The Contrary Kingdom – Mark 4:21-34
Good morning! If you can grab a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. We are continuing in our sermon series on Mark, looking at Mark 4:21-34.
I’m just going to read the passage, and then we will dive in. Mark 4, beginning in verse 21: “And he said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ 24 And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’
“26 And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’
“30 And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
“33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”
In just over two weeks, Canadians from all across the country will be going to the polls to vote in the 2019 Canadian federal election. It’s an important time for this country, as we are voting for who we want as the Prime Minister of Canada.
But in our passage for this morning, Jesus speaks of a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom whose citizens live under the government of a King, not a Prime Minister, a kingdom whose King is Jesus. And while this is an important time for the country of Canada, we can too easily forget that there is a kingdom of God that is greater than any political realm on this earth.
This is the kingdom that Jesus shows us in our text. Jesus tells a series of three parables. If you remember from last week, a parable is a story about earthly things that reveals a heavenly message. Jesus is going to say that the kingdom of God is like this earthly thing. It gives us a point of reference.
But what we’re going to see, as we look at each one of these parables, is that this kingdom—the kingdom of God—is not what we would expect from a kingdom. This is a kingdom where finding life means losing your life, where being first means being last, where being strong means being weak.
Jesus is going to show us, this morning, that this kingdom is a contrary kingdom, because it’s not like the kingdoms of this world, in fact, it’s better, and that life in this kingdom is the way we were always intended to live. That’s what we’re going to look at, for our time together this morning.
1. The first parable that we see is the parable of the lamp, and what this parable teaches us is that we are to make the gospel of Jesus visible to the nations.
Look at verse 21. “And he said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’”
The place where we were staying, when we were in Ontario this summer, had no power or heat or plumbing. It was very rustic living, which is fine for me. I can handle a week of that. But one thing that I knew was going to be a bit of a struggle for me was the lack of power.
This place had a bunch of oil lamps, which you can light and then take around with you wherever you go so that you can at least see where you’re going. But for somebody like me, where a little bit of light like that doesn’t help much more than no light at all, I knew that I was going to need a flashlight. The only problem is that I realized this when we were in Saskatoon.
So, since we weren’t about to drive back home to grab a flashlight, we just bought one at Walmart. And I found this really good one that took like 8 AA batteries, so you would think it would suffice. But when I turned that flashlight on, it was like night turned to day for me. It was great. I was able to see everything and make my way around the house without dying, which is nice. But what that flashlight did is it made visible what was invisible to me before.
That’s the picture that Jesus is giving us with this first parable. A lamp, Jesus is saying, isn’t meant to be put under a basket or a bed; it’s meant to be put on a stand so that it gives light to the whole house. If you don’t do with that lamp what was intended to be done with that lamp, then you’re misusing the lamp.
And what Jesus is talking about here is the gospel—the good news that God has visited mankind in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying, “Don’t hide the truth of the gospel from people. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.”
Because here is what the light of the gospel of Jesus does: It exposes and brings to light what was formerly kept hidden in darkness. It exposes our sinfulness and that we truly are worse than we think we are, but most importantly, it exposes our need for a perfect Saviour.
This is what the prophet Isaiah prophesied, around 700 years before Jesus. In Isaiah 9:2, he writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Do you know who the prophet is speaking about here? He’s speaking about the coming Messiah who would come to bring the kingdom of God to this world and dispel the spiritual darkness, forever.
Church, that’s Jesus. Jesus is the perfect Saviour that we need in order to see and that we need to make visible for everyone else, as well. Because what happens when we make the light of the gospel of Jesus visible to the nations is it makes visible what was invisible before, like turning on a flashlight in a dark room. And all of a sudden, people are confronted with their sin and their need when before they were ignorantly dwelling in deep darkness.
And it’s why Jesus says, in verse 24, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
There is a seriousness to making the gospel of Jesus visible to the nations. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells another parable—the parable of the talents—where a man goes on a journey and entrusts his property to his three servants. One servant gets five talents, one servant gets two talents, and one servant gets one talent.
The master eventually comes back from his long journey and wants to know what his servants did with what he gave them. The servant with five talents gained five talents more and was rewarded by his master. The servant with two talents gained two talents more and was rewarded by his master. But the servant with one talent had buried it in the ground for fear of his master, so when he brings it to his master, his master is angry with him. Why? Because he misused the lamp.
And in verse 29, Jesus says these same words, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
The gospel of Jesus is not to be kept hidden. It’s not just for the spiritually elite. We are not some kind of secret society with this knowledge that no one else can have. The gospel is for everyone. It’s intended to be shone around like a light in the darkness, exposing people’s need for the King of the kingdom of God to save them from their spiritual darkness. That’s what the first parable teaches us.
2. The second parable is the parable of the seed, and what this parable teaches us is that the growth of the kingdom of God will be gradual, not instantaneous.
Look at verse 26. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Farmers, you’re probably familiar with this. There is a gradual process to farming, isn’t there? You don’t just plant your seeds and then a week later reap a harvest. You plant your seeds, and then it takes some time for those seeds to sprout and grow, and then when the grain is ripe, then you reap a harvest. It takes a lot of patience to be a farmer, especially when the weather is not conducive to farming.
And Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is the same way. The kingdom of God is going to be this gradual process that will require a lot of patience, but that will eventually lead to a harvest.
Now, this was not how Jews in Jesus’ day thought about the kingdom of God. They were expecting the kingdom of God to come suddenly and all at once. There was no gradual process. It was either all or nothing.
You see, the Jewish people were under Roman oppression. And they were waiting for the Messiah to come—the one who would come to bring the kingdom of God. They were expecting that when the Messiah would come that He would immediately overthrow their enemies and that they would live lives of peace on the earth with the Messiah as their King.
So, when Jesus comes on to the scene and starts healing people, basically eradicating disease and sickness in Capernaum, the people start getting excited, because they think that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
In Isaiah 61, the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the coming Messiah. Isaiah writes, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Now, you can see the progression here. Jesus started off bringing good news to the poor by preaching about the gospel of the kingdom of God. He has been proclaiming liberty to the captives by casting demons out of people. And He has been opening the prison for those who found themselves bound to sickness and disease. And then, look at what's next: “the day of vengeance of our God.”
Now, if you’re a Jew, you’re excited, because you’re hearing and seeing all the things that Jesus is saying and doing, and your logical conclusion is, “This is the guy who is going to rescue us from Roman oppression by wiping our enemies off the face of the earth. It’s the final step in the Messiah ushering in the kingdom of God. We know that it’s coming suddenly and all at once, so this has to be what's coming, next.”
But here’s the problem: Jesus didn’t come, first, to be that Messiah. He will eventually come to be that Messiah when He returns. Revelation 19 says that Jesus will return with a sword and a robe dipped in blood and a crown on His head, ready to make war. We will see that Jesus at His second coming, but that’s not what we needed when He first came.
And I mean, how easy would it have been for Jesus to come as this King. I’m talking about Revelation 19 Jesus, ready to wipe out the Romans. That would get people’s attention. But that’s not how Jesus brings the kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a process of growth.
The parable contains no promise of instant and universal triumph. Instead, what we see is patiently waiting for God to give the growth. Yes, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God when He came to this earth, as we see Jesus healing people of all kinds of diseases, but the kingdom of God is still to come fully, as we look around and see that things just aren’t right in the world.
And as we wait in this in-between time, it’s easy for us to make one of two errors:
1. In the first place, it’s easy for us to believe that the kingdom of God is here fully. Jesus came and healed a whole bunch of people, so that means we should be able to heal anyone we come in contact with who’s sick, right?
We look at the future promise in Revelation 21, where it says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,” and we make it about today. And it’s not about today; it’s about what is to come in the new heavens and new earth. We’re not there yet.
And so, the first error that we can make is believing that the kingdom of God is here fully and that we should have all the advantages of what is to come, now.
2. The second error that we can make is believing that the kingdom of God is not here at all.
In 2 Peter 3:3-4, the apostle Peter says “that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”
In other words, people will become impatient with God. They will look around at the state of the world, and they will see sickness and death and injustice and war, and they will become discouraged that Jesus hasn’t come to fully and finally restore all things as He said He would.
And the reality is that we live in this in-between time, between the beginning when the seed is sown and the end time when the final stage becomes manifest and all God’s purposes are accomplished. We live in the middle of the kingdom of God having come and when it will come in all its fullness. In the theological terms, we live in the “already but not yet.” And there is a lot of tension in this in-between time, because we’re reminded daily that it’s God who gives the growth.
And I mean how arrogant is it of us to think that God is somehow slow in keeping His promises. Look at the farmer in the parable: “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.”
There is no reason for us to be discouraged. The kingdom of God is gradually growing as God sees fit to grow it. When the grain is ripe, the Lord will come and harvest it. We sow the seed of the gospel of Jesus and we watch God cause that seed to grow, eventually leading to an abundant harvest.
3. And this leads us to the third parable, and that is, the parable of the mustard seed, which teaches us is that the harvest will be bigger than we can imagine.
Look at verse 30. Jesus says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
When we were in Hawaii, a couple of years ago, we had the opportunity of going partway up Mauna Kea, a mountain in Hawaii. And we got there at the right time, because we were able to climb up one of the peaks and watch the sunset. And it was absolutely breathtaking to see the beauty of God’s Creation from this perspective. It made you realize how small you were compared to the surpassing greatness of God.
And that view is what I would expect the kingdom of God to be like. I would expect Jesus to say, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like watching the sunset on top of Mauna Kea.”
But that’s not what Jesus says. He says, “It is like a grain of mustard seed.” And once again, Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God doesn’t fit our expectations. It begins in insignificance.
Just think about that: The kingdom of God begins with the birth of Jesus in an insignificant place called Bethlehem. He is born of a virgin in a stable, because there was no room for them in the inn. He is eventually moved to another insignificant place called Nazareth. And at the age of 30 years old, He begins His ministry, and He calls to Himself fishermen, a tax collector, people who no one has ever heard of. And after three years, He is crucified, dead and buried.
Talk about insignificant. It doesn’t look very powerful. It doesn’t look very mighty. This kingdom. But then, you look at Acts 2:41, right after Jesus ascends to heaven, three thousand people, all at once, believe in Jesus and get baptized. And it says that the Lord added to their number, daily. You look around the world today. There are roughly 2.3 billion Christians in the world. Everywhere I turn, I am hearing positive reports of how Christianity is growing. God is giving the growth as He said He would and the harvest is bigger than we can imagine.
Matthew 24:14 says that the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
You look at all of the great kingdoms throughout history. Where are they? Where is the Roman Empire? It’s gone. Every kingdom of this world has an expiry date. They will not last forever. But do you know what kingdom will last forever? The kingdom of God.
The gospel of the kingdom is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. The video that we showed for the Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes said, “For the first time in world history, we actually know who [the unreached people] are, where they are, and the possibility of bringing the Scripture to them exists for the first time in history…. Probably within the next decade every single unreached people group will have the opportunity to receive the gospel.”
One commentator wrote, “The kingdom of God arises from obscurity and insignificance. Out of the most insignificant beginnings, God creates a mighty kingdom, which embraces all the peoples of the earth.”
The apostle John, in Revelation 7:9-10, says, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
Our heavenly Father would send His one and only Son into this world to show us life in His kingdom. He would heal the sick and cast demons out of people to show that He is the King of this kingdom. But then, He would lay down His life—the King for His subjects—so that anyone who puts their faith in Jesus will be considered a citizen of this kingdom and will live forever with God.
This is the good news of the kingdom of God. The question is: Do we belong to this kingdom? Are we citizens of the kingdom of God? Is Jesus our King?
The kingdom of God is a contrary kingdom, because it doesn’t operate like the kingdoms of this world. The way the kingdoms of this world operate is by getting ahead and exerting power over others and by going out to conquer.
We see that played out in every federal election, as political leaders say anything and everything to get the votes of the Canadian people. And all that does is it serves to remind us that we were created for something better. We were created for something more than what the kingdoms of this world can offer.
I'm not saying that we shouldn’t go out and vote. If we don’t vote, then we don’t have a right to voice our opinion. We need to vote according to conscience. But what we need to recognize is that this world is not all there is, and that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter who becomes the Prime Minister of Canada, they will always make a poor king compared to King Jesus.
As C. S. Lewis reminds us, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Church, we were made for the kingdom of God. This contrary kingdom, where finding life means losing your life, where being first means being last, where being strong means being weak, this kingdom is where we were meant to belong. Do we belong to this kingdom?
But then, if we are citizens of this kingdom, do we have ears to hear what the King has commissioned us to do? Are we making the King visible by taking the gospel to the nations? Are we planting the seeds of the gospel of the kingdom in people’s hearts and watching God give the growth? This is life in the kingdom as we were always intended to live. May we contemplate the richness of what it means to belong to the kingdom of God. Let’s pray…