This was a big summer for me. For the first time in my life, I had my own vegetable garden. I won’t claim that everything worked, but I had relatively low expectations. My goal was that I would be able to eat just one thing that I had grown from my garden. And I will say that the roasted potatoes that Amanda prepared for me from our garden were some of the most delicious potatoes I have ever tasted.
Beyond being able to eat something we grew, it was fun to just watch what would happen over time. We planted seeds and watered the soil. When that first breaking of the soil took place and we saw the beginning of growth, it was very exciting. It is an amazing thing to be able to watch life grow.
We are going to look at a parable that builds off this miracle. This is a relevant topic for us in our world. We value things that are large. When we check out a business, we look to see how many employees. When we meet someone on social media, we want to know how many followers they have. One of the reasons why some pastors do not like to visit with other pastors is because of the most common question: “So many people are there in your congregation?” I have observed that it is mostly the pastors of larger churches that ask this, hoping that they have more people than the pastor they are asking.
We were visiting some family in a large city. This was a growing and busy city and this carried over into the churches. When family asked about the size of the church I was pastoring, they were dumbfounded by my answer. If they only had that many people in their small group as I had in my congregation, they would shut it down as being unsuccessful.
I believe that what Jesus is teaching in this parable is the message that we need to hear for this church.
Miracle of the Mustard Seed
Before jumping to our interpretation, we need to ask why Jesus originally told this parable. This parable was told to answer a specific question and that is: “What is the kingdom of God like?”
Many people think of the kingdom of God as being heaven. That is not correct, at least not fully correct. If the kingdom of God was only heaven, this parable would make no sense.
The kingdom of God is the reign of God. The kingdom of God is the dynamic of the people of God obeying the will of God. So yes that includes heaven, but most often when Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of God, he is talking about what that looks like on earth.
One of the things that I love about Jesus is that he didn’t just provide theological lectures. Jesus spoke with images that people were familiar with. That is not to say that there is no depth to his teaching. The gospel is simple but it is not simplistic. Jesus spoke about some very complex theological truths but he did it in a way that people could understand.
In this parable, Jesus brought his audience’s attention to the mustard seed. They would have been very familiar with this tiny seed. To just look at it at that stage, there would be nothing impressive about it. But under the right conditions, that seed will not stay the same.
When that seed is planted in the garden and is cared for it becomes a tree. Not a huge tree but much larger than what it was before it was planted. The tree is big enough for birds to come and find shelter in it. It is an interesting thought that the birds could have consumed the seed as a less than satisfying meal but when it is left to grow, it can become their home.
You may not have much experience planting mustard seeds, but you are likely familiar with this principle. Think about how small the seed is for some weed. Have you ever had a weed start to come up through your driveway? Even though it began so small and fragile, it somehow breaks through concrete. It is both amazing and frustrating. Nature all around us teaches that strength almost always begins with weakness.
Learning from the Mustard Seed
While all this is true, it is probably safe to say that Jesus is not offering a horticultural lesson. The lesson in nature is meant to teach us something about the kingdom of God. In order to understand the application of this parable, it might be useful to ask a number of questions.
What is Our Seed?
Jesus begins with the seed. A small tiny little seed that has nothing outward about it to impress us. What is the seed in our context? I’m not sure that there is just one thing but I can think of a number of examples.
One seed is the Bible. Think about this book written thousands of years ago about a culture far away, with boring genealogies and lists of battles that we might not care about. And yet there is potential when we read this book. People’s lives have been transformed by it. Churches have been built upon it. There is a reason that tyrannical regimes ban the Bible as one of their first acts.
Another seed is prayer. Here we are, just regular people, speaking words into the air. Next time, don’t bow your head or close your eyes. Just look around. What we are doing is strange. And yet there is a seed here.
What about a congregation of Christians? I don’t mean a megachurch with dozens of paid staff and a multi-million dollar budget. I mean a normal little church like ours. What if we are the mustard seed that has been planted in this community?
How Does the Seed Grow?
It is not enough to just have an ancient book or to say certain words or to gather people together. Anyone can do those things. What begins the process of growth?
There are things that we can do. There are attitudes that we can bring to our Bible reading and prayer. We don’t have to let these things transform the world around us. But we should. We can come to these things with faith. I want to be clear that there is not a certain level of faith that you have to achieve in order for God to act. Some of the most dramatic answers to prayer that I have experienced were from prayers where I told God I didn’t expect him to act. In those cases, I believe my desperation carried on from where my faith left off.
What about our church? Just getting together is not enough. We need to be more than a social club. We need to be about love more than about gossip and backbiting.
The truth is that it is God that brings the growth and not us. And yet we are called to cooperate with God’s activity. While acknowledging that God is doing it, there are ways that we can encourage the growth.
What Will We Become?
The seed becomes a tree. That is the primary image in this parable. What does that mean for us? It may mean a large increase in size and it may not. Growth can look different. It may be growth in our relationship with God. It may be growth in how we look like Christ. It may be growth in how we treat one another. The point is that there should be some sort of growth.
When I planted those seeds for my garden, many of the plants sprouted. But a number of others didn’t. When there is no growth, there is something wrong.
We need to pray and read the Bible and gather for worship. We need to do these things in love and faith. We need to trust that God will bring the growth in the way that he has chosen.
Who Will Find Shelter in Our Branches?
I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t stop with just the growth of tree. Jesus specifies that the birds come and perch in the branches. Is this simply a way to describe how big the tree is? Perhaps.
Another option is that the tree has a purpose beyond itself. Once the seed becomes the tree, it does more than soak up soil, water and sunlight. It provides shelter for the birds.
What is our purpose? Are we to grow as a church just so we can enjoy quality music and hear funny jokes. Is our goal to become as comfortable as possible, to soak up God’s blessings and that is it?
I would suggest that the reason that God brings the growth, in whatever form that may be, is so that we can reach beyond ourselves. I used to pastor a small country church that often had about a dozen people on a Sunday. But their men’s breakfast would often get just as much if not more non-Christians from the community.
Who are the people who will find shelter here? I hope that it is everyone. Being a downtown church, we are surrounded by people in poverty and successful business people. All of them need shelter. There is brokenness around us. Brokenness in every area of life. We have opportunities to provide shelter to all those in need. That is why we are growing.
When you look around here, at the things that we are doing. what do you see? Do you ever get discouraged and feel that our potential is limited?
The parable of the mustard seed challenges how we look at things. What we see at one particular moment never tells the full story. Seeing something as small does not make it without value. All of us have to start somewhere.
I believe that we are doing things that matter. I believe that God has planted us in this place at this time for a reason. I see growth taking place, in some places faster than others. I believe God is at work in us and we should be excited about. We should be excited, not just for the blessings we receive, but the way we can bless others. The seed is growing and the tree is getting read to provide shelter.