This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. (Mark 4:25)
One of the few science projects that I remember doing at school involved planting grains of corn into cotton wool and recording how they germinated and eventually gave life to new plants. I remember being way too excited about this little assignment for a child of that age. I prepared multiple transparent containers rather than just one – in case something went pear-shaped; I selected the fattest grains to sow; I watered them every day, and so on. In a flurry of geeky over-eagerness I even placed a lamp over the containers so that the seedlings could develop more quickly. Even though nature was taking her own blessed time, I couldn’t stay still… But as I am confronted with today’s parables I realise that all the things I did are almost the polar-opposite of what Jesus says in Mark; almost entirely different, but not quite because both mine and the sower’s approaches to agriculture involve one common aspect, waiting.
From the moment we hear about the first parable, it is clear that the man is not doing a great deal of selection with the seed; he doesn’t prepare the field for the sowing or any contingency plan in case something were to go wrong… For Jesus, the sower has only three tasks to perform: scattering, waiting, and reaping. The first and the last of these seem pretty obvious, but what about “Waiting”? Is that even a task? Surely, would the man not do better by watering the ground, or putting up scarecrows, or doing something, anything at all? Instead we are told that the man stands back from the field – he even sleeps! – and waits for the right moment to act again. He does not know the seedlings grow, he doesn’t know much about the process, but he knows that in between scattering and harvest time he has to stand back and do something else – he has to wait.
This parable readily applies to the way we commit as a Church to grow, to make new disciples, and to increase the kingdom of God here on earth. We are called to scatter the message and then to wait for God’s gracious intervention – we do not know how his kingdom grows, but we know that God will bring it to fulfilment. However, there is a lot of fuss and alarm bells going off at the minute about Church growth, and for the resulting confusion of conflicting theories, ideas, and church programmes the outcome is that often many start panicking or engaging in every possible discipleship initiative under the Sun, some remarkably good, others not so. Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to put down or belittle any initiative because all of them may be part of the first task, part of scattering the message; rather I would like to flag up the fact that in our panicked busyness about numerical church growth we may lose sight of the second task, lose sight of waiting. Indeed, many of us may start to behave as if church or spiritual growth depended solely on our efforts, rather than on God’s gracious intervention.
In our time the task of waiting is in danger of being overlooked, to be put aside because it is not considered a “task” at all. We are all so impatient. Waiting, stepping back from what we are involved in for a while, is often seen as an impediment, a cause of frustration, idle wasting of time. But if we want to understand and apply the teachings of today’s gospel, we must rediscover what this waiting means for a believer. So what does Scripture say about waiting? Let me give you a flavour of it, Isaiah 40:31
‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,they shall mount up with wings like eagles,they shall run and not be weary,they shall walk and not faint.’
‘It is good that one should wait quietlyfor the salvation of the Lord.’
and Psalm 24:14
‘Wait for the Lord;be strong, and let your heart take courage;wait for the Lord!’
For Scripture, waiting has to do with prayer; it has to do with what I said last Sunday about spending time with Jesus; waiting is about letting go of our control-freakery and trusting that God will surely bring good out of our scattering the seed.
So, with these examples in mind, let us think again about both spiritual and church growth. How often do we pray saying “Lord, grow my faith! I want to believe, help me to believe more!”, or “Lord, grow your Church”? How often do we stand back like the sower to observe and delight in the faith of others and in signs of growth we can see around us? In short, how often do we wait, not idly wasting time, but longingly and prayerfully, in the sense Scripture tells us?
This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land …and then waits.