Mark 4:30-32 (King James Version) And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: 32But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.
In these verses, Jesus thinks out loud. He asks what can be compared to the kingdom of God. Then Jesus continues. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed.
The mustard seed is a small seed. Botanists know of seeds that are smaller than the mustard seed. Mustard seeds are, however, the smallest seed Jewish people in that region of the world commonly used. From such a small seed, comes a large plant. The black mustard plant grows to about three feet in height. That is not the same variety of mustard that grew in ancient Palestine. The mustard plants that grew in Palestine can be compared with small trees. The type of mustard Jesus was talking about grows to be over twelve feet tall.1 Some people in Palestine have seen mustard plants so tall they were taller than a horse and a rider.2
We can learn many things from this parable. One of the first things we can learn is that good often comes from very small beginnings. No significant work is accomplished over night. The pyramids were not built in a few days. A jar of water is filled one drop at a time. Rights for gay, bisexual, and trans-identified people are won one right at a time.
The church of God is no exception. The beginnings of the church of Jesus Christ were modest. Jesus was generally rejected in His own country. The church started with twelve apostles and one hundred and twenty disciples. Within thirty years, the gospel spread around the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome. By the end of one hundred years, the gospel spread through the Roman Empire.3 Today Christianity numbers its adherents in the hundreds of millions and is one of the major world religions.4 The influence of Christianity extends into every country on the face of the earth. All of this started from a very small group of dedicated people.
The Protestant revolution started with the work of just a few people. Some of the main players were John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. Wycliffe’s teachings spread through England. John Wycliffe is credited with being the first person to complete a translation the Bible into English.5 His beliefs influenced John Huss, another leader in the Protestant revolution.6 Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, helped translate the New Testament into German.7 John Calvin is “probably the greatest” Reformation theologian.8 Calvin wrote the first Reformed systematic statement of theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The book is still considered to be a “classic” book of Reformed systematic theology.9 And Calvin helped democratize the Christian church. Calvin created a fairly democratic presbyterian system of church government.10 He did more than just help democratize the church. John Calvin’s beliefs are thought to have helped promote the growth of democracy.11 Some people credit Zwingli with being responsible for converting half of the Swiss cantons to Protestantism. None of these men probably had any idea how significant the results of their actions would be. They probably experienced the same doubts and discouragements about their ministries, about their service for God that we face.
How many people were founding members of this church. Look at the number of members we have now. Even in our lives, we can see how God started with small beginnings and did impressive work.
The Word of God has small beginnings in each person’s life. The Bible can set on a shelf, gather dust, for years. If the Bible is read with an open heart, there will be positive results. From a book as small as a pocket Bible, comes the seeds of a changed life and salvation.
From a short prayer, as short as, “Jesus save me,” comes a transformed life. The seed of the Christian life, the born-again life is very small. Young Christians cannot expect to instantly have the same depth of character, the same affirming attitude, or the same spiritual knowledge as an elderly saint.
We could summarize this in one small sentence. When God is in it, little becomes much.12
A second lesson we can learn from this story is that the Christian life is very much like a planted seed. The seed grows automatically. All it needs is to be planted in soil, a little warmth, and some water. The change takes place without inspection. What happens if you dig up the mustard seed each day to see if it is growing? You take away the elements of soil and warmth when you dig up the seed. The seed, if it is sprouting, could be injured by the inspection. Growth stops. The plant dies.
The Christian life is planted in Jesus, watered by the Word, and warmed by the Holy Spirit. Under those conditions, it will grow. But what happens when the self-appointed Christian growth inspectors of the church come by? They pull the Christian seed from its soil in Jesus. The germ of Christian life no longer has the water of the Word and is no longer warmed by the Spirit. The result can be very tragic for the new Christian.
Of course, we always have Christians who like to inspect their own growth. They do it regularly. The more often the spiritual inspection, the more growth. Right? Try again. A seed cannot take root, if it spends most of its time in the dry air, being inspected, and being away from the elements that give it nourishment and life. You cannot expect your Christian life to be very nourished and to grow, if you spend much of your time examining your life, and little of your time in Jesus, being watered by the Word of God, and warmed by the Spirit.
There is one qualified growth inspector. That is God. We need to let God be God, and not try to do God’s work. God can see a problem and point it out without destroying us. We need to be careful to ensure we do not examine ourselves or others to death.
The story gives us some insights into the Christian life of service.
When a mustard seed “ . . . is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.” This portion of the Scripture illustrates the type of service the Christian life can be.
The birds are able to nest, rest, and obtain nourishment and shelter in the branches of the large mustard plants. The true Christian life is one of natural service. When the focus is service, questions addressed to the pastor and church leaders will be more in the form of, “Can I assist with this ministry?”
There is an unfortunate reality in Christian circles. We build churches worth hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Sacrifice is made to purchase expensive stained-glass windows, plush rugs, decorative lights, pipe organs, and the latest of electronic gadgetry, grand pianos, and gold communion sets. And the list could go on and on. Some people defend the purchase of extravagant things for the church by saying, “God’s house must be representative.” There is nothing wrong with having nice stuff in our churches, as long as we do not lose sight of the needs of people.
There are people on the streets of our major cities going hungry. There are homeless people. Men and women hurt from chemical abuse, sexual abuse, prostitution, and joblessness, while we sit comfortably in our churches. I fear Jesus may tell some churches, “I was hungry and you ignored me, while eating your fill at pot-lucks. I was naked and you left me shivering in the cold, while you sat in a warm church. I was hurting emotionally and you did not have the time of day for me. You were too busy fine-tuning your church programs.”
The church of God is to offer a place to the weary, the worn, the tired. Regardless of race, ethnic background, social class, status, employment, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification, or gender expression, the church is a place of refuge, and of social, physical, and spiritual refreshment. There is no room in the church for excluding people on the base of race, creed, gender, or sexuality. Care needs to be taken to ensure we do not exclude the very people God is calling. John Wesley is quoted as saying, “We think and we let think.”13 I wish I found it easy to do as Wesley did and greet people with, “Is thy heart as my heart? Then give me thy hand.”
John 3:16 does not say, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in the right creed should not perish.” John 3:16 does not state, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever is white should not perish.” And I can assure you, that passage does not read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever is straight should not perish.” John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And that is very inclusive!
William Barclay, who wrote commentaries that are rich with historical and spiritual gems, relates the story of a church that was being built. The church wanted a stained glass window that portrayed the lines of the hymn that goes, “Around the throne of God in heaven thousands of children stand.” An artist was hired to paint the picture from which the window would be made.
The artist finished a day of work. He went to bed. In the night, he heard a sound in the studio. He went to investigate. A stranger was in the studio, with a paint palette in his hands. “Stop! You’ll ruin my picture,” cried the artist. The stranger replied that it was already ruined. The stranger explained, “you . . . Have used only one [color] for the faces of the children. Who told you that in heaven there were only children whose faces were white?” The stranger continued, “I will make some of their faces yellow, and some brown, and some black, and some red. They are all there, for they have all answered my call.” “Your call,” questioned the artist, “Who are you?” The stranger smiled and responded, “Once long ago I said, ‘Let the children come to me and don’t stop them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven’ - - and I am still saying it.” The artist realized it was the Savior. The picture looked much better with black, yellow, red, brown, and white children.
The next day the artist awoke and rushed to the painting. The children were white. He had a dream. He painted children from all colors and races.
Many churches are getting a modified version of the dream. They dream Jesus changed the faces of the children. And some faces were yellow, brown, back, red, white, pink, and purple. God’s queer children were painted into the picture too. As a result of that dream, those churches have chosen to become formally affirming churches, to welcome God’s queer children, and to encourage God’s queer children to serve in any capacity to which they have been called. God’s call for us is to help paint a church that includes a rainbow of God’s children. How will you answer that call? What will result from your small beginning for God?