With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.Mark 4:30-32
Today’s gospel reading features two parables, told by Jesus, that tell us of both the mystery and the majesty of the kingdom of God. If you ask me, our world today seems to be a little lacking in both.
Take mystery, for example. The universe used to be such a mysterious place. There was so much that we did not know and could not understand. Our faith and trust in God would fill in the blanks. We didn’t need to know all the answers. We embraced the mystery. Now? We know more than we ever have, which is in many ways a good thing, but it has also lessened the mystery. And it has lessened the need for faith. We can go through life now without God. Not that any of us want to! But for the first time in human history, we can go through life without thinking about God.
To give you just one example of this, there was an article in USA Today this week about the importance of experiencing awe in life. (I shared more about this article here: Awe Without God?) I agree that awe is important to experience, but what struck me about this article is that it never mentioned God! Not once does this article acknowledge that our faith can be one way to experience awe. And that whenever we do experience awe, we believe that it is always God who is the source. Now, I’m not complaining about this article – after all, it was written and shared by a secular news source. I am just pointing out that we now live in an age that is so secular, that articles like this can be written without ever mentioning God. That would have been impossible to even consider centuries ago. In the name of progress, we are even taking the mystery out of something as mysterious as awe.
And so, too, with majesty. This universe is not only filled with mystery, but also with such majesty. Even the article in USA Today recognizes that. And this article, in its own way, is encouraging us to pay attention to this amazing world. Behold its majesty, and be filled with awe. But these days, the majestic wonder of our world has a difficult time getting our attention. Walk on the beach at sunset, to give but one example, and you will see lots of people with their eyes glued to their phones. And their kids are probably back at the house playing video games!
So, where is the majesty these days? Where is the mystery? Perhaps we can rediscover them both in the mysterious and majestic kingdom of God.
One of the things that Jesus spent a good bit of time teaching about is the kingdom of God. He used stories and metaphors and parables to help us explore both its mystery and its majesty. In today’s gospel reading, we are offered two of these parables. So let’s look at them both, and see what Jesus would have us learn about this wondrous kingdom which Jesus ushers in.
The Parable of the Growing Seed
In the first parable, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, but they do not know how. There is a mystery, in other words, to the kingdom of God. How does a seed become a plant, or a tree? We can Google it, we can learn all about the science behind it, but isn’t there still something of a mystery there?
Did you know, for example, that the seed of a redwood tree is about the size of a tomato seed? And yet, it grows to be one of the world’s most massive trees. Some of the trees began growing when Christ was still walking the earth. Stand next to a redwood tree with a seed in your hand, and the mystery and majesty of it all will take your breath away.
There is a mystery and majesty to this world that is simply undeniable, if we have the eyes to see. So, too, with the kingdom of God. There is a mystery to God’s kingdom. It sprouts and grows, but we do not know how.
The kingdom of God is growing in our midst, even today. Jesus assures us of that. And it is growing within us, too. The seed of God’s word has been planted, and it is growing. It is a mystery, to be accepted in faith. And the world needs a little more mystery right now. And perhaps a little more faith.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, but they do not know how. We do not know how the kingdom of God grows, but do we know how to scatter the seed – widely, lavishly, with love and persistence and faith. We scatter and plant the seeds of God’s love in Jesus, and we trust God to help those seeds sprout and grow.
But it takes a while, doesn’t it? When we plant a seed, it is hidden. We can’t see it. We have to wait for the seed to become the plant or tree that it is meant to be. That takes patience, persistence, and faith. It takes being able to embrace the mystery of it all. We don’t have to know how it works to believe that it does. So, too, with all that Jesus would have us do.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
In the second parable, we learn a little more of this mystery and this majesty. The kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, that grows to become the greatest of all shrubs, so that all the birds of the air can make nest in its shade.
Comparing the kingdom to a tree is fairly common in scripture. We see a good example of this in Ezekiel 17:22-24, where the Lord takes a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar and plants it on the mountain height of Israel, and under it every kind of bird will live. The kingdom of Israel would become a blessing to the nations, a noble cedar offering shade to all; a majestic tree standing on a majestic mountain. The kingdom of God in all its glory.
But, interestingly enough, Jesus isn’t talking about a noble cedar, is he? He’s talking about a lowly mustard plant, which starts from a tiny seed. Not a lofty cedar, but something rather different. You can imagine the crowds, who were all familiar with Ezekeil’s famous passage, hearing this parable and being rather amused. And the Pharisees and others were probably rather annoyed. What gives him the right to compare the kingdom of God to a mustard plant? And it begs the question, why did Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a mustard seed?
Could this little mustard seed be Jesus himself? Not the Messiah of God that people expected. Not a king, or even a religious leader. Not a noble cedar. Just a carpenter’s kid, who grew up in a small out-of-the-way town, who went about the countryside teaching about the kingdom using strange parables about seeds, and then died on a cross, planted like a seed in the ground.
As Jesus himself said before he died, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). Could Jesus be the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, who would eventually grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, providing shelter for all? To the world, he was not a noble cedar. He didn’t become the Messiah or the King they wanted or expected. He was more like a mustard plant. But the mustard seed planted by Jesus during his short time on earth continues to grow, and it is not finished growing. Jesus planted the seed, and sent the Holy Spirit to nurture it, and it continues to grow.
God’s kingdom continues to grow on this earth, in ways that are sometimes mysterious, and sometimes majestic. And the church’s mission, our mission, as John Calvin reminds us, is to “make the invisible kingdom visible in our midst.” That is our task, to make the invisible kingdom of God visible to the world. So that they may see its mystery and majesty, and be filled with awe.
This mustard plant begun by Jesus, that blesses the world in ways that we can barely imagine, really is the noble cedar after all. It is the majestic redwood that fills us with awe. And it is our job to help the world see it. To help the world see that the kingdom of God, which Jesus came to teach us about, is the greatest, most majestic tree in all creation, offering shade and rest to all.
Make the invisible kingdom of God visible, through our words and our actions. So that the world can stand in awe of the majestic and mysterious kingdom of God.
In a world with so little mystery and majesty, we are here to be reminded that God offers us both. Today’s parables encourage us to embrace both the mystery and the majesty of the kingdom of God. To let the seed of faith that has been planted within us continue to grow, without our knowing how. Until that great day, when the kingdom will come in its fullness. And every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Until that awesome day arrives, may each of us scatter the seeds of God’s kingdom with joy and with love, knowing and believing that in God’s mysterious way, they will bear the mysterious and majestic fruit of the very kingdom of God, the most noble and glorious tree of them all. Thanks be to God. Amen