that we do bear fruit.