Sermon for Sunday June 14th, 2015, the Second Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Ps. 92:1-5; Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
Text: Mark 4:31-32
Theme: The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Almost two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the source of the Missouri River, and from there to discover a relatively easy water route west to the Pacific. Such a waterway, they discovered, doesn’t exist.
But they did succeed in mapping the Northwest. And fifteen months after pushing themselves upstream, they found the headwaters of the mighty Missouri River near the Montana-Idaho border: a tiny little rivulet, which a member of the expedition, Private Hugh McNeal, straddled, thanking God that he had lived to put one foot on either side of the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.
At its source, the Missouri looks a lot different from the powerful current that flows into the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Likewise, in the kingdom of God, many great things start out small.
— Marshall Shelley, “Broader Pastures,
More Breeds,” Leadership (Fall 2000)
THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is a parable of the growth of God’s Kingdom in the world throughout the ages. The vehicle of comparison is the black mustard plant, whose seed is not the smallest seed of all seeds that exist, but the smallest actually planted in ancient Palestine. The black mustard plant could grow as high as fifteen feet, and its branches would be strong enough for birds to perch on them. Every Jew would know the contrast between the mustard plant’s small beginning as a tiny seed and its large, fully-grown size as a tree.
Previously, in Ezekiel 17:22-24, God had foretold that he would take a young twig from the highest branch of the cedar tree and plant it on the high mountains of Israel. This twig would grow into an enormous cedar tree whose branches would become a shelter for birds of every kind. The theme of birds thriving under the protection of a huge tree is a recurrent Biblical symbol of the protection of peoples of all nations given by an Empire and its leader. In the Ezekiel passage, the use of this symbol is a prophecy of the Messiah, under whose rule people of all nations would find protection. The passage may also allude to the account of how Noah took creatures of every kind into the ark, God thus saving them from the ancient flood.
Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed contrasts most effectively the small beginnings of God’s kingdom in the world to its vast harvest of souls throughout the nations, the birds representing people of all nations.
The kingdom of God was revealed on earth as a tiny seed, beginning, it might be said with the patriarch Abraham, who believed in God, and God accounted him righteous because of his faith, and from Abraham God did in fact raise up the nation of Israel to be his chosen people, to whom He gave the moral Law that would prescribe how one should live in God’s kingdom, or under God’s dominion. Though Israel rebelled, and the people of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were exiled for a while from the Promised Land in the eighth and the sixth centuries respectively, the Lord restored the nation to its land in the late sixth and mid-fifth centuries B.C. But while Israel remained under the dominion of foreign empires, the hope of a Jewish Messiah and God’s kingdom appearing on earth became stronger and stronger. Finally, Jesus Christ brings God’s kingdom fully into the world, since He alone is perfectly obedient to the will of God the Father. The Gospel of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed further and further throughout the world as a result of the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost. The Apostles and disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, share this Good News with people in Jerusalem, Judaea, and further afield. The conversion of St. Paul leads to his missionary journeys to pagan cities around the Mediterranean, until the Gospel even reaches Rome. The first century A.D. sees a remarkable growth of God’s kingdom in the world.
Now, after two thousand years, the kingdom of God is still growing extensively even in countries where the church is forced to meet in hiding because of persecution by hostile governments. But let us pause for a moment to make the point that it is the kingdom of God, or God’s rule through Christ in people, that is growing so fast. It is not necessarily the visible Church growing everywhere, or any one part of it growing faster than the others. Rather, wherever the true Gospel is preached and people come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s dominion extends to more and more people. It is possible, of course, for false churches, which distort the Word of God in their preaching and teaching, to be growing fast for a while, but we should not mistake these for the kingdom of God.
Every Christian needs to ask himself, “Am I part of the growing kingdom of God? By my words and lifestyle, am I helping God’s kingdom to grow, or hindering its growth?” These questions are important for us, because all of us should be co-operating with the purpose of the Holy Spirit to extend God’s kingdom throughout the world.
In our Epistle today, there is a criterion provided by which we can judge whether we are living our lives to promote God’s kingdom or otherwise:
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.
(2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
The criterion is simply this: “Are we living life ‘unto the Lord Jesus Christ,’ that is, by his direction, and according to his will?”