In 70ad, the great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire. The scene was brutal and bloody. War had been raging for several years as zealous Israelites led a rebellion against Rome. The armies of Rome retaliated by sieging Jerusalem, trapping the Jerusalemites and cutting off their supply lines. Pestilence, hunger, and brutality ravaged the city. The Jewish military leaders began to fight each other, even as their city was surrounded by the armies of Rome. The suburbs outside the city, once rich and beautiful with homes and farmland, forests and parks were now a waste, covered in ash, trampled under the heels of Roman soldiers.
Eventually the Roman armies breeched the walls, and in the chaos, the Temple was set ablaze. That great and glorious house of worship the size of six football fields and able to hold a million people, burned to the ground. Thousands died either from the flames or at the hands of Roman swords. The conflagration in the Temple was so strong that it blazed a full day, razing all but one wall of the temple to the ground, and so hot that the whole mountain upon which the Temple rested was said to radiate heat.
The destruction of Jerusalem was a horror for all those who experienced it. But it was also horrible for those Jews who did not experience it directly. Jerusalem, and the Temple in particular, was the center of Jewish religion. Without a place to make sacrifices, many believed they were cut off from God, unable to have a proper relationship with God. Some believed the destruction of the Temple signaled the end of the Jewish people.
It’s important to remember that at this time in history, the followers of Jesus (who we call Christians) were still considered to be Jewish. The average follower of Jesus would have considered himself a Jew. The term “Christian” didn’t come around until later. So the destruction of the Temple would also have been equally devastating to Jesus’ followers as well.
The Gospel of Mark was most likely written in the midst of this trouble. The average Christ-follower would have been wondering: what will become of us now that the Temple is destroyed? What is the future of our faith? Where is God now that the Temple is a pile of rubble? The fate of the Jesus movement seemed to hang in the balance. So Mark sought to address some of these questions and today’s parables do just that.
Today we hear a parable that is unique to Mark: the parable of the sprouting grain. It goes like this: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
How could this parable be comforting to anyone, let alone someone who survived the destruction of the Temple? Let’s take a closer look. This parable, like so many of Jesus’ parables, is grounded in agricultural imagery—imagery that would have been very familiar to almost everyone in the first century. And even for us, almost 2,000 years later, it’s still easy to imagine. A farmer goes out and plants his crops. Over time, the plants grow slowly but surely: first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. The farmer does some things to promote good growing conditions: he fertilizes the field, eliminates pests, maybe irrigates to provide water. But here’s the important part: ultimately, the seeds grow on their own. No one can make a seed grow. It is the work of the seed itself and the earth which provides nourishment that leads to growth. The farmer in this parable is clueless as to how the seeds actually grow. He just trusts that they will and goes about his business. And when the time for harvest comes, he doesn’t sit around pondering how the harvest came about. He just grabs his sickle and starts to reap.
This parable would have been comforting to a survivor of the Temple destruction because its central message is that God’s mission depends ultimately upon God, not us. Unlike other parables which speak at length about the responsibilities of a disciple, the main character in this story is rather passive. Yes he plants the seeds, but really the crop grows on its own. The farmer simply bears witness to its growth. So it is, Jesus claims, with God’s mission. We certainly have a part to play in God’s mission, but at the end of the day, it is God’s mission. God is the one who gives the growth. For the most part, our job is just to bear witness to what God is doing.
A theologian once said that all ministry is God’s ministry. This means that all the ministry we “do” is ultimately just an extension, an echo, a taste of the ministry that God is already doing for the world. We tell the world about the good news of the gospel not because we made it up and thought it would be a good idea, but because God first told us the good news of the gospel. We serve our neighbors not just because we love them, but because in serving our neighbors we testify to God’s love for them. To put it simply, we love because God first loved us. The ministry we do is really not our ministry—it’s God’s ministry.
And if all ministry is God’s ministry, then the success or failure of that ministry belongs ultimately to God, not to us. This is the striking claim of today’s parable. Humanity is not excluded from the story. The farmer is there to bear witness to the growth of the seeds. But the action, the growth, the life—it’s all the work of the seeds and the soil. It’s all the work of God. This parable would be comforting to the Temple destruction survivors because it would tell them that all ministry is God’s ministry and the success or failure of that ministry belongs ultimately to God; and nothing, not the destruction of the Temple, nor the might of the Roman Empire, nor even death will stand in the way of God’s mission of love.
Today, we do not face anything as catastrophic as the destruction of the Temple in 70ad. We are, however, experiencing a period of extended decline in the church. The church of Europe and North America which was once so strong is now atrophying. We, like those Christ followers after the destruction of the Temple, might be asking similar questions: what will become of us now that our churches are declining? What is the future of our faith? Where is God when our churches become nothing but a pile of rubble?
The answer for us is ultimately the same as it was for those early Christians: remember that all ministry is God’s ministry, and the success or failure of God’s mission belongs ultimately to God, not us. If we take a look at the history of Christianity, we can see that the church around the world seems to ebb and flow. It will be strong in one part of the world for a time, and then that region will decline and the faith will blossom in some other part of the world. While the church seems to diminish here in the U.S., it is booming in places like China, Tanzania, and Latin America. We don’t really know why. We are called simply to trust that God knows what God is doing, that the good news of Jesus will not fail, that, despite appearances, God’s ministry continues on.
Sometimes it can feel like everything depends upon us. We look out at the world and see all the ways that people suffer. We look out and see more and more churches closing their doors. And we’re left to think that it is up to us to end all the suffering and fill up the pews. But the truth is that we are not in charge of this ministry. God is. We are simply called to be faithful participants. Like the farmer in today’s parable, we simply bear witness to what God is already doing. The acts of serving our neighbors or sharing the good news or worshipping God are, at their core, a testimony, a way of bearing witness to God’s ministry. When we do those things, we show the world what God is already doing.
Our task is not to singlehandedly revitalize the church. Our task is simply to bear witness to God’s work in the world. The ultimate fate of that ministry is up to God, not us.
So sleep and rise. Bear witness. Do not fear. The ministry belongs to God, and our God never fails.