26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
I’ve recently made the decision to only use sharp pencils. There is a pencil sharpener just a few steps away from where I tend to do my church work, so really I have no excuse for making this mistake again. Do you know why you should never use a dull pencil? Because it is pointless.
I want to talk a little bit about philosophy today and perhaps introduce you to a few new (to us) words. These words will help us understand how some people see the world, particularly those who see the world like a dull pencil, who see the world as pointless. But rather than seeing the world around us as pointless, I hope that we can see that even the smallest of details in this world matter. And in the grand scheme of all the created order, some of the smallest and most insignificant things around us can serve a giant purpose.
The first word that I want to introduce you to today is nihilism. Nihilism may sound somewhat familiar to you if you were here several months ago when I spoke on Genesis 1 and the creation of the world. One of the options that we considered was that God created the world “ex nihilo,” which means “from nothing.” So nihilism is a philosophical term that means, “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.”
That is an extreme form of nihilism. Not all nihilists would say that there is no such thing as moral principles, but they would say that there is nothing after this world. No heaven, no hell, not even a purgatory. You are born, you make a few trips around the sun, and then you die.
The last two Sundays we have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes and one of the most powerful phrases that we find in this book is in the first chapter, beginning in the second verse: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?”
Solomon then goes on to talk about a number of reoccurring events in nature. Generations come and generations go, the sun rises and the sun sets, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. He then says in verse 14, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
Solomon soon starts to get a bit depressing. He talks about wisdom; it’s meaningless. He talks about folly; it’s meaningless. And he talks about hard work and success. Guess what? It’s meaningless. It is like chasing after the wind.
I mentioned two weeks ago that the Hebrew word translated by the NIV as “meaningless,” which is hebel, is rendered as “vanity” in the KJV. The word has the connotation of water vapor, like when you take a squirt bottle that they use at a barber shop to wet down your hair and you spritz it into the air. There is a mist and then it is gone. It is meaningless.
That is nihilism. You brought nothing into the world and you can’t take anything with you. You were born, you live a few years, and you die. That’s it. Life is meaningless.
I feel like today’s scripture from the fourth chapter of Mark could fall into the nihilism that Solomon is describing in the first verses of Ecclesiastes. Jesus begins by telling a parable about a man who goes out and sows some seeds. If you read through the Gospels you will find that Jesus often includes these agrarian kinds of illustrations. But this one is a little bit different. The man sows the seeds and then that is the extent of his involvement. Jesus says that night or day, whether this man is asleep or awake, the seeds sprout and grow. The man doesn’t even know how, but it grows all on its own. First a little sprout, then a stem, next it comes into a head, and then it produces a grain. And when the grain is mature, the man harvests it the crop.
But then what does the man do the next year? He scatters seed, it grows on its own, and then he harvests it. This is an endless cycle, year after year, season after season. It is like the sun rising and setting, like the tide coming in and going out. It can all seem utterly and completely meaningless. That’s nihilism.
I’ve experienced a sense of nihilism from time to time in my life, and one example that comes to mind also involves agriculture. I remember being a teenager and being at that age when I was really old enough to have to do some serious work around the farm. One of the hottest, dirtiest, and most physical jobs on the farm is baling hay. And I was never the one who got to sit on a tractor and drive back and forth in the field. I was always one of the truly blessed individuals that got to stack the bales in the barn. I worked in the mows. And when the temperature topped 90 degrees outside, you could count on it being well over 100 degrees in the old barn with poor ventilation and a bunch of freshly-cut hay.
I remember clearly on a number of occasions my father saying that baling hay was one of the most enjoyable jobs for him on the farm. You wake up early in the morning and the hay is scattered in the field. But by the end of the day you have a tall stack of hay in the barn to feed the cows for the winter. My thought was, “Yeah, not only did I have to stack it all in the barn, but I’ll also be the one who needs to carry it to the cows.”
As a teenager, it seemed meaningless. That’s nihilism.
But let’s look at the opposite of nihilism for a bit. The other way of looking at life is to consider it teleologically. Teleology is the account of a given thing’s purpose (Wikipedia). The term comes from the Greek word “telos,” which means an end or a purpose. Wikipedia gives the example of a teleological purpose for the prongs on a fork is that they help in the stabbing and eating of certain kinds of food. The prongs on a fork are not simply there for no good reason. No, they serve a purpose and they are there for a reason.
So in Ecclesiastes we find Solomon repeating that all of these things are meaningless. There is no purpose, there is no telos. The sun rises and it sets. The tide rolls in and it rolls back out. There is wisdom, and there is folly. You work hard on Monday and then comes Tuesday. Everything in this world is totally and utterly meaningless.
Until it isn’t.
Do you know what things have meaning and purpose? The things that have meaning and purpose are the things that we give meaning and purpose to. When we take the time to appreciate the little things, the things that God has made and the things that God has allowed us to make, we give them meaning and purpose; we recognize their meaning and purpose.
This parable from Mark 4 tells us about a man who is out sowing seeds. All he does is throw them on the ground and let nature fulfill its God-given roll. The seed sprouts, grows, and matures until it is time for harvest. You might find this process completely boring. But I want to suggest that there are two ways to look at this sprouting seed to find meaning and beauty in it.
The first is to simply note that when we slow down and look at the process and inspect the gift that is a growing seed, we can find beauty just in that. There is new life, there is growth, there is development. Several years ago I planted two kwanzan cherry trees in our front yard and it is amazing every spring to look at the trees as they begin to bud. And slowly on the tree there develops some blossoms. Then shortly after that the blossoms burst forth with shades of pink and white. There is beauty; there is meaning.
That one is a little more obvious, but what about some of the plants that we take for granted, like wheat. Wheat grows up as a single, green stalk. It looks like grass when it is young. As it grows and develops it forms a head. And in that head will develop a bunch of little seeds. Now you may not think of wheat as a beautiful plant, but maybe you just haven’t taken the time to really look at it. My mother-in-law used to have dried wheat on her living room mantle. And there is a scene in the movie “Gladiator” where the main character dies and finds himself reunited with his family in heaven. As he is walking to his wife and son he passes through a mature field of wheat, complete with its golden-yellow heads of grain. And as he passes through the field of wheat, Russell Crowe reaches his hand down and runs his fingers through the wheat as the setting sun sets on the horizon. And it is beautiful.
Is all of this meaningless? No, not when we slow down to appreciate the beauty of what God has made and what God continues to do. The sower simply dropped the seed on the ground. God made a beautiful field of wheat.
But the second reason for the value of this seemingly meaningless practice of sowing and harvesting requires that we think about it teleologically. What is the goal? What is the purpose?
Why do we grow so much wheat in the United States? Why did the sower drop the seed on the ground in the first place? We grow wheat not simply to grow wheat, but because of what we can make out of it. We harvest the kernel of grain in the stalk, grind it into a powder, and we can use that powder, which we call flour, to bake bread.
There is value in the beauty of a growing seed. And there is value in the final product.
So when Jesus talks about the sower in this parable, he isn’t just talking about some meaningless act that we need to repeat every spring, year after year. No, he is saying that when we sow seeds there is beauty in the growth and there is beauty in the end product. When we sow kingdom seeds, all we can do is scatter the seeds broadly. We try to live faithfully, and do the things that Jesus has called us to do. But ultimately, it is only God that can make the seed grow.
And we must look for the beauty along the way. Every time a hungry person is fed, a kingdom seed is sowed, and a glimpse of the beauty of God’s kingdom is revealed. When you show love for an enemy, a kingdom seed is sowed, and a glimpse of the beauty of God’s kingdom is revealed. When you share the good news, when you care for the sick, the lonely, and the poor, when you teach a children’s Sunday school class or take a meal to a home-bound friend, these acts are not meaningless, even if we can’t see the impact. These acts in and of themselves are beautiful, like a growing and maturing stalk of wheat. Additionally, these acts are valuable and meaningful because they have a telos, they have an end goal. They are moving us and others closer to the full realization of the Kingdom of God.
This last Thursday through Saturday morning I took part in the Summer Delegate Assembly for Virginia Mennonite Conference. One of the things that we do at this conference is listen to what we call “missional stories,” which are simply stories of people living out their call to follow Jesus. Using today’s parable, we might say that these were stories about sowing kingdom seeds.
One of the stories that we heard was about a group of Burmese immigrants that had settled in North Carolina, near one of our Mennonite churches. These men and women had fled Burma’s oppressive government and were allowed to live in the United States as refugees. They spoke little to no English, and you can imagine that the job opportunities are not great for a refugee that doesn’t speak much English.
This past September a group of these Burmese refugees were driving home from work, where I believe they had been working in a warehouse, cleaning during the third shift. But as they were traveling home, their van was side-swiped, killing three of the refugees, leaving families without a mom or dad, without a sister or brother, and without income.
Our brothers from the Mennonite Church reached out to this refugee community, offered their condolences, and offered to do a lot more. They started a conversation with Everence, the stewardship organization for the Mennonite Church, and applied for some grant money.
The money will never bring back the loved ones who were lost, but Everence gave a significant amount to this community of Burmese refugees. And I think that is absolutely beautiful. Our churches reached out to help a community that was hurting. In their time of need, we said, “How can we help?”
It may seem meaningless to some people, but this is beautiful for those with eyes to see. But even greater, something that we couldn’t have anticipated, that effort to reach out to this community was an act of planting kingdom seeds. God made those seeds grow, and on Friday we welcomed the Mara congregation, a church made up of Burmese refugees, as a full member of Virginia Mennonite Conference.
This world will at times seem meaningless. The seasons come, and the seasons go. But we must keep planting seeds. There is beauty in this act, and there is beauty in the end product. And as Jesus says, even the smallest of seeds planted can yield the largest of results. That’s teleology.