Mark 4.26-34, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17 & Ezekiel 17.22-24
A horse walks into a bar, on all four legs of course, pulls up a couple of stools and stares at the barman who says to him ‘why the long face’? We’ll come back to this later.
On a different note have you ever considered creating high tech experiences which allow people to escape to a different world? It’s becoming increasingly popular, virtual reality, where everything is virtual except for the bill.
Put on a pair of goggles, go nowhere but be transported anywhere. Throw off the shackles of a mundane existence through a metaphysical transportation to an altered state.
Perhaps a game where you get up every day at 5.30 am put on your goggles and headphones and travel through overcrowded roads and trains to a workplace, or one where you sit in a small room and study all day for exams, maybe a cleaning experience where you move a virtual vacuum cleaner all around a house and clean up dust. I don’t sense much excitement at these ideas. How about a virtual property world where you have to try and buy your first home only to find out they are all too expensive, with an option to rent a room in someone else’s house of course. No, I’ve got it, a game where you age much faster than in real time and have to deal with health problems, surely that would be popular? I guess none of these would have any commercial appeal as they are far too close to many people’s daily reality.
It seems we prefer virtual experiences where we become a rock star, a sports hero, kill evil enemy in battle, build dream homes and alter our appearances so were a bit more like George Clooney or Naomi Campbell.
Of course whilst the technology has moved on a little from 2000 years ago the concept of different forms of reality is certainly nothing new.
Paul was writing to the early church members in the important Greek city of Corinth with the aim of helping them get to grips with a new form of reality and its challenging stuff for both them and us.
Paul wants the church to see that there is a reality which goes beyond what our bodies experience. It’s often hard for us to look beyond our selfish instincts and our yearning for security. In a world that often measures success by material possessions who wants to risk looking like they are losing the race?
But Paul wants the church to discover a reality which goes so much deeper than the superficial, he wants us to have ‘new eyes’ ones that see things differently. He says ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’, the new reality should be God focussed not ‘me’ focussed and this will require us to trust God in a way that goes beyond what we can physically see.
The love of God made known in Christ offers us a wonderful reality and when we try to see the world in that light it starts to look different. It is the only reality which gives us hope that is timeless.
Don’t forget that Paul speaks as a man who was himself stuck in the old reality, he knows what it was like. When left to his own means he was a persecutor of Christians and his idea of what God wanted was very different. He speaks as a man who knows that what he is asking is not easy, he used to think that God was for an exclusive group of people before he came to know that his love is for all.
To live as people who really believe that what God has done makes a difference can be difficult, situations are complex, when someone pushes us our instincts are to push back harder. When we decide to take God’s love out in the world and try to make it real only to have it thrown back in our faces we can become weary, cautious or even it give it up as a bad idea.
If you’ve ever tried to help a wounded animal you will get the idea. You think you know what might help and may be prepared to try but your best intentions are met with aggression as the victim instinctively tries to protect itself.
I can remember trying to help someone who had been in and out of prison but the first time he let me down I was angry and gave up on him. I had naively thought that the natural response to kindness should be gratitude whereas I realise now that it was such a rare event for this person that he really had no idea how to respond. Over a sustained period of time it may have been different but even if it wasn’t this is the sort of difficult path we need to think about which goes beyond most of what passes for reality in our world. It is hard but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.
Thankfully God doesn’t give up , when we are loveless and sneering he is still available to us if we are prepared to accept him. There are no barriers other than those we choose to make ourselves.
Jesus wants the people hearing him to understand how different the kingdom of God is to their experience of a kingdom where the powerful rule unjustly. Because many who heard his parables made their living from farming or fishing it is no coincidence that aspects of the natural world arise. God’s kingdom in its entirety would be too much for us, literally mind blowing so Jesus gives us parables to demonstrate aspects of the kingdom that we can relate to from every day experiences.
Parables help us discover the truth for ourselves rather than simply being told that something is factual and that we should believe it. They can help us find the new eyes needed to discover a reality beyond the immediate and obvious and are worthy of our attention.
There’s a cheerful sense of mischievousness to the way many parables start. It’s often not what people are expecting to hear, perhaps a bit like some comedians engage you by saying something ridiculous like a horse walked into a bar…it’s not so much that people listening to Jesus expected a joke but they were hooked initially to the extent that they wanted to know how the parable would end, even if they were sometimes left puzzled.Apparently black mustard grows wild in the Jordan river valley to the height at which a person on horseback can stop under it for shade. Yet when you hold its tiny seed in your hand it can be a leap of imagination to believe in its potential. Yet this tiny seed held similarities to the kingdom of God according to Jesus.
Put your virtual reality goggles on and sit yourself among hundreds gathered to hear Jesus talk at Seal Rec’ as he says the kingdom of God is like an acorn that grew to become a mighty oak, and were hooked.
It seems likely that Jesus is offering a parallel to his own situation. One man in Galilee isn’t exactly the kingdom of God type change that people were expecting. How could God bring the change needed from such apparently tiny resources?
It could also be a source of encouragement for us when we consider giving up because resources are meagre or numbers are small.If we were trying to tell someone how we think God wants us to live, what it would be like to have heaven on earth where might we begin?
The kingdom of God is like… like what? What might we say based on our experiences, what do we see that we feel gives us even the tiniest glimpse?
The kingdom of God is like…the man that heals the injured dog even though he knows it’s going to attack him when he tends to its injuries.
The kingdom of God is like…the lowly paid immigrant worker who feels unwanted and is looked down upon yet continues to work extra hours unpaid and provide the very best care she can to the people in the nursing home.
The kingdom of God is like…parental love that that refuses to give up on the wayward child and wants only the best for them.
The kingdom of God is like…virtual reality goggles that let you see a world of peace, justice, joy, free from suffering, greed and indifference to the plight of our fellow human beings.
The prophet Ezekiel spoke of a noble cedar tree as a symbol of a great kingdom providing refuge and shelter. Surely our job as kingdom workers is to follow Paul’s encouragement to ‘walk by faith’, keep moving forward confident in the knowledge that every step, every small act that builds the kingdom makes it a reality for many others.