Hidden, Humble, and Transformative

Third Sunday After Pentecost

Ezekiel 17:22-24

2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Mark 4:26-34

What’s unseen but potentially everywhere? It’s so small that it’s hidden, but can spread rapidly and with great impact, consuming and altering communities, people, and nations that appear indestructible. You might be thinking of a virus, specifically the COVID-19 virus that has wreaked havoc on lives, economies, and the social fabric across the globe. But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Instead, I propose that this is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Pay attention! Our imagination can train us to develop eyes that see and ears that hear Jesus helping us understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. What is this kingdom like? As we look through a few of Jesus’ tiny parables clumped together here in Mark 4, I suggest that the Kingdom of God is ubiquitous, ordinary, and hidden.

Jesus has a way of breaking down empires, dismantling the kingdoms of this world, and dislodging our sense of control over our own lives. In these two parables in Mark, the Kingdom of God is literally down to earth, earthy, humble, common. When talking about God, we often prefer to speak of God as Lord or King, especially when talking about a kingdom— a kingdom needs a king, obviously. But throughout the Gospels, in Jesus’ parables we meet a sharecropper working a field, a trash tree, a baker (and a female one at that), a merchant (and so on). These are common stories of ordinary working-class people doing everyday things. Hardly exciting, and certainly not exalted. Jesus’ parables aren’t fantastic tales like Aesop’s fables of talking animals, or like Greek or Roman myths of gods in disguise stalking unsuspecting humans. God’s kingdom isn’t someplace in the “esoteric sweet by and by” when the roll is called up yonder; rather, it’s up close, it’s near, it’s as close as the wheat seed, growing underground secretly, subtly.

Or… the mustard seed. Jesus has a sense of humor—his listeners would probably have chuckled when hearing this little parable. Where Jesus lived, the mustard seed, brassica nigra, was not a crop they would’ve planted. In fact, it was actually a common, robust weed. (In many parts of the world, it’s considered an invasive species!). The reign of God certainly isn’t much of a cash crop. But it’s not easily eradicated either. It’s like a yard full of dandelions or thistles—so common they’re certainly not appreciated. Hardly magnificent. The mustard seed is the kudzu or mulberry tree of its day. It’s not sown or nurtured like my tomato or zucchini plants. It shows up often where it’s not welcome. And then it spreads and spreads and spreads… like kudzu covering entire hillsides, like prickly thistles in a bed of lavender— it’s invasive, it’s unpredictable. Doesn’t sound very appealing. And yet, Jesus says that this weed tree becomes a place where birds of the air come and make nests— it provides a place of shelter and nurture. 

What others have determined to be junk, God identifies as redeemable, and transformative. It is so ordinary we may not even notice it— that’s why Jesus calls us to pay attention, to train our eyes and ears on this kingdom. It’s ubiquitous— everywhere. The Kingdom of God is not merely coming. It has come; it’s already among us, as Jesus says in Luke 17.21. 

There are a couple things about the kingdom we have a tendency to misunderstand— the misperception that the kingdom of God is something that will occur only in the future, and that its presence is contingent upon us. To the first, we might say that yes, the kingdom will come, but the kingdom of God has already come… in the person and spirit of Jesus. And to the second, the misunderstanding that the presence of God’s kingdom is dependent upon us, we might attend to the words of Willie James Jennings. In his incredible commentary on the book of Acts, Jennings explains that, just as Paul & Barnabas resisted being identified as gods by the people of Lystra in Acts 14, so the work of disciples is the work of clarification, that is, separating the messengers of God from the presence of God; we too often confuse our presence with the presence of God in a place. Rather, God is here; God is at work, with or without us.

In the words of Episcopal priest/chef Robert Farrar Capon, “for every second of time the world has been the world, it has also been the kingdom [of God]. The world’s progress through history isn’t a transition from nonkingdom to kingdom; rather, it is a progress from kingdom-in-a-mystery to kingdom-made-manifest,” that is, the Kingdom of God revealed. If the presence of God is in this place— and I believe it is— then this is God’s kingdom. This is the hiddenness of the Kingdom. 

It might be worth exploring at this point, what is the kingdom of God? If the presence of God is everywhere, where do we see it? We’re all practiced at telling stories that reveal the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Where do you see the ordinary, hidden, presence of God— the reality of the kingdom of God, in your particular place? If the kingdom really is ubiquitous, what we really need are eyes to see it, and apocalyptic discipline to reveal it, even in its hidden ordinariness.

Our stories that reveal the Kingdom might sound small, insignificant, or maybe even unrelated to what you think of when you think of the Kingdom of God. But it’s our telling of these stories which reflect the hidden ubiquity of God’s Kingdom. They can remind us that God is at work in the world here and now, bringing about a new creation (2 Cor. 5.17).

The Humility of God

Second Sunday After Pentecost

Guest post by Johnny Serratt

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)

Psalm 138

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Mark 3:20-35

Christians, and the people of Israel before them, confess that The Lord is almighty, high, and lifted up. There are not kings who can challenge our Lord and King and there are no gods who rival the glory and honor due to our God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Rather, the glory of the Lord is searing, and his holiness is unapproachable as he sits high, and enthroned. From there, all that exists is being sustained by him, kept afloat by his hands. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut 6:4)

Likewise, God is near to us, he is not an aloof or distant patrician who collects our praises from a distant land. Our Lord is one who hears the cries of oppression from his covenant people and draws near to them. His holy breath sustains our life, a nagging reminder of God’s invisible presence amongst us. The hidden presence of God is mundane and that, due to humanity’s pride, has made it easy to dismiss. We want a king who impedes on our life with arrogance, lifted high with almost no thought given to the insulted Celestial Monarch. Even still, the Lord is faithful and unwilling to be puffed up with a pride we so often glorify.

How is God both almighty and lowly? Holding all things together yet rejected as king of his people? Exalted on high and intimately near to us? Why does this faithful Lord allow his covenant people to reject him for an earthly King? To insufficiently answer these questions: our God is humble and patient. The Lord has not seen fit to emblazon creation with the Holiness that is his life; nor are our minds melted by Providence, removing our ability to will. Life with all its freedom and oddities is sourced by this humble and patient Lord. He has freely chosen to be holy, glorious, and able to intimately see the lowly, even taking a place amongst them.

The humility of God is on full display in our attempt to talk about God, either in churches or amongst ourselves. It is with respect for Karl Barth (who said “we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the ‘ought’ and the ‘not able to,’ and precisely in this way give God the glory”) that we claim, against his words, but with his spirit, to be able to speak of God in a real yet limited way. God is truly glorious and categorically distinct from creation; however, our Lord is compassionate, humble, and willing to enter the tricky creature that is our language. This is the gift present to us in scripture, preaching, prophesying, and prayer. Our praises reach the heavens, and our tears can stain the shoulder of our invisible Lord because he humbly chooses to inhabit his creation. 

These gifts are not just available; they come from the work of God’s indwelling Spirit. We hear Paul attest to this, “We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: ‘I had faith, and so I spoke.’ We also have faith, and so we also speak.” (2 Cor 4:13 CEB) Our Lord is not visible to all eyes and cannot be attested to by just any witness. No, the Spirit must provoke faith in us, that drives us to speak with and of God. Our act of humility, by submitting to the work of God’s Spirit in us, is opened to God’s wider act of humility, as he makes himself lowly for us to praise and speak of him adequately. 

 We must not, however, objectify God, claim his name, like the family of Jesus does. (Mark 3:31-32 CEB) Nothing inherent to humanity gives us the pride of place to call on God. We must join with the primordial humility of God, which is signified in his act of creation, by humbling ourselves to the faith brought about in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. By responding in humility, which is the first step of following God’s will, we are brought into the family of Jesus Christ. Here we receive the joy of speaking to God as a brother, sister, or as other family members do. It is one of God’s most humble acts of joining us in the cramped intimacy of family life.

We are the people of a humble and celestial King. There is nothing created that measures up to the compassionate presence or boot-quaking glory of our God. This reality, though, only comes into view once we respond in humility to the faith brought about in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, while becoming intimately aware of this One’s true majesty, we are showered in his love and life. Thus, when we look at our life we find assurance in the words of Paul, “We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven.” (2 Cor 5:1 CEB)

Johnny Serratt is a Master of Divinity student at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC, where he lives with his wife and 21-month-old son, Thomas.

Image Credit: St. Giles’ Chapel, Edinburgh