June 17, 2012 “Growing the Kingdom”

It’s June, and because we are blessed to live in a rural community, almost everywhere you go around here you see fields and gardens growing up. The corn has to get busy if it’s going to be knee-high by the fourth of July in the North Country – I hear this year it’s well on its way. Market gardens that just looked like bright stripes of new growth in the black earth a few weeks ago are quickly filling in with lush green, out in front of St. Philip’s our gorgeous rose bushes are absolutely covered with blossoms, and lots of roadside stands are advertising fresh strawberries for sale. We can’t help but be aware of that process of life and growth, even if we are not gardeners or farmers. It’s just all around us.

It was like that in Galilee, when Jesus was teaching. When he taught people, he told stories about seeds and grapevines and wildflowers and sheep because those were things everyone knew about, things that made vivid pictures in their heads as he explained the mysteries of God’s kingdom. So when Jesus wanted to teach about the kingdom of heaven, how it was breaking in to the kingdom of this world that they were familiar with, and what that breaking in was going to look like, he used the image of growing seeds.

It was a surprising image, for those who had ears to hear it, because it wasn’t at all what people expected. The Jews had been waiting for the Messiah for centuries – all the more so since the Romans had commandeered their land and set up their puppet rulers over them, men like Herod who were Jews by birth only, but who were cruel and selfish, out for their own good, with no concern for the good of their people. The Jews knew what they needed the Messiah to be – they needed a strong, good and righteous ruler, someone to come in with sword blazing to drive these strangers out of the land God had promised to his chosen people, someone who would set up once again a glorious kingdom like the kingdom of David, whose reign was remembered as the Golden Age of Israel.

But instead of that image of power and glory, Jesus began to teach them that God’s kingdom was like tiny seeds scattered on the ground. The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom of trumpet blasts and battle cries – it is a kingdom of small beginnings, a kingdom that comes into the world in such a quiet, humble way that men sleep and wake and go about their business without being aware of it. But it grows, not by the power of men, not by the wisdom of men, not by the skill of men – it grows just like any seed does; it grows because of the life that is contained within it. If you break open a seed, you can see, curled inside, a tiny stem and a tiny leaf and a little nub of a root: everything that plant needs to grow up to its full potential is within that seed, whether it’s going to be a rose bush or a maple tree.

So it is with the kingdom of heaven – within its small, humble beginning was contained the life that would grow into the perfect, completely transformed kingdom, ready for God’s harvest, when he gathers all his beloved children to himself, healed of every ill, comforted from every sorrow, and when he restores his creation to health and wholeness, plants and animals and stars and planets and rocks and trees, all the new heavens and the new earth. All of that was contained in the small beginning that was Jesus, born into this world as a plain old baby in a lower-class family in a backwater village in a tiny little nation that had been pretty effectively swallowed up by the Roman Empire. Jesus was the seed, scattered on the earth of this fallen world to bring us new life.

And as the kingdom was going to grow, it was going to be transformed so that the fulfillment of the kingdom was as unlike the beginning as a maple seed is unlike a maple tree – growing from one of those little winged seeds that children like to toss up in the air and watch them whirl down like helicopters to a great old maple tree big enough to climb up and build a fort in its branches. The kingdom of heaven grows and changes, first the blade, the green stalk, then the ear, the swelling seed head with its promise of fulfillment, and then the fulfillment of all that growth, the full grain in the head, which is both ready for harvest and also full of that same life that began the process of growth.

And Jesus was telling them more, too – or at least telling those who by faith in him were able to begin hearing more of the unfolding of God’s plan. He went on to talk about the kingdom as a tiny mustard seed. It isn’t necessarily literally true that mustard seeds are the smallest variety of seed in all of Israel, but it was a common saying in that time and place. If you wanted to say that something was really, really tiny, you would say it was as small as a grain of mustard seed. We might say as small as a grain of sand or as small as the head of a pin. But a mustard seed was a much better expression, because again, Jesus wanted to talk about something alive and capable of growth so that he could teach the crowds how this kingdom of small beginnings would grow.

And like a mustard seed, Jesus said, which grows from that little speck into quite a large bush, so large that birds come and build their nests in its branches, just like that, the kingdom starts out so small you might not even notice it, and then it grows and spreads out. Jesus was using an image people would be familiar with, when he talked about the mustard plant that grew into a tree. A tree was often used as a symbol for a great empire, and the branches were like the nations that would become a part of the empire, just like Israel had become just one of the branches of the Roman Empire.

But there was more: God’s kingdom was not to be like the Roman Empire reaching out to dominate and control as many other nations as it could. Instead, when the kingdom reached its fulfillment, its branches would provide shelter and safety to all who came under its shade. He was telling them, by this picture, that God was bringing to pass what he had promised to Abraham so many centuries ago: that he chose them not only to bless them, but also to make them a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Jesus didn’t come to rescue them from Rome; he came to make them a true home to everyone – not only the Jews, but the Romans and the Greeks and the Egyptians and the Syrians – a home for all people, even to the ends of the earth.

Those are the pictures Jesus was drawing with these parables, pictures that most of the people who were listening wouldn’t have understood right away – in fact, even the disciples who knew Jesus best kept having to ask him to explain the parables to them – but they were pictures that would help people make sense of what was happening as the kingdom continued to grow and spread and bear fruit in their world. He was planting seeds in their hearts and minds that would grow in the days and months and years to come. By the light of his word and the watering of his Spirit the people who put their trust in him grew in their understanding of the way of the kingdom, the kingdom of small beginnings, the kingdom whose life and growth came only from God.

If we learn anything from these parables of Jesus today, I think one of the most important things for us to learn is that the growth of God’s kingdom is a visible thing, a sign to those who are still living in the kingdom of this world. The church is meant to be a beacon calling to those who are near and those who are far off, offering life and shelter, offering a home, a place to rest. As the living stones of God’s church, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, our lives have to reflect that. People of this world watch the people of God. They are delighted to spot hypocrisy, they sometimes gloat over our failures. The world loves to point out the priest who molested little children or the pastor who had an affair with the church secretary or the evangelist who got arrested for tax fraud. People in the world notice when our walk doesn’t match our talk – and so often it doesn’t. “You call yourself a Christian?” they ask us, and sometimes they are quite right to criticize us. And yet, as foolish as it seems, it is still God’s plan that he is revealed to the world through his church – and that’s us, weak-willed and full of wickedness as we are. The kingdom grows, we know not how, but by the power and love of God he is proclaimed through us.

God is in charge of growing his kingdom; his will will be done in all of his creation. But he made us in his image for a reason. He didn’t tuck us away until he was finished with us so we wouldn’t be an embarrassment to him. As his children and heirs of his kingdom, he has called us to be his witnesses in this world. And he showed us how he wants us to be his witnesses by his teaching and in his life. First and foremost, Jesus showed us that just like the newly planted seed has to put down roots before it can do any other growing, so we need to be rooted in God if we are to grow at all. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus said, when he taught his disciples, “If you abide in me, and my love abides in you, you will bear much fruit.”

Jesus showed us by example that if we want to reach out we have to first reach in. There is a saying, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” If we don’t seek the grace and love of God in our daily lives, spending time with him alone, meditating on his word, worshipping him and seeking out the company of his people – all things that Jesus did himself, God though he was and is – we will have nothing to offer the people around us who are in need. We all have so many people in our lives that need to know God. But by ourselves we have nothing really life-giving to offer them. Anything of real value that we have to offer springs from our real faith in Jesus Christ. If we try to make people Christians by means of our brilliant argument or our good works, we will most likely find ourselves frustrated and burnt out, though by the grace of God they may come to know Christ despite our foolishness, but if above all else we nurture the love of Jesus in our hearts we will have treasure beyond compare to offer;

Being a witness for the kingdom is much less about what we do and far more about who we are. But who we are always makes itself known by the way we live. So we have to consider, What do people see when they look at my life? Think about your average day – is there anything in your life that sets it apart from any other person in Norwood or Potsdam or Hannawa Falls? Are there signs of the growing life of the kingdom in the way you talk to people or in the way you talk about people? Can people catch a glimpse of the kingdom in the way you shop or eat or work in your yard or drive your car or read the newspaper? Remember that God’s kingdom is a kingdom of small beginnings – we aren’t necessarily called to be Mother Teresa this afternoon, but we might be called to say a kind word when we would rather join in some gossip with friends. We might be called to give five dollars to a panhandler when we were about to go have a sandwich at the diner. We might be called to start a conversation with the man beside us in the waiting room at the doctor’s office when we would rather read People magazine and mind our own business. It is Jesus, living in our hearts by his Spirit, who directs our steps as we walk through the day. But if we keep in step with him, our lives will begin to look very different from the lives around us in the world. It might start small. But it will grow.

I know that for some of you here it would be very easy to get caught up in criticizing yourself, thinking about your life and feeling overwhelmed by how far short of the mark you seem to fall. We all – every one of us – struggle with our tendency to live just like everyone else in this world, to want the same comforts and securities and pleasures as everyone else. And we have so many blind spots and so much baggage that sometimes we can struggle for years with the same problems. It’s awfully easy to get bogged down in feeling guilty or ashamed or just tired of trying. I think Satan loves it when we wallow in our guilt instead of bringing it to the foot of the cross so we can come back again, cleansed and forgiven and joyful.

What God really wants from us and for us is not guilt or shame; it is for us to be living invitations to his kingdom, He wants us to be his lighthouses, letting the light of his kingdom shine out from us to pierce the darkness of the world, calling people into the safe harbor of his love. We are light when we draw near to God so that his presence shines within us. We are light when we reach out to serve others with his love. We are light when we confess our sins and failures with honesty and humility. We are light when we sacrifice our own needs and wants for our brother or sister. Because the Father has loved us as his children, his light shines  from us into the darkness of this world, which is starving for all that  the kingdom of heaven has to offer, in abundance: unconditional love, inexhaustible grace, unquenchable joy and hope that will never disappoint us.

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