The Unexpected Kingdom

Worship Series from the Gospel of Mark
Week 1

The Mysterious Kingdom

Scripture:

Mark 4:26-34

Sermon Notes

The kingdom of God is never quite what we expect. We see this in two rather surprising back-to-back parables in Mark 4.

What is the kingdom like? It’s like a farmer who tosses seed out onto a field and then walks away, says Jesus. He sleeps and he gets up. Days come and days go. Somehow, the crop grows “all by itself” (v. 28). In Greek the word is automate, from which we get our word automatic. Automatically, mysteriously, without any apparent outside assistance, the seeds grow into a big harvest.
What is the point here? Surely this is not meant to encourage inactivity on our part. We don’t walk away from Mark 4 singing “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.” Just because the word “automatic” is used here, that does not mean we are called to do nothing to advance the kingdom. Still, it is an odd little story that points to a surprising kingdom of God.

If the growing seed parable seems to be about the mystery of kingdom growth, the mustard seed image is about the apparent weakness of the kingdom. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile, however, don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you offer is laughed at because it seems puny.

To much of our size-crazed culture, the gospel appears too small for the task at hand. In the face of untold millions of starving people, we offer five loaves and two fish. In the face of trillion-dollar federal and international budgets, we celebrate the widow’s penny going into the offering plate. In the face of hostile terrorists and repressive regimes, we dispatch lamb-like missionaries to China and the Sudan and Afghanistan to witness to the Lamb who was slain. None of it seems equal to the task of reaching, much less changing, this sorry and troubled world.

Yet, as Mark 4 reminds us, hidden in that apparent weakness is the mystery—and the glory—of the kingdom of God. It is growing and moving in ways we only dimly suspect most days. Thanks be to God!

Suggested Litanies

Opening Prayer
Mighty God, as we gather to worship you we think of the past week’s experiences—some joyful, others painful. Whatever brings us here, together we pray, May your kingdom come.
Come, Holy Spirit, bring new life to our world.
Merciful Lord, we bring before you family and friends who are sick, who are mourning the loss of loved ones, who are depressed, who are stressed about complicated work situations, or whose lives seem a constant struggle. Despite daily suffering, we pray, May your kingdom come.
Come, Holy Spirit, bring new life to our world.
Lord of all creation, we look at the world around us as we come to worship you. Our world is filled with natural disasters, economic problems, terrorism, starvation, and wars. In the midst of this, and with confidence in your redeeming power, we pray, May your kingdom come.
Come, Holy Spirit, bring new life to our world. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Holy God, we confess the times we have done nothing to advance your kingdom, the times we have hoped or assumed that the kingdom of God happens without us sowing seeds. We are sorry for thinking we are too busy or too insignificant to do your work in the world. Sometimes we work hard to make your kingdom come on earth, yet we see few results. We confess we get discouraged when the world does not respond as we think it should. Forgive our impatience. Give us courage to work for the coming of your kingdom and patience to wait for your time. In Jesus name, amen.

Assurance of Pardon
God gives us these words of comfort from Romans 8:

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life sets us free from the law of sin and death.

In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we are redeemed and renewed!

Suggestion for Including Children

Adults wonder what on earth the farmer did while he was waiting for the crop to grow. But children understand the concept of waiting. In their dependence they wait for a ride home or for school to begin or to end. They wait for parents to return or for birthdays to come. Most children are active waiters. This prayer considers the importance of being active in our waiting.

Leader: Dear Jesus, the seeds of your kingdom have been planted. We eagerly look for the harvest, yet in our eagerness we wait.
Congregation: Surprise us in our waiting.
Child 1: With our eyes may we watch for the smallest changes around us.
Child 2: With our ears may we listen for your voice.
Congregation: Surprise us in our waiting.
Child 1: With our minds may we ponder your stories.
Child 2: With our lips may we whisper your praises.
Congregation: Surprise us in our waiting.
Child 1: With our hands may we touch those in need.
Child 2: With our arms may we hold up the weak.
Congregation: Surprise us in our waiting.
Child 1: With our feet may we walk in your ways.
Child 2: With our hearts may we adore you.
Congregation: Surprise us in our waiting and use us in unexpected ways. In your power and grace we wait. Amen.

Song Suggestions

“The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases” CH 576, SNC 242
“The Kingdom of Our God Is Like” SNT 34
“Bring Forth the Kingdom of God” SNC 123, SWM 236, SNT 20, SFL 154
“Our World Belongs to God” PsH 459

Week Two

The First Shall Be Last

Scripture:

Mark 9:30-37

Sermon Notes

How surprising is the kingdom of God? It is so surprising and mysterious that even quite late in Jesus’ ministry the disciples still did not understand the most basic nature of Jesus’ kingdom. No fewer than three times (in Mark 8, 9, and 10) Jesus overtly predicts his impending suffering and death. But after each prediction, one or more of the disciples immediately says something so wrong-headed that it’s clear they did not understand Jesus in the least.

Jesus lays it all out for the disciples in Mark 9:31, and yet the following verse informs us that the disciples do not understand what he was talking about. Because they’re still clinging to the belief that Jesus would become a major political powerhouse in Israel—perhaps someone who would defy the rule of the Roman authorities—the disciples decide it’s best to start angling for cabinet posts sooner rather than later. So while Jesus is up ahead on the road to Capernaum, the disciples start to haggle and argue. They try to keep their voices down, but by the time they arrive at their destination, Jesus knows what’s up. The disciples are embarrassed when Jesus shows them the error of their ways. To make the point, he uses a little child as an illustration.

It’s a sad spectacle to see these disciples haggling over privilege and prestige. Sadder still is how this still happens in the church today. In our congregations we all sense that there’s a certain “pecking order.” We can’t deny that we pay more attention to—and lavish more public praise upon—those who do things “up front” in the church while we pay little heed to the quiet volunteers who don’t want their names in the bulletin.

“If anyone would be first, he must be last,” Jesus said. He was talking chiefly about himself, of course. Yet this is the one aspect of Christ-likeness that most of us have the hardest time imitating. Whatever the kingdom of God is, it tilts in different directions than the kingdoms of this world. God’s kingdom is the one place where power politics and ambition—the things that mean getting ahead in the world—have the paradoxical effect of making a person the least of all. Maybe that’s why infusing the church with power and the trappings of our hard-driving world remains a grave temptation.

Suggested Litanies

Call to Worship
God calls us to worship him as little children.
God is good; God is great!
God created the whole world.
God is good; God is great!
God came to earth, lived, died, and rose for us.
God is good; God is great!
God heals us and helps us grow.
God is good; God is great!
Praise God for his great love for us.
God is good; God is great!

Prayer of Confession
Lord God, we confess that we don’t always understand you and your kingdom. We want others to see and admire the work we do. We thrive on attention and praise. We’d like people to think we are more important than others. For the times when we want to be recognized more than we want to do your kingdom work, we are sorry. We confess that we do not always appreciate the work others do. Forgive our jealousy when others receive more honor than we do. Help us to serve without striving for prestige. May we live for you with the humility, innocence, and joy of a child. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon
God gives us these words of comfort from Romans 8:

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption. And by the Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit testifies that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.

In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we are redeemed and renewed!

Suggested Songs

“The World Turned Upside Down” SNT 42
“Father, Help Your People” PsH 607

Week 3

Like a Child

Scripture:

Mark 10:17-31

Sermon Notes

In Mark 10:13-16 Jesus holds up a lowly child as a role model—only to bump immediately into a young man who is the opposite of all things childlike. The kingdom of God is always an unexpected surprise.

In this case, the surprise comes from Jesus’ assertion that the way into the kingdom is to follow the path of the “losers” in our midst. In Jesus’ day children were not regarded as charming or enviable in their sweet innocence. Instead they were viewed as unproductive members of society who should grow up as quickly as possible in order to work and help put bread on the family table. Jesus’ suggestion that entering the kingdom is somehow tied with this lowly station in life was shocking.

The young man will have none of it. He’s pretty sure the way into the kingdom is down the path of hard work and moral perfection. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” His question reveals much. This man has a can-do attitude! At first Jesus seems to validate the idea that hard work leads to the kingdom by reeling off a list of commandments. Jesus knew what we know: once you give someone a list, it soon begins to look like a checklist. This young man has been keeping such a checklist all along. If that’s the list to get into the kingdom, he proudly tells Jesus, he’s all set.

But one of the many surprises about God’s kingdom is that it doesn’t work that way. To make the point, Jesus goes for the chink in this man’s moral armor by telling him to sell all that he has. “There’s just one box left to check on that list,” Jesus says. “Once you put a big red mark there, then come and follow me.” The man goes away sad because, as Mark tells us, he has a great many possessions.

In truth, every person who approaches salvation this way will, sooner or later, walk away sad. If attaining eternal life is about getting a perfect score on life’s checklist of virtues, we all have at least one box that’s impossible to check off.

The tendency toward self-reliance and pride is something we all struggle with. That’s why Jesus tells this man to sell all he has. Jesus wants this man to become sad enough so that one day he’ll return to say, “Good teacher, I seem to be unable to save myself by my own efforts. Is there another way?”

Yes, there is. It is the way of little children. It is the way of recognizing we can’t do it, of admitting we are stuck, of acknowledging that depending on Christ is the only way. We need to swallow a whole lot of pride to accept salvation by grace alone. But that is just the point of Mark 10.

Suggested Litanies

Opening Prayer
The Worship Sourcebook S.1.4.1

Prayer of Confession
Jesus, we can’t save ourselves, but sometimes we act like we can. We think we can do everything on our own. We work hard and try to follow all the rules. We confess our self-reliance and our pride. Remind us that you are the only way to salvation. Your grace alone sets us free. Give us the humility to admit our failures and the courage to accept your grace. In your name we pray, amen.

Assurance of Pardon
God gives us these words of comfort from Ephesians 2:

Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.

In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we are redeemed and renewed!

Suggestions for Including Children

The surprise for the young man in Mark 10:17-31 is that he must let go of being self-reliant. The sacrament of baptism or the reaffirmation of baptism would be a wonderful part of a worship service during this series. Put up the baptism banners and bring the font forward. Draw children in with visuals and with the baptism liturgy. Have a children’s message about baptism. Let children dip their fingers in the water to remember their baptism. Consider using a Reaffirmation of Baptism litany such as the one in Sing! A New Creation 240.

Song Suggestions

“Come to the Water” SNC 234
“With God All Things Are Possible” SNT 59
“Faith Begins By Letting Go” SNT 172
“Lord, Make Us Servants” PH 374, SNC 204
“We Know that Christ Is Raised” PH 495, PsH 27

Week 4

Cup of Humility

Scripture:

Mark 10:35-45

Sermon Notes

“Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” Of all the questions Jesus ever asked, this one deserves a careful, sober answer. It’s not a question to answer too quickly. James and John, though, answer Jesus’ question with a very quick, “You bet we can!” They envision the “cup” in question to be a bejeweled golden goblet filled with good wine at the feast of Jesus’ inauguration as the replacement for the caesar.

Mark does not describe the tone of Jesus’ voice when he replies: “Yes, you will drink the cup I drink.” Jesus has every reason to be upset with these two for so brazenly asking for the top spots in his kingdom. But perhaps his voice is sad as he tells them they will, indeed, have to drink from the very bitter cup of sacrifice and suffering.

The story doesn’t end here, however. It doesn’t take long before Bartholomew or Matthew or someone says to the other disciples, “Did you hear what James and John just asked Jesus for!?” The ten disciples cut their eyes sharply in the direction of James and John, grumbling about such bold jockeying for position. So Jesus huddles them together and says, “You just don’t get it, do you? Do you think my ministry is about nothing more than the business-as-usual power plays of the rest of the world? I am all about servanthood. I came to serve, not to be served. So if it’s greatness you’re looking for in my coming kingdom, you’d best start grasping for the bottom rung of the ladder!”

“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Jesus asks James and John. “We can” they reply confidently—and in some ways we reply with equal confidence today. Every time we approach the Lord’s Table we are offered that exact same cup of suffering and humility. Each time we celebrate the feast, we perform a sign that we believe in Jesus. We believe in his program. We believe in his gospel. We believe in his self-proclaimed path to true spiritual greatness.

But how does our drinking of Jesus’ cup in this way transform our lives? Or are we as likely as James and John to turn right around and, come Monday morning, start angling for power (in the world, in the church, in our business, in our family . . . wherever)? We affirm Jesus’ cup. But do we join Jesus in trying to seize the bottom rung of the ladder? Do our very lives proclaim the grace of God that alone reveals God’s utterly surprising kingdom of grace, of love, of sacrifice?

Suggested Litanies

Opening Prayer
Jesus Christ, loving servant, you are King over all the earth. You are holy and almighty, yet you choose to become powerless. We praise and thank you for becoming one of us. We love you for who you are and for what you did for us. We want to be like you. Teach us to love each other as you love us. Make us ready to serve you and each other for your glory. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Christ, our Lord, while you lived on earth, you showed us how you wanted us to live. You gave us everything and lived as a servant. You taught that in your kingdom the first would be last and the last would be first. We confess that we often try to be first. We forget that you call us to follow your example as a servant. We want your kingdom to come but we are unwilling to make sacrifices. We proclaim that we believe in you but our lives do not always show it. Forgive us for our inconsistency. May our lives reflect your transforming grace. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon
God gives us these words of comfort from 1 John:

If anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we are redeemed and renewed!

Song Suggestions

“James and John Once Came to Jesus” SNT 43
“This Is Our God/Meekness and Majesty” SNC 109
“Friends in Faith” SNC 135
“The Servant Song” CH 424, SFL 248, SNC 277, WR 391
“Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love” PH 367, PsH 601, SFL 251, SWM 249, WR 273

Excerpts

The Unexpected Kingdom: Ideas for Including Children

The Scripture passages used in this series all focus on the startling and unexpected: a plant grows from a tiny seed; the first becomes last and the last becomes first; Jesus gives us the startling command to become like a dependent child; and our Savior tells his disciples that he will suffer and die as a sacrifice.

To help kids understand the message, you can create banners, bulletin covers, or PowerPoint examples of these miracles to use during the series. If you have time, invite children to help you! If not, provide outlined images for children to color or encourage them to create their own illustrations. Some themes you might wish to incorporate include

  • the weak becomes strong
  • seed to plant
  • acorn to oak
  • egg to eagle
  • tadpole to frog
  • caterpillar to butterfly
  • baby to adult
Song suggestions:

“God of Great and God of Small” SFL 29
“Jesus Loves Me” CH 185, PH 304, PsH 571, SFL 61, SWM 209, TH 189, WR 437

More Resources on the Gospel of Mark

For more ideas for preaching on the gospel of Mark, go to http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/index.php. Also listen to Calvin Seminary’s Fall Preaching Conference: “Preaching the Gospel of Mark to a Restless Culture” by Dr. Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University:
www.calvinseminary.edu/calendar/lectureCalendar.php.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Kathy Sneller (nksneller@tds.net), a preschool teacher and leader for Children and Worship at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids for twenty years, contributed the children’s ideas.
 

 

Carrie Steenwyk (cls24@calvin.edu) is the Coordinator of Special Projects at the CEP.