Ezekiel 17.22-24, Psalm 92.1-4, 12-end, Mark 4.26-34
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time… it is with these words that generations of children settled down to listen to a story. Children are wonderfully open when it comes to stories. They love to hear them over and over again, knowing all the words and revelling in the repetition. As we get older the fairy stories and fables turn into novels, tv programmes and films, but our enjoyment is still about the stories. As G.K.Chesterton put it, “Literature is a luxury, stories are a necessity.”
Take any crime drama, whether an Agatha Christie or Line of Duty, for example, and they will often be criticized for not being completely legally accurate, but for the people who enjoy them that misses the point. They love the characters, and the twists and turns in the plot.
It is therefore not surprising that some of the best loved stories of the New Testament are the stories which connect emotionally with people. Some tell the events of the early church’s history, but the rest are parables. The most famous have strong characters, such as The Prodigal Son; a story that people can insert themselves into in many different ways. But others are like the ones we had today.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his parables with the words “The kingdom of God…” Unlike the character driven parables, they are more obscure, based upon objects and situations that would have been familiar to his listeners – plants growing in the field and specifically the mustard seed.
Jesus used these parables to encourage his listeners to think about God in ways that were relatable. And, of course, by choosing different objects around which to base each parable, there is no obvious answer, no definitive conclusion. If you are looking for a straight yes or no answer, then often Jesus is not the person to go to. He was always trying to get people to think, to respond from the heart, not to just be told what to think and do. Parables make us do that – and the more obscure, the more we have to think!
The two parables today are often linked and read together. They are known as the ‘parables of growth’.
In the first parable, we are told about the secret growth of the kingdom. The kingdom is not another word for ‘the Church’. It is more like, ‘God’s way of doing things’, and it impacts politics, economics, and social justice. And even then God’s kingdom is far wider and larger, all life, private and public. It is a new way of being. Later on Jesus comes entering into the kingdom as to entering into life, life lived to its fullest.
Anyone who has ever grown a plant for their garden will understand the relevance of this parable. Growing a plant takes time and patience. The seed needs water and sunshine to grow into something huge. Furthermore transformation doesn’t happen over night, and so too the growth of the kingdom is in God’s hands. Just as the gardener cannot prod the seed into growing any faster, so we must be patient and allow God to work his wonders.
The second parable is about the mustard seed. Now in true Line of Duty critic mode, despite what Jesus says, the mustard seed is not the smallest. The seed of the cypress tree, for example, is smaller, but in Jewish literature the mustard seed was symbolic for smallness. So the point is crystal clear – from something tiny will grow something so large and so welcoming that all the nations, the birds of the air, will find shelter and rest within it.
Jesus echoes the words from the prophet Ezekiel here, and a hint to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God can be seen as well. Once again the growth is God’s – God plants the tree with the purpose of inclusion and shelter, and God accomplishes it.
But what does that mean for our small church? If we’re honest with ourselves the growth we saw in 2019 has been knocked back by Covid, so is this parable of growth irrelevant to us? By no means! Now is the time for us to be patient, to trust that God knows what he is doing, and to be steadfast.
The kingdom of God is a time and place for transformation – seed to tree, sinner to saint. When we feel occasionally frustrated or down about the lack of interest the world shows in God and his church, we can use these parables to remind ourselves, to transform ourselves anew, with the wonderful promise of the kingdom of God so beautifully sketched out in this pair of parables.
The power of God, the Holy Spirit, is always at work, whether we can see it or not. Our witness here, our life of worship together, and the faith that we take out into the world when we leave each service, is plain for everyone to see.
We are no longer children in need of a bedtime fairy story. We are the branches of the tree, planted in the house of the Lord. We are the disciples sitting at the feet of Christ, ready to listen, to be challenged, and to go out and “tell of God’s love early in the morning and of his faithfulness in the night-time; to sing aloud at the works of God’s hands.” (cf Ps 92.2, 4)
(Artwork: ‘The Mulberry Tree’ by Vincent Van Gogh)