Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2018
How the Kingdom Grows
Jesus uses agricultural metaphors often enough that we are certainly familiar with them. He speaks of planting and reaping, sowing and harvest, how the fields are white for the harvest and how a seed must die if it is to produce fruit. Not all comparisons are identical and not all points being made are the same. Today’s two parables have their own uniqueness and a similar simpleness to them. Both parables are about the kingdom of God yet each makes a different point about that kingdom.
I was recently with a group of non-Lutheran pastors and during the discussion, first one, then the others, began using the language of “kingdom work,” and “kingdom growth.” It is not the way in which we, as Lutherans, typically talk about the Church, but that is to what they were referring. The kingdom of God is the establishment of His reign, in particular, the establishment of His reign in grace over His people. From that discussion, we must answer then, what is kingdom work?
According to the parable of the seed, it is simply sowing, because the sower hasn’t a clue as to how anything works after that until it is time to put the sickle to the stem. It happens apart from his power. We are not often comfortable with such mysteries. We think that if we can understand things and control them better, we can get better and more consistent results. It happens in modern agriculture, with genetically modified and hybrided seed, precisely formulated fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide applied at specific times. Science does work in the field of dirt but the field of the heart remains to us a mystery. But it is not entirely a mystery.
I had the opportunity to address our New England District in convention on Friday as I introduced a $2 million capital campaign for the direct support of planting new churches within our district. I specifically told them that the money was not tied to any particular plan for planting the seed of the Gospel, but that it would be used only for planting that seed. In other words, we do know how the seed is planted and we know how we are supposed to plant the seed. That is given to us in other portions of the Scripture. The seed is planted in Word and Sacrament ministry. It is planted continually in the preaching of the Gospel whereby sinners are made aware of their guilt before God and taught to despair of any hope that they might save themselves from condemnation but instead directed to the grace of God in His Son, Jesus Christ, where redemption from sin and the forgiveness of sin is won in His crucifixion. The planting happens every time you direct yourself and your children and your grandchildren to the Maker and Provider of all good things in your table prayers and your bedtime prayers asking for forgiveness and protection. This planting happens with every Holy Baptism and every morsel of bread and drop of wine given in the Holy Supper. This Gospel seed is planted when console your neighbor with the hope of the resurrection in his mourning, or you encourage your cousin with the hope that all things work to the good for those that trust in Jesus Christ, or when you speak to the stranger seated next to you on a cross-country flight concerning God’s eternal plan of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The sowing part is pretty straight forward and is what we are given charge over. What happens after that seed is sown is completely out of our control. Yet, this is what we try to control with so many programs and the multitude of books that rely upon social science, intuition, and experience. We are privileged to sow the seed of Jesus Christ into the lives of others, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring that seed to sprout and grow. We can look for and be creative in making opportunities in sowing the seed of hope but it is the Spirit through the Word that converts men and nurtures them to the fullness of maturity in preparation for the harvest.
What this parable should do is put us at ease concerning the growth in the field. We can look for ways to spread the seed and so we should, but we should not be frustrated when the seed doesn’t sprout and grow as we think it should. We should support sowers of seed both near and far, but we should not become anxious when that seed seems to grow too slowly or too quickly. We are to trust that the Spirit is always active in the sowing of the Gospel and that He works faith when and where He wills and that the Word of God always accomplishes that for which it is sent.
You may recall that a couple of months back, Lisa and I drove to Boston on a Sunday afternoon that I might preach to a group of immigrant people known as the Oromo. They are an ethnic group from Ethiopia. Two of the leaders from that congregation addressed our convention yesterday expressing their thanks for our support of them as a congregation. They originate from a Lutheran background that traces its origins to Scandinavian missionaries sent to Ethiopia some 100 years ago. While our highly organized and modern sowing of the Gospel in this country seems to produce little fruit, the decentralized efforts of the Mekane Yesus to sow the Gospel among an often destitute people has produced the largest Lutheran church body in the world that has grown from about 2 million members twelve years ago to more than 8 million members today. How did that happen? It is a mystery to all but God. But it did begin with sowing the Gospel.
Such explosive growth is what Jesus puts forward in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Something as small and insignificant as one person dying and being buried in the ground can and will have the result of extraordinary growth. Now certainly that one person is no ordinary person for He is the Son of God in flesh and His death is no ordinary death but a death for all that all might be redeemed from death. But it is that one event in the timeline of the creation that has blossomed and grown into a kingdom whose expanse is beyond our comprehension.
Wendy gave Lisa a couple of cuttings from one of her plants a couple of weeks ago. Lisa laid those cuttings on top of the dirt in a pot and watered them. I took a look at them this morning and it is amazing but the ends of each cutting are now standing upright in the pot. It is taking root and growing and I haven’t any idea how. The large growth of an eastern African church body began from the small missionary work of a few that had been evangelized by another missionary a millennium earlier who took the Gospel from southern Europe to the pagans in the north of Europe. What begins with a word of Gospel hope shared over coffee or in passing on a train has and can produce results beyond our expectations and understandings.
We do know that if nothing is sown, nothing grows. As Jesus has been sown into the earth and into our hearts, the grace of God has blossomed in the world in His resurrection and in us by faith. That which began as small and seemingly insignificant has grown into a magnificent Church. For this gift of Jesus and for being included, we are thankful. It is as a result of this that we gathered together not long ago to discuss ways and to explore opportunities for us as a congregation to continue to sow for the harvest. We talked about many ways in which we could share the Gospel with those around us. I was and am encouraged by your creativity and enthusiasm. As we narrow our focus in a direction that you have chosen, I look forward to working with you in sowing the Gospel among our neighbors, of planting the knowledge of Jesus Christ and what He has done for them in their minds and in their hearts. And I pray with you that we may not grow weary of doing this good and that we may see the growth and the flourishing of the Gospel that we cannot rightly explain but for which we can only thank and praise God.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.