June 14, 2015 2 Corinthians 4: 16 – 5: 1, 6-7 Mark 4: 26-34
Rev. Catherine Purves
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,
we have a building from God, a house not made with hands,
eternal in the heavens.”
Our daughter, Laura, and her fiancé, Barnaby, love camping. This is not the kind of camping where you take a sleeping bag out in your backyard or go and stay in a somewhat rustic cabin with hot and cold running water and flushing toilets. This is real camping, tent camping, wilderness camping. They drive Barnaby’s truck as far as they can into one of California’s national parks, and then they pack everything on their backs and hike for several miles, usually up a mountain trail. We’ve seen pictures of their camping trips. The scenery is breathtaking. Everything else seems, perhaps, better suited for young adventurers. But they love it, and that is as it should be.
Sometimes Christians make the mistake of thinking that our wilderness adventure here on earth is just a regrettable ordeal that must be endured as we camp for a time in what Paul calls “the earthly tent we live in.” It would be wrong for us to assume that Paul hates camping in the body. He does admit that there are a lot of hardships associated with this camping, and he himself had to suffer through a good many of them. And he does look forward to a future home that is nothing like his current tent. He anticipates “glory beyond all measure.” Still, this life in this world is not to be regarded as nothing more than a plodding prelude to heaven. This tent is a wonderful tent, and this world is a beautiful world, and this life provides opportunities and adventures that we must accept and even relish because it is all part of our own wilderness journey which, in the end, will bring us and all creation into the Kingdom of God.
This is what Paul thought. He could barely imagine what that future would look like. But he was confident that it was coming and that somehow our life now, as rustic and challenging as it is, somehow this life in this tent is part of that. He couldn’t quite see how, but he had faith, and so he kept on hiking, uphill, with a heavy backpack, and an aging tent. This is what walking by faith and not by sight meant to him.
In our Gospel reading for today we have a couple of the shorter parables of Jesus. In each of these little picture lessons about the Kingdom of God Jesus relies on what his listeners know about horticulture and farming. Or rather, he highlights what they don’t know. Jesus was not criticizing first century farmers for their limited knowledge, far from it. He was simply reminding them that cultivating plants, from seed through harvest, is an act of faith. And no matter how much you think you know about that process, there will always be surprises arising from the mystery of germination and growth.
So, Jesus spoke, in an awestruck, almost holy way, about the seed growing secretly. The precious seeds are scattered on the ground. The farmer sleeps and rises and waits and watches, and the seeds “sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself.” And this, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God is like. It is growing secretly. No one knows how. But it has been planted in this good earth, and in secret it will grow until the grain is ripe and it is time for the harvest.
Then Jesus compared the Kingdom to a mustard seed. It is a very tiny seed, and though it will grow into a huge shrub over eight feet tall, it must begin from seed planted annually. How amazing, Jesus marvels, that this greatest of all shrubs, that provides a home for the birds of the air, could have grown from the smallest of seeds, just as God’s Kingdom, as yet unseen, will provide a home for us. It defies logic, but it must be accepted on faith.
These twin parables invite us to walk by faith through this wilderness world, with only our earthly tent to live in, but with visions of the unimaginable Kingdom that is growing secretly. That Kingdom will produce a bountiful harvest from some very small seeds. And this is God’s doing. That is the point of highlighting the secret growth and the superabundant growth. The Kingdom belongs to God, in every way, Jesus is saying. Like farmers, we attend to the mysterious growth of God’s Kingdom with a kind of reverent awe, and we wait with hope and anticipation for a harvest of glories beyond our imagining. We wait and we walk by faith.
But for some of us this walk through the wilderness is long and hard and largely uphill. Paul would sympathize with us on that. Later in this same letter to the Corinthians, in the 11th chapter, Paul describes his own sufferings in his earthly tent. He was imprisoned several times, received countless floggings, and was given 39 lashes five times. Once he was beaten with rods and once stoned. He was shipwrecked three times and was in perpetual danger on the road. He was often cold, hungry, and thirsty, and he certainly had very little money. He was constantly anxious about his churches, and we know he had some sort of chronic physical ailment that caused him some pain and that hampered his ministry. Living in the tent of his body was hard for Paul. We would probably excuse him if he longed for the end of his wilderness journey, just as we sometimes make those same allowances for others, and perhaps even for ourselves.
But, surprisingly, Paul himself says, “We do not lose heart,” and “We are always confident.” This is not random wilderness wandering for him, walking in circles in a desert of deprivation. His experience was not like that of his ancestors crossing the Sinai desert. They were always grumbling and complaining and finding fault with God because their deliverance wasn’t fast enough. By contrast, for Paul, this was a wilderness adventure. The hardships were real, but the scenery was amazing, because he was beginning to see signs that those secret seeds of the Kingdom were starting to sprout and grow. He was watching the church take root. The word that he preached was beginning to bear fruit.
Oh, of course, the churches that he planted were struggling and they were so, so vulnerable. We don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of the brutalities of farming in a wilderness. The Corinthian church was in a terrible a state, a fact that is amply demonstrated in the rest of this letter. But that only highlights the mystery of it all. Just as God could give mana in the wilderness and produce water in the desert for the Hebrews, the church, by God’s grace, has miraculously survived its 2,000 year wilderness adventure. And, in the same way, we too can carry on living in this earthly tent our home, no matter what hardships we face. We know that God led the Hebrews through the wilderness. And we have faith that Christ leads his church, and that the Spirit shepherds us through our adventure in this wilderness. We also have been given a promise: we will not always live in a tent.
Whenever we hear from Laura and Barnaby after one of their camping trips we know that they are tired, sore, and dirty and looking forward to hot and cold running water and flushing toilets – who wouldn’t? But they are also glowing with the satisfaction of seeing something through. And almost always they tell us about the things that they learned out there in the wilderness – some way in which they grew, some goal that they achieved. That makes them love their wilderness adventures all the more. Still, getting back home to San Francisco is great too. Like them, we too can love both! We can and should rejoice living in our earthly tents, while at the same time we wait with eager longing for that glorious home that will be ours in the Kingdom of God.
That glorious Kingdom of God is something that we cannot see, but we know it is there. And so, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” And so, “we are always confident.” And so, “we do not lose heart.” This world that we can see is connected to that other world that we cannot see. God is working his purpose out in this world in the church and through our own wilderness experiences in our earthly tents. This is what Paul was trying to tell us. This is what Jesus was trying to tell us. God works his greatest miracles in the wilderness. So let us walk by faith, trusting that beyond the challenges and the wonders of this wilderness lies a promised land of unimaginable beauty and joy.