Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 14th June
“Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear”.
Remember the old children’s chorus? “Things I would ask him to tell me if he were here”. The stories Jesus tells – his parables – are so full of meaning that they can be understood in many different ways – a bit like the combination of notes that make up a chord of music. You can hear the main note of a melody line – (in this case) - that seeds grow quietly and unassumingly in the dark and even the tiniest seeds can produce big bushes (that’s the straightforward, simple meaning – the melody if you like) - but there’s so much more to pick out if you can hear harmonies – and like the people in Jesus’ day, we have to learn how to listen to the other things going on, the other levels.
What we have come to appreciate (I hope) is that the nature of Jesus’ teachings need to be appreciated just as subversive and revolutionary in the present day as they would have been in the ancient near east two thousand years ago. Things are not always as they first seem, and a seemingly innocent story about the workings of nature perhaps belies its original impact – which is why we need the help of commentaries and commentators who help us understand what Jesus would have been getting at back then. But of course there’s no missing the main point which compares the smallness of the seed to the greatness of the results produced (especially when God gives the increase). So let’s have a quick look at that first.
In our day where ‘big is best’, we can easily believe that as a small gathering of God’s people we are not significant or that we don’t have a central role to play in bringing forth God’s Kingdom. And we’re in good company if you consider how it all started. The Kingdom movement Jesus inaugurated probably seemed pretty insignificant to those looking in from the outside. There was nothing magnificent or grand about what Jesus and his small band of 12 disciples represented. Christianity, nor about the dusty backwaters around Galilee. So one thing we can say for sure is that the message had small and obscure beginnings.
But there was such potential for Kingdom building from such a small start. In Jesus’ story, shocking results came from a small seed that was expected to yield nothing.
So we should never think of ourselves as being too insignificant to make a difference. It may seem at first glance that we’re not really having an effect (and there are some weeks when it’s tough to just keep going – when numbers drop off – when nobody seems very fussed about things), but if we continue to sow the smallest of seeds and repeat the process faithfully, soon we can see the effects of our small beginnings being repeated and results becoming more noticeable.
Okay – so “mighty oaks from little acorns grow” as the saying goes: there comes a greater potential than what you would expect – but is that all that Jesus is saying? What about the source of any growth? We shouldn’t miss the point that seeds are being scattered by Someone with questionable face value – at least in terms of those listening to Jesus himself. Ministry from this little-known young Galilean rabbi doesn’t look much like the kingdom the Jews had all been expecting and hoping for.
Let’s not forget that what the gospel writers are trying to telling us is that Yahweh himself is back walking on his earth in Jesus – Yahweh becoming King as he’d always intended – beginning something completely new - where his earth is beginning to be put right again – to be restored in his image.
Now then can you see the problem here? The people that Jesus was teaching couldn’t see how on earth God’s promised plant would grow from such a seed as this – but they’d better get used to it because grow it was going to! – and the harvest was going to come! – they’d better believe it!
The allusion to seeds “coming up” actually uses a regular word for ‘resurrection’ - which in Jewish thinking wouldn’t have had anything to do with ‘life after death’ as we sometimes think, but would be all about the restoration of Jewish fortunes – even accompanied by raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.
And the second story also has some notes in it that give it a particular bite; that get us listening a bit more closely. Notice Jesus says it’s a mustard seed that produces a plant that becomes greater than all herbs.
(So what?) Today we’re rather spoiled with our canned, bottled, frozen, cook-chill packaged food. But in Jesus’ day almost all people had their own gardens (of necessity). And an integral part of the garden in Jesus’ day was the mustard plant. In those days mustard was well known for a number of properties:
Now whether you like mustard or not, it certainly isn’t bland. It has a pungent taste that’s a good picture of the quickening, stimulating power of the gospel. Is Jesus indicating that whatever this harvest is going to be it’s going to be packed with flavour: perhaps not quite what we might expect, but it’s going to have a real edge to it?
I love the words from Isaiah chapter 40: Something new is going on if only you could perceive it. The Creator is coming to rescue his people – to visit and redeem them after all the devastation. In other words remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that though this seems like a small inconsequential beginning, Yahweh is at work putting things right – even if it’s in ways that we wouldn’t have thought.
And he’s going to continue to do it through this itinerant preacher and his 12 disciples – a motley crew if ever there was one. And the consequent growth is going to be exponential (if you do a bit of arithmetic) Jesus + 12 + the 70 who were sent out + the 500 he appeared to after the resurrection + the 3000 who were saved – who committed their lives to Christ - and were added to the church at Pentecost. Well you can begin to envisage how the gospel began to spread all over the world in the hands of transformed, uneducated, ordinary people who, filled with the Holy Spirit, turned their world upside down!
God used unlearnèd men to start a programme of global evangelism, can’t he use
us too if we are willing to become seed in his hand?
As we finish let’s see the links the other readings are making to all this. For a start the conventional standards of who makes the best leaders are turned on their head in the reading from the Old Testament. David – the runt of the litter is the king after God’s own heart? Don’t be fooled by looks and stature – God has different ideas. So (the Apostle Paul then says) we have to learn not simply to trust what we see. Our old way of assessing things may suggest we’re walking into danger, or at the very least, discomfort – but in Christ we’ve been given a whole new map. In the older translations: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight – “it’s what we trust in, but don’t see that keeps us going.”As Jane Williams puts is: “It is no longer our main aim to please ourselves and keep ourselves safe. Now we are working to please God.” Paul is teaching the Christians in Corinth that he’s had to learn how to judge things differently and according to completely different criteria. His conversion when he met the risen Jesus for himself on that Damascus road turned all his previous knowledge on its head. “Paul had obviously believed his primary religious role, in the old days, was to keep people out, by force if necessary. If they didn’t agree with him then they had to go.
All the criteria that Paul had available previously led him to believe that Jesus who died a criminal’s death on a cross, was a sinner, and look how wrong he was!
To change the way we see things – and people – the way we assess and judge and measure things going on around us – is such a very hard task – but maybe we make it more difficult by clinging on to our old understandings – trying to make sense of things as we used to do. There’s a lovely verse from Proverbs Chapter 3 that one of my dad’s RAF pals wrote in my autograph book when I was a kid (remember those?)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart – and lean not on your own understanding...in all your ways acknowledge him – and he shall direct your paths.
So back to the stories of Jesus: – don’t lay too much store by what you think you see; what you think you understand – there’s a whole new reality that works according to a totally different set of considerations, a whole different economy – where grace and love and forgiveness are the main currency. Amen