|The Quiet Kingdom
October 31, 1999 / Mark 4:26-29
One of the more famous commercial tag lines of the late twentieth century is "The Quiet Company." Remember whose it is? It came to the companyís National Advertising Director in 1972 as he was returning home from Chicago on a train. Richard Haggman coined the slogan for ó did you remember? ó Northwestern Mutual Life.
Jesus could have used the same slogan ó with perhaps a slight alteration ó to summarize a key fact about his own ministry. Certainly the four parables in Mark 4 could be listed under the single heading "The Quiet Kingdom." Each of them calls attention to the steady and gentle ó though ever-so-productive ó power of the kingdom of heaven at work on Planet Earth.
Oh, there are other truths to be found in this sequence of parables. But I think this is one of the most obvious and thematic of the four. First comes the Parable of the Sower (4:1-20); a farmer sows seed that fall on various kinds of soil, and the seed sown on good soil "produce a crop ó thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown." Next is the only non-agricultural parable in the group, the Parable of the Lamp (4:21-25); the lamp of divine light that had been given the world in the person of Jesus would illuminate spiritual truth and draw people to God ó as silently and effectively as a candle flame draws a moth. Third is the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly (4:26-29); "Night and day, whether [the farmer] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how." Finally comes the Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30-34); a tiny seed put in a garden would routinely grow into a garden plant big enough and sturdy enough for birds to perch on it.
Our world likes noise, splash, and the tooting of horns ó especially oneís own. We are inclined ó even in church and parachurch ministries ó to favor show over substance, numbers over authenticity, buildings over spirituality. It seems that we cannot get over the ancient temptation to build monuments and make a name for ourselves (cf. Gen. 11:1ff). The kingdom of God is more often "The Quiet Kingdom." Its advances are typically without fanfare, as individuals hear, receive, and are redeemed by the almost imperceptible planting, nurturing, growth, and fruition of the gospel in heart after heart.
A Parable of Silent Advance
Jesus loved to teach through parables, and he was the master at it. Especially when trying to tell his disciples about the kingdom of God, he used parables rather than straightforward declarations. There were so many entrenched notions of the kingdom as "splash" ó a militaristic Messiah, a Jewish army under the flag of revolt against Rome, the glory of David and Solomonís time restored ó that he had to find an effective way to counter and correct them. It is unlikely that a blunt denunciation would have produced anything other than the alienation of the masses from Day One.
So Jesus went about his task of correcting wrongheaded ideas more subtly. He used simple stories, metaphors, and figures of speech to squash the nationalistic agenda of Israelís rulers. And the "secret" to their correct interpretation was in the knowledge that Jesus himself was their hermeneutical "key" (4:11). Listen to him. Watch him. See how he treats people. That is the kingdom of heaven. One writer points out that Jesus
managed both to claim that he was fulfilling the old prophecies, the old hopes, of Israel and to do so in a way which radically subverted them. The Kingdom of God is here, he seemed to be saying, but itís not like you thought it was going to be.1
And the kingdom of God is often not like we expect it to be. We want Sunday morning to be the focus point of our faith. We want a tingle powerful enough to carry us through the week. We want to help with a ministry that will get headline attention. We want a tame and establishment-acceptable preacher everybody knows and loves, an ostentatious building that is a monument to our vanity, and a reputation as the "trendiest" or "best" or "biggest." Everything about the life of a kingdom person is his or her worshipful gift to God, not just the things we do in our assemblies.
I like Petersonís translation of Paulís words on this point: "Take your everyday, ordinary life ó your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life ó and place it before God as an offering" (Rom 12:1, The Message). Again, "Godís kingdom isnít a matter of what you put in your stomach [resumť, portfolio, or ecclesiastical vanity, RS], for goodnessí sake. Itís what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with you. Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ. Do that and youíll kill two birds with one stone: pleasing the God above you and proving your worth to the people around you" (Rom. 14:17-18, The Message).
God does more kingdom work through a mother loving and nurturing her children than he can possibly get done through an ego-driven preacher. A man who is faithful and loving to his wife teaches his little girl more about her worth as a human being and does more to protect her against drugs and teen promiscuity than all the school or government programs ever designed to nurture their self-esteem. Somebody on the production line or in the top executive spot who maintains personal integrity day after day, a Sunday School teacher staying with that ministry through tight budgets and tighter room space, a teenager choosing not to follow his peers onto Internet porn sites, a frustrated church member who is fed up with the lack of faith the congregationís "leaders" demonstrate yet stays and continues to pray for them and, an alcoholic or sex addict who takes responsibility and begins a lifelong process of recovery over sin ó these quiet victories in the power of the Holy Spirit are the low-profiled and inconspicuous advances of the kingdom of God.
Your willingness to plant the good seed of the Word of God with your art or your music, in your junior high classroom, or by mentoring an exasperated person through CCSI is the silent progress of Godís work in the world. Your praying, your giving, your note to a sick person, your work at the prison, your effort to get one person to hear the gospel next spring at the Adelphia coliseum, your commitment to follow up with that person, your bag of groceries brought here on Harvest Sunday in a few weeks, your help with children ó these are the humble events by which God does his work in the world.
Paul Azingerís Story
I canít imagine that you havenít heard about the death of Payne Stewart this past week. Stewart, three traveling companions, and two pilots were killed in the crash of a Learjet last Monday. It was a strange event in which six people apparently flew about 1,500 miles from Florida to South Dakota either unconscious or already dead from the decompression of the planeís cabin.
In the news stories that have followed on this tragedy, Stewart has been talked about in terms of his golf career of course. And it was a phenomenal career for the 42-year-old man. At the time of his death, he was ranked eighth in the world by the PGA. On the occasional day that I might be watching golf on TV, it was easy to spot Stewart. He wore the distinctive golf outfit of a time gone by ó knickers and a tam oíshanter cap. I think those outfits are called "plus-fours" and used to be standard golfing attire in years gone by. It was fun just watching him walk the course. You could tell he enjoyed life.
The most important thing to me about Payne Stewartís death is the attention given in the media to his Christian faith. By his own admission, he had been a changed man in the past year or so. In years previous, his own mother had called him "rude" and his wife said he was "arrogant." About a year ago, though, he accepted Christ and has since been an active member of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida. In a Sports Illustrated article about his victory at the 1999 U.S. Open in June, his mother is quoted saying this: "Payne talks more with God now. Heís a different man, a better son."
Stewart had recently said, "Iím proud of the fact that my faith in God is so much stronger and Iím so much more at peace with myself than Iíve ever been in my life. Where I was with my faith last year and where I am now is leaps and bounds."
Know what got through to Payne Stewart? His wife of eighteen years had "hung in" with him through those rude, arrogant, and self-absorbed times. His mother had continued to pray for her son. And then one of his best friends, Paul Azinger, came down with cancer. After that diagnosis in 1994, God seemed to have Stewartís attention in a new way. Perhaps he sensed his own mortality. "I started talking to Paul about it and saw that he had this unbelievable faith," Stewart said. "That started me going in a more spiritual direction." It was not some preacherís loud sermons that got his attention. It was the quiet faithfulness of his mother, wife, and fellow golf pro!
Both Stewartís wife, Tracey, and Azinger spoke at his memorial service. Azinger brought the otherwise somber crowd of 3,000 to laughter by putting on a tam oíshanter of his own and rolling up his suit trousers to tuck them into a gaudy pair of argyle socks. But perhaps the most moving part of the service was a video clip played on a big screen. It was Payne Stewart talking about his faith in God. "Iím going to a special place when I die," he said. "But I want to be sure my life is special while Iím here."
Getting a bit closer to home, I spoke at the funeral of Leathers Maddux in this Great Hall last Thursday morning. And Leathers was a kingdom man! When his wife was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, I watched him take care of her every need. He prayed over her ó and I loved to pray with Leathers! ó and gave her medicine and cooked her meals. Few of you got to see any of that. I saw a tiny glimpse of it. God saw every action and heard every prayer. God loved what he saw.
And you and I have five beautiful pieces of art that Leathers produced to illustrate the theological affirmations of this church. Four are in the Gathering Area outside this hall, and one hangs in the childrenís area. Not one of them is signed! He wouldnít put his name on them. He wanted to produce them in complete anonymity ó but I wouldnít let him. And many of you remember the day when he and Ann stood on this platform to present them to the church. The kingdom of God advances ever so quietly.
The kingdom of God really is a secretly growing seed rather than a gaudy brass band. It is love, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit. It is a fatherís purity and a motherís compassion. It is the faithfulness of a Bible School worker and a CCSI mentor. It is our teens challenging one another to a lifestyle built on Jesusí words and lifestyle rather than anti-Christian cultural icons. It is cleaning up after a church meal or setting out chairs for overflow crowds. It is handing out Orders of Worship and labeling church bulletins. It is dealing with cancer in faith and getting someone elseís attention onto the Christ who is seen you through. It is your early morning quiet time in the Word of God, your secret prayers, your generous gifts, your daily offering of yourself to God.
The growth, progress, and outcome of Godís kingdom is his responsibility. We donít have to beat drums and create events. We simply do what he puts it within our power to do ó as Paul planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6).
So donít sell yourself short in Godís scheme of things. You are important to the kingdom of God. You are the kingdom of God.
1N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (London: SPCK, 1992), pp. 98-99.
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