Summary: Like an unexpectedly huge mustard plant, the kingdom will grow and comfort, in unexpected ways.
Like Malformed Mustard
The kingdom of God is like a VW Beetle. It is one of the smallest cars you will ever see. It is not very comfortable or powerful. It is not very stylish or practical. It is very cheap and not impressive in any way. There is no status with owning one.
And yet, it is one of the most recognizable cars on the road. It grew from a back water, German, cheap mode of transport into a phenomenon. It is popular beyond imagining. It is loved and an integral part of social and sociological movements. It is a marketing miracle, a cultural icon. People may smile when they look at them, but they don’t really laugh. They are a success story beyond expectation. For many people, it is actually the car of choice.
This is the force of the parable Jesus told:
Matthew, Mark and Luke all present this story with slight variations. Mark’s is the longest most emphatic version of the story.
Here’s how the story goes
A person goes out and sows a very small seed. It is not simply small, it is the smallest seed in the world. There is no seed in the ground smaller than the mustard seed.
• Note the very humble beginnings
• Note the lack of expectation
He does not simply say "a very small seed," but he specifies a mustard seed. We are expecting a very specific kind of plant.
If you want to imagine a mustard plant, imagine something a little leafy and bushy with small blossoms. The plant grows tall, but grows shoots rather than large branches. It’s height might reach 7 or 8 feet, but remains green along the stem, not very woody and certainly has no bark. It is an herb, a garden plant.
So, Jesus’ story is setting his hearers up with certain expectations.
• How can I describe the kingdom of God to you?
• Well, imagine the smallest seed in the world
• This is the seed of a thin, bushy, green plant with delicate flowers
Now imagine the unexpected
It grows, not into the thin, almost weed like plant you are expecting, but it grows, and grows and grows. Think Jack’s magic beans and the huge beans stalk. Instead of tender shoots coming off the central stem, it grows branches, and not just any branch, but huge branches.
This herb has become the biggest plant in your garden. It takes over completely. It is not seriously moved by the wind, so that birds start coming to it and building nests in it.
These branches are so big that they provide shade. Mark is the only evangelist that mentions shade, and I think it is important.
This is the Kingdom of God
Jesus came, Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would not be very attractive. He was poor and not very influential by birth. He was from a town of low reputation.
His 12 most important followers were not so great either:
• a political radical
• a tax collector
• a couple of skeptics
• a short guy (or perhaps a very young guy, it isn’t clear)
• four fishermen
and several others whose personality and position are so insignificant that we don’t know anything at all about them. Not even the gospel writers who introduce us to them thought it was worth mentioning.
The leader, Jesus is arrested, tried, and executed as a criminal.
As His movement grows, it continues to attract minorities and the persecution of the majority.
Being a disciple of Jesus does not raise expectations of greatness.
And yet, the Christian faith is the largest religion in the world. The Bible has sold more copies than any book in history, followed distantly by Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. It reaches every continent and most countries. It has been translated into scores of languages.
We often see denominations as a negative thing, but the hundreds of denominations of the Christian faith testify to its adaptability to the expressions of many different cultures and perspectives. Sunday School teachers comprise the largest single body of volunteers in the world. Every week, more Sunday School teachers than any other volunteer category converge on their churches to do their work.
• The cross
• The steeple
• The Bible
• The fish
• The Kai Rho
• The clerical collar
• The rosary
• The bread and cup
• The pulpit
These are some of the most recognizable symbols anywhere. Even though we may not use all of them in our tradition of worship, they are closely associated with the Christian faith, and their users are immediately identified with Christ.
But that is all historical.
Becoming a believer in Jesus is not a sign of greatness. For many people’s backgrounds it is an absolutely shameful thing to do. It marks the beginning of alienation.