A sermon for the occasion of New Creation’s 10th anniversary, given on Mark 4:30-34. By Fr. Justin Clemente.
The Mustard Seed That Could
I know I’ve got several folks here today with a love of gardening & landscaping, both amateurs and professionals, so I think you’ll appreciate today’s parable. You know, with the parables of our Lord, there’s always something that’s not quite right, a little off – not quite true to normal life. You may have already noticed it.
First, let me back up and say another word about the parables of Jesus. The parables of our Lord are more than earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. They are revelatory dividing lines. What I do I mean by that? First, they reveal – they reveal who Jesus is and what God is doing through him. Second, they divide – once you hear and understand the parable, you are either magnetized and drawn toward Jesus, or repelled away from him. But you don’t stay where you are.
Here, Jesus compares the reign and rule of God, coming in him, to a mustard seed, which becomes a plant, and then a tree (v. 32, c.f. Matthew 13:32). Only the mustard plant is not actually tree! And does not become one (though some have tried to say that it does). Change the details a little bit and I think you’ll appreciate this more. This past year, we had a wonderful planting our garden (at least I did). We put some moderate effort into producing an okay crop. Our tomatoes did best of all – we enjoyed all summer long. They did well and tasted great. But can you imagine if our tomato vines turned into a full-on tree? Can you imagine if they became the size of an apple tree? You wouldn’t just be surprised, you’d call the newspaper. You’d post it on YouTube. You’d patent those seeds!
Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God is like this. From the smallest of seeds will come a supernaturally empowered and blessed tree, which will grow to encompass all Creation in the new heavens and the new earth.
Today, as we celebrate our 10th anniversary, there is both great hope and solace in our Lord’s teaching. There are two takeaways I want to draw our attention to.
Appearances are Deceiving (v. 31)
The first takeaway is that in God’s Kingdom and in God’s way, appearances are deceiving. God’s Kingdom will not look impressive to the world around us. It will make an impression, but it will not be well esteemed or thought of highly by all. St. Jerome writes that the Gospel, “At first view…has not even the appearance of truth, announcing a man as God, God put to death, and proclaiming the offence of the cross.” And yet, it is the power of God.
Moreover, the metrics of the world are not God’s metrics for the church! So, while metrics like attendance, budget, and cash on hand are important for sustainability, they don’t begin to touch the things that really matter in God’s Kingdom.
Let me say this, if you are underwhelmed where we’re at 10 years in, that’s okay. God’s metrics are not ours. For our lunch, Lucy has put together a slideshow of pictures from 10 years together. I want to encourage you to linger there and remember the smaller and yet more telling, more meaningful moments in the life of our church. We are celebrating God’s faithfulness – and you will see his faithfulness there in that slideshow.
The promise of this passage is that, in the Lord, our small and meager offerings of faith in Christ, perseverance in community, love of his Word, love of the saints, love of his sacraments, love of our neighbor, will never reap less than we think, but overabundantly more. But you’ll have to wait to see it. In our insta-everything world, you will have to wait to see it. When Paul writes of the great hope of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he doesn’t end by saying, “Well, it’s going to be a hard road…so just hang in there!” No instead he says what? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
You might know of a little company called Apple: in 1976, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Ronald Wayne founded Apple Computer Company in the Jobs’ family garage. The first computer they offered, the Apple I, was a kit computer users could assemble themselves. It was built by hand with a wooden frame – to say the least, they’ve come along way. But the truth of the matter, according to Jesus, is that the accomplishments of a company like Apple will be a footnote in history compared with glories of his Kingdom – but it won’t always look like – not yet, at least. But the “smallest of all” will be the “greatest of all.”
It’s God’s Work (v. 32)
The second thing Jesus is showing us is the certainty of God’s coming Kingdom. It will fill the world. Even now, like the birds of the air, people from all nations, tribes, and tongues are finding refuge in Jesus. One day, the Lord’s words in Revelation 21:5 will be fulfilled: “Behold, I am making all things new…Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Why? Because this Kingdom is founded on the shed blood of the Son of God and the enduring might of his resurrection. And so when we confess the Creed we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” We make the sign of the cross because “by the sign of the cross, we trample on death.”(St. Athanasius) These things are certain and true…and they are ours.
Theologian Arthur Just writes, “On the Last Day, when the Master returns, faithful servants will inherit an immense treasure, the size and value of which are hidden [only] for now.”[i]
Again, the surprising and not be missed twist is that mustard plants don’t grow into Cedar-like trees – but this one does and will. You have never seen a tree like this! Even with all our modern scientific and biological knowledge, life is still a mystery. We do not cause it, instead we wonder over it.
This calls for two replies: 1) if you do not know Christ, he is calling you in this parable. In John 12:24, Jesus compared his life to a seed that would be buried and then bear much fruit. The seed of God’s Kingdom is the death of Jesus for sinners, and his resurrection for our new life. He was buried in the tomb in humiliation and returned a mighty Oak in his resurrection. This seed cannot fail. It is yours to claim by faith. We were over at Walnut Towers the other day, and someone asked me, “How do you get into your church?” I said, “Just walk through the door.”
Look at Verse 32 again. It says that wild birds – that’s us – all the peoples of the world, can make their hearth & home – literally, pitch their tent – with God, under the shade Jesus provides. Are you dwelling with him, or bearing the scorching sun of life on your own terms in your own strength?
2) It calls for joyful and obedient trust. Trust to the Word of Christ. Trust to the Gospel of Christ. Trust to the Word of God. Our labor in Christ is not vain because the victory and the outcome are assured – not because we work so hard for it!
You may know that at the time of the Reformation in Germany, Luther famously said of the Word of God, “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. … I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”[ii]
We have, all of us, opened our hearts, our hands, and our homes to one another and to the Lord’s call upon New Creation. We have come to be a downtown church, planting the good seed. We have prayed over and blessed those whom God is sending out to their own communities in the same openhanded trust.
Even if we do not know all of what comes next, we know our God. We are not afraid to be large or small, for his coming Kingdom is certain and sure in Jesus. For all this and more, we give all the glory, all the honor, all the praise to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!
[i] Luke 9:51-24:53 by Arthur Just, pg. 546.
[ii] “The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, Pgs. 77–78