A sleepy gardener?

Mark 4:26-34

How many times do we read in scripture that the good news of the Kingdom of God is like a seed being scattered or a vine or a tree being planted?  After sheep and shepherds, those farming analogies are among the most common in God’s Word.  They’re familiar, they’re accessible, they’re easy enough to understand – and yet, they teach lessons that it can take a lifetime to put into practice.

Gardening Lessons from Jesus.

“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground”; ok, that part is easy enough to understand.  But listen to what comes next: the gardener works hard, waking early and going to bed late, carefully fertilizing the soil and pulling weeds?  Or, does the gardener hire some servants to watch the field, scaring away the ravens and squirrels who come to snatch the seeds for a quick snack?

No.  Look at what comes next: Seeds are scattered on the ground… and “he sleeps and rises night and day; and the seed sprouts and then it grows, but he doesn’t know how.”

This guy plants his seeds… and then what?  He goes to bed!  He gets up the next day and then what?  He goes about his day, and then goes to bed again.  He repeats this, day after day, and then – he doesn’t quite know how – one day, he looks out and, lo and behold, the seeds have turned into plants.  And Jesus says “the Kingdom of God is like that”.  Alright then!  It’s amazing – and there’s a central, but uncomfortableidea here about faith. 

The point that Jesus is making here is one that we hear throughout scripture: faith is a gift from God.[1]  At the end of the day, faith is not something that we can drum up within ourselves.  It isn’t something that we can search out and satisfy, as though if I just learned a few more things or could figure a couple more things out, I would know the answers, I wouldn’t have to trust and believe anymore.  No, faith is a gift.  We can prepare the soil for planting; once the seed has sprouted, we can water it and tend it, support it if it becomes weak, fertilize it to make it fruitful.  But think about it – we can’t make a seed sprout.  The best we can do is stay out of the way and let God give the growth. 

Gifts make us uncomfortable.

Now, unfortunately for us, we’re raised in a culture that isn’t good at receiving gifts.  Children get gifts, and we teach them to say thank you, but as we grow, we’re taught by our families, in our schools, in the workplace, we learn across our society to replace gifts with hard work and earned rewards.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that’s all bad.  But, as adults in our part of the world, what free gifts do we receive?

We work hard for the things we get – and even if our work offers us a bonus, it’s something we’ve earned, not a gift, right?  Sure, we send cards to one another; we might send some flowers when someone is sick; those who bake might trade their specialities with their friends – dropping off a pie to a friend, who next week brings over a loaf of homemade bread.  But, beyond that, I think most of us are well-trained to be uncomfortable with gifts.  We say “you shouldn’t have”, and sometimes I think we mean it, because now we have to come up with a way to return the favour!

We like to be self-sufficient.  We like to work hard and earn what we have, and sure, we’ll share and be generous out of what we’ve earned, but none of us like the thought of being on the receiving end of someone else’s charity. 

The big message, though, is that if God is our Father, if we truly are his children, if you and I really are Jesus’s baby brother or sister, adopted into God’s family and learning the family values to take up our role in the family business, then we really are like kids on Christmas morning – we need to be able to accept the gifts given freely, given with no expectation for anything but love in return, gifts above and beyond what we could ever muster out of our own strength or savings.

That’s the great message in today’s lesson: the gardener knows that the soil had to be prepared; he knows that plants need water and food and light and nurture.  But the one thing he can’t give the seed is growth.  All that gardener can do is go about his life, go about his days, sleeping and rising, trusting that God will use the soil that was prepared and that, when the time is right, those seeds will sprout, and then that gardener can faithfully tend them as they grow.

Faith, not just belief.

My friends, faith is like that.  More often than not, we need to get out of the way; we need to go about our lives as children of God, one step at a time, one day at a time; we need to lie down and rest, and get up and do what need to be done, but let God give the growth he has in store for each of us.

But it’s hard, isn’t it?  It’s hard to take life one step at a time, to simply go to sleep when night comes, and get up and go where God leads when the next day dawns. 

We like to have a plan; we like to know what the next steps are; we like to know what we have to do to make the next thing happen, because we’re so well trained to want to earn what we have rather than accept it as a gift.

And we’re not alone in that mistake.

Think of Abraham – God told him he would be the father of many nations.  Did Abraham believe what God said?  Yes!  But what did Abraham do next?  He looked at his wife, said, wow, she’s old, she’s not going to give me a son, so he took matters into his own hands and had a baby with his servant.  Abraham believed God, but he didn’t have faith… he wasn’t yet willing to let God give the growth.

Or what about Peter?  He sees Jesus walking on the water and says, “if you’re really God, let me come and join you out there!”.  Jesus says, “yes, ok, come out and stand with me”.  Sounds great!  Peter takes that first step, obeying the Lord’s voice, and then he remembers that people aren’t supposed to float, and what happens?  …He starts to sink and needs to be pulled up to keep from drowning.  Peter believed, but his own mind, his own limited view of how the world works got in the way of the growth that God was trying to give him.

Or what about the apostles feeding the thousands?  The people are out on the countryside, being fed with the words of life from the Lord himself, when they feel their bellies growling.  Yes, the Lord is letting the crippled walk, and healing the blind, and opening the ears of the deaf, and casting out illness and depression and madness… the Lord is giving hope and freedom from anxiety and despair, the Lord is changing lives, but we missed our afternoon snack, so what will we ever do?  Ye of little faith, right?  The one who heals your infirmities and gives strength in your weakness and knows your heart certainly knows that you’re hungry.  They’ll trust God in the miracles, but doubt that God knows that they need their daily bread.

It’s one thing to believe.  But, like the farmer, who takes his life one moment, one step, one day at a time, trusting that yes, the seeds will sprout, sometimes we just need to get out of the way and let God’s gift of faith take root in your life.

The seeds were planted.  There’s no need to sit there, staring anxiously at the dirt, wondering what will happen next.  How ridiculous!  There’s also no need to anxiously plan what needs to happen next – there’s no weeding to be done, no seedlings to be staked or thinned – sometimes, as incredibly hard as it is, our task is to simply be still, and know that He is God.  Don’t try to force his hand, to jump the gun like Abraham, or squash an opportunity with doubts like Peter, because I can guarantee that God’s way is going to be far more spectacular than anything you or I can cook up.

Thank God He’s Persistent!

…that’s hard sometimes.  Well, no, let’s be honest: it’s always hard.  Being still, waiting on God, it goes against everything that feels right, it goes against all the things that feel productive.

But that’s the only way it can be real faith. 

St. Paul says in Romans that “hope that is seen is not real hope”.  If I know what is going to happen next, if I can tell you the next three steps that it takes to realize God’s plan for my life, then we must agree that isn’t hope – that’s planning.  If I know my action today will result in God’s action tomorrow, that’s not a gift of faith given freely from my gracious Father – that’s a negotiation, and God doesn’t work that way!

But, you know what?  God is a very persistent giver of his gifts.

Out behind my greenhouse I have a little vegetable garden.  There was a little green rhubarb plant there from when someone had a garden there years ago, one that had survived years of being run over by a lawnmower.  Well, it was right in the way of where I wanted to extend my beds. And I picked up two nice red rhubarb plants at Northern, so you know what I did?  I ran right over that old green rhubarb plant with the tiller – I didn’t want it, and it was in the way, so I, in my wisdom, plowed it under.

But you know what?  (And you can go out behind the Rectory and check!)  Right there, between two potato stalks, there’s two rhubarb stalks with big dark green leaves.

God gives the growth – sometimes even after we’ve done our best to tear down and undo what he has planned for our lives.

We need to be still, we need to let God give the growth, and not worry about what that will look like. 

We’ve died with Christ, planted in the ground; and we’ll rise with Christ to new life.[2]  When does the seed become a plant?  The gardener doesn’t know – the faithful gardener just goes to sleep, rises, one day at a time, and waits for the Lord to do the transformation.

But one thing is sure – at some point, without us even knowing, God takes that dry, lifeless, rock-hard shell of a seed and turns it into something tender and green and lively – full of growth, full of potential to grow into something that gives food and shade, and produces thousands more seeds to be scattered across the ground. 

I don’t know – you don’t know – when that dry, calloused part of your life might sprout.  But the good news is this: if we get our plans, and our excuses, and our doubts out of the way, if you let God give the growth, even the hardest callouses and the deepest wounds will be softened and healed, and His strength – made perfect in our weaknesses – will grow into something glorious, for His glory, and your salvation.[3]  Thanks be to God.


[1] Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Peter 1:1, Philippians 1:29; Acts 3:16, and I’d include the hundreds of Old Testament references to “I have chosen you”.

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

[3] For it is by faith that we are saved.  And faith is a gift from God, that none may boast.

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