The Mustard Seed.
Sermon by The Reverend Charles Royden 18 June 2006
This morning you all get to take home a present, we are distributing Mustard seeds.
When you have your mustard seed in your hand you will recognise that this is not in fact the smallest seed, it is just a small seed. It is nice to know that Jesus exaggerated in his preaching and teaching as well we modern preachers.
It is a small seed, and it is the smallness of the seed which Jesus wants to draw attention to when he is speaking about God’s Kingdom.
When we think of kingdoms we do tend to think big. The hearers of Jesus must have thought of Rome when they thought of kingdoms. Kingdom meant authority and power and conquest and expansion. Perhaps in the same way that we think of the United Kingdom, a place with borders and countries.
So, the kingdom is small, but what did Jesus mean when he spoke of God’s Kingdom?
I have read commentators who have suggested that the kingdom is the church,
I think immediately of the hymn, 'The day thou gavest Lord is ended.' It
speaks of the Kingdom expanding, so much so that the voice of prayer is
never silent. It is a hymn full of images of God's Kingdom being like an
earthly kingdom, the difference being that unlike earth's proud empires, it
will not pass away.
The world I have also heard commentators, like William Barclay who associate Kingdom with the whole world. Barclay speaks of progressive advancement in the world and cites such things as prison reform as a sign that everything is getting better.
I find it difficult to think of Kingdom in these terms. Jesus tells
Pilate (John 16) that his kingdom is not of this world. I therefore think of
the Kingdom, not in terms of a place, or the structure of the church. The
Kingdom rather exists where the rule and authority of the King extends, it
the hearts of people who serve God.
I have put down as our next hymn, 'I vow to thee my country.' Some people hate it! There are vicars who have banned it from their churches, even for weddings. The first verse comes in for some criticism with its emphasis on service to the country and offering oneself on the altar of personal sacrifice. I know why these things are unpopular with some Christians, having said that however, I must say that perhaps a little more of that attitude would be a good thing. I think we are all fed up with people who want to take from the country and not give anything back. The importance of what we can give, how we can serve others perhaps needs more attention.
But I have chosen the hymn for the second verse because it is extremely helpful in thinking about God's Kingdom and this parable of the mustard seed.
And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
and her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
The other country in the hymn is clearly God country, God's Kingdom. Not like an earthly kingdom with visible armies and a visible king. The kingdom exists in the hearts of those who belong. The kingdom attracts those willing to suffer, it grows soul by soul and silently. It is about daily living faithfulness, suffering, gentleness and peace.
Jesus describes the kingdom using this picture of a seed growing. The process of growth from a seed is silent. The seed grows at first without even being seen. The potential locked within the seed is started without visible appearance. Indeed so unspectacular is growth that you can’t see it occurring.
Yet you can see the effect afterwards! When I come back from my holidays the garden looks unbelievable. The grass, bushes and shrubs seem to have grown beyond recognition, but, you can only see it looking backwards.
Like the mustard seed, the kingdom could be considered insignificant and lacking in importance, but the seed has enormous potential and possibility.
The parable of the mustard seed should encourage us.
We should not be disappointed, judging the condition of the kingdom by the
condition of the church, or by the condition of our country, or the world.
The Kingdom of God is neither of these things.
The parable should also inspire us.
As we look at the small size of the seed we should inspired to recognise that there are many small things which we can do play our part in the growth of God’s Kingdom. No deed is too small or insignificant. Words of encouragement and comfort which we make to another person. Deeds of kindness and consideration, all of these things are important. This should inspire us that the little things which we do day by day matter. These are the ways that God’s kingdom takes shape in us and others.
There is a wonderful illustration of the kingdom of God.
Imagine a circle drawn on the ground.
The circle is the world and the centre of the circle is God
Leading from the edge of the circle to the centre are lines, like the spokes on wheel.
These are the paths of life which we can follow to draw closer to God
The further we advance along those lines the closer we are drawn to God
But the further along those lines we travel, the closer we are also drawn to each other.
The nearer we draw to God, the greater our union not only with him but others
This is how God’s kingdom grows.
The Kingdom of God is like a seed which grows all by itself once it is
planted. The Kingdom, like a small seed, might appear tiny and
insignificant, but the kingdom of God should not be judged by earthly
This teaching is encouraging for us. It reminds us that God is at work in this world. We should not be disappointed by the lack of spectacular growth, because Jesus tells us that Kingdom growth is slow, like that of a plant. If we watch it we will not see it grow, indeed it is only if we go back after a time that we will notice that there has been change. There is most wonderful change and growth going on, but the growth of the kingdom is imperceptible. You have to look for it very carefully and to those who lack the eyes of faith, it will be impossible to see.
This might seem rather lacking in excitement, we live in a consumer culture and we expect immediate results. However we should not be too disappointed. Growth might be imperceptible, but yet it is also unstoppable. Just as growth is a fact of nature, so the growth of the kingdom is unavoidable.
For this reason God's Kingdom should never be despised, simply because it lacks human appearance of greatness. So Jesus uses the illustration of the mustard seed. It would be easy to despise such a small seed, it is insignificant. yet is has within it the potential for great growth, many, many times its apparent size.
We should never judge God's work by its appearance, there is hidden energy at work which transcends the small appearance on the surface.
Jesus contrasts the smallness of the seed with the outcome of the growth which takes place from the potential stored inside that seed. There is an important message here, the Gospel has enormous power and potential, even if like a planted seed, the growth goes on without even the possibility of being seen!
So we should be aware of the importance of the small beginnings and the small changes that we see.
Some have assumed that in speaking of growth, Jesus is thinking about the growth of the church. The hymn 'The day thou gavest' has this message at its core. It speaks of the church keeping watch across the whole world, the voice of prayer never being silent, because the church is ‘unsleeping’. The kingdom of God is seen to be growing numerically, adding numbers, 'hour by hour fresh lips are making thy wondrous doing heard on high'. This kingdom of the church, unlike 'earth's proud empires' will never pass away. It is glorious and triumphant and very 19th century, we could hardly imagine it being written today! Although there are some modern songs which use this kind of imagery, speaking about marching and victory and claiming land for Jesus. I am not sure what Jesus would have thought of it all. Jesus made it clear to his disciples that his kingdom was a spiritual kingdom. 'My kingdom is not of this world' he told Pilate. John (18:36). When we read the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom it is quite obvious that he had no intention of establishing a rival kingdom to Rome, the kingdom of God is about the change in a human heart.
We all have the potential for change and growth, allowing our lives to be come fit places for God to grow his kingdom. This growth can be painfully slow. We determine that we will be nicer to our husbands and wives and families, we promise ourselves that we will practice patience and be more joyful in daily living, then we let ourselves down. Yet the kingdom still grows, even if growth, like that of a plant is so slow that stare as we might we cannot see it. Only as we look back do we see how we have changed and recognise the potential for what we might become.
There is also an important message here about our efforts. If we just sow the seed it grows by a power greater than our own. We do our own seemingly insignificant part, and great significance can result. Our part may appear insignificant it is not, it is of enormous importance. Our efforts are not the whole story, it does not all depend upon us - BUT if we fail to sow how can the seed grow?
Each one of us can sow, play our seemingly small part, we can all plant and allow the process of growth to take place. Jesus is making the point that it is not just the spiritual giants, the Billy Grahams of this world who make a difference. It is each one of us playing our part. It involves the mother with three kids who makes the effort to get to church in the morning, just as much as it involves the minister who pretends he runs the place. Both are equally important, both plant their seeds.
The sowing of the tinniest seeds starts a process over which we have no control. God will take care of the process. The growth will happen at the right pace, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.