Monday, February 4, 2013

A New World: A Seed in the Earth

Preached on Sunday, February 3, 2013 

Photos between Live Oak California and the Feather River
Scripture readings: Ezekiel 47:1-12; Mark 4:21-29 

Have you ever seen an upside down and backwards river? My first experience seeing an upside down and backwards river was when I was about eight years old.

We were living in southern California at the time, and a bunch of dads took their Indian Guides kids on an outing to the Mohave Desert. We were the Comanche Tribe.

There was a park with a lot of rock outcroppings to run around in. There was a sort of Mystery House where you could find that the laws of gravity did not work as normal. And there was the Mohave River. It was upside down and backwards.

The Mohave River starts in the mountains east of Los Angeles and it flows to the east, away from the ocean. That is the backwards part. It ends in the middle of the desert, in a salt lake.

The upside down part is the fact that the Mohave River flows mostly underground; under the desert sand. We went to see the river. We could see where it was; because, where it was, lots of things grew.

“Where the river flowed, life abounded,” as Ezekiel said. There was plenty of grass, and plants, and trees; all in a meandering line across the desert. But you couldn’t see any water.

The one place along the backwards and upside down river where you could see the water was a strange place, where someone had built a fish farm for raising trout, right in the middle of the desert. The fish farm was set in the trees that grew on top of the river. The owners pumped the water up, out of the ground, into pools for their fish. That is where I caught my first fish. It was a rainbow trout.

In the stories that Jesus told about planting seeds there was a source of life that worked out of sight, underground. Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God, moving in mysterious ways. Jesus was telling his friends, and us, that we are all involved in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and this kingdom has a secret power within it to begin small and to grow until it becomes a huge harvest; a new life and a new world; a new heaven and earth.

Huge crowds were following Jesus and, instead of turning them into an army and giving them commands, Jesus was sitting in a boat off the shore of the lake, and telling them stories. Instead of Jesus, riding at the head of an army, being the seed of the kingdom, it was Jesus, telling stories, that was the seed.

Nothing Jesus ever did bore any resemblance to the work of a king for the Kingdom of God. The biggest battle Jesus ever fought was the battle of the cross, and that looked more like a defeat. That looked like the end of the kingdom.

God becoming a man (whom no one knew what to do with, and no one still knows what to do with him) was the light that was being brought into the dark room of this world. God’s power was like the seed in a granary that they scooped out with a bowl to put it into their bag to sow it in the ground and wait, as the days, the weeks, and the months passed.

They, and we, have been sowing this seed for centuries now. There have been little harvests; tantalizing harvests; signs of the real harvest to come. The real harvest has yet not come. We are still waiting for it.

Sometimes everything we say and do, for the love of Jesus, and for his church, and for his kingdom, seems so small, so inadequate, so unnoticed, so unappreciated. I remember, when I was a little kid, making a muscle pop out on my arm, and showing my muscle to my dad, and he would take his thumb and forefinger and squeeze it back into place. In the face of all the trends of this world, in the face of all the impossible odds, I feel like that little boy.

Jesus says: “I am your light. I am your seed. Hold up the light. Plant the seed in the ground. Wait. Trust me.”

In farming, when you do your seeding, you don’t know for sure what kind of harvest you will get. There is only one thing you can know for sure about seeding. You know that, if you don’t do it, there will be no harvest at all.

The author G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I love that saying. That is why I sing and play the ukulele.

That is why I plant a garden. It seems to me that I must be a worse gardener now than I was ten years ago. It’s been so long since I had a really good garden. But I’m going to plant a garden, this spring, anyway; because it’s worth doing, even if it seems to be done badly.

Planning for youth group, the group leaders all know that, whatever we plan, and whatever we prepare, we can never know how it will turn out. We plan a game and the kids turn it into a completely different game.

After worship, when anyone happens to share with me what they got out of my sermon, the chances are that I can’t match what they claim to have heard with anything I thought I said. I didn’t plant the seed. Jesus planted it. Jesus planted himself in their hearing.

This is a good thing. The seed and the light are really Jesus. They have nothing to do with me. When Jesus said to his people, “You are the light of the world,” he knew he was telling them the truth because he planned to come and live in them, as he does in us. And Jesus says, of himself, “I am the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14; John 8:12) We are the light of the world only because he is the real light, he is the lamp that has been brought into the dark room of our world.

We plant seeds, and there are seeds planted in us. Do you have loves in your life that nourish you, that feed you, that heal you, that give you rest? There is a power for growing and there is a light in the darkness, in that love. It is a river of life. “Where it flows, life abounds.”

There is another way in which that love is like the river in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. “Where the river flows, everything shall live.” “Where the river flows, life abounds” (Ezekiel 47:9; NIV and “The Message”)

The river, in the vision, flows from the Temple. It flows from the presence of God. One of the names of Jesus is Immanuel (which means, “God with us”). (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23) Jesus is the temple and the presence of God.

We have a river in the desert that has no other source than Jesus. It is not an upside down river, all invisible and hidden (although, actually, all rivers have an underground element). Through prayer, and worship, and the partnership of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the river flows and there is life; life abounds.

This is going on in every person who lives in relationship with Jesus. The warning of Jesus, in these stories, is that, since he is the precious seed, we need to bring our biggest measure to him; our biggest cup, our biggest bucket, our biggest truck, to the granary.

Jesus tells us to dig deep into his seed, and we will receive. If we are afraid to dig deep we might as well not do it at all.

We are invited to talk to Jesus and ask him questions all the time. The first disciples did this. The ones who continue to do this will know the mind of Jesus.

Earlier in Mark’s fourth chapter, the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to explain a very complicated and puzzling story, because they wanted to come into the secret. They wanted to dig deep. Jesus said, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.” (Mark 4:11)

They had come to Jesus, person to person. They had come inside in a way that the others hadn’t. They had come near to ask, and listen, and understand.

Often I feel as if I don’t understand anything, so I come to Jesus. I ask him questions. I spend time listening. It pays off to dig deep with Jesus.

There is a warning. We see it in the short story of the lamp. Don’t bring in a lighted lamp, and try to hide it. The lamp in Jesus’ story is a first century, Middle Easter lamp. It is like a cup filled with olive oil, with a wick and a flame. A lighted lamp is a burning fire.

Jesus is not afraid of telling stories where things happen that don’t make sense. His alternatives to setting the lamp on a lampstand are crazy. They don’t make sense.

Who would put a lighted lamp under a measuring bowl? The flame would go out and how would you relight it? In the ancient world it takes a bit of trouble to light a flame.

Who would hide a lighted lamp under a bed? That would start a fire! There was not much to burn in an ancient house in the Middle East. Even their beds were more like mats, or mattresses, or futons, spread on the floor, or folded up in a corner.

My family was friends with another family that owned a small business. For some reason they lost their business. They lost almost everything. They wound up moving to a small, rickety, old house in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

They had a couple of sons. One of them was my age. The first time we went up to visit them in their new home I went to the sons’ bedroom. I saw that they didn’t even have real beds anymore. They just had mattresses on the floor. I said, “Oh you’re sleeping Japanese style,” and they laughed.

Most of the people listening to Jesus were living on the margin, and even a mattress-like bed on the floor was expensive. It would take a lot of time and energy to make a new one. You would never put a flame under your bed, unless you were crazy or afraid.

Once you know him, it is crazy to be afraid of Jesus. It is a very risky thing.

Yet, you might be crazy and afraid of Jesus. You might be afraid of what he will say or what he will want from you. You might be shy about taking Jesus with you into your life, and into your relationships, and into you problems, and into whatever new and strange territory you’re traveling in. No matter what the reason, it makes no sense to hide Jesus, or to hide from him.

It’s dangerous to put Jesus away. You can’t smother Jesus, but you can snuff out the lamp of Jesus in your room. If you do that, you can lose your way.

Sometimes our lives are like the river of Ezekiel. We travel the river and we can watch it change, and grow, and widen, and deepen. We see the life on the banks growing around us.

Sometimes our lives are more like the Mohave River. It seems as though our way is taking us somewhere upside down, and backwards, and underground.

Sometimes our lives are like the farmer who sows the seed; and he sleeps, and he gets up to work, and the days pass, and he waits, and he waits. He waits. Sometimes our lives are like the dark room into which the burning lamp has come, but daylight hasn’t come.

It is especially at such times that these stories of Jesus are for us. We do not know what Jesus has given us, in all its glory, before that glory comes.

We only know (if we will remember) that Jesus has given us our beginning. He has given us himself, in the form of small things.

He tells us these stories to teach us to trust him in these little things. We keep the fire burning, and we keep on planting seeds. We keep on living, and loving, and giving thanks, and trusting, and serving. We keep on keeping on.

He lives in these little things, as he lives in us. This is his promise. Wherever Jesus flows, life abounds. He will bring us, at last, to the harvest.

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