What Is the Kingdom of God Like?

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3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Mark 4:26-34
Peder Stenslie

 

I spoke with Mrs. Kuntz this week about your garden.  I’m so happy that you have the opportunity to learn – hands-on – about planting and tending a garden.  Learning about growing things, and our connection to them, is an incredibly important thing in life.

Mrs. Kuntz told me that about 20 of you have worked in the garden at different times.  You’ve planted tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, squashes, zucchini, beans, peas, corn, carrots, onions, radishes, and potatoes.  There were some other plants that got trampled.  And still others were mistaken for weeds.  But that’s life, and you’re learning all about it.

Mrs. Kuntz said that she has seen a lot of enthusiasm and excitement for the garden.  She said one girl commented, “This should be a mandatory class.”  And she’s right.

There are so many ways we benefit from planting and tending a garden, and from watching things grow.  There’s the obvious benefit… healthy food for our tables.  But there’s also the benefit that comes from physical labor and being outside.

Also, when one is attentive and cares for things that are growing, one can learn important lessons about life.  Even more than that… as our lessons for today attest… one learns about God, the one who gives life.

Growing things take center stage in all of our lessons today.

The prophet Ezekiel tells an allegory of a majestic cedar tree.  His allegory echoes ancient images of the tree of life, which appears in numerous ancient mythologies.  It was a cosmic tree that supported all life… all life was nourished by it.  Obviously, one would imagine this tree to be massive and magnificent.

Ancient kings often used the image of the Tree of Life to describe their own rule… to show how great they were because so many people found their life within their kingdom. Ezekiel’s allegory encourages people to recall these magnificent Tree of Life images.

Then comes today’s Gospel lesson.  It is one of Jesus’ many teachings on the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God may sound like a truly grand concept, but it simply means the “Way of God.”  How God does things, how things work in a world where the will of God is done.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells two parables intended to teach us about the Kingdom of God.  The first speaks of the mystery of a seed in the soil… germinating, growing and producing fruit.  This parable is meant to help us understand something important about the work of God.

The way God works in the world and in us is a profound mystery… it is hidden from our sight… from our understanding; but the result is not.  What God brings forth in us is life growing, changing, producing good and beneficial fruit that enriches God’s world. He brings forth in us love, courage, patience, forgiveness, healing, strength… hope.

The 2nd parable is truly a curious one… and in some ways illustrates the first.  Jesus explains that the Kingdom of God is like a seed… a tiny, tiny mustard seed… that grows into a shrub.

The way the parable begins (with the emphasis on the small size of the mustard seed), we think that the point of the parable is going to be that the Kingdom of God starts out small but becomes something huge… awesome… like the great cedar trees of Lebanon, or the Tree of Life.  But that does not at all describe the mustard plant.  Jesus is messing with his listeners here… as he often does.

Jesus’ choice of the mustard plant for this parable is strange.  The seed is small, but the bush isn’t terribly great in size.  It is several feet in height, not massive.  It’s scraggly… kind of ugly looking.  It was cultivated simply for flavoring; but it was considered by Jews to be a weed and an unclean plant.  It was against religious law to plant a mustard seed in a garden with other plants.  It is an annual… in other words, it is a plant that grows for one season and then dies.

Many of Jesus’ listeners would have been perplexed by Jesus’ use of the mustard plant to demonstrate the Kingdom of God.  Others would have been offended by it.

The mustard plant is nothing like the great cedar tree from Ezekiel.   That’s what his readers would have expected.  But Jesus is not trying to say the same thing as those who used Tree of Life imagery.  Jesus is not trying to blow our minds with how great and awesome the Kingdom of God is.  Rather, Jesus chooses something very ordinary, unimpressive, fleeting, religiously rejected; but practical, available to use, and purposeful… to show how God works life through the ordinary, simple things.

His parable of the mustard seed reminds us of the point of the first parable… that how God works life in us and through us is a mystery.  It’s hidden from us.  It’s not how or where we expect.  Yet God works in us and through us to invite and bless, strengthen and enrich other creatures in creation.

One of our big problems as human beings is that we all have a tendency to think we know how God works.  Even worse, we all have a tendency to be very limiting and hurtful with that thinking.  For example, we think we know that God can’t work in us because we’re too messed up, or too bad… too lost.  Or maybe we think we know that God can’t work in that person over there because they don’t live right or believe right.

Jesus tries to fix this wrong thinking of ours by explaining and showing that God works where we don’t expect and in ways we don’t see.  God works deeper than we think; his mercy is much wider than we imagine.

However, even though Jesus makes it clear that we cannot see or understand the ways of God, he does tell us that we have something to do.  The Kingdom of God teachings of Jesus are meant to awaken in us a powerful desire to become what God has called us to be.  They urge us to expect God to meet us wherever we may be.  They urge us to learn what the Kingdom of God is like and to become what God created us to be.

We learn, for example, through scripture – God’s word – how we’re supposed to live.  We open our hearts and minds to let scripture shape us.  We find courage to change and strength to grow.  We are empowered to make difficult decisions… all in order to become what we know God is calling us to be.

Through prayer we learn to speak to God, share with God our innermost fears and hopes, our greatest sorrows and joys.  We do this so that God’s spirit can fully invade these parts of us and transform them into a will that serves God’s purpose, God’s kingdom.

Through the waters of baptism and the bread and drink of communion we are reminded that the Spirit of God works in simple, ordinary things to bring forth the power of his kingdom.  We realize that we are a simple, ordinary thing which God intends to bless and transform.  We begin to look new places in the world around us and in ourselves to find God’s goodness and grace.

As we grow in God’s grace, we look to each other.  And through each other, we once again find God’s beautiful gifts given to us… love, forgiveness, encouragement, comfort.

These things nurture, change and strengthen us, so that we can fulfill God’s will and be like the mustard plant.  Though we may be very ordinary… though we may feel that we do not belong… we are indeed part of the unfolding Kingdom of God.  We are transformed to the purposes of our creator to produce good things in our lives that will enrich all creation around us.

Amen.