The Messiah sat in a boat for his humble pulpit. It must have moved gently on the water. He looked out across the beach at a growing congregation. And what he saw then is what he sees today: believers and those who would believe burdened by the incomprehensibilities of God’s promises in a world gone mad. “When will God show up?” Or, a familiar phrase from little ones in the back seat, “Are we there, yet?” When promises are taught, but fulfillment seems impossible, and oppression and heartache is merciless, even the strongest among us can begin to waiver.
I will never forget the image from my childhood of my faithful friend, my dog named snooper, who lay dying in the corner in an old shed in the backyard of our home in rule Louisiana (Small Things, Big Things: Inspiring Stories of Everyday Grace) There was nothing we could do for snooper. But he looked at me and I felt the poor creature was trying to make sense of his suffering and my presence. I guess I was trying to make sense of it too. But there was nothing I could do but to offer a prayer to the God who made “all creatures great and small.” (Hymns for Little Children)
It is a great mystery to know of a sovereign and good God, yet to see how people enjoying life at one moment become corpses and mowed-over pedestrians lying in pools of blood on the London Bridge the next moment. After London Attack, Prime Minister Says, Enough Is Enough) We were all shocked, once again, by the acts of radical Islamic supremacists. World leaders continue to struggle to come to terms with such an ideology. Meanwhile, others struggle to come to terms was such a theodicy. Closer to home, we who are pastors watch as members of our congregations try to make sense of God’s grace amidst a fallen world. It remains one of the most difficult moments in pastoral ministry for me to be with children on the day of chemotherapy. I remember the site of a father kissing the shaven head of his little six-year-old daughter and she was connected to the machine injecting the medicinal poison into her veins to kill the cancer and yet it was taking so much of the life out of that little girl. I saw the eyes of that father look at me and they were almost like the eyes of snooper looking at the only thing he knew of an authority figure: this new believer looking at a clergyman and pleading with me in his eyes, “How long? How long? Where is God when I need him?
The message of Matthew chapter 13, versus 30 and 31, the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” is about getting an answer to these great existential questions and inconsolable issues of humanity. The point of the parable is that the Kingdom of God, which will bring answers to all these questions does, indeed, appear infinitely minor, but the ratio of growth from miniscule to gigantic through His transforming power glorifies God even more.( I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text ) This is demonstrated in causing that seed to grow and become like the mustard plant, growing to nearly ten-feet high in the garden (or, more likely, in the field), and becoming a place, a destination, a haven of rest, for the birds of the air. Jesus is showing them that the mustard seed growing as it does from such a small seed to such a great tree is a marvelous attribute of God and his power in our daily lives. Jesus is saying that we can trust the God of the mustard seed to be the God of His promises to Abraham: The Kingdom will come, despite what you think you see.
For those who with you that message and then it will become a source of tremendous hope, healing, and Tessa patient, excitement, and even wisdom that brings about patience. For us today, this is the source of unfathomable hope and understanding in days like these. For Almighty God has given us within this passage principles, principles of kingdom growth, that not only teaches us about the Church, but also teaches us about God’s ways with each one of us. I believe if you are here tonight and you are the parent of a wandering child, a prodigal son or daughter, this is the message that has hope for you. I see the most obvious Kingdom principles in this central parable on the teaching of the kingdom by Jesus to be these three.
The Kingdom of God is often imperceptible by sight, but staggering in cosmic potential.
Jesus taught that there is a hidden kingdom. The poor people on the beach that day saw Jesus in a fishing boat. But Jesus was speaking out of a vision for a new heaven and a new earth.
I often tell our students that church planting can be reduced to this singular image, borrowed from the testimony of Benjamin Franklin speaking of his friend, Reverend George Whitefield: “Church planting is just one evangelist on fire with a vision of the kingdom of God that has come into his own life, and, now, into this community. Others come to see this marvel and some of them begin to catch on fire, too. Thus, the Church spreads.”(George Whitefield; the Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival )
There is no secret to the revitalization of a church or a denomination or a single human being: it is seeing with eyes of faith the truth of the kingdom of God, that the imperceptible is filled with potency that is leading to a new heaven and a new earth.
What is it that keeps you from believing? What is it that keeps you from receiving this seed into your own heart?
The Kingdom of God is often insignificant in influence, but abounding in transforming power.
There He was: in a boat, the despised Jesus. Even His family had come to try and take Him home. He was a rogue rabbi with some very unconventional and unimpressive disciples following him about. What good could come of this? But Jesus said the kingdom is like that mustard seed. There is not much about the mustard seed. It is insignificant. But ask the birds of the air that make their nests in that tree if it is insignificant?
I once had a minister to tell me that his ministry was insignificant. He said, “I’m in a very small church here in Iowa. My congregation is made up of farmers and their families. Oh, I might have a shop keeper, and maybe one lawyer, but the Methodists have the only doctor. I don’t have much here. I come to these meetings and I see speakers and think of how small I am.” I had to remind him that in the Kingdom of God things are often upside down. We cannot look upon Church the way we look upon a business, for instance. Those who are most important, for instance, in a mystery play, may not be the one who knows “who dunnnit!” We the audience know who is truly important. For example, we might know that the “butler” in the play knows who “did the deed!” He is the most important figure in the mystery. Yet, within the imaginary play, the characters could care less about the butler. So, too, in this life, we see the pastor of a small church in Charlotte, at the intersection of South and East Boulevards: Chalmers Memorial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. (The Church That Helped Raise Billy Graham,” Charlotte Observer, April 16, 2016) I looked this week at the insignificant sight of a little beginner’s class. The black and white photo shows five boys in their black gown and mortar board hats, standing on the steps behind four little girls in while gowns and white hats. The little guy on the far left, separated from the rest, likely a trouble-maker, is William Graham, a dairy-farmer’s boy. I thought about another picture when I saw that. I thought about the sight of Billy Graham in his black pastor’s robe preaching the Gospel in a Russian Orthodox Church after the Iron Curtain fell. People were packed inside and lined up outside watching it on jumbo screens. A mustard seed principle at work.
So, what do we do? We believe the Man in the boat who is teaching. And we let His Word change us from the inside out. Then, we begin to see the world with eyes of faith. When we do, faith in Christ chases gloom away. And heavenly hope rushes in like a cool spring to fill the void. That is awaiting us tonight.
The Kingdom of God is altogether inevitable, and is approaching with glory!
That is the great end of the parable. The mustard seed grows to become a giant tree. Relative to the seed, hyperbolically, it is most certainly the greatest of trees! Now, the most important truth is that this is a living process. This is going on now and throughout history.
It is no wonder that Jonathan Edwards spent so much time contemplating God within nature. (The Miscellanies) For Edwards could discern great spiritual truths by observing the work of God there.
“Indeed, the whole natural creation which is but the shadow of being is formed so as to represent spiritual things . . .”
His Sabbath walks in the woods are legendary. Indeed, much of his philosophical and theological equations were formulated as he studied the intricacies of nature and nature’s God. He studied not only the singular seed, but the process of growth. From that he discerned God’s immutable design in creation, as well as God’s amazing ways with bringing about His will. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. (The Life of the Late Reverend, Learned and Pious Mr. Jonathan Edwards)
What will we look at today to discern our future? Shall we look only to the news? Shall we say, “Look to rise of Islamic supremacism and you will see our future.” Or, “Look at the continued assault on the family, on morals, on public discourse, and you will see the future of the world.” But, I would say come away for a while. Take a Sabbath walk into the woods with Edwards. Better yet, come to the shoreline. Listen to the Rabbi in the fishing boat as He tells us about the mustard seed and His Kingdom. He is telling us that despite the many other dynamics in the garden—the weeds, the storms, enemies of the seed—the seed grows and at its maturity it becomes a destination, a home, a haven of rest. Jesus is telling us the secret of the world if you will but listen. It is the secret that brings hope in our pastoral counseling. It is the secret unveiled that brings wisdom in shepherding the flock of God in our churches. It is the insights from on high that pilots our families, our communities, and even entire denominations and nations through the dangerous rocky shoals.
The people of his day needed to understand that the Kingdom was not going to come the way they wanted it to come, or the way they thought it should come. God’s Kingdom would come according to God’s own principles. The principles drawn from the mustard seed parable: a principle that gives God the glory, causes us to trust in God as we wait upon Him, and shows His mercy and patience for all to be safely brought in.
No, the hero of the story is not the mustard seed. The hero—the glorious One—in the parable is the unseen but real and great authority that causes the mustard seed to grow and who wants to reach the birds. This is the Lord of the Kingdom of Daniel 4 when King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. That pagan royal had to move beyond seeing life as a product of his actions, which he thought gave him the glory (and conversely damned him with its errors when he didn’t live up to his potential), to seeing the divine activity of God. By God’s grace Nebuchadnezzar would declare to all that God is Lord of all.
And that is where the mustard seed parable leads us. It leads us to say, “Father, I will do my part. I will plant the seed. But you must grow it. I will do my part. But the growth and the promises being fulfilled, that is your work to happen in your time. But, what you have revealed to me, let me do with all my might.
It is what Moses wrote in the oldest Psalm,
“Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90: 16, 17 ESV)!
Here, then, is the great call of the parable: will you believe in the unseen power of the God of the mustard seed? Will you rest from your fears by ceasing your worries? Either you are growing the seed or God is. Will you commit your lives into the hands of the God who is at work to restore the Garden? To do so is to be about the work God has given us to do, to pray for His blessing—His favor—and, then, to realize that it is His Kingdom, not ours. It is His Church, not ours. Our lives are His, not our own. This world is His, not ours. And that brings a peace that transcends all the other distractions in this old world.
Trust in the Lord of the mustard seed tonight. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Rev. Milton is the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism, Erskine Theological Seminary; President and Senior Fellow, D. James Kennedy Institute for Reformed Leadership; Senior Minister-Developer, Trinity Chapel Charlotte (Presbyterian Church) (ARPC Mission)