And he said, "This is the way it is with the kingdom of God. It is as though someone were
to sow seed in the ground and sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and
grow up without his knowing how."
This past spring I heard a story that I find tragic. It was about a young man who had
joined a rather evangelical church and was invited to dinner by its pastor. In the course
of the evening, the pastor asked the young man whether he had been saved. The young man
said that he had. I suspect he figured that if he said no he would be subjected to a very
earnest and intense campaign for his salvation. As it was, the pastor then asked him to
tell the story of his rebirth, and he made one up. Now, a few years later, he is still a
member of that church, knowing in his heart that he is living a lie and profoundly afraid
that he is damned for it.
There can be no doubt, I believe, of the reality of conversion experiences. The classic
serious study of them is William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. One of the
most spectacular is that of the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, who captained a slave
ship until the hellishness of his life broke in on him.
One of the best known is that of Paul on the road to Damascus, which may be surprisingly
similar. A few years back, I ran across a book by a German scholar, a painstaking
reconstruction of the beliefs of those early Christians who saw Jesus simply as a second
Moses, a prophet come to reform Judaism. There are muted echoes of this belief in Acts
especially, where we hear of debate as to whether or not such Jewish practices as
circumcision and keeping kosher were abrogated or not.
What emerges from other early texts is that this movement centered in Jerusalem under the
leadership of Jesus' brother James. One account that exists in three slightly different
versions tells of a debate between this party and various parties of Judaism, a debate
that went well until a rabble rouser stirred the crowd to violence. James was either
seriously injured or killed in the riot, and one of the accounts has him killed by the
rabble rouser himself. The group then fled toward Damascus, with their enemy in pursuit,
and it is abundantly clear that the hostile man was Paul. Acts tells us that he was
"breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples;" this lends some perhaps
uncomfortable substance to the generalization.
Clearly, that confrontation on the road to Damascus made a huge difference, a wonderful
change. A problem seems to arise, though, when it is insisted that everyone should have
this experience, that this is the only path of salvation. Surely it is understandable,
almost predictable, that someone who has experienced such an immense sense of liberation
should want to share that blessing with others.
But is this the only way? Could the young man in my opening story have said, "I am in
process?" In the specific instance of Paul's conversion, we may forget that the other
disciples had not had comparable experiences. Their qualification was that they had lived
with Jesus and had lived through the crucifixion and resurrection. When they looked for
someone to replace Judas, they did not look for someone who had been "born again," but for
someone "of those who had been in our company all the time that the Lord Jesus was going
in and out among us," someone who had shared their day to day experience, someone who had
been and could be "a witness with us of his resurrection." They were not at all sure, in
fact, that Paul's private experience qualified him as an apostle.
Our text is one of the clearest of many that point to a gradual process. It helps to see
it in its context. In Mark's gospel, the parable of the Sower follows two chapters of
narrative of Jesus early ministry. If we read those chapters, we can find all four
categories. There were people who simply dismissed him as a madman--the seed fell by the
wayside and never sprouted at all. There were many who were excited by what they heard,
but who were not ready for the kind of commitment he demanded--shallow ground. There were
those who felt their vested interests threatened and watched for opportunities to accuse
him--the thorns of their "cares of this world" choked the word. There were, finally, those
who would become disciples, the good ground. They would stay with the process through
thick and thin.
After Jesus's explanation of the parable to the disciples, there is the proclamation that
everything that is hidden will be made known, and then comes our text: "And he said,
"'This is the way it is with the kingdom of God. It is as though someone were to sow seed
in the ground and sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow up
without his knowing how.'"
This is the very opposite of a sudden, dramatic experience. This image is telling us that
vital growth is taking place slowly, steadily, and subtly without our knowing how it is
happening. Each one of us, I suspect, can look back a few years--some of us more than
others--and see that changes have taken place. We have learned. Some of the rough corners
have been smoothed off. Our values have deepened. We cannot point to one particular day
when it all happened, but the change is perfectly real.
One of the Biblical images that comes to mind is that of the promise to Abram in Genesis
twelve. In the first three verses, God tells Abram that if he leaves his ancestral home
and goes to the land he will be shown, God will make of him a great nation. In the fourth
verse Abram leaves Haran, and in the fifth he arrives in Canaan. We have to read all the
way into Second Samuel, though, to reach the establishment of the great nation, when David
can sit in his house because the Lord has given him rest from all his surrounding enemies
(II Samuel 7:1).
It has been a long, gradual process. Yes, there have been major turning points along the
way, but the greatest of these, the deliverance from Egypt and the confrontation at Sinai,
did not open a door directly into blessing. It actually initiated a long period of trial
in the wilderness, followed by the wars of conquest, followed by the floundering of the
period of the judges; and when David did finally have the kingdom secure, it is mentioned
only in passing and we are on to new problems.
That kingdom, of course, eventually fell to Babylon. The prophets who saw that there would
be a restoration described that restoration in two basic ways that are not easy to
reconcile with each other. One set of images focuses on "the day of the Lord," a day of
sudden, direct divine intervention with earthquakes, fire from heaven, mountains melting,
and the wicked burned up like chaff, in an instant. The other focuses on the image of the
Messiah, the anointed descendant of David, who will gather his earthly armies as David
did, lead them through the necessary battles, and then set up a righteous government.
As Christians, we accept the Gospel testimony that Jesus fulfilled both kinds of prophecy,
and in doing so we have to recognize that he reinterpreted them. No mountains melted, no
armies were gathered. From the very beginning of his preaching ministry he talked not
about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel but about the coming of the kingdom of
heaven. The whole emphasis is shifted from the geographical, the economic, the political,
and the military to issues of personal integrity and the mutual love and understanding
that make for true and just community. This is the only kind of kingdom that will not
John the Baptist spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree. Jesus was not
interested in alleviating symptoms. His mission was to go to the heart of the matter, and
to put it most bluntly, the Gospels seem to be telling us that the heart of the matter is
not our circumstances but our heart--human nature itself.
It is a recurrent theme. "Blessed are the pure in heart." "Where your treasure is, there
will your heart be also." "I am meek, and lowly in heart." "Out of the fullness of the
heart the mouth speaks." "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries,
fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies; these are what defile people." "Are your
hearts still hardened?" "Moses gave you this commandment because of the hardness of your
heart." "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." "So settle it in your
hearts not to meditate beforehand what you will answer." "O fools and slow of heart to
believe all that the prophets have spoken!" "Did not our hearts burn within us while he
was talking with us on the way?" "Let not your heart be troubled."
The message is there for us if we are willing to see it. Whatever problems we may see in
the world around us, their ultimate source is in human hearts, and human hearts can
change. We must challenge the voice that says, "You can't change human nature," demand
that it prove its point. Against it we can testify that our own human natures have
changed. Here, too, genuine conversion experiences come to our aid because the changes are
so abrupt and significant.
But remember, Paul did not head for Damascus looking for a conversion experience.
Essentially, that kind of experience is a gift which we do not manufacture. By definition,
it is beyond our control. What we do control is our day to day living, our sleeping and
rising. All the evidence says that if we consistently try to be honest with ourselves and
open to each other, we will change.
We will not be changing ourselves. The little parable of our text is very explicit about
that--we do not even know how the growth takes place. In other words, this gradual growth
is no less a gift of amazing grace than is the sudden, overwhelming moment. In the
physical world, it is a miracle that every tiny seed embodies a pattern and a life that
can yield a complete plant. In our lives, it is a miracle that our little conscious
efforts can open the door for the Lord to work such profound changes in our hearts.
There is a corollary to this that can be immensely important. We do meet people who strike
us as blatantly self-centered or callous or destructive. Sometimes we know something of
their history, their background, but we do not know what lies ahead for them. We do not
know what changes are taking place inside them without their knowledge or what pressures
may be building toward a crisis and a total change. We must deal with them as they are,
without rose-colored glasses. We have no warrant for sliding into a shallow optimism that
assumes that everything will work out for the best. We are far too imperfectly informed,
though, to be sure that no change is possible.
Little by little, people do change. We have seen it happen in others, we have seen it
happen in ourselves. Everything the Gospels teach us leads us to live in such a way that
this is truly change for the better. The Gospels themselves are part of that word that has
been sown in our hearts, that continues to be sown. There is within them both the pattern
and the life to grow and bear fruit. We can suppress that growth by self-deception and
irresponsibility, or we can encourage it by inner candor and outward thoughtfulness.
If we suppress it, we may or may no be setting ourselves up for a dramatic conversion. If
we encourage it, we may surely trust the word to do its part, to sprout and grow within