Elisabeth Elliot is a well-known Christian author who’s written many well-known books, but, as far as I know, only one novel. It’s called No Graven Image. And when this novel was published, people hated it.
It’s the story of Margaret Sparhawk, a godly woman who goes to the mission field full of zeal and high ideals. She is going to completely surrender to God and she is going to give her life in service to him. She does go. She learns the language and creates a large body of work on the culture and language of the tribe. She works to build trust so she can spread the gospel. But after the tragic accidental death of an associate, the tribe of people turn against her and in minutes destroy all the work she has done, a lifetime of dedication taken away in an instant. That’s how the book ends.
You can see why people hated the book. Where’s the happy ending? How could God allow her work to go to waste? Many felt that God would never allow this to happen to somebody serving so faithfully. And yet others found the book to be refreshingly honest and realistic. Many missionaries do serve a lifetime and have nothing to show for it at the end. Many churches do work faithfully but never become what the world would term a success. Many parents do teach their children the gospel, but the children never respond. We’ve taught the youth group or a Sunday school class, but there’s nothing to show for it. And it causes us to get discouraged, and even to give up.
This is exactly the situation that the passage in front of us addresses. This passage teaches us three things that we desperately need to learn. First: what ministry looks like. Second: what’s really happening. And finally: the results. If we pay attention to this passage, it will renew us in our ministries like nothing else. I need to hear this, and maybe some of you do as well.
So let’s begin by seeing what this passage teaches us about what ministry looks like.
When I was a child, I sensed that God was calling me to one day be a pastor. I’m not sure that I really knew what it would look like, but I think I expected that it would be glamorous work. But Eugene Peterson got it right. He’s been pastor for much longer than me, and this is what he says about the people in the congregation:
…this haphazard collection of people who somehow get assembled into pews on Sundays, half-heartedly sing a few songs most of them don’t like, tune in and out of a sermon according to the state of their digestion and the preacher’s decibels, awkward in their commitments and jerky in their prayers.
I almost feel like I have to add what my grandfather used to say: “present company excepted.” But you know what he’s talking about. And here is what ministry is like:
It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.
There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious…I don’t deny that there are moments of splendor in congregations. There are. Many and frequent. But there are also conditions of squalor…
Now, he’s talking about pastoring, but I think we need to recognize that what he says is true of ministry in general. I don’t know what type of ministry you’re involved with. You may be a small group leader or a Bible study leader. You may be teaching kids or running the women’s program. Your ministry may not show up on an org chart anywhere, because a lot of ministry takes place under the radar where nobody sees it. But I’ll tell you this: ministry is unglamorous. It often looks insignificant, and the results are hard to measure. This is what ministry is like by its very nature.
We’re going to get to more encouraging news in a minute, but we need to realize this because if we don’t, we’ll give up. But look with me for a minute at this passage. The reason that Jesus told these stories is, I think, to explain what may have been perplexing to his followers. Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. He announced this good news, and he healed diseases and cast out demons as signposts pointing to what the kingdom looks like. You would expect that now that God had come in person that the results would be staggering. But we’ve seen already in Mark that it’s not staggering at all. Many follow him, but the reviews are mixed. The Pharisees, the Herodians, and the scribes from Jerusalem hated Jesus and his message. Even Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. By all accounts, Jesus’ ministry at this point was a failure. And Jesus stops to teach his followers something that they need to know: ministry looks insignificant and often looks like a failure. Even Jesus’ ministry did. But appearances can be deceiving. We should never judge ministry a failure just because it looks like a failure, because something much deeper is going on.
But just look for a minute at the stories Jesus told. In verses 1 to 20, he tells a story about a farmer who sows seed. Although the farmer works very hard, the seed fails three out of four times. Most of the time, it looks like failure.
Then, in verses 26 to 29, he tells the story of a farmer who scatters seed in the ground. If you’ve planted seed you know that it is an act of faith. I bought some grass seed a year ago, did all the prep work in the backyard. I eventually spread the seed. Every day I went out back and watered the dirt. The instructions said that I would start to see something happen in about 10 days. I have to admit that I had a crisis of faith on day 6, and again on day 7, and even on day 8. I’d done all the work and I had nothing to show for it yet, and there were no guarantees at that point that day 10 would be any different.
Then Jesus compares his kingdom in verses 30 to 32 to a mustard seed, which was a small, unnoticed, and insignificant seed that didn’t look like much.
And in these three stories Jesus is telling us that his kingdom and his work often looks small. It often looks inconspicuous. It often seems that nothing is happening. You don’t always see impressive results. The kingdom does not come in strength, but it comes in weakness. Quite honestly, it often looks like a failure.
Question: if this is what ministry looked like for Jesus, why would we expect it to be any different for us? If your ministry feels like a failure, if it feels small and insignificant, and if you don’t have much to show for it at this point, then you’re in good company. Jesus knows what it feels like. That’s the very nature of ministry.
Now, if we ended the sermon here, it would be a little like saying that life is hard and then you die. You’re all dismissed. Have a great week. But the passage doesn’t end here, and neither does the sermon. Jesus wants us to realize what ministry looks like, but then he wants us to see something else.
Let’s look at what’s really happening.
Jesus’ ministry looked like a failure. The religious leaders and even his family rejected him. But what’s really going on?
When something goes wrong, our first temptation is to look at the person responsible to see if there is some fault in what they are doing. So we tend to look at ourselves and think there is something wrong with us, or that we are doing something wrong. This is sometimes the case – but according to this passage, not always. When it looks like we’re failing in ministry, we should look at ourselves, but we should also look much deeper. Something else may be going on.
The first parable in verses 1 to 20 is often called the parable of the sower. But if you look carefully, the sower really isn’t the main point of the parable at all. Others call it the parable of the seed, but even that isn’t completely accurate. You could call the parable the parable of the soils, because the key and determining factor for the success of the crop is not the sower, or the seed. The sower is doing everything he can, and the same seed is sown everywhere. The difference is where the seed lands. When Jesus interprets the parable, he’s saying that the apparent lack of success is not because he has failed, or because his gospel is deficient. It’s because of the condition of those who are receiving his word: the Pharisees, the scribes, and even his family. He even quotes a puzzling passage from Isaiah, which a lot of people struggle over. But his point is that God’s Word and the gospel separate us according to our response. The fact that some people reject the gospel is not a failure of God or his gospel. It’s actually what’s supposed to happen. And given the nature of the soil conditions, failure is not at all surprising. We shouldn’t be discouraged, because even when it’s rejected, the gospel is only revealing the condition of the heart of the person who has rejected it.
Notice also in verses 26 to 29 something we need to see. The farmer scatters seed. It’s not that the farmer is unimportant. He has an important role. But notice what the farmer doesn’t do. The farmer doesn’t make the seed grow. He sleeps and gets up. Life goes on as it always does. It seems routine and mundane. But he contributes nothing in between sowing the seed and eventually harvesting it. All he does is wait. Jesus is telling us that we have a role in his kingdom. We have an important role. But the growth and success of his kingdom does not depend on us. It doesn’t depend on human effort, and human insight can’t even explain it. The seed grows, and so does the kingdom. God will take care of the results.
And then notice the mustard seed in verses 30 to 32 which looks small. But you see that the smallness of the mustard seed doesn’t tell the whole story.
What is Jesus saying? He is telling us that his kingdom does look small and insignificant. It even looks like a failure. But beneath the surface, it is accomplishing exactly what it should. Jesus gives us the confidence to see that we have a role in ministry. It’s an important role. He’s chosen to use us. But the growth doesn’t ultimately depend on us. He is in charge of the results. To human eyes, it looks futile and fruitless, resulting in repeated failures. But God is at work beneath the surface. It’s not up to us. God is at work. Ignoring all failures and against all odds, God is carrying on his beginning to completion. God is at work despite appearances.
So we’ve seen what ministry looks like: small, insignificant, and often like it’s a failure. We’ve seen what’s happening below the surface: that we have a role, but God is at work despite all odds and despite the appearances. That’s all good, but it still leaves us feeling like maybe things won’t turn out well. But there’s one more thing we have to see in this passage.
Let’s look at the results.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that if three-quarters of a farmer’s labor is wasted, that the farmer would be discouraged? But notice that story of the sower and the seed ends on anything but a sad note. Jesus says in Mark 4:8: “Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
You would think, wouldn’t you, that a mustard seed doesn’t hold much promise? It looks small. But Jesus says in Mark 4:32: “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.”
The kingdom begins in a small, unnoticed way. It mostly goes on unnoticed. It often looks insignificant. It’s weak and unglamorous. Things don’t go as we expect. But never look down on small beginnings. Never mistake apparent failure for true failure. The kingdom is growing. God is at work. He will bring about results that go beyond our asking or conceiving. The kingdom often meets with adversity, rejection, and delay, but Jesus says the results will be astounding in spite of inconspicuous beginnings. God is at work in hidden and unobserved ways. Despite discouraging odds, the harvest in Jesus’ ministry – and in ours as we join him will be beyond compare.
Years ago, G. Campbell Morgan visited a cemetery in Italy. And he noticed a huge marble slab right in the center of the cemetery. It was massive and thick. Yet, somehow, almost 100 years earlier, a small acorn had fallen into the grave where the man was buried. Over the years that little acorn grew and grew until one day it broke through the surface and cracked that marble slab into two pieces. Eventually, that tree grew up and rolled the marble slab into two pieces. With some good soil, a little water, and just a hint of light, that seed released the power to crack that massive marble slab in two.
When that acorn dropped, nobody said, “Bombs away!” It fell in weakness. But that acorn had the power to break through the thickest slab. Despite appearances, the strength of that acorn prevailed over the apparent strength of the marble.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson commissioned two men to find the source of the Missouri river. They kept following the river. They kept following until 15 months later they came to its source. The journal of the explorer records that a member of the expedition “exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked God that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”
Where we stand may look small, but as we trace things back we will find that we are a small tributary connected to a large river that would stagger us if we saw it. David Neff writes:
Is our gospel too small? From what Jesus says, I think that God likes small. Small and hidden, actually.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is like yeast. It is like a perfect pearl. It is like finding just one lost sheep. Or just one lost coin. It belongs to little children and others who were “small” in the estimation of Jesus’ contemporaries.
God likes small beginnings. He likes to work in hidden ways that are easily overlooked. He loves any lost individual, even when he has 99 percent of the others safely under his care. He passionately cares for the socially unimportant whom others trample as they rush toward worldly prominence…
Small doesn’t mean “insignificant” or “of no consequence.” Indeed, the Good News of Jesus Christ is the most consequential news bulletin in the history of the world. And the individuals for whom he died are, as the old Sunday school song says, his “precious jewels.”
God offered us something that could have been small, obscure, and forgettable. He didn’t offer us some grand universal principle. His gift was the life and death (and resurrection!) of just one person in a small country repeatedly crushed and occupied by foreign powers. He does not give us love or peace or brotherhood. He gives us Jesus, who died like a common criminal.
But when we pay attention to the small thing God gives us, it changes our entire approach to life. We see the world differently. What had seemed insignificant now demands our full attention. What had seemed ordinary now seems interesting. What had seemed a dead end now promises great potential–the redemption of the whole world.
Father, may we see you at work even when it’s hidden and even when it’s small. As somebody has said, “At the end of the life of Jesus, he cried out from the cross, ‘It is finished.’ So it must have been a success. But by human standards, his ministry at that point would have been judged a failure.”
May we see that Jesus’ work on the cross changes everything and offers hope to the weakest here. And because of that work, and because of Easter, may we be stand firm, letting nothing move us, giving ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that our labor is not in vain. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.