Tag: #hope

What will the “kingdom of God” be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

I like to think about what heaven will look like. Partially that’s because my kids ask me, and partially it’s because when I’m really tired – like, really tired – I like to imagine what it will be like when there is perfect rest and peace. I’ve written about this before (you can read “Praying for peace when you can’t even finish this sentence” here). This is a very human approach though – I’m tired, what will heaven be like? That is not really the question that Jesus answers though.

Jesus, in this passage, gives four parables that specifically describe the kingdom of God. And they don’t answer the question I have. Jesus however, does provide answers.

The first parable is the Parable of the Lamp: “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” (Mark 4:21-22)

A lamp is to bring light. The kingdom, the gospel, is not meant to be hidden. In addition, there is an ambiguity in the Greek grammar and what has been translated “whatever is concealed” is more correctly “whatever was concealed”. If this is the case, what this parable describes is the kingdom (in Jesus) is now being brought into the open in these parables.

The second is the analogy of the Measure: “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (vv 24-25)

The easy way of saying this is that you reap what you sow. If you listen openly and eagerly, Jesus’ teaching will provide enormous insight. For those who listen with hardened hearts, they will hear but not understand. To this we’ll return.

The third is the parable of the Growing Seed: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (vv 26-29)

Just because every day seems the same, doesn’t mean the kingdom isn’t growing. But if they are complacent, the harvest when it comes will be a surprise. We must know that the kingdom is growing – and that at some point judgement will come. We must be aware and ready and help others be ready too.

The fourth is the parable of the Mustard Seed: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (vv 31-32)

This final of the four images shows us the kingdom growing disproportionately to its small beginnings. In this, we see God’s sovereignty clearly at work.

So when we wonder “what is the kingdom of God like?”, the answer is, from this passage:

  • It is a light, meant to illuminate;
  • It is to be revealed, and so we need to listen expectantly and responsively;
  • Once sown, it keeps growing, slowly but surely – and there will be a last day of harvest/judgement;
  • The kingdom will be enormous and disproportionate to its small beginnings.

On the face of it, this could seem disappointing. I want to know whether the kingdom looks like its in a nice rural setting or by the sea, and if everyone I know will be there. But I don’t need to know that. I need to know what Jesus is telling me. I need to know that the kingdom is the light by which the rest of the world can be seen. I need to know that I need to listen in great measure, because great measure will be given to me. I need to remember that there will be a last day, even though every day seems the same and I need to look to explosive and inexorable growth of this kingdom to remind me of God’s unstoppable power.

But lets talk about having ears to hear. Jesus repeats this in Mark 4:9 and again in 4:23 saying “let them hear”. And yet, he had also said in Mark 4:11-12 (quoting Isaiah 6):

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Why speak in parables? Doesn’t Jesus want people to be able to immediately understand the gospel?

As Mark L. Strauss says in his commentary, the clauses and grammar in the Greek “makes this passage one of the most difficult in the NT, since Jesus appears to be saying that he teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of the listeners.” (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark, 2014, p184). In exploring the many possible interpretations, Strauss settles on a negative function. In Isaiah chapters 5 and 6, God uses the unbelief of the Israelites to accomplish his judgement. Through an allegory of a vineyard, Isaiah relays God’s warning of pending judgement and describes that the prophesy will fall on deaf ears – because his judgement is set. In this way, says Strauss “He will use their rejection to accomplish his sovereign purpose.” just as he did with Moses’ Pharoah and others throughout scripture. So Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah specifically links what he is saying to a time when God was visiting judgement on his people.

What that means here is that on one hand, parables are easy to remember for those with ears to hear. For others, their hardened hearts are the very thing that God will use against them for their judgement. This is hard teaching. It shows us that Jesus’ arrival, while a sign that the new age has come, is also an instrument of judgement – those who will hear and believe, and those who will reject him. The wheat and the chaff. As Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

BUT we don’t know who is chosen. We don’t know who is predestined. We don’t know what soil people are. We don’t know which road and which gate they will go through. So we can only be faithful and obedient. We follow Jesus. We grow in our discipleship. We remember what Jesus tells us about the kingdom – not what we want to know. Because the kingdom will be enormous, and provide us all with a place to rest and nest in the shade.

I feel comforted just hearing that.

The other stuff? That makes me feel queasy. The whole hardened hearts as an instrument of people’s judgement thing. But I think that sense of unease is a prompt to act. Because if we don’t know people’s destination, but we know it is one of two places, it gives us a sense of urgency in our interactions with others. It compels us, in obedience, and knowing there will be a harvest, to live authentically to our beliefs. This should show in our words and our behaviours as our hearts and minds are shaped by Jesus’ teaching. I find these passages hard. But they give me a boost to avoid being complacent as a Christian.

We cannot be sleepy in our faith.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.