One of the fun feature in Mark is that he consistently portrays the disciples sort of like idiots. Like, through the whole gospel, they just don’t get it. Over and over again, the train sort of leaves the station without them. And, yeah, sometimes you read what’s going on and it’s pretty incredible the level of cluelessness. Like, “really guys? Still not clicking for you?” But sometimes, you read the story and it’s more like, “Yeah, that’s weird. No wonder they didn’t get it. Jesus is weird.” This story is one of those times.
Jesus is teaching the people and finally, Mark records what he’s teaching. It’s a parable. About seeds and a sower and different types of ground. And we have the advantage that we know the end of the story. So it’s easy for us, when the disciples ask Jesus to explain himself, to think, “Duh, guys. Don’t you get it?” But if you just read the parable, without the explanation, it’s weird.
I mean, imagine if I came up here one Sunday and for the sermon, all I said was –
“Listen! The beach is full of sand. But for those with eyes to see, you will find shells among the sand. Some broken. Some whole. And among the shells are pieces of driftwood, carried in by the tide.
And among all these pieces is the sea glass, the thing that does not belong, but whose beauty has been revealed by the waves of the ocean and that same sand that polishes smooth.
Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!”
And then I just sat down.
That would be kind of weird.
So you could probably understand why the disciples might be just a little bit confused. Kudos to them, they at least get that this one’s important and they probably should understand it. So they ask. And Jesus seems flabbergasted that they don’t get it. So he breaks it down for them.
The sower – sows the word. Those are the seeds. With me so far?
Ok – the seeds on the path, that’s when the word is snatched away before it even has a chance to settle.
The seeds on the rocky ground, that’s when someone gets super pumped when they hear the Good News, but as soon as things get hard, they quit.
And the seeds in the thorns, that’s just when everything else in life just gets too big and distracting and the Word never really gets a chance to thrive.
But the good soil, that’s the soil that hangs on to those seeds, plants ‘em deep and lets ‘em grow. And just you wait and see what happens.
How is that not clear?!
And don’t you think the disciples were just kind of sitting there thinking, “Is he talking about us? Are we in trouble? Which one do you think we are?” The short answer, of course, is “all of them.”
It’d be really nice for the disciples (or for us!) to be able to say, “I’m good soil!” But if we’re going to be honest, sure sometimes. Sometimes we experience grace or love or forgiveness and it’s so big and so surprising, it changes our whole lives and we’re never the same again. And our lives bear fruit in beautiful and unexpected ways! I’d say more often, though, it’s one of those other situations.
You know, I will openly tell you, I am the queen of good intentions and poor follow through. I know prayer has the power to change my life. Or, it would, if I stuck with it long enough for it to make a difference. I know spending time among the poor and marginalized, and not in a “I’m here to help you” way, but in a “I just want to get to know you” way, I know that is where I will see God most clearly. I know that I have more than I need. Much more than I need. I know I am wasteful and my actions and choices support systems of oppression and global slavery. And I know that faith in God means loving my neighbor more than I love my own comfort. I know all that.
But things come up. I get distracted. Something more interesting comes along. And the Word of God planted in me gets choked out by thorns.
I won’t even go into all the times I miss God completely. Or all the times I’ve gotten super excited about something, only to give it up as soon as I need to invest any real work in it. If I’m gonna be honest, I’m not just one thing. And, more often than not, I’m not the good soil. And I’m guessing, if you’re willing to be honest, you’re not either.
But that’s what parables are. They aren’t meant to be answers, a “one and done” and now you never have to think about it again. They’re meant to make you go, “Wait, what? What is he talking about?” And these parables, they get planted in us, almost…like a seed. A seed that may or may not bear fruit. Or, may or may not right now. But the sower sows the Word anyway. The sower casts the seed over all sorts of ground, some of which doesn’t look very promising at all.
The truth is, the parables are supposed to make us think. Think about ourselves, about our lives, about our relationship with God. But at the end of it, the parables are not about us. They’re about God.
And yeah, if I’m gonna be honest, I’m not always very good soil for God’s Word to take root. Guys, I don’t know if you know this or not, but I’m a sinner. But the parable isn’t about me, or about us. It isn’t a “10-step plan to making yourself good soil.” It’s about our God who never stops casting seeds into the earth. Never stops calling. Never stops proclaiming that Good Word of grace and love and forgiveness. Even when the “results” of all those efforts will amount to absolutely nothing.
God still speaks. God still loves. God still forgives. All the while, God keeps working on all those rocky, thorny places in our own lives. Keeps turning the soil over.
The Good News of the parable is not that some small chosen few will produce amazing results and be God’s favorites.
The Good News is that God is foolishly, recklessly, and extravagantly generous. Throwing that Good Word around like there’s no end to it. Like it’ll never run out.
Still don’t get it? Well, you’re in good company. The disciples didn’t either.
So don’t worry. God will never give up on you. God will never let you go. God will never stop proclaiming that Good Word of grace, love, and forgiveness.
Let those with ears to hear, listen!
According to the book of Leviticus, “The person who has a leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head be disheveled. And he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘unclean, unclean!’
He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
So, if you got leprosy, or really any other skin disease, not only did you have to move outside the city, by yourself, but if anyone did approach, you would have to yell out, “unclean, unclean!” to warn them who you were.
And I know that sounds harsh, like really harsh, but it made sense in a world that knew nothing about germs or bacteria or even the value of hand washing! What they knew was that these things could kill you.
Maybe they wouldn’t, but they might. And in a world where life was precarious enough already, just in day to day living, for the good of everyone, out you go! If it clears up, let the priest know. Otherwise, be gone!
Can you imagine how lonely that would have been? Not only are you sick, facing an uncertain future, you’re doing it all alone. Cut off from family and friends and community.
And the icing on the cake was that anyone who came near you, or touched you, would be labeled “unclean”, too.
And the only way to be able to return home was to get checked out by the priest, the only one who had the power to change your status from “unclean” back to “clean.” From “not welcome” to “welcome.”
Now, before we go any farther, it might be helpful to distinguish the difference between a “disease” and an “illness”.
I know we use those things the same way most of the time, but there is a bit of difference, especially when we’re thinking about what’s going on in the bible.
See, the “disease” is the thing that’s actually making you sick. “Illness” is what it does to your life.
You may have cancer, but feel totally fine. On the flipside, you might be a long-time sober recovering alcoholic and still be ostracized and held under suspicion.
Leprosy, as a “disease” is, in today’s world, a curable bacterial infection. But as an illness, it still cuts people off from community, marks them as something “other”, creates secrets and shame and stigma.
And we know how to cure it! Imagine how much more so it would have been in Jesus’ day. Leprosy, as a disease, might be a death sentence. Leprosy as an illness, definitely was.
And so you might understand the desperation of a man, a leper, who would dare to break the law and not only not warn people away, but actually approach Jesus, begging for help.
“If you choose, you can make me clean. You can take away this thing that is keeping me from life, from my family, from my community. If you choose, you have the power to let me go home!”
And Jesus does choose. He touched him, and the leprosy was gone. Just like that!
But then he does this weird little thing where he tells this man to keep his mouth shut, go straight to the priest, and get the “official” stamp of approval…Which is exactly the opposite of what he does.
Instead, he goes running into town, telling anyone and everyone who will listen what just happened. And I sort of envision Jesus just dropping his head and doing this sort of face-palm.
‘Cause Jesus has things to do! He just said, like 6 verses ago, that his job is to go to all these towns and proclaim the message of God’s Kingdom come near! That’s what he came to do!
And now that everyone knows that he touched a leper, he can’t go into town. At least not without causing a pretty big stink.
And eventually Jesus does do exactly that, but it’s still too early! It’s too early, he’s just getting started. But he touched a leper and now everyone knows and so he can’t go into town to do what he’s there to do.
“The word spread, so that Jesus could no longer go into town openly, but stayed out in the country.”
And it’s not that Jesus had contracted the disease of leprosy by touching this man. But in the eyes of the people, he had the illness.
Sometimes, illness doesn’t have anything to do with disease. Sometimes illness is something that others put on us.
Recovering addicts, former inmates, the physically or intellectually disabled.
There are so many people who are whole and healthy, who have an illness inflicted upon them. Sometimes physically, sometimes socially, but in one way or another, are held at an arm’s length from community.
When Jesus touched that leper, he didn’t contract leprosy. But he did take that illness upon himself. And with it, the stigma and suspicion and isolation.
When he touched that man, when he healed him and sent him home, Jesus traded places with him. The leper returned home, to community. Jesus left town, alone.
And it is a testament to the power of hope, or maybe just desperation, that people still came to him anyway.
You know, there are a lot of different ways we could read through the gospel of Mark this year. But one of the big ones, in my opinion, is reading Mark as the story of how Jesus trades places with us.
Of how Jesus slowly but surely enters into our lives, into the good and the bad and all the in between, until the only left between us and God is death. And so Jesus takes that on, too.
Jesus enters even into our death. Until there is nothing left of our lives, no corner of our existence, where God has not gone and where God is not present.
The gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus taking on all of what is ours and giving us all of what is God’s. In today’s story, Jesus takes on isolation and loneliness and gives back community and home.
And throughout the story, we will see Jesus take on fear and anger and arrogance and pain. And give in return humility and healing and hope. All the way to the end, when Jesus takes on our very death, to give us life.
You know, Mark is not the most sophisticated gospel. Not the most “theologically lofty.” But Mark does show us a God who holds nothing back. Who would go to hell and back, just to make sure not a single one in lost.
In Jesus, we meet our God of love. Our God who takes on all of what is ours and offers back all of what is God’s.
In Jesus, we see the heart of God, broken open and poured out, not for glory or for power, but for you. For your life.
Not just any life for a death. For you he died. To you he gives life. All of your life for all of God’s life.
This is what he came to do.
I don’t know if you know this or not, but Christmas was actually a showdown of epic proportions. Celestial proportions, even.
In this corner, we have Emperor Augustus! Ruler of the Roman Empire. The man who stopped civil war, consolidated power, brought 200 years(!) of peace to the empire,
built roads, created police and fire departments, shoot (!), we named a whole month after the guy!
The epitome of everything we look for in a hero…as long as you stay on his good side.
And in this corner, we have dirty shepherds, peasant parents, and a bunch of stinky farm animals, gathered around the helpless body of a newborn baby boy.
Place your bets, everyone! Place your bets! …
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? That that’s the matchup? The power of the empire vs. the power of the Kingdom.
Might and armies and importance and certainty –
- weakness and love and humility and hope.
What are you banking on to actually make a difference? What are you counting on to save your own skin?
Let me take a moment and ruin the ending for you.
You are here. The Kingdom is here. The Empire is not.
And if we’re paying attention, that ought to make us pause a second. Because it’s no secret we are living in polarizing times. We are living in empire times.
Times when our lives are getting defined by what side we’re standing on. By how strong and mighty our leaders are. Scorecards are kept and wins and losses are tallies.
And, God help us, we sure do like to win, don’t we?
But in order for there to be winners, there have to be losers.
You will know an empire when you see it because empires always have winners and losers.
On the other hand, you will also know the Kingdom of God when you see it, because the kingdom is just filled to the brim with a whole bunch of losers.
People sitting in holes who can’t seem to stop digging.
People who judge and get angry. Hypocrites and narcissists. People afraid.
Afraid of our neighbor. Afraid of the future. Afraid of what this world is coming to!
Afraid of pain and loneliness. Afraid of our own irrelevance.
The Kingdom of God is made up of people such as these. People an awful lot like you and me.
And when you put the Kingdom up against the Empire, up against all those winners, it sure doesn’t look like much, does it? Who would take that bet?
But looks can be deceiving. Because the Kingdom is here. The Empire is not.
Jesus did not come to build a new empire, to create new categories of winners and losers, but to usher in the Kingdom. To begin God’s new way, that isn’t about who is best or strongest or smartest or fastest.
God’s new way that doesn’t depend on us being right or getting it right or picking the right side.
God knows, if it’s up to us, we’re always going to choose the empire.
But about realizing that in Jesus, God chooses us. God stands on our side. God stands with all the losers of the world and says, “Yep! You’re my people! You have nothing to prove. I know exactly who you are.
I know your struggles. I know your pain. I know your hope. I know your joy. I know exactly who you are.”
And in all of that, God says, “I am with you.”
In the Kingdom of God, there are only losers. Only people who are scared. Who are weak. Who are hurting. Who have been left behind.
And just when you think the bar can’t get any lower, God says, “No, no. You, too. Get in here, now.” And even when we can’t see it, God knows, this is just where we belong, too.
You know, it’s no secret that the celebration of Christmas has been almost completely taken over by things that have nothing to do with Christmas – presents, trees, Santa, family stress, holiday baking, parties, all of it!
And I’m not gonna stand up here and try and convince you that all that is bad. But what I will say is that it’s not surprising.
It’s not surprising that we have created all kinds of distractions, to draw our attention from our own need.
To be needy is to be weak! And no one wants to be weak! No one wants to need! But God knows, that’s where grace is. That’s where love is.
Not in the empire of winners and losers! But in the Kingdom of people who know they need one another. That know we need God!
God knows, that’s where grace is.
What we want is for God to show up like the hero! The winner who makes us all better and braver and stronger, just by association!
But God doesn’t show up as the winner. God shows up as weak. As helpless. As a baby. As the lowest and the weakest and says, “This is grace. Here is love. Don’t be afraid.”
In Jesus, God comes to us. To stand with us, in all our weakness and need.
And it might not look like much. Not compared to the empires of the world, but looks can be deceiving.
Because the Kingdom is here. Hope is alive.
Grace abounds! Love remains! God is with you!
So don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. This is Christmas.