Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6B)
June 13, 2021
Text: Mark 426-34
The Seed is the Word of God. The ground is the world. The farmer is the one sowing the Word, originally the Apostles and all the disciples of Jesus. It is the pastor who preaches, the Christian who confesses. And this is how it works. The Seed of the Word is scattered in proclamation. And then you go to bed and let it do its thing. You trust God. You trust in His Word. The Seed sprouts and grows, you know not how. The earth produces by itself, αὐτομάτη in Greek, automatic. That is to say, it is gift. It is not your work. The Seed has the power within itself to sprout and grow. The Word has the power within itself to do the work of bringing people to faith in Christ. You are called to scatter the Seed, to confess Christ. The Church is called to preach the Word. We are not called to be clever or cute. No gimmicks. No bait and switch advertising. It doesn’t depend on you, or me, or our efforts. The Spirit is in the Word. He does it. We’ve been given the Word. Just speak the Word. Then say your prayers and go to sleep and let God worry about it.
And what happens? The Word of the Lord grows. First, there is the blade. Faith is born. A baby is baptized into Christ. A man or woman hears the Gospel and realizes that their sins really are forgiven in Christ. God really does love them and wants them as part of His Family. Then the ear… faith matures and grows stronger as it is nourished in the Divine Service from the Pulpit and at the Altar, in Bible Study, in devotions, and in Christian fellowship. It grows through trials: pruning, fertilizer, manure, repentance. And then the full grain in the ear… the fruit of faith: Complete dependance upon Christ and His gifts, prayer, Christian love, generosity, humility, self-sacrifice, the desire and effort to live according to God’s order. And so the Kingdom grows, plant by plant, one by one, in this time of grace, as long as the world turns. But then the harvest, when the grain is ripe, when the Lord knows that all who are appointed to eternal life have come to faith in Christ. Then He puts in the sickle. Then comes the gathering and the Judgment. The wheat is safely gathered in. The chaff is piled up and burned.
It sounds so easy. And really, it is, in this sense: It all depends on God. Relax. The pressure is off. You can’t make anyone believe in Christ. You can’t make the Kingdom grow. You can only give what you’ve been given, and that is the Word. Luther famously said of the Reformation: “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
What makes it hard is our impatience. We want to see results, and we want to seem them now. Plant that seed, and we ought to be harvesting fruit. But when is the harvest? At the End. And we have a severely limited perspective. We cannot see God’s grand, eternal plan as it unfolds. We can only see here and now, this little snapshot of the Church. Maybe worldwide Christianity at this moment in time, although let’s be honest, none of us really keeps a thumb on the Church’s pulse in all the other nations of the world. Our Church body, the Missouri Synod? Okay, maybe. Mostly just our little congregation. And it’s beautiful, but it looks awfully small and insignificant. We don’t know what God will do with it. Will it always be this tiny gathering of believers, or will we outgrow our current circumstances? Will we ever have a building? Will we even make budget? And those are all legitimate concerns, and believe me, I share them. But look how small they are compared with God’s grand, eternal, cosmic plan for His Kingdom. See, we are not given to know how we fit into that, what our part in it is. We are simply given to know and rejoice that we do fit into it, that we do have a part in it. But only God sees all that clearly. What do we see? Just the Word. Sinners gathered around the Word, to be forgiven, cleansed, and healed. A little part of the vast field at various stages of growth, awaiting the harvest, the Lord only knows when.
And the Kingdom always appears this way. Small and insignificant. Weak and on the brink of death. When the Church appears to be thriving and wildly successful, that is the exception rather than the rule. Because the Church is ever and always under the cross. It is like a grain of mustard seed. The mustard seed was the proverbial Hebrew expression for something really small. As a modern equivalent, we might say the tip of a pencil or the head of a pin. That is the Seed as it is sown. That is the Kingdom as the Word has been planted. We can’t believe anything will come of it. But this is the Promise, and it is totally unexpected. That tiny Seed will grow and become larger than all the garden plants. And while there are some mustard bushes that get pretty large, this is where the parable is clearly not “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Because this mustard Seed grows into a tree that fills the whole world, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
And this imagery is not without precedent. In the ancient world, including in the Prophets, great nations and empires were described as trees that overshadow the earth. In Ezekiel 31, Assyria is described as a cedar with its top among the clouds, towering high above all trees, the birds making nests in its boughs, and all nations living under its shadow. In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, dreams that he is a great tree providing food and shelter for all, but which would be chopped down to its stump and roots, referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation, living like an animal in the wild. We see how this is an appropriate image for great empires, growing and spreading their branches over the nations they have conquered. One might even compare the United States to such a tree, spreading the branches of our influence, protection, and aid to many nations.
But what is the purpose of this image with regard to the Kingdom of God? Compared to these mighty empires and this great earthly power, the Kingdom of God looks as small as a mustard seed. But don’t let appearances deceive you. These empires have their day, but the Kingdom of God continues to grow, and on that Day, when the sickle is lowered and the harvest comes, all will see that the Tree of God’s Kingdom overshadows all the nations of the earth. This will be devasting for all who have rejected Christ. But for those in whom the Seed of the Word has taken deep root and grown into full and fruitful faith, they will find shelter under its branches and live eternally secure as God’s own beloved children.
Ezekiel captures this in our Old Testament, doesn’t he (Ez. 17:22-24)? The little sprig, lopped off the top of the mighty cedar (reminding us that God’s people will come back from Assyria and Babylon), God plants on the high and lofty mountain, undoubtedly Mt. Zion. And in spite of all appearances, and against every expectation, it grows, and becomes itself a mighty cedar, and it produces fruit (do cedar trees produce fruit?). And again, the image: “under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ez. 17:23; ESV). In the Kingdom of God you find abundant food and shelter. In other words, a home. And it is the LORD Himself who does it. Not you. Not the pastor. Not Synod bureaucrats or clever Church growth experts. The LORD does. He brings low the high tree, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, Assyria, the rulers of the earth. And He brings high the low tree, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church, you. And how does He do it? The Word. “I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 24).
And, of course, is this not just like our LORD to plant a tree and bring about a great reversal? For what else is the cross but the apparent bringing to nothing of all that is Christ and belongs to Him? “Kingdom of God?! What do you mean? God is put to death there on the Tree!” The LORD plants it, the instrument of defeat and utter destruction, near the garden on a hill outside Jerusalem, Mt. Zion, high and lifted up. And there, what is smallest and least, and even accursed, grows up into the mightiest of trees, and it fills the whole earth. Jesus sleeps and rises, and the Kingdom grows. His Word is preached. The Seed is cast. The branches of the Tree spread over the whole earth. It may be difficult for you to see, here, and now, in this place and time. But you will see it on that Day. In the meantime, simply believe. Trust. Take shelter here, in this little corner under the Kingdom’s boughs. Eat of its fruit and remain under its protection. Sow the Word. Confess the faith. Drink Wittenberg beer, or something like that, with your friends, and then go to sleep without a care. The LORD still speaks, and He still does it. The Seed is the Word and the Tree is the Kingdom. And it is all in God’s merciful hands. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 LW 51:77.