Last week we heard about Jesus’ return home and the rather less than warm welcome he received. Despite that, things have been going pretty well for him and the disciples. Wherever they go crowds gather and, whilst many are there in hopes of miracles, more and more people are starting to listen. Really listen.
To capture and keep the attention of a great crowd takes some doing. So, Jesus does what preachers (of any persuasion) have done for years. Something they are still doing, talking about things everyone knows about to help make the point. Today it’s seeds, trees and mustard seeds. I am sure this did get people’s attention but there was also something else; something that could, would and will change everything. Because when Jesus starts his sermon, and that’s really what it is, he begins by saying: The Kingdom of God IS…
The Kingdom of God
Now, we all have an understanding of what the Kingdom of God is. For us it is possibly the Kingdom we consider the most, despite the fact that WE live in the United Kingdom. For the people in that crowd, even though they still thought longingly of the Kingdom of Israel, there was also really only one Kingdom that mattered (like it or not). Rome.
Rome was the ultimate kingdom and one which most believed would be the final kingdom. As after all it’s glories, the world would end. So, it is little wonder that when Jesus talked about a New Kingdom people listened and he needed them to. One of the things Jesus wanted people to understand (and he still does) was that the Kingdom of Rome and all the other earthly, past or present, are not going to be the powers that have the final word. God’s Kingdom will be the final word.
Now, Jesus isn’t stupid, he knows that if he says all this plainly, he will be arrested, tried, and killed before the week is out. And it is not his time yet. So, he used parables to deliver the message. He wasn’t the first to do this; parables, stories and allegories had been used for centuries. He wasn’t even the first to try and describe the kingdom of God using a parable either. As we just heard in that reading from Ezekiel as God plants a sprig from the cedar tree which becomes a mighty tree bearing fruit and allowing birds of every type to live in it.
Most Jews would have known this story and probably felt good about the image it presented of Israel, which had once been a place of blessing refuge and power. But things have changed. This is the age of Rome; which has ears everywhere. So, Jesus scrambles the story. It’s just similar enough that many of the crowd would have remembered that cedar tree. Just dissimilar enough to keep Jesus safe for a little longer.
Reversing the order
But the thing about parables is that they turn and even reverse the natural order of things. Parables are meant to make people think and this crowd, is really going to have to think, a lot. Here is a crowd of people who have come with memories of past glories and fears that Rome will be their end. Here is a crowd hoping for something wonderful. And what they get is a handful of seeds….
The kingdom of God is like a gardener Jesus says. But this gardener doesn’t exactly seem to be pushing himself. He throws some seed on the ground and goes back to bed. Yet still the seed grows. The gardener has no clue how, it just does. Then, he, literally, reaps the rewards. I can’t imagine anyone in that crowd jumping up and down with dawning light.
So, Jesus tells another parable. It is the one we all know, but is it the one we all understand? The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. You can imagine people starting to wonder what on earth? A mustard seed, which becomes? Well basically it becomes a weed. A great big one.
I don’t think there were many lightbulb moments then either. If you remember how many times Jesus had to explain his parables to the disciples, you can probably imagine that he was going to be in for a long night with these 2 stories.
To be honest, I cannot claim to be sure exactly what Jesus was trying to say but, perhaps there is a clue if we think about the people in the crowd. You see, give or take a couple of thousand years these people were that different from you and me. Just ordinary folk looking for a better way. Like most of us they were probably also looking for something different from what they really needed.
Not what you were expecting
So, perhaps what Jesus really wanted them to understand was that the Kingdom of God would not be anything like they were expecting. This Kingdom will not be about the things most of us consider important. It won’t be about power or riches. It won’t be about having it all. It won’t be about who is better than anyone else. This Kingdom will be different. And yes, for those wanting the power and wealth etcetera it may well seem entirely underwhelming. A weedy kind of kingdom perhaps?
Let’s be frank most of us want, if not to have it all, at least to have quite a lot. Even those closest to Jesus expected power and the glory to be on the way. John the Baptist had already sent his disciples to double check that Jesus actually was the one they expected. After the crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples were still asking when everything they thought should happen would be happening.
The parable of the mustard seed tells a different story from the one we expect. And it also recognises the difficulty, the sometime seeming impossibility of faith. Because fait is often hard and sometimes disappointing when being a Christian does not automatically bring us the rewards and plaudits, we like to think we deserve.
Growing a kingdom
But do not lose hope, remember the farmer sleeping in his bed while the seed grows. The Kingdom is present, it is here, and it is growing. It cannot be stopped. We just have to see the signs. The signs that are all around us. Maybe just small shoots, small shoots but they are here. Think, for instance about all the neighbourly actions and the community responses which began during covid. Simple things which could become so much more with just a little help, perhaps from us?
Remember how Jesus spoke about the power and the promise of giving just a cup of cold water to someone in his name. With enough cups of water and a few handfuls of seed we could start to change the world. We could even grow a kingdom. Amen.
“The Kingdom of God is…” was delivered by Elizabeth Binns at St John with St Mark’s Bury on Sunday 13th June 2021. It was based on Mark 4:26-34. Beryl Cook’s picture of Madonna and Child is Elizabeth’s favourite picture and is shown here with grateful thanks. Copyright © John Cook 2021. www.ourberylcook.com.