Seeds and Power
David gave this talk at the 2018 Catalyst Festival at Stoneleigh Park. Click here to download the audio version.
“Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given [The measure you give will be the measure you get back.]—and you will receive even more. 25 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.”
26 Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. 28 The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. 29 And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.”
30 Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? 31 It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, 32 but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”
33 Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. 34 In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.” - Mark 4:24-34
INTRODUCTION – THE POWER OF STORIES
God is restoring the power of stories to His church. Jesus told so many stories (or parables – stories with a meaning for life). Indeed, it says in the Scripture we’ve read, in v 34, “In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables”. The word “parable” in the gospels often refers to stories with a meaning or to an easily remembered proverb or saying.
Stories encourage faith and help deliver truth in a more easily remembered form. I would encourage us in our gatherings to bring a combination of stories of what God is doing today or has done in history to encourage our faith and stories from the Bible to give a foundation to what we believe and what we practise.
As I travel a lot, I usually start my preaching with a story from somewhere else in the world to where I am actually preaching at the time.
Then I teach from a Bible story (or the stories that underpin the Epistles) and then show how that story fits into God’s overall story in the whole Bible so that people understand the overall plan of God.
Jesus underlines his storytelling by saying – how are you listening? – a good way to start a preach! In the NLT it's paraphrased “Pay close attention to what you hear”. The closer you listen, the more understanding will be given, or literally “in whatever measure you measure it will be measured to you and will be added to you”. This is based on a number of old Jewish proverbs that occur in various forms. The degree to which you let the truth of these parables to break upon your life, the more you will understand and the more you will be able to live it out. These are not just nice stories but have power to change your outlook on life, to live the life of faith and to keep you from misunderstanding how the Kingdom of God is working. So, listen carefully.
I’ve chosen these 2 stories from among the many I could have chosen because:
- This 1st parable of the seed that grows by itself was the subject of a prophecy given to the Catalyst strategy team during the past year and saying to us as Catalyst, watch what God is doing and align with it. I always teach from Scripture, but often choose a subject stimulated by a prophecy.
- The 2nd parable about the mustard seed because it recognises that what we contribute may feel very small but God brings mighty results and Jesus said the Kingdom is like that.
THE PARABLE OF THE GROWING SEED
Jesus is saying – "this is what the Kingdom of God is like" – a man sows seed on the ground. This was said to a people whose unanimous understanding was that the Kingdom of God meant that a conquering Messiah would come who would overthrow all their enemies including the occupying Romans and establish Zion to rule the whole earth. As they watched and listened to Jesus, he fulfilled some of their expectations – miracles of healing and deliverance, teaching with authority (nobody spoke like him) yet seemingly was not interested in a political or military conquest – rather saying “love your enemies”, “bless those who curse you”. So, to them Jesus is saying to understand the Kingdom you must see it like a seed.
Jesus loved telling stories about seeds – yet though they all started the same way they all also had a different meaning! For example:
- The Parable of the Sower – the seed is the Word of God. What sort of ground are you? How do you receive it?
- The Parable of the Seed and the weeds (or what and tares) – which is you – (sons and daughters of the Kingdom) – you are the seed sown not into the church but into the world to transform it, but opposed by weeds, sons of the evil one.
Here 2 more stories about seeds but with a totally different meaning. Why seeds? – it's not just because it was relevant to the agricultural community, but because seeds are small but have life that mysteriously produces a mighty harvest. The harvest is both a picture of the wonderful results for the gospel but also of a final judgement when God brings justice to the world and deals with the wicked.
So, this first story. It says a man casts seed on the ground – then ordinary life just goes on. Night and day, he wakes and sleeps and seems to have nothing more to do with the seed. Yet it sprouts and grows, and the farmer doesn’t even understand how. The earth just seems to produce crops on its own. First a little shoot, a leaf blade, pushes through, then heads of wheat are formed and finally the grain becomes ripe. Now the farmer gets involved again as he comes to harvest it.
How on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? A man sows seed – a more banal comparison could not be imagined. Why not the picture of a gladiatorial contest or a high and lofty mountain dominating the landscape? The paradox of the gospel, the mystery of incarnation (Jesus coming as a human), God enters the commonplace, ordinary life. This is not teaching how high and lofty God is – though that is true and we worship him for it - but how present He is in ordinary life. The seed is not spectacular, is not admired, does not draw attention to its celebrity status (the curse of our age even in the church). BUT planting and harvesting is the plan of God. As the farmer sleeps, another process is at work, the life of God is growing. We don’t even know how – the soil brings it forth “all by itself” – Greek “automatos” (automatic) spontaneous.
“Like the patient farmer, Jesus is supremely confident in the coming kingdom. Though beset by opposition from religious leaders and misunderstanding from followers, Jesus is not disheartened, distraught, or desperate. Nor should there be anxiety among his disciples. The faith that Jesus requires of disciples is to sleep and rise in humble confidence that God has invaded this troubled world not with a crusade but with a seed, an imperceptible "fifth column" that will grow into a fruitful harvest.” That, Jesus says, is how the Kingdom works.
So, let us not be disheartened, distraught or desperate! At work, in the community, as you do acts of Kingdom righteousness, acts of Kingdom kindness, showing mercy and love, speaking truth, telling your stories (essential in today’s post-Christendom society, rather than confrontation), demonstrate Jesus, love the unlovely, witness to Christ even though lose popularity, you can be confident that the seed you have planted will grow – the Kingdom will grow.
The zealots of Jesus’ day wanted to force the Kingdom through revolution – today some want to force the Kingdom through political action (yes, we want to encourage Christians in politics because the seed must be sown in every sector of society) but no political party can represent the Kingdom of God and it is tragic that sometimes today we have to distance even from the term “evangelical” because it has become politicised in US.
At the harvest, the farmer becomes active again. It says “at once” or “immediately” Mark’s favourite word – Jesus is a man of action in Mark. So, at the end time harvest, Jesus will return and everything will be transformed, but there are interim harvests of individuals coming to faith and on to discipleship, churches reaping the results of years of sowing. There have been and will be “times of refreshing” and “revival”...then it is harvest. We get active! It is not that we’ve been lazy – there's no concept in the New Testament of lazy farmers – they are hard working. Paul planted, Apollos watered, we do what we do, we work hard but in the midst of ordinary life, God gives the increase – the seed grows by itself.
So, have faith in the life of the Kingdom of God. Do what you need to sow seeds, then trust God that there is Holy Spirit Kingdom power in those seeds to grow to harvest. This was a prophetic word to us as Catalyst, step out in faith in every Kingdom arena, mission to other nations, church planting in the UK, serving the poor, living for the Kingdom in every sector of society where God has called us individually to work and serve.
THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED
Jesus then asks himself a rhetorical question. What shall I liken the Kingdom to? – echoes of Isaiah 40:98, “To whom can you compare God?”
His answer? To a mustard seed – which in Jewish traditional proverbs and folklore was the illustration of something so very small and insignificant. A familiar picture in the culture. Yet this grows into a large shrub up to 10 feet high. It is an annual plant, so each year, it does this. The “birds of the air” speak of the nations of the world. Indeed the picture of a tree enabling birds to nest is familiar proverb from the Old Testament about the Kingdom of God embracing every nation e.g. Ezekiel 17:23, “It will become a majestic cedar, sending forth its branches and producing seed. Birds of every sort will nest in it, finding shelter in the shade of its branches.” and Daniel 4:12, “It had fresh green leaves, and it was loaded with fruit for all to eat. Wild animals lived in its shade, and birds nested in its branches. All the world was fed from this tree.”
So, every nation, the birds of the air (code for Gentiles) at that time. Even the Romans will be affected by the growth of the seed. Yet, it's not a Cedar tree as in Ezekiel; that would be more understandable, but this common or garden shrub grown from the tiniest seed.
The mystery of the growth of the Kingdom. A baby in a manger – now celebrated amongst millions all over the world – the largest of world faiths. Yet still growing even as the centre of Christianity moves from the West to the East (where it started) and the South where it has flourished.
“What appears to be the smallest is nevertheless the greatest. In that which is hidden, the foundation of a work is laid that will encompass the whole world."
“Out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eyes, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the peoples of the world."
So, for us:
- Poverty is massive all over the world. What can we do? Sow a mustard seed - you can’t relieve all the poverty of Africa but you can plant a mustard seed and help a few. And others are planting mustards seeds too.
- 5 church plants in Istanbul – a few people from Western nations – what difference does that make to 18 million people? Not even noticed – Good better that way, in that context, but you are planting a mustard seed.
- As in Catalyst, we serve people in predominantly unreached people groups (and we need more of you to go) – what do we accomplish? – we plant a mustard seed.
- As we church plant in the UK and seek to send church planters to the towns less reached by evangelicals, in the UK, what can we do? Plant a mustard seed – some of you need to go.
- You work for a large company but not many believers – plant a mustard seed.
- You are in a sector dominated by the secular agenda where you feel you have to compromise weekly, if not daily. What can you do? Plant a mustard seed. It’s not impressive. It doesn’t sound strategic. It may not get on TV. Our zones at the Festival serve different sectors including those in the political sphere for the first time this year. Can we have any effect? Plant a mustard seed.
- Plant seeds in the arts – they will grow by themselves – just carry on with life.
- It is what we are doing in making disciples who make disciples; the seed is reproducing, growing by itself until the harvest.
The Kingdom of God is present, it is even vulnerable (according to the more familiar parable of the Sower) to falling on the wrong soil. It is hidden and small but with power.
KEEP TELLING STORIES
“33 Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. 34 In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables;.”
People love to hear another story. Even though they don’t fully get it. These stories were an invitation to experience the ruling of Jesus (The Kingdom) even though tantalisingly they were not fully sure what it meant. When people embark on a path of discipleship, they don’t fully understand – that’s fine but encourage them to join the adventure.
Stories are powerful. According to this Scripture, they are the teaching; they don’t just illustrate doctrine. “It would clearly be quite wrong to see these stories as mere illustrations of truths that could in principle have been articulated in a purer, more abstract form. They were ways of breaking open the worldview of Jesus’ hearers, so that it could be remoulded into the worldview which he, Jesus, was commending.”
Our secular world has its stories. Muslims have their stories, so do Buddhists and Hindus. All cultures have their worldview stories, their history and great events and cherished beliefs that identify then as a nation/culture. “Stories are, actually, peculiarly good at modifying or subverting other stories and their worldviews. Where head-on attack would certainly fail, the parable hides the wisdom of the serpent behind the innocence of the dove, gaining entrance and favour which can then be used to change assumptions which the hearer would otherwise keep hidden away for safety.”
 James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark
 A Schlatter, Die Evangelien nach Markus and Lukas, pg 48.
 J Jerimias “the parables of Jesus” p 149. 1963. SCM Press.
 NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pg 77
 Ibid, pg 40