Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary/ How does your garden grow" says an 18th century nursery rhyme. Some think it's about Mary Queen of Scotts or Mary I of England, but these Marys were 16th not 18th century monarchs. I'm not sure whom the Mary in the rhyme refers to, but the question "How does your garden grow?" befits our text and the answer is quite contrary.
Contrary to what non-disciples think there is more here than meets the ear. The end of the text tells you that Jesus spoke parables and only parables to non-disciples. With the disciples, however, He explained everything. There are no explanations attached to these parables. So we conclude there is more than meets the ears in these parables. Parables reveal some heavenly truth but they do it while concealing.
Therefore, these parables are not how to grow a garden or a church. No mention is made in the first parable about what seed the man is scattering on the ground. As for the second, we're told what is planted, a mustard seed, but not who does the planting. The Greek doesn't say "which is the smallest seed you plant" but "when it is sown on the earth." There's no planter in the picture at all.
Contrary to what non-disciples think there is more here than meets the ear and the eye. The parables are not about what they should see but what they should believe. Didn't you in grade school plant seed in little Dixie cups? Didn't you day after day go and see if anything was happening? And while you were surprised when the first sprout popped up, you expected it. You believed, though you could not see, that something was happening under the soil that you couldn't see.
In the first parable, the man is said to scatter on the ground, not plant in a particular spot, so he believes that over a certain area of ground something is happening that he can't see, and will only be able to when a seed sprouts. In the second parable a tiny mustard seed is planted in a particular place and we are to believe contrary to all sight that this little seed is going to produce a bush the size of a small tree.
Contrary to what non-disciples think there is more here than meets the ear, the eye, and it is much more about Jesus than them. Everything comes down to what a person thinks about Jesus, knows about Jesus, believes about Jesus. When He speaks He is speaking to draw all men to Himself, so that all men might believe in Him and have life.
Jesus is the One who first does what Paul tells Pastor Timothy to do: "Preach the Word in season and out of season." He's the Man who goes forth scattering seed on the ground any ground, thin soiled, rocky, packed, or good no matter; He scatters with the absolute faith that a harvest will come from it. Jesus' is not like me fretting about results, numbers. He has no doubt all His sowing will lead to a harvest, and unlike me Jesus expects trees from tiny seeds. Jesus believes what "A Pastor's Prayer" prays based on Isaiah 61:3: the preaching of the word produces "trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord."
It is quite contrary how the kingdom of God grows because it grows contrary to our knowledge. Principles of sociology, psychology, and business can grow a great organization, but not the kingdom of God. In fact, the kingdom grows contrary to those principles. Maybe that's too strong, but the first parable says "the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how." "Know" is a perfect which means he does not know how now and never will. This is the over-the-topness of this parable. The all-knowing Jesus is the one scattering and it says Jesus doesn't know how that seed grows. Then what about those experts who write books and articles promising that if you follow their advice your church will grow? Your organization might; your buildings might, but not the Church, not the Kingdom.
Jesus didn't send His apostles out with the command to organize the sheep or grow the flock. He sent them out with the command, "Feed My Sheep." Paul didn't command Pastor Timothy to preach "how to" sermons but the Word. The Great Commission was not to make workers in the church but disciples of Jesus. When Jesus ascended into heaven the seed He left His Church was Baptism, Absolution, Communion. These are the things Jesus commanded them to go and do. Because these deliver all that He came for and did.
Jesus came for sinners. He came to fill their shoes under the law keeping, doing, following every one of God's Laws to the T. He was the perfect Son, church member, citizen, father, mother, sister, brother. Having no sin or guilt to bear, He took on that of the world. Stop agonizing over your sins; they are too heavy for you; put them down since Jesus already took them up. Quit dialoging with your guilt explaining to yourself why you shouldn't be feeling guilty. Your guilt is too sharp and heavy for you, and Jesus bore it in your place already. To the cross, to the cross, to the cross the perfect Jesus took your guilt, your sin all of it, all of them, and suffered and died to satisfy God's eternal wrath against you.
Three days later God raised Jesus from the dead proclaiming He had put away the sins of the world and His wrath with them. Everlasting salvation is for all. No one has to be content with the always tainted and too short joys that can be found in this fallen world. There is more, much more; there is an eternity of more. A new heaven and new earth where babies don't' cry let alone die; where old people are not old and evil people don't exist. And contrary to all expectation, even our own, Jesus wraps these eternal treasures in earthly things. He puts them in water that has microscopic contaminants. He puts it in words spoken by contaminated men. He wraps His Body in Bread that can mold and His Blood in Wine that can sour.
Contrary to all expectations the kingdom of God sown in such weakness by such weak men wrapped in such weak things comes to fruition. Against all odds this happens. If you garden you know this; the ground that because of man's sin God cursed to bring forth thistles and thorns, brings forth grain and mustard trees. Jesus says the soil "all by itself" produces these. He is using a term that the ancients used to describe what they saw. A seed which to their knowledge was dead or ground where to their knowledge nothing had been planted brought forth grain or trees all by itself. I've seen Baptism, Absolution, the Word sprout and grow in the dead, black soil of a human heart years later.
Contrary to all expectations God's kingdom does come to maturity, but not completely till the Last Day. This too is in the parable. The sickle that harvests both believer and unbeliever, both weeds and wheat, is mentioned 6 times in Revelation, but it is only mentioned one other place in the New Testament: right here. It's not until the Last Day that the harvest comes, so we dare not be judging, predicting, exalting, or despairing over its yield now. It's not sickle time; it's sowing time.
It's important to say that the harvest doesn't come for the kingdom of God till the Last Day, but it's equally important to say another truth taught here: today the kingdom provides shelter for sinners. This figure of a tree big enough to provide shelter is used of the Old Testament Church in Ezekiel 17 and of the pagan lands of Egypt in Ezekiel 31 and of Babylon in Daniel 4. Egypt and Babylon were for a time superpowers of their day. Living under the shelter of a superpower today, you get what that means.
God's kingdom is not that physically but it is that spiritually. If you've ever found shelter in a hard rain under a big tree, you know the feeling. If you've ever found a windbreak under the branches of a massive tree, you know the relief. A big tree can protect you from rain, wind, hail, snow. The kingdom of God which comes to you in Words, Water, Bread, and Wine is your big tree. Yes, to the world, to non-disciples they are nothing but small mustard seeds for grinding up, but you go by what Jesus says. Your Baptism is a huge oak of new life that not even Death can take down. The Absolution ringing in your ears is the lofty elm that no wind of guilt can blow over. Communion is the giant Redwood whose stout Body puts to shame our fear of being overcome by the Devil.
Contrary to the preaching and teaching of many, do you get any hint of panic or even concern in your Lord's parables? Do you get any sense of doubt that the planting of the Lord will produce what He intends it to? Do you get any sense of fear that anything on earth or under the earth can stop His harvest from being gathered in or His mustard seed from becoming a tree? Where's the panicked call that thousands are going to hell every minute? Where's the massive guilt that if you don't get up and do something right now the kingdom of God cannot come?
Where is anything but the quite faith and confidence that we confess in our explanation to the Lord's Prayer: "The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer?" And it comes apart from our working, worrying, or handwringing because the kingdom comes with Jesus. That's what Jesus announced when He arrived at a place, "The kingdom of God has come." Wherever you find Jesus' Gospel preached purely and His Sacraments administered according to His institution there you without fail find His kingdom growing towards the harvest and yet as big as a tree right now.
Contrarianism is school of thought in journalism, science, and investing. It should be in theology. There is a always a prevailing view about what the parables are about and what God's kingdom is and almost always the contrary of that view is the right one. "Mary, Mary, quite contrary how does your garden grow?" I have no idea how God's kingdom grows, but I know it is and it has far more than I can see, believe, or even dare dream! And if you sit for while under the massive tree growing from this font, pulpit, or altar, while the Waters, Words, and Blood of forgiveness, life, and salvation wash over you, I think you'll see what I mean. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (20150621); Mark 4: 26-34