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.

Boast in your Hope.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2.

To say that this has been a rough couple of months might be the understatement of the decade.  Our country, our world changed overnight as the virus travelled around the globe, and all the routines, everything we considered “normal” was suddenly replaced by new terms we had never even heard before: social distancing, and self-isolation.

Then, in the weeks that followed, we began to see the economic impacts, as hard-working, self-supporting families turned to food banks, and hard decisions had to be made by people all around us; decisions whose effects will continue to ripple for months and years to come as we recover.

And with that, came the many less visible effects that have spread through every community, as isolation breeds depression, and people who had cleaned up and turned away from a life dependant on a bottle or a puff or a pill bought on the street were tempted to throw all that away to occupy their idle hands.

Many of us have also seen, or at least heard of, the effects of isolation for those whose homes are not happy places, as support structures – and ways to blow off steam – were taken away, and here in Canada, domestic violence help-lines have seen a 300% increase in calls,[1] and that’s not to mention the normal, everyday grief and frustration that slowly simmers into anger as so many simply feel powerless as this invisible virus changes everything we’ve worked and hoped for, and everything from graduations and birthdays to mourning and supporting one another in times of need has changed.

And if that wasn’t enough, anyone who turns on the news knows the pain and deep division that’s coming to the surface now as racial tensions rise, and it seems day after day, even very close to home, video after video emerges to show just how depraved we can be in the way we treat one another.

It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in despair.  No wonder the world around us is anxious.

…But then we turn to scripture.  Hard as it is, we don’t turn to God’s Word to hear what we want to hear, but to hear what God is saying through the Church.  And today, with all that’s happening in our world, what is God saying?  “We have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ… and we boast in the hope of sharing in the glory of God.”

Boast in your hope.

Now I must say I’ve read this verse hundreds of times, but never before has that phrase jumped out like it did this week.

One of the marks of a Christian – one who has been forgiven, who has been made right in the eyes of God by believing and following Jesus – is that you boast in your hope.

Think about it: this is totally upside down from the world’s perspective.  According to the world, we should boast in what we have, in what we’ve done.  In the world, in the workplace, that’s how boasting works: people boast pridefully as they try to prove to others just how good they are.  “I’ve done this, I’ve accomplished that; I built this from the ground up; look at my home, look at my car, look at my kids: one’s a teacher, one’s an engineer.”

But, for those following Jesus, that’s not the way.  We boast in our hope; and hope, in a biblical sense, isn’t positive thoughts or wishful thinking.  Hope, in scripture, is nothing short of the confident expectation that God will keep his promises.

When the world is swirling around us, when everywhere you look is nothing but bad news, those whose lives are built on themselves, on the work they have done, on their own accomplishments, are thrown into anxiety and despair.  There’s not much to boast about when businesses are closed, bank accounts are draining, and you’re being asked the hard but serious questions about whether the opportunities you’ve been given and your success would have looked different based on the colour of your parents’ skin.

But, if we want to live as followers of Christ, we’re not to build our identity or our value or our worth in wealth or possessions or positions, we’re not to put our trust in the work of our own hands.  The message of the cross is nothing short of radical surrender.  The invitation of Jesus is to finally admit that we can’t do it on our own, that we can’t rely on ourselves, because, I can’t hope in my own future if I’m powerless to change the world around me, and the outcome of that, as we’re seeing every day, is anger, frustration, and despair.

Whether we work a trade like Sts. James and John, or work in an office like St. Matthew, or are among the ruling elite like Paul, or work with our hands and care for our families like Tabitha, all the world’s ambitions, hopes, and plans are worthless… all the world’s training in positive thinking and personal empowerment come crashing down when we learn, in times like these, that I really can’t control anything outside of myself, and no amount of worrying can add even a single hour to my life.

But the message of the cross is to surrender; to admit defeat; to stop playing the life-long games of trying to get ahead, and finally acknowledge my life is in God’s hands, I can’t do this on my own, I can’t see the path ahead… so Lord, let me follow you.

And when we finally bring ourselves to give up, everything changes.

My circumstances in this moment no longer matter.  My identity, my value, my worth, isn’t found in the things I have done.  Paul says I can even boast in my suffering.

Now, who in their right mind boasts in suffering… unless we have full confidence that even being the least of the sons and daughters of God is still better than all the praise or boasting that this world can offer.

It’s that confidence, that sure and certain hope, that the uncertainty, the frustration, the worry, the anger, the fear of today – even the loss of every thing that I have – cannot change my value or my worth as one who has been made right in the eyes of God by surrendering, by giving up the lead, and simply following the One who knows the way because he’s walked it before: Jesus knows poverty, he knows hunger, he knows ridicule and shame, he knows doubt, and he knows what it is to triumph over the sin of this world and to live not for yourself, but as a member of a body knit together by love, sacrifice, and a sure and certain hope in the One who holds the future.

Boast in your hope.

In spite of what’s happening around us, boast in the knowledge that tomorrow, and the day after that, and the days and weeks and years to come are in God’s hands; boast in the fact that your value isn’t in what you have or what you do, but in who you are in the eyes of God.

And does that mean all your anxiety goes away?  Does that mean you never worry?  Does that mean you won’t have days like I had on Friday morning when you are so darn frustrated that you’re ready to throw things out the window and snap at the next person unlucky enough to cross your path?

No.  Not at all.  That’ll still happen. 

But that anxiety, that frustration, even that pain now carries no weight, because we know who holds tomorrow, and we know where our true worth is found.

And when we snap, or when we find out we were wrong, there’s no longer any need to be ashamed and get defensive.  We can own it, and surrender once more, knowing that every time we’re out of line, the answer isn’t forging ahead, but to fall back and follow  the Good Shepherd.

A Mission:

This is how we’re to live in difficult times.  And, the harvest is plentiful – let’s not kid around, we don’t have to look very far to find someone who is anxious, depressed, frustrated, worried, angry, or fearful.

If we can learn to boast in our hope, even just a little, then two things happen:

We become the labourers in that harvest, like Jesus said.  And, as we learn that confident hope, by God’s grace we find what we can never find for ourselves: that anxiety, that stress is replaced by a peace that passes understanding – a perfect peace that really makes no sense in the eyes of the world.

And yes, sometimes that hope sounds ridiculous.  Who can blame Sarah for laughing anymore than we would laugh if someone said one of our dear 80-year-old ladies would bear a child.  But that’s our task right now: to grin in the face of the impossible and say “God’s got this, I’m not going to worry about it; He’ll work it out, I’ll trust in Him, and follow where He leads, one day at a time”.

That’s hope to boast about.  It sounds simple… simple enough that you and me, normal, everyday followers of Jesus, can start living that way today.

So let’s do it – because if there’s one thing the world needs now, it’s hope that the God who loves us will lead us, that his grace is sufficient, and that no matter what we face, he offers his peace; all we have to do is surrender and follow where he leads.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-scramble-to-help-domestic-abuse-victims-as-calls-skyrocket-during-covid-19-1.4923109