From The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus, by Helmut Thielicke, translated by John W. Doberstein (Harper & Row, ©1957)
Excerpt from: The Parable of the Seed Growing Silently
"Everything is created," you say. Nonsense! Everything can be made! You haven't seen anything yet. And Adam and Eve, the human beings of the first morning of creation, will still marvel at what we shall make of this world supposedly made by God, at how we shall turn it upside down.
What place do these statements have in a sermon?
They have their very proper place in it because all this concerns our soul. For anybody who holds that everything can be made must also want to make everything. And anybody who has taken everything in hand must then keep on moving that hand. He can no longer be still. Our overactivity, which constantly keeps us on the merry-go-round and yet, no matter how fast we go, gets us nowhere, but only makes us dizzy, is not caused by the fact that we were so nervous or that we had no time. It is just the opposite. We are nervous and we have no time because we think everything will stop without us and because we think we are so tremendously important — we parvenus in this old business of creation! And this is why we can never let anything get out of our hands and be entrusted to others. That's why we hold on to everything convulsively and thus wear ourselves out all over again. Undoubtedly, all this is connected with the ultimate decisions of our life and not so much at all with medicine or with the problem of our modern way of life. And because we have thus taken over the management of the bankrupt assets of creation, because now we do everything ourselves and therefore must always be producing something, we never get away from constant care and concern. For anybody who takes everything upon himself finds that everything depends on him.
That's why we go about worrying over how we shall pass tomorrow's examination, what will happen to our children, and what will happen when the market turns. We are literally beset by threatening possibilities. We have forgotten how to rely on the fact that it is God who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds of the air, that he provides our daily ration of bread, and that his kingdom comes no matter what happens. God the partner on whom we used to depend has become insolvent, and now we stand alone, utterly alone, on the commander's bridge as the wild weather blows up, and nobody is there with authority to command the waves and bring us through winds and icebergs to safe harbor. The Titanic, our world, is unsinkable and our navigation is perfect. What can be made has been made and we can dispense with this "Christian navigation." Christian! Nonsense! We don't need the Man who walks the waves. "Nearer, my God, to thee"? No, nearer to the statue of liberty! We and our children will win history's blue ribbon-what glorious things we have accomplished!
But why is it then that the captain keeps pacing the bridge so anxiously? After all, it must be a grand thing to have control of this smoothly vibrating, powerful ship and guide it over the ocean-that ocean which is no longer, as Gorch Fock once expressed it, a tiny pool in the hand of the Saviour but an element that challenges the omnipotence of man and offers him chances of undreamed-of triumphs. "Hast thou not accomplished all things, 0 holy, glowing heart?" Why doesn't this Promethean assurance cheer the captain? Why does he worry? Because now there is nobody there upon whom he can cast his cares. Why is he active and overwatchful? Because he no longer sees the eyes that watch over him. Why can't he sleep? Because he can no longer let himself go. For the world has become a weird place. Whatever happens without him and when he is not there himself he cannot trust. So he has to be everywhere. That's why he can no longer let things happen; he must always be on deck. Not for one moment can he live like a lark or a lily. He can never let down or let up. Perhaps when he is drinking he gets away from himself for a moment. To drink or to pray: that is the question. (And drinking need not always mean the consumption of alcohol.)
Yes, the Titanic is our world. We and the captain are no longer able to let things happen. For this you can do only if you know that somebody is in control and if you know who that somebody is. But we stand alone on the bridge. We have taken charge of the firm and the ship, and now we are dying of our privileges and prerogatives.
Count von Moltke when he was an old man was asked what he was going to do in the quiet closing phase of his life after years of great activity and responsibility. His reply was: "I want to see a tree grow."
Would Moltke, we may ask, have been able to say such a thing in his old age if during the years of greatest responsibility he had not already found time for quietness, time to see that Another and Higher Being was carrying out his plans and guiding events to his goals quite independent of what Moltke did or left undone? The man who doesn't know how to let go, who is a stranger to this quiet, confident joy in him who carries out his purposes without us (or also through us and in spite of us), in him who makes the trees grow and the rainbows shine — that man will become nothing but a miserable creature in his old age. For, after all, what is he good for if he can no longer produce what can be produced and his two eyes, on which he staked everything, have grown dim? Can the reason why many aging people are melancholy and fearful of having the door shut upon them be that for decades they have never been able to "let go and let God" and now can no longer see a tree growing, and therefore are nothing but run-down merry-go-rounds?
All this may sound almost as if we were going to discuss today the question of the art of living or talk about mental hygiene. But the art of living and mental hygiene are only the by-products of something altogether different, a by-product of the very thing our parable means when it says that God lets his seeds sprout in this namelessly quiet way, that this miracle occurs without any aid whatsoever from man and apart from any agricultural intervention-in that natural, old-fashioned way in which God carries forward his work despite all human efforts.
Everything we have said so far, which at times may have sounded like an analysis of our culture, has been seen and said in the light of this theme. We have been standing as it were behind the preacher Jesus Christ, trying to follow his eyes and see the world as he saw it.
Here is a man who has sowed his fields. When he has done this he leaves them, feeds the cattle, makes some repairs on his house, drives to town on errands, goes to bed at night, and rises up early. And while he is doing all this the seed grows, without his moving a hand; first the blade from the seed and from the blade the ear and then the kernels in the ear. What an unspeakable comfort it is to know that in the midst of man's mischief, in the midst of his scheming and bad speculations, his shaping and misshaping, his activism and his failures, there is still another stream of events flowing silently on, that God is letting his seeds grow and achieving his ends.
When the Flood subsided and the rainbow sign of reconciliation appeared against the skies still dark with clouds God pronounced a very strange word of consolation upon this poor, guilt-laden earth whose wounds were now to be closed: "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." We should certainly miss the comfort in this assurance if we saw in it nothing more than an invitation to man to find respite from all the busyness of his daily grind and also from all the folly and confusion of human life by contemplating the constancy of nature, observing the orderly rhythm of the seasons in their coming and going, pondering the perfect mathematical harmony of the stars in their courses, by simply letting God's sun shine upon him and enjoying the lyrical beauty of moonlight shining upon the sea. Certainly this can be a very good thing. But we dare not expect too much from these exercises in spiritual nature-cure. If nature is our sole physician, it may be that we shall only become more miserable. For then we may suddenly feel that we are excluded from its peace and its measured orderliness. Then we may shake our heads and go back to our store, our office, our classroom, and say: "Wherever man is absent, in a quiet forest clearing, in the orbits of the planets, all is well. But wherever this `beast' appears there is confusion and restlessness. He spoils the loveliest landscapes with his picnic invasions, he desecrates the sublimest of mountain scenes with his heel marks; and where he is all by himself, with his asphalt streets and his neon lights, it is worst of all." So, if we are honest, nature also has something altogether different from a message of comfort to speak to us.
But this is not at all the intention of God's message of comfort after the Flood. Summer and winter, day and night, seedtime and harvest — here these are not to be understood as manifestations of natural law at all, but rather as signs that point to the Lord, who is at work here. What this passage says to us is this: The one fixed pole in all the bewildering confusion is the faithfulness and dependability of God. Insane as we men are with our idea that everything can be made, however madly we try, we shall never destroy God's creation. And we shall not be able to smash it, not because it is indestructible (for one day it will be destroyed, and the sea will be no more; the sun and moon will cease to give their light, and the stars will fall from heaven), but simply because God's love, God's faithfulness can never falter. All the confusions of men in their personal lives and the politics of the world, all the many dodges and futilities which only take us farther from the goal, still do not divert God from his purposes. In the end, despite all the chaos, all the stupidity, all the sin, it will not turn out to be a hopelessly tangled skein; but rather straight through all the labyrinths of history, even through the conflict between East and West, and also through all the confusions of our personal lives there runs the red thread of God's purpose. He knows what he wants, and he does what he knows.
One day, perhaps, when we look back from God's throne on the last day we shall say with amazement and surprise, "If I had ever dreamed when I stood at the graves of my loved ones and everything seemed to be ended; if I had ever dreamed when I saw the specter of atomic war creeping upon us; if I had ever dreamed when I faced the meaningless fate of an endless imprisonment or a malignant disease; if I had ever dreamed that God was only carrying out his design and plan through all these woes, that in the midst of my cares and troubles and despair his harvest was ripening, and that everything was pressing on toward his last kingly day-if I had known this I would have been more calm and confident; yes, then I would have been more cheerful and far more tranquil and composed."
If we want an illustration of how this certainty works out in a human life, we have only to look at the Lord himself. What tremendous pressures there must have been within him to drive him to hectic, nervous, explosive activity! He sees — Manfred Hausmann has given this magnificent literary expression in his essay "One Must Keep Watch" — he sees, as no one else ever sees, with an infinite and awful nearness, the agony of the dying man, the prisoner's torment, the anguish of the wounded conscience, injustice, terror, dread, and beastliness. He sees and hears and feels all this with the heart of a Saviour. And this means that distress and misery are not merely noted and registered as with a tabulating machine but actually suffered in compassionate love, as if all this were happening in his own body and his own soul. Must not this fill every waking hour and rob him of sleep at night? Must he not begin immediately to set the fire burning, to win people, to work out strategic plans to evangelize the world, to work, work, furiously work, unceasingly, unrestingly, before the night comes when no man can work? That's what we would imagine the earthly life of the Son of God would be like, if we were to think of him in human terms.
But how utterly different was the actual life of Jesus! Though the burden of the whole world lay heavy upon his shoulders, though Corinth and Ephesus and Athens, whole continents, with all their desperate need, were dreadfully near to his heart, though suffering and sinning were going on in chamber, street corner, castle, and slums, seen only by the Son of God — though this immeasurable misery and wretchedness cried aloud for a physician, he has time to stop and talk to the individual. He associates with publicans, lonely widows, and despised prostitutes; he moves among the outcasts of society, wrestling for the soul of individuals. He appears not to be bothered at all by the fact that these are not strategically important people, that they have no prominence, that they are not key figures, but only the unfortunate, lost children of the Father in heaven. He seems to ignore with a sovereign indifference the great so-called "world-historical perspectives" of his mission when it comes to one insignificant, blind, and smelly beggar, this Mr. Nobody, who is nevertheless so dear to the heart of God and must be saved.
Because Jesus knows that he must serve his neighbor (literally, those nearest here and now) he can confidently leave to his Father the things farthest away, the great perspectives. By being obedient in his little corner of the highly provincial precincts of Nazareth and Bethlehem he allows himself to be fitted into a great mosaic whose master is God. And that's why he has time for persons; for all time is in the hands of his Father. And that too is why peace and not unrest goes out from him. For God's faithfulness already spans the world like a rainbow: he does not need to build it; he needs only to walk beneath it.
So, because Jesus knows which way the switches are set, because he knows what the outcome of growth and harvest will be, the words he speaks are not prepared, tactical propaganda speeches. The propaganda of men, even when it masquerades as a kind of evangelism and becomes an enterprise of the church, is always based on the accursed notion that success and failure, fruit and harvest are dependent upon our human activity, upon our imagination, energy, and intelligence. Therefore the church too must guard against becoming merely a busy enterprise and pastors must beware of becoming religious administrators devoid of power and dried up as far as spiritual substance is concerned.
Jesus is not a propagandist. And there is one fact which shows that he is not, and that is that for him speaking to his Father in prayer is more important than speaking to men, no matter how great the crowds that gather around him. Just when you think that now he must seize the opportunity, now surely he must strike while the masses are hot and mold them to his purpose, he "passes through the midst of them" and withdraws into the silence of communion with the Father.
Why was it that he spoke with authority, as the scribes and Pharisees did not? Because he was rhetorically gifted, because he was dynamic? No; he spoke with such power because he had first spoken with the Father, because always he came out of silence. He rested in eternity and therefore broke into time with such power. That's why he is so disturbing to time. He lived in communion with God; that's why his speech to men becomes an event of judgment and grace which none can escape.
Jesus' powerful speech derives from the power of his prayer life, and the very reason why he can afford to pray so diligently and give the best hours of the day to this communion with the Father is that he knows that while he rests in eternity it is not that nothing is happening but that in doing this he is rather giving place to God's Spirit, that then God is working and the seed is growing. Woe to the nervous activity of those of little faith! Woe to the anxiousness and busyness of those who do not pray!
Luther once said, "While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer the gospel runs its course." That is truly the finest and most comforting thing I have ever heard said about beer. The conversion of a man is not something that can be "produced." The new life comes into being only by letting God work. Therefore, Luther can cheerfully and trustfully step down from the pulpit; he doesn't need to go on incessantly crying, shouting, and roaring around the country. He can quietly drink his little glass of Wittenberg beer and trust in God. The Lord "gives to his beloved in sleep." In most cases today we do not sin by being undutiful and doing too little work. On the contrary, we ought to ask ourselves whether we are still capable of being idle in God's name. Take my word for it, you can really serve and worship God simply by lying flat on your back for once and getting away from this everlasting pushing and producing.
Now, some of you may say, "All this may be so, but how do I go about achieving this detachment in which I stop allowing myself to be carried away by busyness and simply let God work?" This is the problem, after all. How can we attain this stillness?
There are some things which cannot be appreciated merely by understanding them, they must be practiced. For example, I may have listened to a piano concert of Mozart music and had a clear insight into its musical structure, I may even have plumbed its spiritual depths intuitively or intellectually; but I am still miles away from being able to play this piano concert, for I have not practiced it. In exactly the same way it is possible for me to have understood the mystery of the seed growing secretly and still not be able to let God's seed really grow in my life. I know very well that I should drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer now, that I should be trusting enough to disconnect the gears and let myself relax. But I cannot do it; I cannot find the switch by which I can turn off my own activity and my own compulsive desire to do everything myself.
I should like to close therefore by suggesting a little prescription, even though prescriptions in a sermon always have something shady about them, since they may give the impression that there are certain tricks, certain forms of self-training by which one can learn the art of faith. As if faith were an "art" at all! Faith is nothing but being quiet and receptive when God speaks, being still when God acts. What I have to say, then, applies only to this quiet receptiveness. Or, to express it in a different way, it is suggested only in order to help us stop putting ourselves in the limelight and asserting ourselves when God wants to turn on his light and enlighten us.
When we are sitting in a train or bus or the back seat of our car, when the telephone is silent for a moment and secretaries and appointment books are gone for a time, we should try for once not to reach for the newspaper or the next file folder or for some kind of button, be it a radio knob or a bell push. Then we should try taking a deep breath and saying, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." This will give a sense of distance and peace.
We may then go on and ponder these words meditatively. Glory be to "the Father." This means: Glory be to him who has brought me to this moment in my day's work, who has entrusted to me my fellow workers, and in the last analysis makes the final decision with regard to every decision I am now obliged to make.
Glory be to "the Son." The Son is none other than Jesus Christ, who died for me. Dare I-for whom he suffered such pains, for whom he opened the gates of heaven-dare I go on frittering myself away on trifles and futilities? Must not the one thing needful be constantly present in my mind, and must it not show up the merely relative importance of these many things which I do? For whom, or for what, did Christ die; for my cash register, for the roving eye of the boss whom I must please, for my television set, or for any other such trivialities? Or did he not rather die for the fellow beside me who is struggling with some burden in his life or for my children whom I hardly ever see? And as far as the children are concerned, did he die for their food and clothing or for their souls, which I do not know at all, because the "many things" are always getting between me and their souls?
Glory be to "the Holy Ghost." Oh, I'm full of spirit, I am not unenlightened. I also have feeling, heart, sentiment, and imagination. But do I ever hold still in order that the wholly Other may fill me with his Spirit and give me a sense of the true priorities in life?
"As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." Here we are encompassed by the everlasting arms, overarched by the rainbow of a faithfulness we can trust, founded upon a foundation which the shifting sands of daily routine can never provide.
If we perform this little exercise repeatedly we shall soon find that it is not merely a mystical rigmarole and much less an inward flight by which we escape from daily duties. Oh, no; we shall go back to our job renewed, we shall become realists in a new way, for then we shall know how to distinguish what is great from what is small, the real from the false. The fanatics who believe that man can "make" everything are really fools at bottom. They are not realistic at all, even though they have the cold, sober eyes of hardheaded men of fact. But the man who has grasped the mystery of the seed growing secretly and, like the farmer in the parable, goes out and does his part of the job and then commits the fields to God and lies down to sleep in his name — that man is doing not only the most godly thing but the wisest thing. For godliness and wisdom are far more closely related than our philosophy and the wisdom of the "managers" ever dream.