Growing God’s Kingdom

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
June 26, 2016

Mark 4: 26-33 (CEB)
Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, 27then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. 28The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. 29Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”

30He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? 31Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; 32but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

33With many such parables he continued to give them the word, as much as they were able to hear.

Several years ago, a company mailed out some special advertising business post cards with a mustard seed glued to it with a caption that went something like this: “If you have faith as small as this mustard seed in our (product), you are guaranteed to get excellent results and be totally satisfied.” –Signed, The Management

A few months later, one recipient of this promotional piece wrote back to the company and said, “You will be very interested to know that I planted the mustard seed you sent on your advertising card and it has grown into a very healthy bush producing wonderful tomatoes!”

Now, when Jesus told these two parables that we heard a few moments ago, he spoke about a farmer planting seeds in the ground and then observing, almost bewildered, as they sprout and grow. Then, Christ went on to remind us of how an enormous bush grows from only a tiny mustard seed. Jesus wasn’t confused about his seeds; he wasn’t doing any “monkey business” trying to claim something that wasn’t true. Jesus was simply speaking in parables. He was using a frame of reference that the people could understand and relate to. Jesus does this a lot. And in this case, that reference is seeds, and planting, and growth. So it is, in the midst of this sermon series on “Gardening with God,” that we come to this set of parables. But before we dive into these parables, I want to talk for just a minute about parables in general.

In our Gospel Lesson for this morning, we come across Jesus saying: “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” and “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like,” or “What parable shall we use to describe it? It is like…” Jesus did this a lot when trying to get across to those who were listening what it is like to live under the reign of God. He compared it to things we can understand or relate to. Jesus spoke of earthly things in order to convey heavenly truths, which really makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? We can’t possibly know what something is like unless we have experienced it, touched it, tasted it, or seen it.

Think about it this way: Say you have seen a color that no one else in the entire world has seen. How would you explain it to someone else? You would have to say: “This color is like…” Otherwise, there is no chance that anyone would be able to even come close to grasping what you were talking about. So again and again through the Gospels, Jesus tells us: “The kingdom of God is like…” Jesus doesn’t tell us that the Kingdom of God “IS” “a treasure hidden in a field,” or that the Kingdom of God “IS” “a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish,” or that the Kingdom of God “IS” “yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked through the dough…”

Instead, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is “like” these things. And people in Jesus’ day would have easily related to stories of seeds planted and then growing as they slept. They could visualize a tiny mustard seed and the 10-foot tall bush that would grow from it. These things were an integral part of their life. Every year they would plant seeds and watch them grow. They would toil and labor and harvest the fruits of those plants in order to feed and provide for their families. So, they would also understand, at least to some degree, what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom of God when he used these analogies. For most of us, agriculture is not so much a regular part of our lives as it was for Jesus’ listeners, and that’s why we are taking time to really delve into these gardening stories in the Bible; to make sure we understand fully what is being conveyed as it relates to our faith.

So in our Gospel Lesson for this morning we see Jesus using illustrations from the growth of nature to describe the Kingdom of God. In verses 26-29, Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God is happening, and whether we understand it or not, there are clear signs of its reality. “It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how.” In and through the lives of those who are allowing God’s reign to control their lives, that seed of faith, that seed of grace, that seed of salvation is sprouting and growing.

The sun comes out every day and the seed grows and sprouts. The rain comes and the seed blossoms and grows. And before you know it there is “first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain.” Then the grain ripens and it’s time for the harvest. For those living in the Kingdom of God, God is in control of our lives, and thus God is in control of our Christian growth toward becoming more and more like Christ. Can you imagine this? Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and as effortlessly as seeds grow. All we have to do is plant the seed of ourselves in God’s garden, and God will take care of the rest! God’s grace will protect us from the scorching heat of sin, God’s mercy will rain over us, filling us with living waters. God’s sun will shine on us, nurturing us to full maturity.

You know, there weren’t water hoses back in Jesus’ day. It’s not like today, where we can just go out and turn on the faucet to water plants that haven’t felt a drop of rain in weeks. In the ancient near east, if the rain didn’t come, the plants would wither and die. The growth of a seed was totally reliant on something that was beyond its control, and even the farmer’s control. And the same is true in our life of faith. When we are living under the reign of God, God is the one who causes us to grow from a seed, to a stalk, to a head, then to the full head of grain.

The thing is, though, I think sometimes we get turned off or discouraged. Because when we are living under the reign of God we may not see this growth happening every day. We sleep and rise and sleep and rise, and we feel like nothing is happening, nothing is changing. But then, if we look back on our lives a year from now, or five years, or ten years from now, we will see how much growth and maturity God has caused to happen in our lives as we have sought to live under God’s reign.

Just as nature’s growth is inevitable so is the growth of the Christian who is living under the reign of God! And this growth can and will make such a difference, not only in our lives but also in the lives of those around us! Because there is nothing so powerful as growth. A tree can split concrete pavement with the power of its growth. A weed can push its green head through an asphalt parking lot. Nothing can stop growth. And it’s the same way with those living in God’s kingdom! In spite of our own weaknesses and failures, nothing can stop the good that comes to this world through those who are growing in their love for others, in their service to others, in their acceptance and kindness and generosity to others as they live in God’s care! Good fruit will come. Good things will happen. Good results will occur for and through those who allow God to rule in their lives!

In verse 31 Jesus goes on to say the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. “When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.” Again, Jesus is talking about the miraculous growth that can happen in our lives when we offer ourselves to God’s care. But there’s also more to this mustard seed analogy. More than individual growth, Christ is now explaining how God’s whole kingdom is going to grow. And to understand this, we need to think about the whole history of God’s people. God created a covenant with the people of Israel and instructed them that they were to be a light to the nations, but they never succeeded. They couldn’t fulfill their covenant obligations. So now, God has sent Christ, his very own son. And to the world, this Jesus seems pretty mundane—a carpenter’s boy from Nazareth (“Does anything good come from Nazareth?”). In terms of “saviors”, this guy seems like a mustard seed in a sea of Goliaths. But when that mustard seed is planted, it will grow into this great bush, where birds will come and make their nests and rest in its shade. Jesus is telling the crowds that God’s kingdom is expanding—no longer is this just about the Hebrew people, but through Christ, God’s kingdom will become the home of Jews and gentiles alike; the resting place of any and all who will come.

God’s plan, God’s enduring promise, is that in time God will establish his reign here on earth, just as it is in heaven. We might not have a full understanding of how that will happen, just as the farmer doesn’t fully understand what makes a seed sprout and grow. We might feel like hope in God’s kingdom is a pipe dream, an impossibility in a world that seems to be flying ever more rapidly away from God’s kingdom. And yet Jesus tells us otherwise right here. In this parable of the mustard seed, Jesus says, “God’s kingdom is like this”; a tiny mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. It is nothing, totally insignificant. And yet, when it is planted, it grows into this enormous bush, over ten feet tall; big enough to be a shelter, a home, for many birds.

Friends, we might not understand it. We might not always see it. But God is at work in our world; growing each of us little by little toward Christ-likeness, growing the kingdom step by step, day by day toward its full reign. We might not see it happening right before our eyes, in any one given moment; in fact, we may at times feel like things are shrinking rather than growing, but like that old playground out there that has grown from a tract of brown dirt and gravel to a lush, overgrown, beautiful garden, God is transforming this world and all who are a part of it. We will be able to look back a year, or five years, or a decade from now and see the growth that God has brought; to us, to our church, to our community, and to our world. And best of all, we can know that through it all, God is making for God’s people a home, a permanent shelter in God’s very presence. Out of the seemingly insignificant, God’s kingdom is growing toward something far greater and more magnificent than we can ever imagine!

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