The Parables of Jesus are well known and familiar. They are prominent in the teaching of our Lord in the Holy Gospels, and they are both engaging and easy to remember.
For all of that, the Parables of Jesus are often misunderstood, not only in their particular points but in their whole purpose. They are not offered as the “illustrations” that many suppose, as though to make things clear and sensible. The Parables are not only a revelation of the Kingdom of God, but also a concealing of that Kingdom. They certainly do have something to teach us, but only as the Lord Jesus unveils the Mysteries of the Kingdom of God to His disciples within His Church.
To this point in the Holy Gospel, St. Mark has described the authoritative preaching and miracles of Christ Jesus, indicative of His identity as the incarnate Son of God. But, as you may remember from last week, there was a mixed reaction to Jesus. There were some who believed in Him, yet others who thought He was crazy, and still others who accused Him of being an agent of Satan.
So, then, in His preaching to the crowds, Jesus spoke in Parables in order to accentuate the Mystery and the hidden character of His Kingdom. His Words are simple enough, and His stories are vivid and captivating; they seem so obvious at first, but disarmingly so. For the Word of God in general, and the Parables of our Lord in particular, cannot be understood apart from His Holy Spirit.
For those who reject the Ministry of Christ and His Spirit, the Parables serve only to darken their minds and to confuse their understanding even further. As Jesus has already said to the disciples earlier in this chapter of St. Mark: “To you it has been given to know the Mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those on the outside everything is in Parables, so that, “Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
As it is, even the disciples did not understand the Parables, nor could they understand apart from Christ, the catechesis of His Word, and the gift of His Holy Spirit. Neither could you understand. For those outside the Church of Christ, apart from His Gospel, the Parables conceal the Mystery.
What, then, is the Kingdom of God? What is it like? That is the Mystery in question. If and when the Kingdom is identified, then the Parables are able to illustrate its character and significance.
To that end, it is necessary to recognize the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus. He is the Lord’s Anointed, the Christ, our King, who comes to save us for life with Himself. It is in and with His coming in the flesh that the Kingdom of God is at hand, as St. John the Baptist and then the Lord Jesus Himself preached. To understand the Parables of the Kingdom, to learn anything at all from them, you must first of all recognize the presence of the Kingdom of God in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus, in His Body, crucified and risen from the dead, given and poured out for you.
Keep that at the forefront of your mind as you hear these Parables of the Kingdom this morning. Both of them recall a fact that has seemed obvious to me since my teen years in rural Nebraska, where most of my friends and neighbors lived on farms: If fox holes discourage atheism, farming certainly does. A farmer must rely on the Providence of God for everything he needs, for sunshine and rain, the fertility of the seed, and the productivity of the soil.
Along with that agricultural reality, these two Parables share a common background and context in the Parable of the Sower (earlier in St. Mark 4). In that case, Christ is the Sower of His Seed, which is the Word of God, but the various conditions of the soil hinder and impede its growth.
You remember how it goes. Some of the Seed is stolen away by the devil before it has a chance to put down roots. Some of the Seed puts down its roots okay, but the soil is too rocky and too shallow for the seedling to survive. And some of the Seed gets off to a good start, but then it is choked and overwhelmed by the weeds of the world.
Even so, some of the Seed prospers by the grace of God and produces a bountiful crop — thirty-fold, sixty-fold, or even a hundred-fold. And that is the case, now, in the Parables this morning.
First there is the Farmer who plants the Seed; and then, while He lies down at night and rises by day, the earth sprouts forth a crop from the Seed that has been Sown.
To understand the Parable, realize that Christ Himself is both the Sower and the Seed — the Word of God who became flesh, was crucified, died, and was buried. Having planted His Seed, He lied down by night in the sleep of death, relying on His Father to raise Him up at the proper time. And by the Spirit of His God and Father, He got up on Easter Day. By the way of His Cross, He was “planted” in the ground. And then He “sprouted” from the dust of the earth in His Resurrection.
As Jesus says more clearly, for example, in the Gospel According to St. John: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” He was speaking of Himself first of all, of His Cross and Resurrection, and of those who die and rise in Him. So, too, in the first Parable at hand today, the sprouting of the Seed as a crop from the earth marks the beginning of the harvest. For all things are completed by the Cross of Christ, in such a way that His crucified and risen Body is the First Fruits of the Resurrection of all flesh.
So it is that, in the sure and certain confidence of His Resurrection from the dead, Christ and His Cross are now planted within and through His Church on earth. How so? By the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name. Such preaching will not fail to produce a crop. Not by any ingenuity or power of man, but solely by the grace of God, by the power of His Word.
First the Blade emerges from the earth, which is Christ Himself who rises from the tomb. Then the Head of Grain — that is, the Ministry of Christ, even to this day — bears the fruit of His Word, by which the Church, the Body of Christ, the full grain in the Head, grows and prospers in Him.
Nowhere is this more true for you than it is in your Holy Baptism. For there, in that washing of the water with His Word, you were “planted” together with Christ in His death, and “sprouted” together with Him in His Resurrection. So do you continue to lie down and get up, to die and to rise with Christ Jesus, by night as by day, in the daily and lifelong significance of your Baptism.
Which is to say, as you are planted and growing in Christ, as you are watered by His Word and with His Spirit, He bears an abundant crop and good fruit in your body and life, in your callings and stations on earth. For you are righteous by faith in Him, and you flourish like a palm tree and the great cedars of Lebanon. As you are planted here within the House of the Lord, you flourish in the courts of our God. You are green and alive, and you bear the fruits of Christ all your days.
That all sounds great, of course. But it is often not evident or obvious in your experience of life. You may well be discouraged by the apparent lack of growth in yourself or in the Lord’s Church. The efforts and achievements are rather small and meager by the measure of the world. Perhaps you would go so far as to say that even your best effort is no bigger than a grain of mustard seed.
Well, that is the way God works. And that is the point to the second Parable. In the first place, again, it is Christ Jesus Himself who is that tiny grain of mustard. He is so meager in appearance, especially as He is hung upon the Cross, bruised and bleeding, and wounded for your salvation.
And yet, in the humility of His Cross we behold the greatest Tree of all, the Tree of forgiveness, of Life and Salvation. It is the crushing defeat of the devil, the destruction of death and the grave. It is the comfort of the afflicted, a shelter for the lost, and your own help and hope in time of need.
This “Mustard Seed” of Christ the Crucified has truly sprouted into many great and marvelous things. And so does He continue to give life through His meager and humble Means of Grace.
The unassuming, unimpressive Tree of the Cross is now planted by the unassuming, unimpressive preaching of the Gospel. It is watered by the hidden, unseen Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution. It is nurtured and sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ under bread and wine.
None of this is much to look at. It is by the Word of Christ, by faith in His Word, and not by sight. And yet, these simple Means of Grace are the Seeds of the Cross, which have sprouted a Church with branches all over the world, in all times and in all places, including right here and right now. It has not been accomplished by the power and strength of man, but by the mercies of God in Christ, by the ways and means of His Cross. This, too, belongs to the Mystery of His Kingdom.
So, too, the same Lord accomplishes His purposes, according to His good and gracious will, in you, in your body of flesh and blood, in your callings and stations in life. Not because you are so big and strong, so clever, or so smart, but in spite of the fact that you are so little, so pathetic, and so weak. It is for you, now, as it was for the disciples then. By grace alone, by the catechesis of Christ, you are given to know and believe the Mysteries of God, and to bear fruit in His Name.
Through His Apostles, in spite of their foibles, in spite of their fumbles and faults, He established and built His Church on earth. And to this day, even to the close of the age, He continues to care for and preserve His Church by the Word of His Apostles.
But all of this remains “in spite of appearances.” In the final harvest all things will be brought to light and shown for what they are, but until that great and glorious day it all remains hidden under the Cross. Even so, no matter how bedraggled the Church of Christ may appear in the world, she remains nonetheless His Body and His Bride, the embodiment of His divine Kingdom on earth.
Consider our own little congregation. We are part of something much older and much bigger than we appear to be. Something much older and bigger than the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Something much older and bigger than even the Reformation and its five-hundred year old legacy. We belong to the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of all times and all places. That is our heritage under the Cross, right here on the corner of Milton and Dale in South Bend, Indiana.
If you look back on the history of Emmaus, there are any number of twists and turns and ups and downs. There were years of much larger membership, and other years when things looked pretty grim. But the one constant reality has been the gathering of pastors and people around the pulpit, font, and Altar of Christ. In the preaching of His Gospel, in the administration of His Sacraments, we are and remain the Church of Christ, His Body and Bride. No more nor less when everything is going well, or when it all seems to be falling apart. In the Ministry of His Holy Gospel, no more impressive than a tiny grain of mustard, we receive the fulness of Christ Jesus and His Kingdom.
So do we continue, by the grace of God in Christ, trusting Him to give us growth, if not outwardly then inwardly, according to His good and gracious will. Trust and believe that He will produce a bountiful harvest from this field of His Church. By the planting of His Seed right here, He grows the branches of His mercy and forgiveness, that others also might find rest in His cooling shade.
In the shelter of His Cross, under the protection of His arms, and nurtured by His good fruits, His Body and His Blood, sleep in the peace of His forgiveness, and rise in the confidence of faith in His Resurrection. Eat your bread, and eat your meat, drink your water and your wine, work your job, and take your rest, all in the joy and gladness of your Lord. For all the while, by night as by day, the Seed of His Gospel is sprouting and growing, though you know not how. Whether you may plant, or whether you may water, as the Lord so calls and wills, it is the Lord Himself who gives the growth. Because the Kingdom of God is in Christ. The Field is His. The Seed is His. The Crop is His. And you are His, to whom be all the glory, honor, and praise, now and forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.