Life is filled with paradoxes. Now a paradox is simply a statement or idea that appears to be contradictory. One of the most famous ancient paradoxes was described by a Greek author named Epimenides. Epimenides tells us of a Cretan who utters the words, "All Cretans are liars." Can you see the paradox? If the Cretan who says all Cretans are liars is telling the truth, then his statement is false, because he’s not lying and he’s a Cretan. But if the Cretan is lying about all Cretan being liars…well you can see how this paradox turn your brain into a pretzel.There are paradoxes in most areas of life. There are paradoxes in philosophy.
Perhaps the most ancient of paradoxes were penned by the Greek philosopher Zeno, who lived in the fifth century before the birth of Jesus. University philosophy classes still use Zeno’s paradoxes today as examples of philosophical paradoxes. For those who learn their philosophy from TV, Star Trek is a great place to learn about paradoxes. Especially in the Next Generation version of Star Trek the characters often use paradoxes to destroy enemy computers.
There are also paradoxes in science. One of the classic paradoxes in science comes from the realm of physics. We’re told by physicists that light behaves as if it were waves under certain circumstances, and as if it were particles in other circumstances. Yet light can’t be both waves and particles; that’s impossible logically. I’m told that quantum theory has helped to explain this paradox but that it hasn’t resolved this paradox completely completely.
Then there are also paradoxes in everyday life. I came across this list of several. We have taller buildings, but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, buy more, but enjoy it less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences but less time. We have more college degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgment. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life, but not life to years. We’ve done larger things, but not better things. We build more computers to hold more information that we print on more paper than every before, but we communicate less. These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, tall people and short character, steep profits but shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses but broken homes.
You get the idea.
If real life is full of paradoxes, it shouldn’t surprise us that the spiritual life has certain paradoxes in it as well. It’s not because the our spiritual lives are less rational than philosophy or physics. It’s simply that life is more complex than our ability to reason.
Today we’re going to talk about the paradox of God’s Kingdom. We’ve been in a series through the New Testament book of Mark called Following Jesus in the Real World. Today we’re going to look at four parables of Jesus, and each parable contains a paradox about God’s Kingdom.
1. A Lamp (4:21-23)
Let’s begin by defining what God’s Kingdom is. I’m referring to the way Jesus Christ used this phrase, and we know from the Bible that the coming of God’s Kingdom was central to Jesus’ message. God’s Kingdom doesn’t refer to a particular location, but it focuses on God’s rule and reign as the King of his creation. The Bible pictures God as ruling and reigning in heaven, with everything and everyone in heaven living under his rule.
However, here on the earth it’s another story. Here on earth we as humans rule and reign over our own lives. We reign through our decisions: who to marry, what to buy, where to work, what kind of people we want to become. We reign through our governments structures, through the United Nations and our courts, through organizations like labor parties and businesses. Often we as humans use our own power to rule and reign in destructive and selfish ways, which is one reason why our world has so much suffering and evil in it. God created us and created our world for us to have this ability to rule and reign, but we’ve taken what God intended for good and turned in into a mess.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS THE INTRODUCTION OF GOD’S RULE AND REIGN FROM HEAVEN INTO HUMAN HISTORY. Jesus claimed that God’s Kingdom entered human history through his life, death and resurrection. Since the entrance of God’s Kingdom, there now exists here on earth two realms: The kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity. These two kingdoms live parallel to each other, as people choose which kingdom to align their allegiance to and decide which kingdom’s values will govern their lives.
But this won’t last forever, because there will come a time when the kingdom of God will be consummated on this earth, toppling all earthly kingdoms. This is the time described in the book of Revelation when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah (Rev 11:16). This occurs at the end of human history, when Christ returns again.
So we need to make a distinction between the entrance of God’s Kingdom into the world and it’s future consummation, and that’s going to be part of this paradox that Jesus speaks about.
Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like a lamp. Now the lamp Jesus is describing here is a small clay oil lamp that was used to light up a room in the ancient world. Remember that there were no electric lights back then, no battery operated flashlights, so they’d use oil lamps. I’m told that these oil lamps are one of the most frequently discovered artifacts by archeologists because they were so common.
Jesus says you don’t take one of these clay lamps, fill it with oil, light the wick, and then hide it so it can’t light up the room. Then Jesus tells us that whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed and whatever is concealed is meant to be out in the open.
The thing hidden and concealed in this statement is the entrance of God’s Kingdom into our world. The people of Jesus’ day believed that the entrance of God’s Kingdom and the consummation of God’s kingdom were the same event. So when God’s kingdom came it would come by toppling political structures--especially that of the Romans. But Jesus says God’s Kingdom has come through in a hidden fashion through his life and his message. It’s come concealed in a person, this man born in an obscure rural part of the world. And instead of marching to a face off with the emperor in Rome, Jesus is teaching and healing, showing compassion and teaching people how to live under God’s kingdom values. Jesus didn’t come the first time to consummate God’s Kingdom, but he did come to introduce God’s kingdom into our world. This is the secret of God’s Kingdom that we look at last week.
However, that might lead us to think that God’s Kingdom is intended to be hidden and concealed, that we too should keep our mouths shut about it. This is the first paradox. EVEN THOUGH GOD’S KINGDOM CAME TO OUR WORLD CONCEALED, GOD WANTS US TO MAKE IT KNOWN.
God’s Kingdom did enter our world concealed. In fact, at Christmastime each year we celebrate how God’s Kingdom came in such an unlikely and concealed way, through the birth of a baby in ancient Israel. But we shouldn’t conclude from the way God’s kingdom entered our world that God wants to keep it hidden. That’s the difference between Christmas and Easter. At Christmas God’s kingdom was hidden, but at Easter it’s proclaimed through the resurrection.
God wants us to let his kingdom light shine. We let the light shine through our words. As we describe how Christ has touched our lives, how his light has healed our blindness. As we give verbal testimony like the five people being baptized this weekend will give, we let God’s Kingdom light shine through us.
We let it shine through our actions. Jesus told us to let our light shine before people so they can see our good actions and praise our Father in heaven. When we act with integrity, with mercy, with tenderness and compassion, we let the light of God’s kingdom shine brightly.
We also let it shine through our community, the way we live and interact with each other as a church. As we worship together, serve together, pray with each other in small groups, respond to the word together, celebrate communion and baptism with each other, we let the light shine. Christians living in community with each other is part of how we make known the hidden kingdom of God to people.
This is the paradox: Even though God’s kingdom came concealed, the time for concealing is over: God wants us to make it known.
2. A Scale (Mark 4:24-25)
Then Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a scale. In the Greek, v. 24 literally says, "Look at what you hear." Now think about that: "Look at what you hear." That’s impossible to do. To tell us to look with our eyes at what we hear is an oxymoron, a paradox in itself. That statement is meant to shock us into examining how we listen.
Now the hearing in this context is listening to Jesus and his kingdom message, especially as it relates to the parables. How do we hear Jesus’ message? Well with the measure that we use in our hearing, that determines the measure we receive in understanding. If we have some understanding of Jesus’ message, we’ll be given more. But if we have no understanding of his kingdom message, then we’ll get nothing.
This short parable is a challenge to invest ourselves in listening. Here’s the second paradox. EVEN THOUGH GOD’S KINGDOM IS DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND, WE CAN UNDERSTAND WHEN WE INVEST OURSELVES INTO IT.
Jesus began telling these parables at a crucial time in his life. His popularity was skyrocketing, and crowds of people were flocking to Jesus from all corners of ancient Israel. But most people came to Jesus with their own agenda, with their own preconceived opinions about how Jesus should bring God’s kingdom to the world. They came with their own assumptions and prejudices, with their own vision of God’s kingdom. And so Jesus told parables to sort out the real seekers from the mere opportunists.
A person who was a genuine seeker would listen to a parable and yearn to understand more. But someone with their own agenda for Jesus would grow impatient with the parables, and they’d walk away without any understanding. The parables were kind of like riddles designed to shock people out of their assumptions and agendas, to help them set aside everything they thought they knew so they could really listen to Jesus’ message.
This paradox reminds me of a scene from the movie "The Fellowship of the Ring." As the fellowship of the ring is trying to make their way to destroy the ring of power, they reach a point where they have to go through a series of mines. The problem is that the door of the mines is locked, and they can’t get in. The wizard Gandolf doesn’t take the time to read the inscription on the door, and instead he tries all the secret passwords that he knows. Of course none of them work, so he sits down in frustration, giving up. But the hobbit Frodo reads the inscription, and he sees that it’s a riddle. So Frodo solves the riddle, and the solution to the riddle opens the door.
The parables are like that: A person must invest himself into the teachings of Jesus to get anything out of them. This is where the idea of being an objective, detached observer doesn’t help us at all when it comes to the teachings of Jesus. We must invest ourselves into our own pursuit of Jesus, we must take the risk to trust him. We can’t sit on the sidelines forever scrutinizing and analyzing. We must cast aside our assumptions and agendas, opening ourselves to his agenda, to his kingdom. When we do that, the door will open, and much more understanding will come. But until we do that, we’ll be frustrated and the door will stay stubbornly closed.
So even though God’s kingdom is hard to understand, the paradox is that we will understand it when we invest ourselves into it.
3. The Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
Next Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a seed. Since Jesus nowhere interprets this parable for us, people differ on exactly what this parable is trying to tell us about God’s kingdom. Most people seem to agree that the key phrase in this story is in v. 28, the phrase "all by itself." The Greek word behind this phrase is the word automatos. It’s where we get our English word "automatic" from, and it means "without visible cause."
Even though the farmer plants the seeds and reaps the harvest, the growth in between is "without visible cause." As we saw last week, the coming of God’s Kingdom to our world through Jesus is like a seed that’s been planted. A small and insignificant seed, buried in the ground, unseen after its buried. It’s growth is secret and mysterious. But grow it does, first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.
The harvest is the consummation of the kingdom when Christ comes again. The harvest is that time when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, as the book of Revelation promises. It’s that time when evil is conquered, when hurts are healed, when victims are vindicated, when the books of the universe are balanced. And of course we live in the in between time, in between the coming and consummation of God’s kingdom, in between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ.
And like farmers we’re to plant seeds, as we saw last week in the parable of the sower. God wants us to be faithful to share the kingdom message of his Son, Jesus Christ. As we share the good news of Christ with all kinds of people, the seed falls on different kinds of soils. But the seeds grow on their own, automatically, without visible cause.
So here’s the third paradox. EVEN THOUGH GOD CALLS US TO SHARE THE KINGDOM MESSAGE, GOD’S KINGDOM WILL COME APART FROM HUMAN EFFORTS.
The farmer will always be nothing more than a planter and a harvester. The farmer will never be a grower, because seeds grow apart from the farmer’s efforts. The germination, growth, maturity, and production of a seed is built into the seed and the soil, and it happens apart from human cause. We can study the process, we can assign technical scientific names to the process, but we can’t create the process.
This parable is designed to balance us between passivity and action. On the one hand, God doesn’t want us to be passive as it pertains to God’s Kingdom. He calls us to plant the seeds, to share the message, to shine the light with our words, our actions, and our community. As a church we’re committed to planting seeds, whether it’s through the Harvest Party we just had a few weeks ago with 1,500 people coming through our doors or our Christmas Eve outreach service. We plant seeds through our weekend worship services and through our annual Christmas production. God calls us to be active in planting seeds.
But God doesn’t want us to confuse our seed planting with the ushering in of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom will come without visible cause, apart from all human efforts. There’s an early 20th century hymn called "Rise Up O Men of God." The lyrics of that song say, "Rise up O men of God! His kingdom tarries long. Bring in the day of brotherhood and end the night of wrong." I remember once someone in the church asking me if I thought that statement was true, and at the time I said, "Yeah, I think it’s okay." But now I’m not so sure, as I read this parable.
You see, whenever Christians try to usher in God’s Kingdom with our own efforts bad things start to happen. That’s when Christians become willing to use violence and coercion, all in the name of bringing in God’s Kingdom. Our lowest times in church history have been times when Christians have tried to usher in God’s kingdom.
This parable warns us against trying to bring about the consummation of God’s Kingdom with our own efforts. It warns us of thinking that a particular political party or political platform will usher in God’s rule. It warns us about thinking that building bigger churches will usher in God’s kingdom. It warns us about thinking that our missions work will usher in God’s kingdom.
Don’t get me wrong: God wants us to be faithful to plant the seeds of his good news. God calls us to a life of active discipleship, actively following Jesus Christ as our King and Lord. But the paradox is that the consummation of God’s kingdom will come about apart from our efforts.
4. A Mustard Plant (Mark 4:30-34)
Finally Jesus compares God’s Kingdom to a mustard plant. Now a mustard seed is so small that you almost can’t see it without a magnifying glass. Now technically, it’s not the smallest seed in the world, but Jesus isn’t giving a botany lecture here. Jesus knows that when people in his world were describing something really small, they’d say, "It’s as small as a mustard seed." So he uses the smallest seed in their experience, something that was a symbol for extreme smallness.
Yet this almost microscopic seed grows into a large bush, a bush that often reaches six to ten feet tall. So what starts out almost unseen grows into a large plant. It’s so big that even birds take shelter in it.
Now that detail about birds seems insignificant, but really that image of birds of the air taking shelter in a plant is from the Old Testament. In the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament the nation of Israel is pictured as a large plant and the other nations are described as the birds of the air. Ezekiel looks forward to a time when the birds of the air take refuge in the branches of Israel, and this word picture looks forward to that time when Israel lives out its calling to bring the light of God to all the nations. In other words, the birds of the air here are telling us that this mustard plant isn’t just Israel becoming bigger, but that the kingdom of God is going to be a worldwide kingdom, with people from all the nations of the world.
So here we find the fourth paradox. EVEN THOUGH GOD’S KINGDOM STARTS SMALL, IT WILL EVENTUALLY BECOME A WORLDWIDE REIGN.
What starts out as small, insignificant, almost unseen becomes something huge in both size and scope. It’s tempting for us to look at the size of the worldwide Christian community today and equate that with the mustard plant. It’s temping for us to look at how in the first century Church started in ancient Israel with just 120 people, but today 33% of the world’s six billion people consider themselves to be Christians. Look at how the mustard seed has grown, we say. It’s tempting for us to look at the size of our megachurches and universities, the size of our buildings and budgets, and to think that this is the mustard plant.
But the mustard plant in this story isn’t the size of our Christianity, it’s the consummation of God’s kingdom in our world. It’s that time when evil is judged and tears are wiped away. It’s that time when there’s a multitude gathered around the throne of God from every nation, every language, every people, and together in once voice they lift up their praise to God. And even though the Christian faith is big in some places, the mustard plant still hasn’t grow to full maturity.
This paradox teaches us to beware of being too impressed with bigness. We tend to be overly impressed with bigness, especially we who live in the United States. We study huge churches to find the secret to their success; we don’t study small churches. We want thousands to come forward at an outreach event, not just hundreds.
This paradox reminds us to not despise small beginnings. Often it’s the small where God is working the most powerfully.
Helmut Thielicke was a German theologian when Hitler came to power before World War 2. Because Thielicke was outspoken in his criticism of Hitler, he was removed from his university post and sent to a small town with instructions to stay in that town. So Thielicke began pastoring a small church in that town, and throughout the war he pastored that church. He says that when he became a pastor, he decided to have his first midweek Bible study (The Waiting Father pp. 62-63). He held high hopes for making an impact in the church, but only three people came to his Bible study: Two elderly ladies and an elderly man. He says as he sat looking at these three elderly people, outside the church he could hear the marching of the battalions of Hitler youth who’d swore their allegiance the Third Reich. In that moment he wondered at the future of the Christian faith, as it seemed that the faith was dying while the Hitler war machine was growing stronger and stronger every day. Was it really true that the kingdoms of this world will one day become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah? Then Pastor Thielicke thought of this story, the mustard seed that grew into a plant. That gave him encouragement and hope, and of course when the dust settled, it was Hitler’s kingdom that fell, not God’s kingdom.
Don’t despise the little things my friends. It’s often in the little things where God is working the most in hidden and mysterious ways.
Four paradoxes of God’s Kingdom. The kingdom is a concealed light God wants us to make known, it’s a hard to understand truth that we can understand once we invest ourselves into it, it’s a work that we’re involved in but that we cannot bring about with our own efforts, and it’s an insignificant start that will eventually be worldwide.
When we become followers of Jesus Christ, we begin to live under the rule and reign of God. We exchange our earthly lords for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We exchange the values of our culture for kingdom values, values of humility and selflessness, values of faithfulness and compassion. We exchange priorities like getting as rich as possible or having as much fun as possible for priorities like honoring Jesus in all we do and making decisions that reflect our love for Jesus. In short, we give up our lives--our pursuit of success, our passion for pleasure, our addiction to comfort, our quest for acceptance by other people. We deny ourselves to follow Jesus, to be faithful to him, wherever he leads, whatever the cost. That’s what five people will be pledging at our baptism this weekend, to follow Jesus wherever he leads. But the final paradox is that in giving up our lives for Jesus, we find our lives, by dying to ourselves we find ourselves. Under the rule and reign of God we find a sense of meaning and fulfillment, an acceptance far beyond mere human acceptance, a love that’s indestructible, and a reason to live that infuses new meaning into our jobs, our families, our communities.
That’s what happens when Jesus rules and reigns in our lives.