The Kingdom of God: The Greatest of All Shrubs?

Meditation on Mark 4:26–34

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

June 13, 2021

I was sitting on a lawn chair by my backdoor, a couple of weeks ago, enjoying the sunshine when I felt something drop on my head. Looking up, I saw a little head looking down at me—a little beak poking through some grass and twigs. The birds had built a nest inside our light. Again!

Every fall, we get out a step stool and clean out the nesting material inside the light fixture. Jim tried to seal it off with duct tape and Velcro. That didn’t stop the birds from nesting!

When we moved into our house in January 2019, there was nesting material in our light fixture back then!

The bird looking down at me the other day was probably thinking, “What are YOU doing here???” Wild birds are well adapted to life around human beings, aren’t they? They build nests in all sorts of places. They are CREATIVE.  Sometimes a shoe makes a great bird house.

On the back of a plastic or ceramic goose works just fine.

How ‘bout an old, rusted lantern?

Or on a red light?

Once they are nesting in our yard, I don’t want to disturb them. There’s something wonderful about caring for Creation—and having Creation come, literally, to our back door and make their home with us.

***

The birds nesting in my lamp remind me of the birds of the air that rest in the shade of the branches of the greatest shrub of all in the parable of the mustard seed.

   Mark chapter 4 begins with Jesus teaching beside the sea of Galilee. Such a large crowd gathers, that he gets into a boat on the sea while the crowd is on the shore.

He teaches them many things about the Kingdom of God, starting with the parable of the Sower, who sows seed onto a path, rocky ground, in the hot sun, amongst thorns and finally on good soil that brings forth grain—growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold! “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” he says.

He tells other stories about the Kingdom and asks provocative questions, such as, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” he says again.

He explains his parables to his 12 disciples when they are alone with him. For they have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, he says. But to those who are not Christ’s followers, “everything comes in parables” so they may not understand!

Not everyone can handle the truth about God’s grace and the call to love without exception in the Kingdom of God. It means giving up old ways of thinking and being—having a different perspective, altogether. Just as the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells more parables about seeds and the Kingdom. In the first, the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly, the coming Kingdom of God is compared to the harvest, when the Lord comes again! But up until that time, the gardener or farmer has one job—to plant and wait. The gardener’s “life follows its ordered round of sleeping and waking, night and day, without his taking anxious thought or any active steps…Then, suddenly, the moment arrives which rewards the patient waiting. The corn is ripe, the sickle is thrust in, the joyful cry rings out, ‘the harvest has come!’ Thus it is with the Kingdom of God…” (NT Scholar Joachim Jeremias)

This brings to mind James 5:7-8—advice on how to live while waiting for the Lord’s return,“ Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed begins with a wonderful question that sets the tone for the scene. I can almost see Jesus in my mind’s eye, looking around at his disciples and their surroundings, searching for a familiar image or object that will help them understand and see The Kingdom of God in their midst. The difficulty is recognizing it all around us and anticipating what it will be when God’s new creation is complete!

“With what can we compare the Kingdom of God or what parable will we use for it? It is….like a mustard seed…..”

I can imagine him pointing to the plant that grows wild around the Sea of Galilee and other places, “which when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of seeds on earth, yet when sown, grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs!”

 Then, there’s a startled look on the disciples’ faces! The greatest of all shrubs? The mustard plant???  Yes, it grows to be 8 or 10 feet, but it looks and acts like a weed— nothing like the majestic cedars of Lebanon of which the prophet, Ezekiel, speaks.

What Jesus is saying is expect to be surprised! Don’t judge the Kingdom by its seemingly small beginnings in this world, with a humble Galilean ministry of 12 disciples and an ordinary-looking man named Jesus from the backwater town of Nazareth!

This Kingdom will be resilient; it will never fail, just as a mustard plant can grow in the poorest soil conditions and is considered, in many places, an invasive species! This Kingdom will be an instrument of healing for the world, for the mustard plant, in addition to being used as a spice to add flavor to food, has medicinal properties. In Christ’s time and in some places today, it is used to treat the common cold, pneumonia, back pain, painful joints and muscles, and aching feet.

This Kingdom that is the Greatest Shrub of All will provide shelter in the shade of its branches to all the birds of heaven, meaning Jews AND Gentiles. This foreshadows the ministry to the Gentiles in Acts, when the apostles come to realize that God’s salvation has been opened to all who believe on the work of the one righteous seed of the Lord-crucified, buried, and risen from the grave!

Read in the shadow of the gospel of John, this parable is about the mystery of resurrection—how death gives birth to life, evermore. Jesus says in John 12:24, slide “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

***

The image that remains with me at the end of our reading is how the Kingdom of God gives shelter and nurture to all the birds of heaven who nest in the shade of its branches.

    And yet so many people in this world are suffering—and don’t know where to turn. They can’t find peace and rest. They don’t know where to make their nest. They don’t look to the Bible for answers. They’ve given up on prayer. They’ve given up on God. God hasn’t given up on them! Trust in churches is at an all-time low.

    I read a Gallup poll report from March of this year about how U.S. church membership has fallen below the majority for the first time in the eight decades of the Gallup polling. Only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

     I don’t believe the report’s conclusion—that more decline is “inevitable.”

     I believe their methodology is flawed. Calculating the number of people on member rolls or even the number of worshipers at church on Sunday morning isn’t the same thing as measuring the Body of Christ, the Church of every time and place, that continues to grow and grow and grow…by the power of the Spirit.

     By the will of God, who is love.

    We walk by faith and not by sight. We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, bearing witness to the Risen Christ. We are the Redeemed of God. New Creatures! Today!  Everything old has passed away!

     The Kingdom of God is coming near! And it’s already here! For we belong to the Kingdom!

     From a tiny but mighty mustard seed to the greatest of all shrubs!

     Resilient, it will never fail! It has the power to heal the world.

Let us pray.

Holy One, Thank you for Jesus, Your Son, the righteous one, who continues to teach us through your word about the Kingdom through parables. Help us to see your Kingdom that is in our midst, and have patience and faith for its completion—when all things are made new and your Son returns for His Church. Strengthen our ministry so that we may touch more lives and share the hope of your salvation with all the birds of heaven—all the world. Lead us to reveal your Kingdom to those who are suffering and stir us to compassion to help people in need. May we be bringers of joy and makers of peace, who join with others to love and serve you and your Kingdom, the greatest shrub of all. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Coshocton, Ohio since January 2019. Come and visit! God's love is here for you!

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