As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, The Kingdom of God is like a Seed, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday June 17, 2018. The Reading was Mark 4:26-34.
Context is King
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Context is King” – it’s this idea that without knowing the context surrounding a passage, you aren’t fully understanding what is happening.
As you all know, I love Star Trek. I recently finished re-watching The Original Series on Netflix. And one of the things that I love about Star Trek, and Sci-Fi in general, is that it reflects the current day issues in a futuristic context. Without understanding the context that the sci-fi was written in, you’re not fully understanding the meaning.
For example, watching The Original Series today with modern eyes is slightly jarring. The role of women in the series is often portrayed as helpless, or as administrative assistants, which did reflect the role of women in the 60’s when the show was produced. While the men wore a uniform fit for work and battle, the women were often in very short skirts. If it was made like this today, it would be decried as out of date and out of touch.
Yet, within this context, you have Uhura. Uhura is the communications officer – but more than just a switchboard operator, Uhura is talented in translation, a capable and talented officer, who is at times called on to take over weapons station of Chekov, the navigation station of Sulu, or the science station of Mr Spock. She is shown as having positive relationships with fellow crew members, with the only romantic interactions being when she is under the influence of an alien. Oh, and she is of African descent. Nichelle Nichols, the actor who portrayed Uhura, almost didn’t take the role but was encouraged by Martin Luther King Jr. to continue so that there was women of colour on TV. A strong, talented woman of colour on TV in the 60’s was indeed a rare thing, and without recognising the radicalness of this casting choice, you don’t fully understand the inclusive message that Star Trek was putting across.
In a more recent example, I was stuck while watching The Greatest Showman. It’s a great movie, and if you haven’t seen it I encourage you to find the DVD and watch it. In it, P.T. Barnum is trying to put together a circus of “freaks” – a bearded lady, a midget, an albino and a giant. In the audition process, a brother and sister come up to him, and present themselves as trapeze artists. When I first saw this scene, I didn’t notice what was “freakish” about them, thinking they just wanted a show biz job. It wasn’t until the sister had a relationship with Phillip Carlyle that I realised that it was because she was African-American that her performing was looked down on, just as this relationship was looked down upon. Without understanding the context, I missed the meaning.
Similarly, when reading the bible, we often miss many details because we don’t remember, or don’t understand, the context that it was written. Some of this context is the use of satire and humour, which is in full use here. You see, the mustard seed is indeed a tiny seed. And the idea of a tiny seed becoming a large plant isn’t all that hard for us to understand. But we need to understand the agricultural world of Israel to fully understand this parable. You see, the Mustard plant was in some ways, a weed. It grew everywhere. So the idea of planting a mustard seed was laughable. Why would you plant a crop of mustard when it was literally everywhere? But in the same way, the mustard bush would generally only grow to 90cm tall, so the idea of a mustard bush being so large that it could have birds make its nests in its branches is just as unbelievable. You can imagine the people around Jesus laughing at this description.
Getting disheartened when things go wrong
Yet behind this humour, Jesus is revealing a valid point. There are very few parables reported in Mark, so the ones that are in there are there for a reason. Yet this first parable about how a seed grows seems almost boring – and isn’t reported in any other gospel, perhaps for that very reason. It’s mundane, and compared with the Mustard seed seems to lack meaning. But in this parable there is a very important message for us.
Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a thing of mystery. That the sower doesn’t know how the seed grows, but yet it does. Apart from the sower planting the seed, there is no record of any other interaction by the sower. Yet it still grows, and when it is ripe, the sower becomes the harvester.
So often in our Christian life, we can be disheartened. I have heard some of you express disappointment and a feeling of being disheartened when you share about your faith, when you invite people to come to church, but you are only met with excuses and disappointments. I hear you, and I get you. We can do so much, we can plant so many seeds, but sometimes we just see no growth. We don’t know why – it’s a mystery. Just like how some seeds will sprout and some seeds disappear, we don’t always know why our invitations are turned down.
In this case, this passage can serve as some encouragement. We are encouraged to take the place of the sower, to faithfully continue to scatter seed, knowing that the Kingdom of God will do what it will do – it will grow, no matter what we do. We have faith, and therefore we should be encouraged to continue planting that seed, and being ready for the harvest when it comes.
Jesus reminds us about the nature of the Kingdom of God
Jesus continues in the parable, and uses the Mustard Seed to describe the kingdom of God. In doing so, we have some wonderful revelations about the nature of the Kingdom of God. As I’ve said, the mustard plant was much like a weed. It was everywhere. And that is what the kingdom of God is like – it is all reaching, and will reach all over the world.
But it is also something that needs to be planted. We are encouraged to take this thing that is all over, but continue its growth by specifically planting it wherever we are.
But in the same way, this weed is useful. Mustard, besides being tasty on a sausage sizzle, was a seed that was known for its medicinal qualities. Similarly, the Kingdom of God is useful, bringing healing to those in need.
Finally, the Mustard bush defies its nature and allows all the birds of the air to find a safe place in its branches. Similarly, the Kingdom of God welcomes all people. It doesn’t matter about their race, their age, their ability, their gender, their sexuality, their income, their hair colour, their left- or right-handedness, whatever. All people are welcome in the Kingdom of God.
Have faith in the Kingdom of God
And this is where I want to come back to that first, mundane parable. You will remember that we were encouraged that the kingdom of God will do what it will do, no matter what we do. And in that, we can be encouraged.
But we mustn’t let that encouragement to allow us to fall into complacency. If we fail to live out the kingdom values, as described in the mustard seed parable, then the Kingdom of God will continue to grow – it will just grow somewhere else.
If we use our words to belittle others, instead of encourage them, the kingdom of God will still grow – it will just grow somewhere else.
If we say that we are welcoming, but refuse to welcome those who are different to us, the Kingdom of God will still grow – it will just grow somewhere else.
If we are one thing at church on Sunday, but fail to show that throughout the week, the Kingdom of God will still grow – it will just grow somewhere else.
However, if we show love to all people through the words that we use, the Kingdom of God will grow around us – and won’t that be glorious!
If we show love to all people, no matter who they are, and welcome them all exactly the same without discrimination, then the Kingdom of God will grow around us – and won’t that be glorious!
And if we reflect the kingdom values throughout the week, not just on Sundays, then the Kingdom of God will grow around us – and won’t that be glorious!
Live out Kingdom Values
So that’s what we need to do. We need to go and live out these values. If we are being faithful in doing this, if we reflect the love of God that Jesus has taught us, if we faithfully go and plant seed, then even in disappointment, we will be encouraged – because God has promised that if we plant seed, then the Kingdom of God will continue to do what it does. We may not see that growth, but it will happen. And won’t that be glorious!
So go and live out those Kingdom values. Go and be loving, go and be welcoming, go and be authentic, go and be inclusive, go and be encouraging. Because it is in doing these things that we will find that God has something glorious in store for us.