“The Kingdom Comes in a Seed” (Mark 4:26-34)
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 17, 2018)
As Americans we are in love with success. “Nothing breeds success like success!” people will exclaim. We do indeed act and live as though this were true. People who have risen to the top of their profession or have otherwise become famous impress us greatly. The assumption is that they possess some great talent, ability, or special knowledge that contributed to their successful life. As a consequence, we put them on the seminar circuit. People will flock to see and hear them hoping to learn how they too can be successful. We totally ignore the fact that it could have been simply blind luck; that is, they were simply at the right place at the right time to reap the harvest of success. Or even more importantly, few will even entertain the idea that it was God who simply placed this success into the person’s lap and that it had nothing to do with their talents or abilities.
Unfortunately, the same success mentality has often beset the church. So often the first question we ask people about their church is: “How big is it?” as if size, whether that be of the church building or the number of members, is proof how blessed it is. By the same token, when our congregation appears smaller than others, or we don’t seem to be attracting as many people as the Christian congregation down the road, we tend to think we are a failure.
The upshot of all this drive for success in numbers leads congregations and church bodies to resort to gimmicks to get more people in the door. They will resort to group dynamic studies or church growth seminars to tell them how to grow the church. In fact, I do believe some so called church growth expert has even written a book entitled, “How to Grow the Church.”
Did it ever occur to us that, just perhaps, full pews do not necessarily mean kingdom growth? After all, people are not saved just because they attend our church programs or services. Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. Can human beings create faith? By the same token, has it ever occurred to success minded, church growth obsessed, advocates that just, perhaps, the growth of the kingdom is God’s work?
More than ever, I believe we need to hear what Jesus has to teach us about the kingdom of God and its growth. After all, He is the Son of God. He is the Head of the Church. He above all other ought to know what brings about kingdom growth. And here is what He seems to be saying, “The Kingdom of God is contained within a Seed. This seed brings forth the kingdom and all spiritual growth, automatically, of itself. This small seed brings forth the greatest kingdom of all.”
In order to teach truths concerning His kingdom, Jesus employs what He often did, parables. These parables are stories about everyday truths of life by which He draws parallels to the truths of His kingdom in order to further illumine the initiated; that is, His disciples, and at the same time keep the uninitiated, the unbelievers and His enemies, from comprehending His kingdom (4:10).
Our text includes two companion parables. Each deals with the planting of a seed. In the first Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed on the ground. This is the way sowing was done in Jesus’ day. Farmers did not have big drill or space planters. The seed is simply scattered on the prepared ground. Once the seed has been sowed, the sower simply goes about his life and other business. He sleeps and goes about his work every day. He does nothing with the seed. He doesn’t have to. Without his efforts or even knowledge of how it does it, as Jesus says, the seed produces, literally “automatically,” all on its own.
We still observe this to be true in nature. Without our aid, the seed first produces a stalk, then a head, and finally fills in the head with kernels of grain. All people do is observe when the grain is ready to harvest. When it is time, we put the sickle to it, and gather in the grain.
How is this simple sowing of the seed like the kingdom of God? Jesus had already filled His disciples in on a clue to its interpretation. The seed He said, in explaining an earlier parable about sowing seed, is the Word of God. In other words, there is no secret formula for success in the kingdom of God. The kingdom comes and is built in the world by the simple Word. And the real kicker is the Word does this all by itself, automatically! The Word, like the seed we plant into the ground, does not require our assistance or help. Whether we sleep or are awake, the Word works in the hearts and lives of people to whom it has been proclaimed and brings forth faith in Jesus Christ… strengthens, encourages, and uplifts those who already have faith, and even brings the very kingdom along with all of its gifts and blessings to all those who hear it in faith.
This is a very essential understanding to all of us who want to see God’s kingdom grow and thrive in our midst. The kingdom of God comes and grows only through God’s seed, His Word. Likewise, His seed requires none of our assistance. It simply needs to be sown through our preaching, teaching and sharing. As Holy Scripture itself proclaims loud and clear: “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe” (Ro. 1:16). And again, “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing the words of Christ”(Ro. 10:17). And again, “…The Holy Scriptures… are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” (2Tim. 3:16). And, finally, again, “…having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (I Peter 1:22). The sowing of the Word is God’s church growth program!
Clearly, Dr. Luther understood this. That is why he taught us in the meaning of the second petition of the Lord’s prayer, Thy Kingdom Come: “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; But we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.” How is this done? Luther goes on to explain, “Our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life, here in time and hereafter in eternity.”
Now, you and I can not do anything to aid that seed, but we can impede it, destroy its work, or nullify it. How do we do that? First of all, by being impatient with the Word that is planted. Preachers and teachers are especially susceptible to this vice. We expect immediate results. We preach a sermon or teach a lesson, and immediately expect it to have the desired effect in people’s lives. So in our impatience, we wrongly think that maybe we can hurry that seed along by our own efforts. We try to employ human reason or persuasive human rhetoric or silly stories and illustrations. But, alas, all we succeed in doing is often leading people away from the Word, or making ourselves even more frustrated because people still don’t seem to be listening. Sowing the Seed requires patience.
Dr. Wollenburg, our now departed former servant of our LCMS and especially our Montana District, was often fond of telling a story on himself. He said that in his early years in the ministry he often would become frustrated because the word he was preaching seemed to be falling on deaf ears. He couldn’t see or measure any results. Once he went home and shared his frustrations with his father, who was a farmer. He said his father gave him this wise counsel, “When I plant a field of corn,” he said, “I don’t go out every hour or day and dig up a seed or two to see how it is progressing. If I did, before long I would have the whole field dug up and no crop!” Patience is definitely the order of the day for sowing the Word. The Word will bring forth the growth, if we just let it.
Secondly, we also need to trust the power of the Word. If the truth were to be made known, no doubt the main reason churchmen, preachers, and even parishioners find themselves turning to gimmicks, or slick campaigns, or special events, is because they simply lack confidence and trust in the Word of God. They trust more in what they do.
There is no reason to not trust the Word. The Word of God is efficacious of itself. That is made abundantly clear in the fact that God created into existence the whole universe and all things simply by His spoken word… “Let there be…” and it was! Again, God simply spoke His word to a young maid Mary through His angel, and she became pregnant in her womb with the Son of God in human flesh. So, too, in He Who is The Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ, God frequently and regularly simply spoke and healed diseases… made the lame to walk… cast out demons… calmed the wind and waves… and even raised dead people to life again. We have this bold promise of God: “My Word will not return to me void without accomplishing that for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11). Our best church growth technique is to simply sow the seed through right preaching and teaching and go to sleep in trust that God will do the work through His Word.
Luther once stated of his confidence in the Word, “And while I slept… or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing: the Word did everything… I did nothing: I let the Word do its work” (Luther’s Works, vol. 51, Muhlenberg Press, 1959, 77-78).
How powerful the Word of God is to build the kingdom Jesus illustrates with His second parable. He said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed one would plant in their garden, yet when it is planted it grows to become the largest of all garden plants. In fact, it grows such huge branches that the birds of the air come to perch in its shade.
This tells us that even though God’s kingdom has small beginnings with simply the seemingly small seed of the Word… even though His kingdom was established in the humble, crucified, flesh of Jesus Christ, it produces the greatest kingdom this universe has or every will know. No kingdom has greater depth and breadth than God’s kingdom. God’s reign is everywhere. He rules over all things. His subjects are all believers, whether in heaven or on earth, from the beginning of time. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. His kingdom brings the rule and reign of His grace in His Son Jesus Christ into the hearts and lives of sinners to save them from the deadly consequences of their sins, the fires of hell, the assaults of evil men, as well as those of the Evil One himself. No greater glory comes with any kingdom. The fullness of God’s glory is shared with His subjects for all of eternity!
So vast and great is God’s kingdom, which comes through the simple seed of the Word of Christ, that included in its reign are not just those who believed in Israel but people of all nationalities. In our Old Testament reading we heard the LORD say through His prophet Ezekiel of the tree He will plant on the mountain heights of Israel, “Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” The Jewish rabbis sometimes understood this passage to mean that Gentiles would be included in God’s kingdom (A.M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, p. 44).
Do we want to see God’s kingdom come and reign among us? Do we desire our congregation to grow with people who know Jesus Christ as their Savior? Then let us sow the Seed of the Word of Christ! It works of itself. It does not require our slick programs or salesmanship. We simply need to have patience and wait for God to work at his pace and to trust Him to accomplish through His Word what He desires. Luther once observed, “There is no difference between the Word when uttered by a schoolboy and when uttered by the angel Gabriel… Venison, properly seasoned and prepared, tastes just as good in a wooden dish as in one of silver” (Luther’s Works, 22:529).
By the way, this being Father’s Day, there is no greater service fathers could render to their children than to be sowers of the seed of the eternal Father. In fact, sowing seed is the very essence of fatherhood, is it not? The biblical terminology is begetting. A mother nurtures and gives birth to that which has been sown in her. But a father begets. A father sows his seed, which without his aid begets a living being in the mother. God the Father has sown His seed into our flesh and by that Word begotten us of the Spirit. He has given us life in His name as it has given us what Holy Scripture calls new birth; that is, faith in Jesus Christ as our God and Savior.
So, Fathers, want to be an eternal blessing to your children? Sow the seed of the Eternal Father into your children’s hearts and lives by teaching them the Word of Christ Jesus. That word will not return to the Father without accomplishing that for which the LORD has sent it through you! Amen!