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Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 26, 2020
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
What do you think of when you think of God’s power? What metaphor might you use to describe it? We might think of the power of a thunderstorm rattling our windows. We might think of the enormity of a mountain. We might think of the vastness of the universe, as I was this past week as I stood at West Beach and caught a glimpse of the NEOWISE comet, some 64 million miles off in the distance.
You wouldn’t be wrong to think of something big or majestic when thinking of the power of God. The scriptures speak of God’s power this way often enough, particularly in the psalms. But today we hear the Lord Jesus describe God’s power in a very different way.
The first thing we need to understand is that when Jesus refers to the “kingdom of heaven,” he is referring to God’s power, God’s kingship, God’s authority, God’s rule. When we hear the word “heaven” we are quick to think of the afterlife. God’s power extends there too, to be sure, but this isn’t specifically what Jesus is talking about in our reading for today. Jesus is talking about God’s power, and Jesus describes this power with some very unusual metaphors, with some surprising parables. With at least the first three parables, Jesus points to the things that are small, like seeds and yeast. He points to things that are hidden, like a treasure buried in a field.
I’d like to focus in on just one of these metaphors today. We’re on a streak with the seeds and planting parables, so let’s stay with that theme and look at the parable of the mustard seed.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sowed in his field. Though it is among the smallest of all seeds, it grows into the greatest of all shrubs. It is so big and bushy that birds come and make nests in its branches.
Now, I know that at the end of the reading, when Jesus asks his disciples if they have understood all this, they all said “yes” – but I have to wonder! I have to wonder because not only are mustard seeds small and insignificant, but the mustard bush is nothing special either! People had to have been scratching their heads about this! Mustard was not a valued crop in Jesus’ time. Mustard wasn’t something they squirted on hot dogs at baseball games. Mustard had a mild medicinal purpose, so it was used in the ancient world, but more often than not it was a reviled plant because it was so invasive. Once it started growing, it spread everywhere! If you saw your neighbor planting mustard in his yard, you would not be happy about it. It would be like seeing your neighbor planting dandelions or scotch broom right next to your nice green lawn! Nothing in the metaphor makes sense. Nothing conveys power as we usually understand it. Mustard seeds are small, and those invasive mustard bushes are reviled.
But maybe that’s the point.
What Jesus is saying here is that God’s power will not look like much in the eyes of the world. God’s reign will look small and insignificant. There will be times when it is buried under the soil, out of sight completely! And then, even when it does start to grow like gangbusters, many people will curse it.
Is this not a good description of the life and ministry of Jesus himself? God’s power came into the world as a clump of cells in Mary’s womb, as a seed planted by the Holy Spirit, as a treasure hidden in a field. God’s power grew in him exponentially as he went about his ministry: proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven had come near, announcing the forgiveness of sins, healing the sick, raising the dead. But both Jesus and his scraggly band of disciples were reviled. Jesus ended up being spit upon and cursed like an invasive weed. In the end, his ministry did indeed lead him to a tree. It led to the tree of the cross. But this very tree became a home to many. It became a place to build a nest, a place to find respite, and shelter, and comfort.
It is a surprising parable. It isn’t the first thing we would think of to describe God’s power, but this is really what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus teaches us. This is what God’s kingship, God’s reign, God’s power looks like. It looks like Christ Jesus himself.
Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” In the Small Catechism Martin Luther explains this part of the prayer by saying that God’s kingdom comes whether we pray for it or not, but that when we pray this prayer, we are praying that it would come to us. We are praying that God’s kingship and authority would come into our hearts, into our lives. We’re praying that God’s power would take hold of us and rule over us.
And God answers this prayer by giving us his Son. God answers this prayer by giving us Jesus.
Jesus comes to us in ways that seem small and insignificant: through the feeble and sometimes stumbling words of a preacher, through the bedside prayers of a parent, through the wispy-thin pages of a Bible, through water poured over the head of a squirming infant, through a tiny wafer and a thimbleful of wine or juice.
Jesus begins to grow the kingdom of heaven in us. It is hidden at times, and is scraggly and unkempt even when it starts to blossom in us, but it takes root and grows.
Christ and his Church continue to be reviled by many. His cross continues to be despised and scorned by much of the world, but for us its beams have become a shelter and a home.
God’s power is indeed reflected in the power of a storm, the enormity of the mountains, and the vastness of space. But in his goodness God has revealed the truest expression of his power in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. In him, the kingdom of heaven has come – to us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church