Jesus isn’t content to head the church or sit on my heart’s throne. “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” (Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper)
That’s the reign to which Jesus referred when he came into Galilee, proclaiming God’s gospel . . .
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15a)
The Old Testament prophet Daniel described this kingdom most succinctly . . .
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13,14).
It almost takes your breath away. Jesus (“one like a son of man”) was given an invincible kingdom that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him forever. So it was that the risen Christ claimed to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
But I wonder: two thousand years later, where is that kingdom?
I don’t see Jesus reigning, do you? What I do see is the political class, mostly ineptly, reigning in Washington, D.C. I see 15 or 20 Republicans and a handful of Democrats battling to sit in the Oval Office inner sanctum of power. I see Islamic State slaughtering innocents to build its kingdom-caliphate in the Middle East. I see Vladimir Putin taking over Ukraine for Russia. I see political/military coalitions that seem to mostly talk while aggressors arrogantly advance. I see a “Heinz 57” smorgasbord of churches, divided over what are often minor doctrines, each claiming to preach the only true gospel, losing members as each competes for a shrinking potential-members’ pool and either seduced by material prosperity or embattled by violent persecution.
But I don’t see God’s kingdom which Jesus announced “at hand” 2000 years ago. Where is it?
In the next section of Mark’s Gospel (4:26-32), after “The Sower and Soils” parable, Jesus told two more parables from a boat to a very large crowd gathered on the shore. These parables answer my question.
The Growing Seed (4:26-29).
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” (Mark 4:26-29).
How do small seeds scattered on dirt sprout and grow into a harvest? We can describe the process. We can explain the inner workings of the seed. We can demonstrate its reaction to soil and water and sun. We can even slow-motion-video the progression. But from where comes the “life” in the seed? And why does this “life” grow? It’s a mystery 21st century biologists can’t solve. “Life” is just “there”.
And that’s the “punch” of “The Parable of the Growing Seed”. We can describe the process of preaching-hearing-believing-following. We can point to the “fruit” of an individual’s new life. We can explain the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a believing man or woman. But precisely how does that seed of the Word grow into a “new creation”? And precisely how does that advance the kingdom of God toward the “harvest” of the final judgment? Even the apostle Paul’s best answer left a mystery: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Jesus calls us to walk by faith. This parable calls us to believe that what we can’t see and don’t fully understand is in fact happening in the soil of human hearts in the dirt of this world. Somehow, like scattered seed growing into a harvest, God’s kingdom in his Son is growing toward the harvest day. We know not how.
The Mustard Seed Parable (4:30-32).
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 in the ground, is the smallest of all 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” (Mark 4:30-32).
Seven hundred mustard seeds equal one gram. Just one of those so-small seeds can grow into a 10-foot-tall bush . Birds make nests on large branches that once were smaller than a grain of sand. It’s another of those surprising displays God seems to delight in. Like the Hebrew nation from a 90-year-old woman and a hundred year old man. Like eternal life from a crucified Messiah. Like a 2000-year-old church from foolish, weak, and lowly people.
So here’s the Mustard Seed Parable’s punch: God’s kingdom on earth starts small—insignificantly, unimpressively—but it will have a really big finish. Things are not always as they appear. We shouldn’t measure God’s kingdom with an ordinary ruler. Just as Jesus went from the ignominy of the cross to the exaltation of the ascension, so his kingdom goes from the insignificance of one Jewish “criminal” to the glory of an eternal, invincible reign over all peoples, nations and languages.
These parables answer, “Where is the kingdom?” And these parables call us to walk by faith. Sight isn’t always right. Size can fool us. What starts miniscule can end up mammoth. Such, Jesus claims, is the kingdom of God, that is, even now, mysteriously growing on earth.