The Messiah sat in a boat for his humble pulpit. The little fishing vessel must have moved gently on the water. Jesus, our Lord, looked out across the fresh-water beach at a growing congregation. And what he saw then is what he sees today: believers and those who would believe burdened by the incomprehensibility of God’s promises in a world gone mad. “When will God show up?” Or, a familiar phrase from little ones in the back seat, “Are we there, yet?” When promises are taught, but fulfillment seems impossible, and oppression and heartache is merciless, even the strongest among us can begin to waiver.

I will never forget the image from my childhood of my faithful friend, my dog named snooper, who lay dying in the corner in an old shed in the backyard of our home in rule Louisiana.[1] There was nothing we could do for snooper. But he looked at me, and I felt the poor creature was trying to make sense of his suffering and my presence. I guess I was trying to make sense of it too. But there was nothing I could do but to offer a prayer to the God who made “all creatures great and small.”[2]

It is a great mystery to know of a sovereign and good God, yet to see how people are enjoying life at one moment become corpses and mowed-over pedestrians lying in pools of blood on the London Bridge the next moment.[3] We were all shocked, once again, by the acts of radical Islamic supremacists. World leaders continue to struggle to come to terms with such an ideology. Meanwhile, others struggle to come to terms was such a theodicy. Closer to home, we who are pastors watch as members of our congregations try to make sense of God’s grace amidst a fallen world. It remains one of the most difficult moments in pastoral ministry for me to be with children on the day of chemotherapy. I remember the site of a father kissing the shaven head of his little six-year-old daughter, as she was connected to the machine injecting the medicinal poison into her veins to kill the cancer and yet it was taking so much of the life out of that little girl. I saw the eyes of that father look at me and they were almost like the eyes of snooper looking at the only thing he knew of an authority figure: this new believer looking at a clergyman and pleading with me in his eyes, “How long? How long? Where is God when I need him?

No, it was not that different on that day when Jesus spoke in Parables to the people and to his disciples. These people were under the impression of a foreign government. It had been 400 years since they had heard the voice of God and now they were given hope but one before them.[4] And yet, the reality was that this man is not preaching from Rome, but he is preaching from a little fishing boat in a minor body of water on an insignificant beach in a once great, now small province of another country. And who would hear what he had to say? What had really changed?

The message of Matthew chapter 13, verses 30 and 31, the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” is about getting an answer to these great existential questions and inconsolable issues of humanity. The point of the parable is that the Kingdom of God, which will bring answers to all these questions does, indeed, appear infinitely minor, but the ratio of growth from miniscule to gigantic through His transforming power glorifies God even more.[5] This is demonstrated in causing that seed to grow and become like the mustard plant, growing to nearly ten-feet high in the garden (or, more likely, in the field), and becoming a place, a destination, a haven of rest, for the birds of the air.[6] This, no doubt, anticipates Daniel 4:11, where the kingdom of God is prophesied to grow to a worldwide movement that becomes a haven of protection for all the nations of the world. Jesus is showing them that the mustard seed, growing as it does from such a small seed to such a great tree, is a marvelous attribute of God demonstrated in our daily lives. Jesus is saying that we can trust the God of the mustard seed to be the God of His promises to Abraham: The Kingdom will come, despite what you think you see.

For those who will receive this glorious message from God’s Word on mustard-seed principles, the teaching from God-in-the-Flesh, in that little boat, will become a source of tremendous hope, healing, excitement, and even wisdom that brings about a holy patience. As Christians in North America and in the West, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who are husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers, sons, and daughters, these principles are the source of eternal hope and understanding in days like these. For Almighty God has given us within this passage principles, principles of kingdom growth, that not only teach us about the Divine internal power of the Church but also teach us about God’s ways with you and me.

If you are reading this article and you are the parent of a wandering child, a prodigal son or daughter, this is the message that has hope for you. If you are reading this article and you are a church leader or a denominational leader, and you are at your wit’s end and feel like you’re plowing concrete in the present scenario of ministry in North America, this message is a message of hope for you. And if you are reading this article with even a tinge of doubt or unbelief or skepticism, you are in a good place. Your skepticism is not disregarded but taken very seriously by Jesus. And it is openly addressed. It is even welcomed. You too will find that God has a word for you in these principles of kingdom growth. Well, what are they? As we dive into the deep blue of this portion of God’s inerrant and infallible Word, more experienced and skilled treasure hunters might come away with a treasure-chest of pearl necklaces, golden chalices, and priceless Doubloons. Yet, I see, at least, these three undeniable principles of Kingdom growth.

The first Mustard Seed principle of the Kingdom for both believers and unbelievers is this:

  1. The Kingdom of God is often imperceptible by sight, but staggering in cosmic potential.

Jesus taught that there is a hidden kingdom. The poor people on the beach that day saw Jesus in a fishing boat. But Jesus was speaking out of a vision for a new heaven and a new earth.

I often tell our students that church planting can be reduced to this singular image, borrowed from the testimony of Benjamin Franklin speaking of his friend, Reverend George Whitefield, “Church planting is just one evangelist on fire with a vision of the kingdom of God that has come into his own life, and, now, into this community. Others come to see this marvel and some of them begin to catch on fire, too. Thus, the Church spreads.”[7]

There is no secret to the revitalization of a church or denomination or a single human being: it is seeing with eyes of faith the truth of the kingdom of God, that the imperceptible is filled with a potency that is leading to a new heaven and a new earth. It is a preacher on fire with that vision. It is an elder, a man, a woman, a child on fire with the vision that God has come down and visited us in all His power; that He, the Holy Spirit, is here. It is that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and that He walks through these aisles, through this gathering. He is alive. And that changes everything. His Word lies, proleptically, like a buried, unseen winter wheat seed waiting to burst forth into a glorious golden field of Eden, or even into a renewed faith, or a deeper love in your heart for the lost sheep of the Good Shepherd.

What is it that keeps you from believing? What is it that keeps you from receiving this seed into your own heart? Is it a lethargy born of disappointment? Could it be an excitement that soured into putrid apathy because God didn’t show up on your timetable? Or, didn’t answer the deep longing of your heart the way you expected? Not one of us is immune from such pathologies of the soul. But there are deep healing properties in the humble little mustard seed: the imperceptible power that renews the downtrodden disciple.

There is a second mustard seed principle we may draw from this parable.

  1. The Kingdom of God is often insignificant in influence, but abounding in transforming power.

There He was: the despised Jesus preaching in a little wooden boat. What a lowly pulpit for the Master Teacher! Even His family had come to try and quietly take the seemingly starry-eyed you rabbi back home. Indeed, Christ appeared to be a rogue rabbi with some very unconventional and unimpressive disciples following his mobile synagogue. What good could come of this? But Jesus said the kingdom is like that mustard seed. There is not much about the mustard seed. It is not only imperceptible but also insignificant. But ask the birds of the air that make their nests in that tree if it is insignificant?

I once had a minister to tell me that his ministry was insignificant. He said, “I’m in a very small church here in Iowa. My congregation is made up of farmers and their families. Oh, I might have a shopkeeper, and maybe one lawyer, but the Methodists have the only doctor. I don’t have much here. I come to these meetings, and I see speakers and think of how small I am.” I had to remind him that in the Kingdom of God things are often upside down. We cannot look upon Church the way we look at a business, for instance. Those who are most important, for example, in a mystery play, may not be the one who knows “who dunnnit!” We the audience know who is truly important. For example, we might know that the “butler” in the play knows who “did the deed!” He is the most important figure in the mystery. Yet, within the imaginary play, the characters could care less about the butler. So, too, in this life, we see the pastor of a small church in Charlotte, at the intersection of South and East Boulevards: Chalmers Memorial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.[8] I looked this week at the insignificant sight of a little beginner’s class. The black and white photo shows five boys in their black gown and mortar board hats, standing on the steps behind four little girls in white gowns and white hats. The little guy on the far left, separated from the rest, likely a trouble-maker, is William Graham, a dairy farmer’s boy. I thought about another picture when I saw that. I thought about the sight of Billy Graham in his black pastor’s robe preaching the Gospel in a Russian Orthodox Church after the Iron Curtain fell. Russian peasants, students, professors, politicians, and party power-brokers were packed inside and lined-up outside watching the North Carolina farmer’s boy on jumbo screens. Ah, this was a mustard seed principle at work!

And there are some mustard seed stories at work tonight. We can’t see them. But they are at work. Some of them we will know. Many we will not. So, what do we do? We believe the Man in the boat who is teaching. And we let His Word change us from the inside out. Then, we begin to see the world with eyes of faith. When we do, faith in Christ chases stagnant gloom far away. And heavenly hope rushes in like a cool spring to fill the void. That is awaiting us tonight.

The third Mustard Seed principle of the Kingdom for both believers and unbelievers is this:

  1. The Kingdom of God is altogether inevitable, and is approaching with glory!

That is the great climactic conclusion of the parable. The tiny mustard seed grows to become a giant tree. Someone says, well it is not a tree, it is a giant stalk! Well, if you prefer to put it that way we will grant you your opinion. But, the point is made whether a gigantic stalk or muscular tree. Relative to the near-invisible seed the scale is immeasurable! Now, the most important truth is that this is a living and present process in our lives today. This is going on now and throughout history.

It is no wonder that Jonathan Edwards spent so much time contemplating God within nature.[9] For Edwards could discern great spiritual truths by observing the work of God there.

“Indeed, the whole natural creation which is but the shadow of being is formed so as to represent spiritual things . . .”[10]

His Sabbath walks in the woods are legendary. Undoubtedly, much of the great shepherd-theologian’s philosophical and theological equations were formulated as he studied the intricacies of nature and nature’s God.[11] He studied not only the singular seed but the process of growth. From that, he discerned God’s immutable design in creation, as well as God’s amazing ways with bringing about His will. “His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” [12] [13]

What will we look at today to discern our future? Shall we look only to the news? Shall we say, “Look to rise of Islamic supremacism, and you will see our future.” Or, “Look at the continued assault on the family, on morals, on public discourse, and you will see the future of the world.” But, I would say come away for a while. Take a Sabbath walk into the woods with Edwards. Better yet, come to the shoreline. Listen to the Rabbi in the fishing boat as He tells us about the mustard seed and His Kingdom. He is telling us that despite the many other dynamics in the garden—the weeds, the storms, enemies of the seed—the seed grows and at its maturity, it becomes a destination, a home, a haven of rest. Jesus is telling us the secret of the world if you will but listen. It is the secret that brings hope in our pastoral counseling. It is the secret unveiled that brings wisdom in shepherding the flock of God in our churches. It is the insights from on high that pilots our families, our communities, and even entire denominations and nations through the dangerous rocky shoals.

Conclusion

So, this is what Jesus was teaching: The people of his day needed to understand that the Kingdom was not going to come the way they wanted it to come, or the way they thought it should come. God’s Kingdom would come according to God’s own principles. The principles drawn from the mustard seed parable: a principle that gives God the glory, causes us to trust in God as we wait upon Him and shows His mercy and patience for all to be safely brought in.

There is a danger here. Indeed, there are at least two dangers. One danger is that someone might be tempted to see spiritual value in being small. “Oh, look, we are like the mustard seed! Our smallness must surely demonstrate our faithfulness!” But there is no praise in remaining a mustard seed. Indeed, there could be a spiritual virus—a pathology, if you will—that is hindering visible growth. Alternatively, there are those who say, “Look at me! I am like the great mustard stalk in the garden! Over ten feet high am I! Over 1,000 in worship on a Sunday morning!” Or, a denomination might boast of its influence. “We have more senators per capita than any other evangelical denomination!” “Ah, yes, but we are, in fact, post-denominational, and, unhindered by such old restrains, we have hit the cultural motherlode. We have found the key to super-sizing Sunday mornings!” Yet, there is no glory in only being a big stalk where the birds of the air come. True, you are more visible than the little mustard seed that cannot grow. But, if your glory is your own, how can you last more than a winter? Or two? Your roots are shallow. You will most certainly be good for one generation, one celebrity preacher, one good demographic uptick. You are only one storm away from being cut down.

No, the hero of the story is not the mustard seed. The hero—the glorious One—in the parable is the unseen but real and great authority that causes the mustard seed to grow and who wants to reach those precious “birds of the air.” This is the Lord of the Kingdom of Daniel 4 when King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream.[14] That pagan royal had to move beyond seeing life as a product of his actions, which he thought gave him the glory (and conversely damned him with its errors when he didn’t live up to his potential), to seeing the divine activity of God. By God’s grace, Nebuchadnezzar would declare to all that God is Lord of all.[15]

And that is where the mustard seed parable leads us. It leads us to say, “Father, I will do my part. I will plant the seed. But you must grow it. I will do my part. But the growth and the promises being fulfilled, that is your work to happen in your time. But, what you have revealed to me, let me do with all my might.

It is what Moses wrote in the oldest Psalm:

“Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90: 16, 17 ESV)!

Here, then, is the great call of the parable tonight: will you believe in the unseen power of the God of the mustard seed? Will you rest from your fears by ceasing your worries? Either you are growing the seed, or God is. Will you commit your lives into the hands of the God who is at work to restore the Garden? To do so is to be about the work God has given us to do, to pray for His blessing—His favor—and, then, to realize that it is His Kingdom, not ours. It is His Church, not ours. Our lives are His, not our own. This world is His, not ours. And that brings a peace that transcends all the other distractions in this old world.

Trust in the Lord of the mustard seed tonight. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. The Kingdom has come. His Kingdom will overtake all other kings and realms. But has the mustard seed been planted in your heart? For the hearts of true believers are the soil of the Kingdom.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bibliography

[1] Michael A. Milton, Small Things, Big Things : Inspiring Stories of Everyday Grace (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub., 2009).

[2] Cecil Francis Alexander, Hymns for Little Children (London: Society for Promoting Christina Knowledge, 1908).

[3] Steven Erlanger, “After London Attack, Prime Minister Says, ‘Enough Is Enough,'” The New York Times, June 04, 2017, accessed June 07, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/04/world/europe/uk-London-attacks.html.

[4] See the comments, for example, of that great Bible teacher Henrietta Mears in her summary of the Gospel of Matthew, page 373, in Henrietta C. Mears, What the Bible Is All About Bible Handbook: New International Version, NIV ed. (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2002).

[5] See, e.g., the point of the parable on page 561 in I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 1st American ed., The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).

[6] Ibid.

[7] The definitive biography on the great Colonial evangelist is Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield; the Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, vol. 1, 2 vols. (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970). For a scholarly reflection on the relationship of Franklin and Whitefield see Harry S. Stout, “George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin: Thoughts on a Peculiar Friendship,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 103 (January 01, 1991), accessed June 07, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/25081033?ref=search-gateway:f151a806d6a9946615a58ca1bc282bd6.

[8] See Maria David, “The Church That Helped Raise Billy Graham,” Charlotteobserver, April 16, 2016, accessed June 07, 2017, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/retro-charlotte/article69512727.html.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, The Miscellanies, 362, ed. Harry S. Stout, vol. 13, 26 vols., Works of Jonathan Edwards Online (New Haven: Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, 1722).

[10] Ibid.

[11] See page 40 of Hopkin’s early biography of Edwards: Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, and Hezekiah Camp, The Life of the Late Reverend, Learned and Pious Mr. Jonathan Edwards : Some Time Minister of the Gospel at Northampton, in New England. And Then Missionary to the Indians at Stockbridge, and after That President of New Jersey College. Who Departed This Life at Princeton, March 22, 1758, in the 55th Year of His Age (Boston: Printed and sold by S. Kneeland, opposite the Probate-Office, in Queen-Street, 1765).

[12] “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD’” (Isaiah 55:8 ESV).

[13] See, also, Harry S. Stout, The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017).

[14]  “I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous.  The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth.  Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed” (Daniel 4:10b-12 NIV).

[15]  “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven . . .” (Daniel 4:34).