Journey with Jesus (Mark) - Parable of Mustard Seed (PWS&D Sunday)
Mark 4:26-34, Genesis 39:20-40:45, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
We are in the last week of our five week series called Journey with Jesus. We have been following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. We have learned that Jesus is the Son of God, he has the power to heal, he has the power to forgive sins and transform lives. He also has the authority to interpret the law. Today we are skipping ahead a bit to read about the parable of the mustard seed. I think this is a fitting place to end our series because sometimes when we read about all of the amazing things that Jesus did we can feel overwhelmed. Jesus did amazing things, he had huge accomplishments, and we aren’t able to do things on that scale. Some of us start to wonder what we are doing wrong. The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that the kingdom of God is built by God, but God uses each small thing that we do and each small thing that we do matters much more than we realize. First we will look more closely at the parable of the mustard seed. Then we will look at three examples of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed.
Let’s read those three verse again about the mustard seed, starting in Mark 4:30: “He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The beautiful thing about parables is that they have layers of meaning. The first thing I want us to notice about this is that Jesus says that the kingdom of God starts small, with something quite insignificant and ordinary. A seed is very tiny, and the act of sowing a seed is nothing special. Farmers do it all time. Those of us who garden do it, too. It’s an ordinary aspect of human life. This is what the kingdom of God starts with. Just like Jesus’ coming as a human: he started very small. We first hear about Him when he is tiny, tiny in Mary’s belly. That’s when Jesus’ earthly ministry started and from there … it grew. The beginning of the kingdom of God is a very small offering, like a little seed, with a very ordinary action, like planting it.
The second thing we notice in this parable is that the seed grows by the grace of God. Yes, gardeners and farmers contribute to the health of the plants they sow, but the fact that anything even grows from a seed is a gift. It is not to be taken lightly. We can’t forget that, yes, we must be faithful with our small offerings and our ordinary actions, but that God is the one who grows the kingdom. We are involved, but we are not in control. We shouldn’t try to take control, because it is God’s kingdom.
Thirdly, it is interesting to notice that in talking about the mustard shrub Jesus does not mention at all the most obvious use of that plant, which is in food preparation. I think the reason why is that when the kingdom of God grows, God will do unexpected things that we would have never thought of. In the Gospel of Mark, Mark calls the mustard plant a shrub, whereas Matthew and Luke call it a tree. It is in fact a bush and Matthew and Luke call it a tree because there are references to kingdoms as trees in the Old Testament and Matthew and Luke are trying to make a parallelism. Mark’s description is that it is a shrub and that birds will nest in its shade. The birds that Jesus is talking about are birds that nest on the ground. When I imagine this image, the scene starts with arid, dry ground that’s empty. A human comes with a seed and plants it. Over time it grows into this huge bush. It transforms that piece of land. Whereas before it was empty, now there is shade. In a hot climate, shade is safety, refuge. It is a place where you can build a home, have a life. That’s what the ground nesting birds would do. Providing a home for the birds was not the point of planting the mustard seed. But, it’s one of the things that God did with that small offering of seed and that ordinary action of planting. I’m sure that God had it in mind when the farmer was inspired to plant the seed in the first place. We participate with God, but we don’t have control. It is God’s kingdom. We are along for the ride, and God will do things that we would never have thought of.
Let’s look at three examples of this mustard seed phenomenon. First we will look at Joseph. We read snippets of Joseph’s story this morning. Where we started, Joseph was in jail. The Lord was with Joseph. Joseph offered his small offering which was simply faithful work with integrity and God blessed it. His life was hard in prison. We read that he needed to shave and change his clothes before seeing pharaoh so that gives us a clue that he was probably filthy. Because Joseph was faithful and a man of integrity and offered his work to God, even in a terrible place like prison, God blessed that offering and ordinary action. This enabled Joseph to be there when the chief cupbearer and baker were in prison. Joseph could interpret dreams. He interpreted their dreams, and because he did that he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream two years later. Joseph had no idea what God was up to. However, Joseph was faithful and that faithfulness was the seed that was needed to put Joseph in a position to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. That’s when we see the bush spreading out and making shade under which all the birds can make their nests. At that point Joseph is appointed second in command of the land of Egypt. He has a whole host of new responsibilities, but you know what the heart of his role was? It was the same simple offering he gave to God in prison: faithful work with integrity. He was in charge of all the wealth during the years of plenty and he actually saved it (he was a man of integrity) so that through him God could save all the lives during the years of famine. What started as a small seed grew unimaginably big. All Joseph did is what he knew how to do and what he was good at: faithful work with integrity. And God made a way where there was no way for all those people to survive the famine through Joseph’s small offering.
The next example involves me. It’s not my mustard seed, but someone else’s mustard seed. It might seem completely normal to you that I am here and the pastor at Briarwood. But, the fact that I am here doing this is the very good shade from the mustard seed that was planted in 1999 by a woman named Bibi who is from Hawaii. I was a very wild teenager. I won’t get into all the details, but suffice it to say that I was reckless with my health, my safety and my future. In January of 1999, I was in college in San Diego, California, and decided I didn’t like my roommates so I asked to be moved. The administration moved me to an apartment where I shared a room with Bibi. Bibi was a Christian. Sometimes she would talk to me about God. I thought she was crazy. I used to use all kinds of foul language, throwing all of God’s names in there...I don’t know how she ever put up with me. She was very gentle and kind. She always did her morning devotions, she always prayed before she ate, and she always talked about the things that God was doing in her life. She wasn’t perfect, but it was because of her that I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour in March of 1999. I think about that, knowing where I am today and realizing that God had a plan for Briarwood that started all the way back then.
It’s been almost 20 years from when that mustard seed was planted. Since then, I have gone through transformation to stop those destructive habits and healing from all the things I did before. I have been to Bible studies, and then seminary, got ordained, and now I’m a pastor. My being here is because of a mustard seed that was planted in my heart in San Diego California by a young woman from Hawaii in 1999. I’m sure that Bibi had no idea what would happen when she planted that seed. Talk about unexpected shade. Now, I feel like I am just at the beginning of planting mustard seeds with you here at Briarwood. I am very excited to see what God is going to do through us, what our mustard bush is going to become and what kind of unexpected shade we are going to find.
And finally, since today is PWS&D Sunday, it is pertinent to talk about their mustard seed ministry. For those of you who don’t know, PWS&D is Presbyterian World Service and Development. According to their website, “Presbyterian World Service & Development is the development and relief agency of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. For over 65 years, our church has been actively working to serve marginalized and vulnerable people through PWS&D. While the global context has evolved since PWS&D was first formed, what has not changed is a commitment to Christ’s message of love through justice, poverty reduction and support in times of disaster” (http://presbyterian.ca/pwsd/who-we-are/). PWS&D tackles the problems in this world that are the most overwhelming. They take mustard seeds into places where people are trying to survive through drought or other natural disasters. They go to places where the death rate for mothers and babies is very high and try to make childbirth safer. They go to places of extreme poverty and teach people sustainable farming. They go to places where there is no hope, and plant mustard seeds of the kingdom of God. We are part of PWS&D. We financially support them. Our small offerings of money are mustard seeds of the kingdom of God that are planted by PWS&D.
I have a video today for you that they made at the end of 2017. It shows what God did through PWS&D last year. Let’s take a look:
Pretty impressive and encouraging, eh? We don’t know any of these people, but through us and our support of PWS&D, God brought hope and real help to their lives. They have experienced the safety of the shade from the mustard bush of the kingdom of God.
What mustard seeds is God planting in your life? What mustard seeds is God planting through you? Let us find encouragement to offer our small offerings and ordinary actions for God to use to grow the kingdom of God. Who knows what amazing things will happen? When God grows the kingdom, unexpected blessings will spring up all around us. Amen.