In my last post, we considered the meaning of Jesus’ gospel. To summarize, Jesus’ central message was ‘God is doing something right were you’re at. You can join in with him.’ Jesus’ message is fantastic news because we were created for dominion – for effectiveness.
Yet, human beings generally feel a distinct lack of effectiveness. In fact, a pervasive sense of helplessness and powerlessness has reached epidemic proportions in our world.
This should be no surprise. When I annex my little kingdom from God’s kingdom, suddenly I’m stuck trying to run the world by my own power and ingenuity. The world becomes a pretty scary place if I’m basically on my own. Consequently, when I’m going it alone, I find myself suddenly locked in competition with others. In my little kingdom there are never enough resources – neither sufficient time nor adequate power – to get everything done.
So ordinary human life – life in our little kingdoms – gets filled with anxiety and a neurotic need to control. My little kingdom is postured with a general readiness to attack, hide, manipulate, and deceive.
Experiential Texture of Life in ‘My Little Kingdom’
But we don’t need the Bible to tell us this. Social scientists find themselves observing such behavior. Just consider some facts:
CCP, the company that produces the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, funded a workplace study in 2008. They found that, on average, Americans spend just shy of three hours per day dealing with conflict at work. Think about it. Three out of nine hours are spent gossiping, protecting turf, retaliating or planning defenses, recruiting people to one’s side, and generally negotiating workplace drama. One in four people admit that conflict at work has resulted either in sickness or in claiming sickness to permit absence.
Anxiety disorders afflict some 40 million Americans. About six out of 50 people find themselves crippled by the uncertainties and conflicts of everyday life. Chances are some reading this post suffer from similar difficulties.
Another contemporary trend is the perceived need to lie. In 2002 the University of Massachusetts conducted a study revealing the role of deception in negotiating everyday life. They found that 60% of adults could not have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once. Among the six out of 10 adults who lied, the average frequency of falsehood was three lies in 10 minutes. Ninety percent of persons looking for a date online admitted to fudging on their profile.
Why is ordinary life in our world this way? I would suggest a collapse of dominion lurks in the background.
Human beings were designed to make things happen, but we weren’t built to live in a God-vacant manner. Our natural response to life without God is to feel out of control and impotent – like we can’t make the things happen which would assure us of significance.
What if there were ways to restore that dominion? Just imagine a life of genuine effectiveness and significance that didn’t require turning into Ghengis Khan in one’s personal interactions. What would you give for that sort of effective life?
Jesus offers just such a possibility for you and me. It is called life within the Kingdom of God.
Life in step with God’s activity or kingdom possesses a distinctive experiential texture. In order to help his apprentices gauge whether they are aligning their dominion with God’s activity, Jesus supplies thick descriptions of life in the kingdom through parables or comparisons.
I’ll do my best to explain this experience, as discovered through studying and living these parables. For some, it might sound like fantasy. Others will immediately recognize it and say, ‘Oh, that’s what was happening!’ – because one can experience life in the Kingdom of God without knowing that was Jesus’ word for it.
The term I use to describe this life is submissive synergy. We are co-working with God, but God is leading. This is not an equal partnership. God is the primary actor and I’m just joining in. Nonetheless, this supporting role is an experience of power unlike anything else in this world.
Jesus’ descriptive parables in Mark 4:26-32 provide two marks or descriptions of the experience of co-working with God.
1. First Mark of Kingdom Experience: Collaboration with an Unseen Power
In Mark 4:26-29, Jesus describes co-working with God as interaction with an unseen power. One engages in a timed collaboration with something invisible that is doing much of the work.
And Jesus was saying, “The Kingdom of God is [gloss: When God’s at work it’s] like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows — how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The man plants seeds. Jesus emphasizes this guy hasn’t got a clue how they grow. He doesn’t know what precisely leads to the end result.
However, there are two things he does know.
- First, he knows how to patiently trust that unseen forces are producing what he needs. So he goes to sleep and does other work while the soil does its own thing. He’s done his part. He allows the unseen force to do its part.
- Second, he knows when to act again. The man recognizes when the invisible power has done its part, and acts again to gather in the crop.
What if…? What if you were surrounded and enfolded within the personal, ongoing action of the living God? Imagine for a moment that didn’t just happen at church, but in your work place and amid your strained relations with your spouse and while sitting in traffic on I-35. What if you could actually know and interact with God as he works right there, moment by moment? By numerous accounts, this sort of interactive activity was a basic experience of Jesus and his earliest followers (consider, Acts 4:13-14).
2. Second Mark of Kingdom Experience: Disproportion between Cause and Effect
In Mark 4:30-32, Jesus describes co-working with God as marked by a disproportion between visible cause and effect. In other words, a lot more comes out the other side than the time, talent, resources, and energy that I put into a given project.
And Jesus said, “How shall we picture the Kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.”
Co-working with God is like planting a mustard seed. The mustard seed is proverbially small – smaller than any other sown. The end result, however, is larger than any other garden plant. (Mustard shrubs grow to the stature of eight or even 10 feet tall in Gennesaret on the edge of Galilee.) This very incongruity between one’s own time, talent, and efforts, on the one hand, and the total outcome of the project is a mark of co-working with God. Of course, the reason for this disproportion is that we’re not the only, or even the primary, one working. God is at work. We’re just joining in.
Do you crave the opportunity to do something big?
Do you want to leave a legacy of positive, life-giving results?
Here is Jesus’ formula:
First, plant little seeds with God. Don’t sit back and wait for a ‘big opportunity’. Better yet, give up all together on trying to predict the results on the front end. Instead, simply focus on giving yourself to God’s project in whatever way the opportunity presents itself. God will bring more from it than you could imagine.
If God opens a door to promote human goods – you can know he’s working there. Join in! Resist the temptation to say, ‘This isn’t worthwhile because it is just one struggling student, not a bustling group of young executives.’ Instead, plant whatever seed you have an opportunity to plant. Allow God to sort out the effects.
Here’s the puzzling truth: In the long run, God often does more with those little sacrifices we make for others, without any idea of how they could be significant, than with all the carefully schemed, ambitious endeavors we concoct. So, plant little seeds with God. He’ll do great things with them.
Second, prepare for God to touch people through you whom you would not have chosen to touch.
The phrase Jesus uses in Mark 4:32, ‘the birds of the air can find shelter [or, take refuge] in its shade’ uses a stock image from Israel’s literature. The ‘birds of the air’ are the multitude of nations or ‘gentiles’. So the image refers to people who aren’t like ‘us’.
By surveying the way this image of the ‘birds’ as ‘Gentiles’ is used within Jewish literature, we can appreciate Jesus’ message.
In some of Israel’s texts the birds fight against those who rightfully dwell under the tree (Mid. Psalm 104:12), in other stories they are simply driven off (Daniel 4:12, 14; Ezekiel 31:6ff). The mutual hostility between Israel and nations was well known. Jesus’ disciples would have been ready for that sort of story about the birds. You could imagine a different parable in which the mustard tree grows up and the planter drives the birds away to protect his comfortable garden. Many Israelites would have expected that sort of story.
However, Jesus chooses to quote Psalm 104:12, which speaks of birds that are given shelter or take refuge in what the LORD provides (see also Ezekiel 17:23). To take refuge or find shade is a common metaphor for conversion in Second Temple literature. It speaks of how one comes to be at home among God’s people.
Here’s Jesus’ point. When we work with God, he restores our dominion. Our Father does things with us that we could never manage alone. The effect of our seed planting far outstrips our own talents. But God will also use us to help people we would not target on our own. The disproportionate effect of our labors will be for the benefit of the nations – not simply a special benefit for the individual worker.
When I meditate on this passage, I cannot help reflecting on the story of a church in Graz, Austria with whom my family and I once sojourned for several months. Thomas Lang, a dear brother who cares pastorally for this community, shared their history with me. About 10 years prior, the church had dwindled to just a small handful. Most had despaired and left, but a few hangers-on committed themselves to prayer for this church.
As Thomas relates it, these six people begged God to send them help. In their imagination, God might answer by sending some missionary to work with them. Instead, a handful of refugees from North Africa showed up and asked for a place to stay. Thomas was confused. ‘Lord, did you misunderstand? We asked you to send someone to help us. Instead, you’ve sent people who need our help.’
Nonetheless, they faithfully cared for the refugees as they filtered in. The church building gradually turned into refugee barracks. Thomas and others began to mentor and disciple these people. Gradually, the refugees began to minister too. Over the course of several years, the church grew from six to about 60 members. Seventeen nationalities are represented. Worship is like a little United Nations for Jesus. However, God didn’t only convert refugees and foreigners. The mustard seed efforts of the Graz six have resulted in a vibrant church, which today is about half Austrian by membership. Austrians, as well as the nations, have sought refuge in the shade of this tree God grew.
Life in partnership with God presents this paradox: God often does the greatest things for us by using us to help others… often others we would not have chosen to help.
So do you want to do something with God? Buckle up! God will take you places and bless people through you that you would never choose on your own. I can promise you some discomfort in process, but for other’s sake God will make your small efforts effective in ways you could not have imagined. This is the only source of significance and worth that can satisfy the human heart.
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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.