So today we come to the conclusion of our Divine Commodity series. In this series we have been exploring the person of Vincent Van Gogh, his art, consumerism, the church and following Jesus. We have explored spiritual practices that we can begin to practice which confronts consumerism, and liberates our imaginations to live as Christ’s people in a consumer culture which is directly opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God.
Over the last nine weeks we have explore spiritual practices like imagination, silence, identity rooted in Jesus and not our performance, communion with God, Christ centered relationships, taking up your cross, unity and last week we looked at the Biblical and missional call to hospitality. Today we wrap it all up looking at God’s call to be on his mission in the world, to be about the advancement of his Kingdom, where heaven touches down on earth, where Shalom is breaking forth, but with a twist that confronts each and every one of us in our consumer driven culture. Before we get to our text for the morning, his call to be on his mission, and the twist, let’s explore a little bit about our painting and a little bit more about Van Gogh.
First, a quote from Van Gogh that I believe will set the stage for further discussion of our topic. “Christ labored 30 years in a humble carpenter’s shop to fulfill God’s will. And God’s will that in imitation of Christ, men should live and walk humbly on earth. No reaching for the sky, but bowing to humble things, learning from the Gospel’s to be meek and humble of heart.” So often in our consumer driven world we believe that bigger is better, faster is better than slower, and that popularity not only equals success but it also equates with legitimacy. Continual growth and expending impact are how we’ve come to define success.
But let’s take a look at Van Gogh’s painting The Sower, obviously based on a parable of Jesus. Van Gogh painted 30 canvases of sowers throughout his career. Simple peasants walking in a field scattering seed. The sower represented, for Van Gogh 3 of his passions converging into one scene, his regard for nature, his respect for peasants, and his love for the Bible. The Parable of the Sower made a deep impression on Van Gogh. Not only was The Sower inspired by the Bible it was also inspired by another painter named Millet. But in Millet’s painting which is a 40 inch piece, the sower dominates the field of vision, he is almost all that you can see. But in Van Gogh’s painting the Sower neither fills the canvas nor dominates the composition. No the main thing that draws your attention is the citron-yellow sun. We have seen over and over and over again Van Gogh’s use of yellow (and his use of the son) to represent God, to represent the presence of the divine. So Van Gogh, in a very real way, is taking the focus off the sower, the humble servant in the field, and putting the focus squarely on God himself. It is Christ who dominates the field of vision in Van Gogh’s piece and not the humble servant out to spread the seeds in the field.
Now let’s turn to two of Jesus parables that talk about seeds and the sower and let’s see what they might have to say to us in our 21st century consumer-driven culture and see what spiritual practice that these parables may give us to apply to our life and give us imagination for the future.
First let’s look at what is called the Parable of the Growing Seed found in Mark 4:26-29. Mark 4:26-29 says, “He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” In this parable Jesus is trying to give his listeners, and us, a picture or a metaphor for what life in the Kingdom of God is really all about, the Kingdom where he rules and reigns and we submit ourselves, our lives, our community to him and his ways and not our own desires, whims, and wishes. In this parable the man (the farmer or sower if you will) has two responsibilities. The first responsibility is to go out and scatter the seed on the ground. If the farmer doesn’t scatter seed, you can bet 100% that there will be no harvest at all. The farmer needed to do his part to put the seed in the ground. The second responsibility is at the very end of the growing process, called harvesting. The farmer sees that the crop is ready and when it is, he puts a sickle to it and collects it.
The one huge thing that the farmer is not responsible for is the growth of his seeds. He has no control over whether the seeds will never grow, grow a little bit, or create a huge harvest. Yes he can make sure conditions are right. He can till the ground, plan the seed, help water the seed but in the end he can’t make the seed actually grow. That is not his responsibility. In fact, it even says that he doesn’t even know how it grows, it just does.
It reminds me of a children’s story in the book series Frog and Toad: The Garden. A summary of the story is that Toad is impressed with the garden Frog has grown and wishes he had one too, so Frog gives him a bag of flower seeds. Once Toad plants the seeds, he shouts at them to start growing, prompting Frog to come up and tell him the seeds are afraid to grow at the moment. Even though Frog tells Toad to leave the seeds alone and let the sun and rain do their work to help the seeds grow, Toad tries every other way (reading a story, singing songs, reading poetry, and playing music), all to no avail. Exhausted, Toad falls asleep one night, and the next morning, Frog wakes up Toad to show him that the seeds are starting to grow. Toad is glad he'll soon have a garden as good as Frog's because what he did was hard work. He did what he was responsible for..planting the seed. And then he tried to take responsibility for the growth of the seed, the speed of the growth, and the results, when they were out of his hands the minute the seed left his hands.
This parable also reminds me about another Scripture later in the New Testament, found in 1 Corinthians 3:6 which says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Paul is saying that a follower of Jesus’ responsibility is to plant the seed, even water it, but we aren’t the one that makes it grow. God is ultimately the only one that makes it grow. God is the one responsible for the results. Just like Van Gogh’s painting- God is the primary agent of growth. We aren’t responsible for what happens when the “seed” leaves our hands. And this isn’t a very appreciated thought in a results oriented culture like our own. We want to do something big. We want to see big results. We want fast results. And when we don’t see big, fast results we throw in the towel. We get discouraged, feel like a failure and want to quit…or am I only speaking to myself here? But let me say this again in a slightly different way…we are NOT responsible for the results, we are only responsible for being faithful to what God calls us to.
Many years ago during seminary I had one counseling class. I don’t remember too much about the class to be honest with you. But I do remember an exercise that the professor gave us each and every week. We had to memorize a statement each week and internalize it. One of those statements that I memorized is “Success is being faithful to God.” So there it is. No more, no less. Being faithful to what God calls you to is and should be enough.
Another parable that Jesus tells regarding seeds is found in Matthew 13:3-9 which says, “Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Now Jesus explains this parable to his disciples, so we know that the seed is the message of the Kingdom of God. Notice something about the farmer. Notice how we scatters the seed. This method of distributing the seed is called broadcasting. Broadcasting is a method that involves scattering seed by hand (in Bible times) or mechanically over a relatively large area. This is in contrast to the precision method which seeds are placed at precise places and at precise intervals. Obviously this farmer in the parable is not concerned about precision. He is trying to get the seeds out there and to see what sticks so to speak. He wasn’t concerned with the results. He was playing his part, his role in the growth of the seeds, which was to get them out of his bag and into the ground. And he was doing that liberally.
The results he got was that only 1 in 4 seeds actually grew and became a harvest. Only a 25% success rate. If that were a business statistic it wouldn’t be a good statistic. In our Kingdom conversation this morning, it also might mean that for every 4 people that you seek to share the Kingdom of God with only 1 will actually take the seed and let it grow within them. But that again is only thinking about results. Of which we aren’t responsible for. So my call for all of us is to put the burden upon Jesus. Give it to him. It is not yours to carry. Give it up and give it to Jesus. It is his to hold and to carry, not ours. Live in the freedom of casting the seed of the Kingdom liberally and trust God to handle the results.
This parable obviously appears to have been in Van Gogh imagination while painting his sower. In his painting we see the field, which has a rocky path in it as well as birds to snatch the seed away. And in the background, closest to the sun (which I am sure is not accident in the painting) is a field of mature grain ready to be harvested. But look at the sower. He is undeterred as he sows even though variety of outcomes are possible. He strides confidently forward- his task is to cast the seed whatever the result. And isn’t that our task as well to cast the seed of the Kingdom of God by the practices that we have been talking about all along and throughout this series? To sow the seed of the Kingdom of God through practices such as imagination, though silence, through a Christ-centered identity, through prayer, through Christ-centered relationships, through suffering, through unity, through the Biblical and missional call of hospitality and through allowing God to be God by leaving the results of our sowing his Kingdom seed to him and just faithful casting the Kingdom seed.
I finish with a quote from one of my favorite authors and a few questions that will drive our discussion.
First the quote from Dallas Willard, “The humble are dependent upon God, not on themselves. They humble themselves “under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6)….They abandon outcomes entirely to him. They “cast all their anxieties upon him, because he cares for them” (v. 7)….We do the very best we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially. But we do not carry the load…In our love of Jesus and his Father, we truly have abandoned our life to him.”
And for the questions….
What if Jesus, Paul, and Van Gogh are actually right? What if the outcome of our labor is beyond our control? What if we are not the primary agents behind growth or its absence? What if we stopped judging ourselves and others based on outcomes which rightly belong to God, and rediscover the humility of the sower- the one who rises day and night, casts the seed upon the ground and marvels as it grows?
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc… do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. Where and to whom may God be calling you to sow the seed of the Kingdom of God and giving the results up to Him?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
4. What one practice, that we looked at during our Divine Commodity series, do you need to develop in your own life? How can we as Veritas help?