Last week we saw how Samuel was hurt by the elders of Israel. They wanted him to give them a king ‘so we can be like other nations.’ His hurt was that of any pastor. Had the faith he’d tried so hard to nurture in these people somehow never taken root? They’d humoured Samuel in the good times, but as soon as things looked a bit uncertain – with those ratbag sons of his, he certainly didn’t look like a safe bet for Israel’s future security; what would happen when Samuel died? – as soon as things looked a bit uncertain their lack of faith made them throw everything away for a quick fix – just do what everyone else does. Did Samuel waste his life on these people?
We know he didn’t . We know Samuel’s faith was justified. In spite of Israel’s disloyalty, we know God stayed with them all along. We see that today.
This week, we’re a long way deeper into his story. Samuel eventually did give Israel a king; Saul – the biggest, strongest warrior among them. And Saul did have all the problems Samuel predicted: pride, greed, self-reliance. God quite understandably told Samuel to give up on Saul; to go and find a successor. And today that’s what we see happening. God tells Samuel to fill his horn with oil and go to Bethlehem. There, Samuel must anoint one of the sons of Jesse; the one whom God has foreseen will be the next king of Israel.
This time, it’s Samuel’s turn to be surprised. God doesn’t let him anoint any of Jesse’s older sons, no matter how big and capable they look. Instead, he’s to anoint the youngest – David – a mere child who may have been no more than seven or eight years old. But the Lord said, 16.12 ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
This is a story I remember every time we anoint someone with the oil of chrism; someone we’ve just baptised. Anointing is a sign to us that the Holy Spirit has come upon that new Christian from this moment on.
In the language of today’s parables, we believe the Holy Spirit, who comes into us at our baptism is planted in us like the seeds were planted. We look forward to the sprouting, the growing and the eventual harvest that God will enable through this new Christian. We onlookers might lose track of things – sleep and rise night and day, while the seed sprouts and grows, we know not how. But thanks be to God, we believe that the [Spirit] produces of itself…
Theologian, Wendy Farley describes it this way. ‘Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and as effortlessly as seeds grow. We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us that we can just go to sleep. In fact it might be better if we did sleep through the whole thing, snug and safe, resting like babies in our mothers’ arms. This trust so deep that we can sleep without anxiety is much more useful to us than fussing over the little seed: dousing it with pesticide, repotting it, clucking anxiously over the amount of sun it has.’ Farley, W. (2009). Theological Perspective on Mark 4:26‒34. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 3, pp. 140–142). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
I struggle with Wendy Farley’s approach here. Instinctively, I feel as if God must be busy with far more important things than me; that if I just manage things at my end, my poor, overworked God will be freed up to do more important things elsewhere. But then I remember the Samuel story: the people didn’t trust God – they didn’t trust Samuel. They came up with their own solution: be self-reliant. Don’t wait on God.
They were, of course wrong. But even so, God stayed with them—guided them in the direction of a better king. So I must trust God; rest in God.
But I was talking about seeds, wasn’t I. I planted some lawn seed a few months ago and it seemed to me that it took ages to germinate. I’d keep on coming into whinge to Vicky after yet another fruitless inspection with grim forebodings of a failed crop. But it did grow, of course. And now, after a few mowings, this fine lawn smiles up reproachfully at me as if to say, ‘From a seed, I’ve always been there. And you, Peter, were very foolish to doubt me.’
The parables we heard today – the parable of the seed sown on the ground and the parable of the mustard seed ‘… are hope-filled parables. God will not fail to fulfill the promise of salvation. It is already coming to be in this world – like the seed sown in the earth, or the remarkable growth of the bush from the mustard seed, silently but powerfully coming to be.’ Saliers, D. E. (2009). Pastoral Perspective on Mark 4:26‒34. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 3, p. 142). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
And that’s just it: God is to be trusted. We’ve been baptised – entrusted to God – and we should be content with that. In a sense, that’s a powerful witness. An agnostic friend of mine once commented that he respected infant baptism in the Church, even though he isn’t a believer. For him, if people believed, it was only logical that they would show their belief by entrusting their precious children to God’s care and guidance.
So this is one of the myriad ways these mysterious seed parables can be read. By God’s grace, ‘Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and as effortlessly as seeds grow.’ Our programmes and strategies and plans don’t ensure that people come to trust in God; the Holy Spirit does. Carrying on as if it all depends on our efforts does God a terrible disservice. We mustn’t forget that God is active, alive and, in fact, pretty experienced in the way of giving love and care; giving them in ways that can even break through human folly and nurture to growth the seeds that have been strewn in us. Amen