Stories Jesus Told: The Insubordinate Mustard Seed

Intro

Today we’ll be continuing on with our series on the stories Jesus told. Let’s go ahead and dive right in today.

Problem

A small fish in a large ocean. That’s what it feels like sometimes, doesn’t it?

The idea of being just one person, just one in a city of 75,000, in a state of 38 million, in a country of 300 million or among the global population of roughly 7 billion, can be extremely humbling.

Carl Sagan is famous for his discussion of  “the pale blue dot.” Remember that? I have a video that includes part of his essay…

We are reminded that the only ones who can make a difference in this world are the ones with the over-the-top power to affect change and create waves.

If we don’t have the platform of Oprah or the money of Steve Jobs, we don’t stand a chance of having anyone listen to us.

On the church’s level, we often times think about the churches around us), in our city (Fathers House), or across America (Willow Creek) that are doing more, spending more and seeing more people coming to their churches.

There is a temptation to believe, or we find it hard to think that our church, a group of 40 or so that meets here on a given Sunday will ever be able to change our city.

It’s okay. You can admit that fear! That fear is actually Biblical.

For instance:

When God was calling Moses to lead his people out of slavery, he responded to God by saying…“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Or, there’s Jeremiah. The man called by God to speak words of warning and love to Israel.

He responds by saying:
“Ah sovereign Lord,…I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”

The truth is, we are a small church called to big dreams…aren’t we?

With that understanding, what do we do with the fears and the doubts that creep into our minds?

What do we do when we begin to think about the faith we hold, and how it impacts our work, or our neighborhood…and we immediately feel too small; just a pale, blue dot in the middle of the vast universe.

Jesus, the leader of a revolution in its infancy, spoke of the Kingdom this way. We’ll be reading from Matthew 13:31-33.

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

What’s going on here

Jesus is in the midst of telling parables and stories about what it means to be followers of Christ, and about the how the Kingdom moves, grows, and operates.

For me, if I were to be honest, this analogy was a bit lost on me when I first read it.

Has anyone here ever grown mustard plants, or seen them grow? Chances are, you’ve seen them in a seasoning bottle. Mustard seeds are these little seeds.

And on the surface, this seems like a very cute, nice, capitalist principle, right? The little man (or seed) can, with the right water and soil (or situation), grow into a night productive plant. Even the little guy can make a nice living and a good life for himself.

But if we turn this illustration into something cute, we miss the power and the poignancy in what Jesus is saying.

Tension

A few thoughts about the mustard seeds

What is a mustard plant?

Taking a look at where Matthew placed the mustard parable, we see he’s placed the mustard seed in the middle of the stories about the weeds and the wheat.

What is Jesus trying to get across? What is his purpose for talking about mustard in the middle of these stories?

Let’s break down the mustard seed for a moment.

Have you ever seen a full-grown mustard plant before? 

Mustard-Seed-Plant

 

It’s wild, and unkempt. Once planted, no gardener can control its movements and spread. It’s a wild card in the garden life.

The mustard plant has been compared to Japanese kudzu, an invasive plant species found in Japan and throughout parts of Asia.

kudzu

A city preacher once compared it to the wild weeds that grow out of abandoned houses and crack the sidewalks.

grass

Ever marvel at how a small blade of grass, something that you can pull, or break with such ease, can force its way through a slab of concrete? Or how a vine can grow with such recklessness…eventually covering an entire building?

In the same invasive vein, the mustard seed’s growth would have been familiar to the first-century Jews, since many of them were farmers and peasants well acquainted with its way of taking over gardens. Chances are, it probably was growing in the wild around them where Jesus spoke.

So, why was this shocking to the people of Jesus’ day?

Desire for order

Who would define themselves as ordered, or organized people? For example, this is a perfect example of this. (E and my closet)

Who has ever grown anything? A garden? How do you plant your garden? In an organized, and well plotted out.

Who has a computer? What’s your desktop look like? Does every document have a place, and every file have order? Or does it look like your inbox threw up on your desktop?

Jews valued order and had very strict rules about how to keep a tidy garden. One of their secrets was to keep out mustard. Mustard was notorious for invading well-trimmed veggies and other plants and quickly taking over the entire garden.

This image would have been considered silly, or considered crazy for the pious and rule following Jewish people of the day.

Plenty of people had lofty expectations of the kingdom coming in spectacular triumph and were familiar with the prophets’ well-known “cedars of Lebanon” imagery, which described the kingdom as similar to the giant redwood… the greatest of all trees.

The cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for the kingdom would have brought some enthusiastic “amens” from the crowd, or maybe would have gotten some people dancing. But Jesus ridiculed this triumphal expectation. After all, even mature mustard plants stand only a few feet high-modest little bushes.

In today’s culture, Jesus would have compared the kingdom of God to a computer virus. Starts small, but will completely change the way your computer operates.

Subversive language

What Jesus had in mind was not a frontal attack on the empire of this world. His revolution is subtle contagion-one little life, one little hospitality house at a time. It was something a person might laugh at, when viewing it for the first time.

Asking themselves, how could a blade of grass do any damage to the things as they are. Or, how can a small seed cause any trouble.

But, unlike a mighty tree, or a mighty army, our Father has always preferred the small to the big. He enjoys “under the radar” and enjoys disrupting life as usual through the actions of the few.

Yet healing

Jesus isn’t only talking about fighting the man. The kingdom of God, and his analogy of the Mustard Seed has a healing voice as well.

Mustard was also known for healing and was rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, much the same as we would use Vick’s vapo-rub.

The kingdom of God, while turning the world upside down, disrupting the organizations we’ve created, and taking over everything, will give us breath, and allow us to breathe freely for the first time.

It’s with this understanding that we now see how Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, can be the sign or image of the Jesus revolution.

Final image: Dirty birds.

Jesus added one more thing, on top of all the rest. He said, “The birds of the air can rest here.”

When you hear them talk about birds resting on the branches of trees…you probably have visions of majestic eagles, or beautiful hawks. But the birds Jesus is alluding to aren’t the mighty birds that would rest or dwell in the cedars of Lebanon (think redwood trees).

These are more similar to fowls, and they would find rest in the branches of the mustard bush. These birds would probably be described less as majestic, and more as detestable, filthy, disease ridden.

They’re the ones that eat animal carcasses. Farmers didn’t want these types of bird in their garden. These birds are the reason farmers would put up scarecrows.

Think about what Jesus is saying here.

He’s saying the Kingdom of heaven is for the birds. He’s saying the filthiest among us are welcome to find shade in he kingdom.

Resolution

So, let’s take a moment to review. Shall we?

The Kingdom of God is:

Uncontrollable.

Subversive.

Inconvenient.

And for the birds.

Not the typical way we talk about the church, is it?

We usually celebrate the majesty of the Kingdom. The power of the kingdom. The importance of the kingdom. The splendor of the kingdom.

Sometimes we begin to feel as though the kingdom is for churches like them and not so much for churches like us.

The kingdom is for churches with millions in the bank, or with 10,000 seat auditoriums. The kingdom is for the christian ninjas, and the social movers and shakers.

But the truth is, God wants a field to be planted in. He wants a willing farmer. He wants a willing and open plot of land to work in. He just needs one church. He just needs one person.

And he will, like this seed, spread and impact everyone around them. The fingers will spread. They will work their way into schools, into hospitals, into city counsels and homeless shelters. The kingdom will work its way into the living rooms of broken marriages, and into the bars filled with lost and lonely people.

The kingdom is for churches like us

The kingdom is for the churches small, as much as big. The kingdom moves through the congregations others might overlook.

The kingdom is for the dedicated and the despised.

The forgotten and the written off.

The kingdom of God is for people willing to take a next step. To put themselves out there, and to live out the kingdom in the only way they know how.

The writer, Max Lucado, once told a story about a World War 2 pilot, Bohn Fawkes, whose plane was hit by Nazi antiaircraft guns. Even though the plane’s gas tank was hit, it did not explode and Bohn was able to safely land his plane. The next day he went to the crew chief to ask for the shell that could have ended his life. He wanted it as a souvenir. He found that not one, but eleven shells had been found in the gas tanks. Incredibly, none had exploded. Later when the missiles were opened they were found to be void of explosive charge. They were empty except one. Inside, a small piece of paper was found with the message, “This is all we can do for you now.” It seemed that an assembly-line worker was disarming these missiles. The worker knew he could not end the war but he could do something. It seemed so small, and yet it made all the difference.

The kingdom spreads through actions like this. And, as a church, we are committed to being a culturally subversive, and radical change agent in our world.

As a leadership team, we’ve been working through ways that we can engage our culture. While they are still in the early stages of conversation, we’re always looking for ways to serve our community.

As we investigate these possible partnerships, I want to stress that we are also doing small actions and small commitments. We serve the hungry at the Table.

We will be taking a prayer walk, and at the same time, will be cleaning the streets of our neighborhood.

The kingdom of God moves in ways that often times go overlooked. But they are important all the same.

The important part is that you are willing to be used by God, and that you are open to his Kingdom moving in all parts of your life, as well as spilling out into the lives of those you know.

Invitation

So, how does the kingdom of God look to you? What ways in your work, or in your daily like, can you be a culturally subversive person? How can you plant seeds of the kingdom? How can you plant seeds that will spread and cover the earth?

If you have ideas of ways we can serve our neighborhood, I want you to share with myself, or one of the leadership team. We are very open to new ideas.

The important part is that we are always taking steps forward. Always reaching and always pushing outside ourselves.

And the chances of failure are always present. Some things will work. Some things won’t. We’ll often take 2 steps forward, and one back…or maybe we’ll take 2 forward and 2 back.

But, as a church, we should never be afraid of failure. We should only be afraid of standing still.

We can know that, just like the mustard see, our church can become a cultural force in our world. Changing the very fabric upon which our city operates.

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8 thoughts on “Stories Jesus Told: The Insubordinate Mustard Seed

  1. Inspiring and very well written! I am doing this parable with my bible in schools class this week and needed some inspiration…
    Our theme is ‘From little things, big things grow’ ie. our little actions of kindness, generosity etc can have big impact. Dovetailed nicely with your theme – we don’t have to be mega super stars to make a difference for God’s kingdom. And, sometimes it’s in the messy places we can do the most good! Thanks

  2. Wow!!! This is so inspiring! I never knew how powerful a little mustard seed is. To invade every crack and crevice to climb and contort to reach everyplace….this really opened my eyes- thank you.

  3. This was eye opening. I read it as ky devo this morning and it is gold. I always new there was more to this parable than meets the eye.

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