Summary: The kingdom of God is mystery. Whether we are asleep or awake, whether its seed seems small or large, it will generate life that is abundant and rich.
A number of years ago at the prodding of a neighbor, who was also a church elder, my wife and I ventured into the mystical world of gardening. A section of our yard had once been a rose garden that one minister had lovingly cared for and another pulled up, so that it was bare when we arrived. The neighbor elder brought over his gas-powered plow and helped me prepare the soil for planting. With his tips and guidance from a book, we commenced to plant our seeds – seeds for cucumbers, for squash, for zucchini, green beans, lima beans, bell peppers, corn, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and pumpkin squash. We were ambitious for a novice couple.
Gardening, we learned, gives one a different outlook on things. For example, I no longer saw squirrels as cute little critters, but rather invaders raiding my corn. But more than learning the devious ways of squirrels, we experienced the awe of watching a garden come into being out of the barren ground. Gardening truly is mystery. You hide little seeds under the dirt, pour a little water on top, and nothing happens. The ground is as barren as it ever looked. You go out the next day and it looks the same, and again the next day and still the same result, so that your anticipation begins to decline. But then the morning comes when you step outside and the mystery appears – little green sprouts have begun. Your seeds have actually become live plants. And they keep growing day by day until the next wonder takes place. They begin to flower and the first tiny signs of fruit appear.
It is exciting to watch the marvelous fruit develop each day, until the time of harvest comes and you pick your first vegetable…and then another vegetable, and then another, and then another until you wonder how much produce can come from such a small garden. There isn’t a one-day harvest in which you take all that a plant produces. It keeps producing when you think there is nothing left. The zucchini plants were the worse! You pick all the fruit you can find only to come back the next morning and find an enormous zucchini the size of your arm. The pumpkin squash plants were downright eerie. We discovered that they were really vines that developed elephant ear size leaves and which crept throughout the garden bearing fruit that had the texture of a pumpkin and the shape of a large summer squash. And the plants wouldn’t stop producing! We ate, we gave to neighbors, we froze, we threw in the woods, and still new produce would await us the next day. The next year we grew a smaller garden.
That first garden is what the kingdom of God is like, so Jesus tells us. 26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Some of you gardeners are shaking your heads and thinking, “If it could only be so easy.” I didn’t mention the weeding and the watering when there was no rain, though I did allude to the battle with cute critters. And I never went as far as real gardeners, who make sure the soil has the appropriate nutrients and who defend their plants from micro-insects and other dastardly perils. But even they must nod at the wonder of growth, because they especially know that they do nothing more than help provide a good environment. The growth itself they cannot produce. All they can do is watch.
Let’s look at Jesus’ garden. A man scatters seed. I don’t think that Jesus intended for the man to represent anyone. Just look at the changing roles he plays. He scatters seed – that sounds like Jesus spreading the word, but then he plays no role in the care of his garden. Then again he becomes the reaper, a role for Jesus in his second coming. He seems to be little more than a prop in the story. It is the mysterious growth of the seed that is the central focus of the story. That seed is the same seed in the parable of the sower; it is the word of God; it is the gospel.
The harvest, by the way, is the final judgment day. Joel 3:13 and Revelation 14:14ff both refer to that day as the time to swing the sickle and reap the harvest. Those texts speak of the harvesting of all mankind for judgment. Jesus, however, is referring to the harvest of the people who belong to God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom garden will produce a bountiful harvest.