Success, Failure and Faithfulness
What do you want out of life?
What did you used to think about when you said, ‘When I grow up…’?
What do you think God expects of you?
Most of us grow up thinking of success, in one way or another; but what if I told you our task is to be faithful, not successful.
The stories of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed are really countercultural when you stop and think about it… and then there is Paul who in 2 Corinthians tells us that we will be judged on our faithfulness, not on results.
We need this reminder every now and again when we are struggling to be the best, to have the best, and forget what life is really all about.
It is a challenge not only for us as we go about our life outside the church, but also on the inside… even at church we get caught up in the idea that success is more important than faithfulness…
Jesus’ own ministry was hardly a glorious success! It might sound like sort of a shock for me to say that, but it’s true. Jesus might have attracted a fair following and a bit of a reputation; He was certainly the centre of attention wherever he went, and whatever else he was, he was neither boring nor anonymous! You couldn’t be neutral about Jesus. Either you loved him, or you hated him. He didn’t allow disinterested neutrality: he forced his hearers to make decisions.
Yet for all that, his mission was a gigantic failure. We know where this is all headed and how everyone will forsake him to his lonely death as a traitor…
Paul didn’t fare much better. The church at Corinth was his church. Yet, in his absence, it had been infiltrated by other, more impressive and successful preachers and leaders who had won significant followings. They seemed far more “spiritual”.
They were more credible than Paul. Their theology appeared deeper and wiser. Paul had become passé…
Ever feel like someone else is doing it better? Ever wonder if we are succeeding as a church? Ever compare us to some other church?
Well… think about those seeds for a moment.
A parable is designed to affect a paradigm shift. It reconfigures a situation, so that we look at it from a different perspective. In doing so, the whole of reality becomes reconfigured. We no longer look at it in the same way… Parables aim for the “Aha!” moment – the gestalt switch. They’re meant to be “got”, rather than understood. Some people “get” them (as Mark reminds us in 4:33); others just don’t. So what are we supposed to “get” here?
It is our task to sow seeds. Period. Thereafter, we cannot control what happens.
What we need to do is let go of the need to succeed and understand it is more about being faithful to what we are called to do. We need to do everything we can to ensure that we communicate the gospel as faithfully and effectively as possible. At the end of the day, though, we cannot legislate or control how it will be received.
Faith is mostly about invitation; it is grace, a gift. A big part of what happens next depends on the people who hear the message.
Jesus doesn’t say that we are engaged in placing one brick upon another, cementing them into place, ensuring that the angles are correct. He talks about a farmer scattering seed on the ground. That is all the farmer can do. What happens next depends on the soil, the weather and the processes of nature. And the good news is that nature brings life and growth! Not always, it is tragically true, but it is essentially orientated towards life.
That is true also of God. God is all about life.
I think there is real freedom in finding out that it is not all up to us. We don’t need to keep searching for the right formula that will guarantee success; we just need to faithfully plant the seeds.
Here is the other reality from this parable - growth takes time. That may be obvious, but we live in an age that expects and values instant results. We are endless “tinkerers”, trying to manipulate things to ensure that we see our desired outcomes as quickly as possible. The natural world is a wonderful counter to human pride. Where we measure things in life-spans of 70-90 years: nature operates in aeons.
Did the farmer who planted the olives in Gethsemane know – or care – that the same trees in whose shade Jesus wrestled with God would be yielding fruit in the 21st century? This is God’s timescale. We cannot possibly know what our seeds will yield over time.
If you think about it, there is little evidence that we are making a real difference to the world. The state of the Church is hardly a source of hope! Even if it is going wonderfully well in our little section of the field, we know enough about the wider picture to realise that a lot of those seeds must have fallen on rocky ground.
But that is our way of thinking, not Gods. Every scrap of evidence we have from the beginning of time until this moment tells us that God is faithful and that things are continuously working out in ways we never imagined… we just need to wait. And while we wait, we need to remember to have faith.
It often feels as though we’re engaged in “ambulance ministry” rather than wholesale transformation. Yet the isolated, individual things we do are part of nothing less than a new world.
The “birds of the air” who build their nests in the mustard tree are symbolic of the Gentile nations. Jesus is making a point about Jewish eschatology: the belief that Israel’s Messiah will make the nation the centre of God’s salvation that will extend over the whole earth. This is the “kingdom” that Jesus proclaims.
Biblical images of salvation are frequently about abundant plants – forests, harvests, bumper crops. Ever wonder why this imagery is used? Think back, way back, to the original curse God gives to humanity… in toil and frustration will you till the soil your entire life… Eve and Adam are told that in order to survive they will have to work, and work hard… So God’s salvation is the reversal of this curse, salvation is portrayed in terms of release from famine and infertility.
And it is all brought about by the little ways we are faithful - visiting someone who is housebound, caring for the sick, fighting for someone’s rights, helping them to discover faith, and nurturing them in their growth. This is us sowing seeds of a new world.
That is what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:17: to be “in Christ” is to be part of the new creation.
Sowing with an eye to a future that we might not see, but believe in faith to be the ultimate goal of all we do; sowing, believing that our contribution, however small, is a contribution to something much greater than we can possibly imagine; sowing in the faith that this is in the hands of the God who raises the dead, brings the harvest and is delighted by our faithfulness: now there’s something to keep us going!
10 months ago