Now if you would take a Bible in hand or turn in one of our church Bibles to Mark’s gospel, Mark’s gospel chapter 4, and we’re looking at verses 26 through verse 34. You can find that on page 839 in the church Bibles if you’re using one of our church Bibles.
This is the last in a short series of parables that Jesus was teaching the crowds who have gathered around His ministry in Galilee and as verse 34 explains, these were public parables for the crowds that He would then explain and interpret privately to the disciples afterwards. The first twenty verses provide as an example of both the parable, the parable of the sower, and the private interpretation afterwards. The two short parables before us in our text this evening, however, do not come with an interpretation, but we do have sufficient details within them that we can discern the main ideas that Jesus is teaching; verses 26 through 34.
If you’ll look at them briefly with me for a moment you’ll notice the focus of both parables is on the nature of the kingdom of God. You see how they both begin? Verse 26, “The kingdom of God is like…” Or verse 30, “With what shall we compare the kingdom of God or what parable shall we use for it?” So these are parables about the kingdom of God – that is, His rule in the world through Jesus Christ. And you’ll also see right on the surface of both parables they are parables of growth. Do you see that? They talk about seed that sprouts and grows. The kingdom is not static; it is organic and it grows organically, not mechanically but it grows. And so these two parables are designed to teach us about the character of kingdom growth.
The first of them, verses 26 through 29, teaches us about the dynamics of kingdom growth. How does it grow? We might say the focus here is more on process and method. How does it grow? The dynamics of kingdom growth. And then the second verses, 30 through 32, the destiny of kingdom growth. This time the focus is more on the scope and design of the kingdom. So that’s the outline we’ll be thinking about as we study these two parables in a moment. The dynamics of kingdom growth and then the destiny of kingdom growth. Before we consider the message, then, of God’s Word, let me ask you before we read the text to bow your heads with me as we pray and seek His help together. Let’s pray.
O Lord, open our eyes that we might see marvelous things out of Your holy Law, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Mark 4 at verse 26. This is the Word of the living God:
“And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’
And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
It is springtime and we are beginning to see trees budding and the grass in my yard finally got a mow yesterday. It was looking like a jungle it had sprouted up so rapidly! My car, your car, they’re dusted with a veneer of yellow pollen. Right? The birds are chattering. I think we have critters nesting in our attic that kept us awake last night! The days are beginning, finally, to warm up a little. And so these are timely parables I suppose. We get a sense of the scene that Jesus is speaking about here – parables of growth, of seeds sprouting and things growing. We’re seeing it happen right before our eyes right now. And so as we think about the first of these two parables in our text, the parable of the seed that grows by itself, I guess we know how the farmer feels. It’s been a long, dreary winter and then one day we start to notice new growth on the tree branches, daffodils waving in the breeze, and it sort of takes us by surprise, actually. All at once it seems things sort of start happening. Everything was dormant and then, maybe over about a two week period, it all begins to change.
The Dynamics of Kingdom Growth
That’s the picture Jesus paints for us in verses 26 through 29, if you’ll look there with me, as we think about the dynamics of kingdom growth first of all. There are two actors in this first parable. Do you see them? Who is the first actor? It’s the farmer, the sower of the seed. Verse 26, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises, night and day.” To be sure, it is a simplified account of a farmer’s daily work, but here’s the essence of it. His task is to sow the seed. And then after sowing the seed in his fields all day, he goes to bed and then he rises the next day and he looks out of his farmhouse window over his newly sown field and nothing has changed. Everything looks just like it did yesterday. His part of the work is essentially over. Isn’t it? The extent of his duty is fulfilled until harvest time. Verse 29, “When the grain is ripe, at once, he (the farmer) puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.” Sowing and eventually reaping – that’s the farmer’s job. He doesn’t make things grow.
The Seed Itself
But there is another actor in the parable – not the farmer who is the other actor. It’s the seed itself. The seed itself. The farmer sows the seed and then he sleeps and rises day in and day out, days pass into weeks and very little has changed in his field, but then verse 27, “the seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how. The earth produces by itself. First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear until the grain is ripe.” The harvest is mysterious. The growth of the crop from the seed isn’t ultimately the result of the farmer’s interference. He knows not how it happens, Jesus says. The earth produces by itself.
What’s the message? One clue, actually, to the interpretation of the parable comes from the Old Testament scriptures from the prophecy of Joel, Joel chapter 3 verse 13, which Jesus quotes at the conclusion of this parable in verse 29. Joel 3:13 is talking about the final judgment at the end of history and Joel 3:13 says, “Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe.” So Jesus’ parable is picturing the whole period between the first coming of the kingdom with Jesus Christ’s arrival until it’s conclusion and consummation at His return when the harvest begins. This parable spans the whole history of the world between the first and final return of Jesus. And we need to see, the parable is teaching us how the kingdom makes progress between those two poles – between His first and final coming; between the sowing of the seed of the kingdom and the final reaping of the great harvest.
Sow the Seed
Notice first of all that our part is to sow the seed and not to make it grow. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Our part is to sow the seed; we don’t make it grow. Our job is to proclaim the Gospel of the kingdom. We are to sow the seed of the Word of God. Our task is not to attempt to manipulate or force growth. Jesus wants us to have confidence in the seed itself. “The seed grows, we know not how. The earth produces by itself.” It’s mysterious, to be sure, but we mustn’t lose our nerve and desert of primary task of sowing the seed of the Gospel.
As a pastor, my inbox is bombarded every day with emails from organizations selling me courses and products that will guarantee church growth. "Here's my new book on how to fill your church this Easter – $9.95 + shipping and handling." "Tune into my new webinar on ‘Seven Secrets of Effective Church Marketing'" – delete! There's real pressure felt by those of us in church leadership to measure success by the three "Bs." You've heard me talk about the three "Bs" before – Buildings, Bucks and Bodies. Right? If you can grow those numbers then you know you're really doing well. But if you buy into that metric, that way of measuring success, the pressure to develop strategies to get more and more of the three "Bs" – buildings, bodies, and bucks – only increases, and slowly our confidence in the ordinary means of grace that God has ordained, the series-minded exposition of the Word of God, the simple administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the lisping, stammering prayers of the people of God gathered week in and week out to plead with God for the advancement of His kingdom and the glory of His name and the salvation of the lost, our confidence in the means of grace begins to be eroded.
Oh sure, we’ll still preach the Word but we no longer really believe that these ordinary means of grace can grow the church. “They need a little bit of assistance, you know. We need a bit more – a great band or a hipster vibe or some other selling point, some other wedge that will distinguish us from the competition so that we can be sure of our market share of available Christians in the community” – as if that were our mission. “After all, the means of grace – don’t they seem so inefficient? A talking head explaining the Bible, some water, little bits of bread and cups and people praying together. Really, that’s how the church is to grow? It just seems to inefficient. It’s just seeds scattered on the ground. And we sleep and rise and nothing seems to have changed.”
And yet "the seed sprouts, we know not how. The earth produces by itself." Jesus is calling us to remember the life is in the seed. So just sow the seed. Just have confidence in the means He's given and He will bless it and there will be a harvest in His time. Sure, it won't bring about the sudden, dramatic results we sometimes feel the pressure to generate. The field will look much as it did yesterday when you sow the seed. But that's the dynamic of the kingdom, you see. It's not flashy; it's mysterious. Our part is to be faithful sowing the seed, having confidence in the seed of the Word of God, and if we will do that, in due time the harvest will come. Sow the seed. Sow the seed. You may have someone that you've been sharing the Gospel with and praying for, for years, and you see little fruit and you wonder, "Maybe I need to manipulate. Maybe I need to find some other leverage, some other way to get through." No, just sow the seed. Speak for Christ, proclaim the good news, pray down the grace of God and in due course, there will be a harvest as God wills and in God's time. Our task is to sow the seed. We need to leave the growth to God.
The Organic Character
And then the second thing to notice before we move on about the dynamics of the kingdom is the organic character of the kingdom. I don’t want to press this too much except to say that the kingdom is a living thing. That the kingdom is a living thing is a pervasive theme, particularly in the New Testament scriptures. Thinking about the metaphors the Bible uses for the kingdom – it is a body with members, it is a vine, it is a vineyard, it is a flock, and here it is a field sown with seed slowly growing till the harvest comes. And like all living things, the growth of the kingdom is seasonal. It has phases. I think that’s actually part of the point of the language of the parable describing the growth of the seed. Do you see it there? “First the blade, then the ear, then the grain in the ear and then when the grain is ripe, the harvest.” I don’t want to push the point beyond what the passage can bear, but I think it’s worth noticing that growth comes in stages. Haven’t you noticed that in your own Christian life? Those of you who have been walking with Jesus for any amount of time will have found there are seasons of real growth and fruitfulness and then there are pruning times when the Father disciplines us and seasons when it’s draught and it’s dry and it’s hard and we’re simply pressing on through a difficult time, and then there’s new growth again. It’s seasonal; there are phases and stages. That’s the nature of the kingdom.
And so do you see the marvelous balance of Jesus' teaching? On the one hand, we are to use means to sow the seed. Right? Sow the seed. That's how the kingdom grows. Be in the Word. Proclaim the good news. Pray down heaven. Use the means of God's ordination. Sow the seed. But it also acknowledges the organic character of true growth. It comes in phases and seasons and fits and starts. So yes, let's be diligent in our lives, in our work together as a church in making the Gospel known here on the North State Street corridor, in the greater Jackson area and around the world, sow the seed. But let's also acknowledge that the way God has ordained growth to come is organic, not mechanical. It doesn't come like a product on a machine conveyor belt with a steady output. It comes in fits and starts and stages. Sometimes there's a season of remarkable growth. We typically call that a season of revival when there's extraordinary, even explosive fruitfulness in the life of the church. And then sometimes there's just a few green shoots pushing up through the soil, here and there, showing us there's still life yet. And we need to be content with God's work in God's way and God's time and be sure to be faithful in our task – so the seed. So first of all, the dynamics of kingdom growth. Do you see them?
The Destiny of Kingdom Growth
Then secondly, look at the other parable Jesus tells in verses 30 through 32 – the parable of the mustard seed that teaches us not now about the dynamics of growth but about the destiny of kingdom growth. Where is all of this going? Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point. He calls the mustard seed the smallest of all the seeds and it grows to become larger than all the garden plants. The emphasis, in other words, is purposefully exaggerated to make the point. The emphasis falls on contrasting sizes. The smallness of the beginning and the vastness of the conclusion. The improbable start and the wondrous end. This tiny seed eventually grows to put out large branches that all the birds of the air may nest in its shade.
Room for All
And just like actually the previous parable, one of the clues that we have, or some of the clues that we have in the text are the echoes Jesus provides of Old Testament scripture that help us understand Jesus' message. Let's start with the last phrase, that interesting phrase about the birds of the air. What does that mean – the birds of the air nesting in the shade of the tree? Well, Jesus is using language – you find it for example in Ezekiel 17:23 – in which God causes a great tree to grow and the birds make nests under its shade. The same image and language reappears in Ezekiel 31:6 and again in Daniel chapter 4 and every time it's used in the Old Testament it's talking about a mighty kingdom – Israel or Egypt or Babylon – that will grow so vast that others, the other nations of the world will come for refuge to hide beneath the protection of that might kingdom. And so Jesus is saying here, "That's My kingdom, My kingdom – the kingdom of God. Though its beginnings are improbable, a small seed, a crucified Messiah, a suffering church, preaching, baptizing, bread and wine, the prayers of Christians – its beginnings are improbable but its destiny is vast. It will span the globe and the nations will come and find security and refuge in its shade."
There’s room for all, you see. That’s the message. There’s room for all. There’s room for you in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That’s the message. The birds of the earth will come and make shelter, make nests under the shade of the great tree. There’s room for you in the kingdom that Jesus has built, is building. He welcomes you if you will come to Him. There’s a place for you in His kingdom. That’s our message for the whole world. There’s no community, no household, there is no person under heaven to whom we may not say, “There’s room for you in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Come and find shelter in His shade.”
Power of God
And then we have the question – How is it going to happen that way? Okay, so there’s small beginnings, a crucified King, Jesus, suffering church. Look at us, we are few in number comparatively speaking. What have we got? We’ve got a preacher, we can pray, we can do our best to share the Gospel; that’s all we’ve got. How do we get there from here – this vast, globe-spanning kingdom that draws people from every tribe and language and nation. How do we get there from here? Well, the other echo in the parable, actually at the very beginning of the parable, the other echo from the Old Testament helps us. Look how Jesus introduces the parable in verse 30. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?” This time, Jesus is echoing the language of Isaiah 40:18 – one of the most famous passages in the book of Isaiah, this extraordinary chapter on the vast glory of almighty God. He is incomparable. And the prophet asks, “To whom then will you liken God or what likeness compare with Him?”
So by using that language, language that’s reserved for God, echoing the prophet, Jesus is giving us a clue to how it is that the kingdom will go from the mustard seed to the mighty tree. It will take place not because of the skill and cleverness of the servants of the King who preach His Word and seek to pray down His blessing, but because of the power and promise of omnipotent God who bears His hand to bring to pass His purposes in the world and bring salvation to the ends of the earth. God makes it grow. And so we don’t need to lose heart. Do we? There’s no need to lose heart because God makes it grow. God makes the seed grow. And one day the kingdom will reach to the ends of the earth and every tribe and language and people and nation will be gathered in. And so do not grow weary in well doing.
The first parable really is a call to patience, to be content with the pace of growth that God gives and the means that He has ordained for that growth – to be patient and to have confidence and to sow the seed. And the second parable is a call to hope – as we sow the seed not to get weary, not to lose heart, but to remember the promise of God that the growth that is promised will come not because of our skill and cleverness but because of His mighty power that He has promised to give us to make His kingdom grow. We need both, don’t we? If we just have the first and not the latter we might grow weary or we may get content with the meager results. And there’s an appropriate balance. Yes, we are to be content with growth as God gives it, but we’re not to rest on our laurels because the destiny of the kingdom is so much greater. And so we’re to press on and continue to be faithful and never to coast. There’s no coasting in the kingdom of God and there are no passengers allowed. Every one of us is called to sow the seed.
If all we had was the first parable and not the second, we might fall into the trap of being merely coasting, mere passengers. You know, with a que sera sera sort of attitude. And if all we had was the second parable and not the first, we might become triumphalistic and laissez-faire and, “God will do it.” The words of one old Baptist brother who responded to William Carey when he first shared his plan to bring the Gospel to India come to mind at this point. He said, “Young man, sit down. If God wants to reach the heathen He’ll do it without your help.” That’s the mistake of triumphalism – a distortion of the sovereign promise of God to bring the Gospel to the world. God will use means. And so we need both parables together. The marvelous balance of both together is so helpful and useful. God will use means, so sow the seed. But do not grow discouraged, but press on because the future is bright. As we saw last time, the destiny of the kingdom is vast and glorious and we are to have confidence in His promises.
So let’s stay on mission together, shall we? We have a task to do. To sow the seed. To make Jesus known. Let’s not grow weary in well doing. In due time you will reap a reward if you do not give up. I’m so confident in that. I hope you are, not because you can tough it out, not because you have deep wells of stamina to keep on sowing the seed, but because God is gracious and you can rely on His promises and He who has promised is faithful. And He will do it. Let’s pray together.
Lord, I confess, I suppose many of us will join the confession, of how easy it is to grow weary in well-doing, of sowing the seed. How tempting it is to look for shortcuts, for other devices to make the seed grow at a rate more to my liking. Please grant to my heart and to all of us godly contentment with Your purpose, but not the kind of contentment that excuses a lack of diligence or a lack of vision. Help us to remember that ultimately the tiny mustard seed will grow so vast that all the birds of the air may come and find shelter in its shade. And so help us to labor on, to do our part, to use the means that You have ordained, to sow the seed. And please hear our cries, especially for those that we love that weigh upon us, who do not know you, into whose lives we've been sowing the seed perhaps for years now and we've seen little fruit, little results. O Lord, hear our cries and grant that we may begin to see first the blade, poking through the ground, and then the ear and then the grain in the ear, and then one day a glorious harvest. Hear our cries, for Jesus' sake, amen.