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Kingdom Manifest

Date: Jul. 14, 2019

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Mark 4:26-34

Key Verse: Mark 4:30

Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?"

Have you ever seen a kid grow up? I have three kids ranging from eight to one, and I am always amazed at how they change and grow. My youngest Liam has been walking for over four months now. I remember when he was born and was so helpless and had no way to move around, but now he doesn’t stop moving. It is amazing how kids learn and what they absorb. A few weeks ago, I caught Liam, who is just about 15 months old, sitting on the ground navigating two old iPhones and playing videos. He had two different videos going on two devices. It was really weird. Another time, my older son Lucas, who is five, was talking about doxology. I told him that that a big word, and honestly, I don’t remember what it means, but when I looked it up. He was using it correctly. It is a short hymn of praises to God. Apparently, he sang the doxology in school. Also, recently Ella has started to figure out how to cook certain foods for herself. All on her own, she figured out how to cook boxed mac and cheese in the microwave. It sounds small, but she followed the instructions without anyone showing her. There are also more complex tasks like starting the process of frying an egg. She watched, listened and payed attention and learned how to do it. She even started to educate us on paella. Growth and development is a mysterious thing. As parents, we try to do our best to educate our children, but we really don’t have much control over it. How children grow and become adults is not something that we have a great amount of control over. As much as we might try to force them, we cannot control their final height or even their personality. We can’t even control if they will listen to us. It is not very different with God’s kingdom. We can serve God and help advance his kingdom, but inevitably, we do not have any control over if, or when, God’s kingdom will advance, and today’s passage will help us understand that.

If you remember, we are in a part of Mark’s gospel where Jesus is teaching the people with parables and proverbs. This is actually Jesus’ largest teaching section in Mark. Usually Mark wrote about what Jesus did, but here, we see some of his teaching. Jesus was talking a lot about the word of God. The parable of the sower was about the word being scattered and the fruit it bore. Then Jesus talked about a lamp that shines and to consider carefully what they hear. The word of God is something that is to be taken carefully. It is something that needs to be paid attention to and not ignored. As we mentioned before, Mark is not necessarily putting things together in chronological order. He puts things together to make a point. Remember, this was all placed not too long after Jesus appointed twelve to be his apostles and he is teaching them what it means to spread the word. He wanted them to know that many people will listen, but not everyone will accept their words deeply. Now we have more lessons with this context in mind.

Our passage today begins with a parable, “He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’” (26-29) Both parables presented in our passage today concern seeds, which is fitting since the last passage I spoke on also contained seeds. I guess we are in the seedy part of Mark’s gospel. Jesus starts this parable with, “This is what the kingdom of God is like.” Unlike the other parable and sayings that Mark records, the two today pertain to God’s kingdom. They give insight into how God works. The parable begins with a man scattering seed on the ground. This sounds very similar to the parable of the sower, but in this parable, the seed is the focus and not the person planting the seed.

Have you ever planted a garden or anything? You can put the seed into the ground and take care of it and watered it, but you can’t actually make the plant grow. The seed may or may not sprout. Jesus is saying the same thing here. The man who plants the seed puts it out there. He might plow it under the soil, but once it is underground there is little a farmer can do to make it sprout and grow. In fact, especially at that time, no one knew how it would grow. The plants would need water, light and maybe some fertilizer, but none of those are a guarantee that the seeds will sprout, grow and yield a harvest. We can do everything that we can to ensure that everything will grow, but there is no assurance. We will have no idea if the seeds will sprout or how big the plants will get. You can plant four identical plants and have one bigger than all the rest for some reason. The plant grows according to itself. Likewise, we have no idea how fruitful that garden plant will be. Night and day the plants grow. They grow while you a sleeping and they grow while you are awake. Even if you do not know how it happens, the plants grow.

Jesus says in this parable that the kingdom of God is like that. He doesn’t directly explain the parable, but we can try to figure out its meaning. Like previously, the seed is the kingdom of God being spread through God’s word. At the beginning of Mark, Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near.” (1:15) This was the beginning of Jesus spreading the seed. In the same way, the kingdom of God is spread by sharing his word with others, but the result is not something we can control or even predict. This parable is like the parable of the sower in that way. Jesus is warning his disciples that they can scatter the seed, but they won’t know what type of growth there will be. They will grow all on their own. We know and Jesus is alluding to the fact that it is God that does the growing inside people. When people start responding to God’s word, it’s not that you are fantastic at sharing God’s word, perhaps you are, but it is God working in them. On the other hand, you might think that you are not the right person to share God’s word with someone, but it is not you that will cause people to respond. Again, it is all in God’s hands to cause a person to grow.

Now, you might wonder why we should share God’s word at all. If God is the one that grows his word and his kingdom, why should we do anything at all? Well, how would the plant grow if there wasn’t someone there to scatter the seed? There are a very small number of people that will just come to God on their own. The apostle Paul is an excellent example. He was God’s enemy and was rounding up Christians to have them placed in prison from believing in Jesus. One day, he was on the road to the city of Damascus to apprehend believers there. While on his way, he was blinded by a light and a voice from heaven made him tremble. Jesus had returned to ask Paul why he was persecuting him. Paul was blind for a few days, when his sight returned, Paul had become a believer and instantly began to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. He is a rare case that did not have someone share with him before he came to believe. For the vast majority of people, God needs someone to plant the seed in someone’s heart. He needs someone to initiate the process. I guess that God doesn’t really need someone to do it, but that is the method that he chose to use. He wants to use people to expand his kingdom on earth, but we don’t have to be burdened by the thought that God’s kingdom manifests itself based on our effort. Our effort is like that of a child helping their parent. The kid isn’t very good at helping and the parent does all the work, but the parent wants the child’s help because the parent loves the child and wants for them to grow. God is the same way. He doesn’t need our help, but he wants it, so that we can show our love for him and grow to know his heart more.

Mark, then goes into another parable of Jesus, “Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.’” (30-32) This parable also concerns seeds and is about the kingdom of God. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. He calls it the smallest of all seeds on earth. Now, this is a bit of a hyperbole. There are seeds that are smaller than the mustard seed, like the poppy seed, and the people of Jesus’ time knew that, but the mustard seed was used to illustrate smallness in many ways in the culture at the time. It may not have been the smallest, but it was colloquially the smallest and well known to be. It’s like saying that DNA is the building blocks of life. There is truth to those words, but DNA itself made of certain molecules and those molecules are made of atoms and those atoms are made of even protons, neutrons and electron and those are made of even smaller particles. That seems like hardly a building block.

But the mustard seed does have a unique feature. It is an herb, but unlike most herbs, which remain relatively small, the mustard plant can get quite large, growing as tall as 10 to 12 feet with a stem measuring 3 to 4 inches in diameter. As Jesus mentions, the mustard plant can grow big enough for birds to perch in its branches and provide shade for animals. It is a dramatic transformation. It’s like seeing the short, skinny, wimpy kid become a tall, muscle-bound dude. You don’t expect it at all by looking at the origin. Who would ever guess that a tiny seed would become as big as a tree? But that is what happens.

Jesus said the kingdom of God is like this, but he doesn’t explain it. So again, we have to infer a few things. The kingdom of God starts out small and can grow large. The seed that is planted in people’s hearts may start out small, but it can blossom into a tree. Sometimes, as people we like to see the great big spectacles. We like huge explosive fireworks, like there was on the 4thof July. We like the grandiose accomplishments, like the Apollo 11 moon landing, which is having its 50thanniversary this upcoming Saturday. Spiritually, we like to see great works of God happening. We want to see a million believers singing praise to God. We want to see Satan defeated and the power of sin broken, even now. We love to see thousands of people coming together to worship God, but instead, here we are with just a handful of people. We might be serving God and start to wonder where the mighty tree is. We’ve been having worship service here for twelve and a half years, but we’ve been this size for quite some time. We’ve gone up a little and down a little, but it has been pretty much the same.

We might sit around and wonder if we are doing any good. Is all the work we are doing done in vain? In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11) Every word of God spoken has a purpose and it fulfills it. It does not return to God empty. When God created the earth, he used his word and everything he said happened as he wanted it to. There was no deviation from his plan, and the same holds even now. As we serve God, we have to know that what we are doing is all a part of God’s plan and it has a point even if we never see the fruit that those words bear. It is God that causes his kingdom to grow. Our effort is just one part. It may seem small, but like that mustard seed, it can grow into a mighty tree.

Think about it. God started a great work in Abraham. God called Abraham, an old man who had no children, to be a father of many nations and to be a blessing to the whole world. God told Abraham that his descendants would as numerous as the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky, but he was just one man with no children. God started to fulfill that promise with Isaac, who then had two sons Jacob and Esau. Abraham then died when those boys were around 15 years old. He never saw that expansion into becoming nations, but it did happen. Abraham is credited as being the founder of three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham never saw the coming of the Messiah, but with Jesus’ arrival people who are not related to Abraham can be called his children through faith. The one small grain of sand has filled the beaches and the oceans. One small seed grew into a mighty tree that provides refuge from the weary world.

These two parables talk about God’s kingdom and typically we think of that as heaven, the perfect place, but these parables make it sound like God’s kingdom is growing on earth right now. Well, that is true. God’s kingdom is not something that we go to when we die, but it is something that manifests itself even now. God’s kingdom is where his people are, and it grows not only in number, but in depth of belief. We need to care about God’s kingdom because with all the sin in the world, we need to have the refuge is provides. We need to have a safe space where fear is no more, where despair is no more, where loneliness is no more, where sin no longer has any power. That is the kingdom of God. None of those things are from God. We were not supposed to live with fear, despair, loneliness or even sin. We were not meant to be away from God. The kingdom of God on earth means that we are with him. We are reconnected to him by the very blood of Jesus. Christ died on the cross so that we might believe in him and have eternal life, a life with no end free from dread and sin.

All of that happens in a time that we cannot fathom, but there is a glimpse of that even now. God’s kingdom on this earth looks like nothing that the eternal kingdom that is to come. It looks ramshackle and broken. It looks messy and unkempt, but it is what God wants because the broken people of this earth are what he wants. He loves us to the extent that he gave his own son to call us his own. There will be a day when every knee bows before God’s name, but we will not wait until it comes. Here and now is where God’s kingdom will reign. God will do it because it is his kingdom. There is beauty in the broken. There is joy in the smallness. God looks upon us with joy as we sing his praises, like a father who adores his children’s performance. It may start small, but it is God who makes it bigger than we can ever imagine.

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