Trust the Word to Grow (click to download originally published pdf file)
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
Last Tuesday evening, the elders of the congregation and I sat down for our monthly meeting. It took us an hour to finish the opening devotion. Why? Because the text we were considering was more than enough to get us talking about all the things that were on our minds when it comes to our dear congregation.
Very likely you have a lot of the same concerns. Very likely, you’ve had them for years. I know one of the things we discussed was the very slow but noticeable decline in worship attendance at Emanuel. I remember Pastor Zuberbier mentioned that he had the same concern way back before I ever even accepted the call three years ago. The spike in attendance we got for a while after I arrived was nice, but the trend started back up again a few months after that. Now what?
The elders and I also talked about budget issues. And we talked about the synod convention that is now only a month away. We talked about music in the church, the state of our membership data, Bible classes…. Like I said, it was pretty much the same things you yourself probably think and talk about.
I guess the question is, “How worried should we let ourselves get?” The next obvious question is, “What should we do about it?”
The simple answer: Trust the Word to Grow. Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t the answer that says, “Do nothing because there’s nothing you can do.” That’s not it at all. This is just the answer that gets your head on straight before you start making a to-do list. This is the answer that reminds you that 1. Worries stem from forgetting the power of the seed. That is, it’s easy to let worries about the gospel harvest make you forget that the true power to grow Christian fruit is found only in the message of Christ. “Trust the Word to grow” is also the answer that tells you to 2. Plant the Word, and God will grow the kingdom as he wills. In other words, speak the Word of God and trust that it will produce fruit, just as you trust that plants will grow when you put seeds in the ground.
And that really is the point of these parables, isn’t it? “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” Jesus said. “A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
The whole point is that when the farmer plants seeds in the ground, that seed does what it is designed to do: It grows into a plant. He doesn’t worry about whether it might do something different this time versus last time. He puts it in the ground and he simply assumes that it then will grow. He doesn’t know how the seed does what it does, either. He just knows that it does. He goes to bed, he gets up, he does his chores and, whether he thinks about it or not, all that time, out in the field, those seeds are producing plants.
Are you willing to put your thoughts about the challenges that Emanuel faces into that simple context? Are you willing to accept the fact that the kingdom of God grows only by the Word’s own, inherent power, just as the seed grows under its own inherent power out in the fields? That means accepting that you don’t know how God will help the ministry at Emanuel, but you will trust him to grow his kingdom here as you seek to do nothing more than understand the pure Word of God better and seek to neither add nor subtract anything from it.
See the tension inside of you? Your resistance to accept that you cannot completely understand nor in any way change the means by which the kingdom grows demonstrates your sinful resistance toward God’s clear truth. I’m familiar with this sinful resistance in my own flesh. But there’s only one thing I can really do about that, and that is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News!” Whether you worry about it or not, like a seed, the Word does exactly what God designed it to do: It roots itself into the cold, dead dirt of these sinful hearts and powerfully, miraculously—in a way that only God himself truly understands—brings forth life that bears abundant fruit!
Does this sound like a do-nothing strategy? I assure you, it isn’t. It’s a “Trust the Word to Grow” strategy. It’s about as do-nothing as putting food into your body and expecting it to nourish you. That’s not do-nothing precisely. There’s something for you to do: put food in your mouth. However, your daily list of things to do does not include all the chemical reactions that take place in your digestive tract! That part, you trust, will happen by itself. Even if you have to inject a little insulin to help break down the sugars, the insulin still does what insulin is designed to do. You don’t do what insulin does!
And, in fact, the point of these two parables is not just that there will be some growth when you plant the Word, is it? “Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.’”
The point of these parables is also that the kingdom of God will grow big, despite how small the seed seems to be. You see? Trust it to grow not only because it does grow on its own, but also because the Word itself, though it seems like such a small thing when compared to other ways of growing a movement, holds all its own impressive power to grow the kingdom massively all on its own.
This is a very important point in Mark. More so than what you see in the other gospels, Mark concentrates on the difficult relationship Jesus had with crowds, popularity and fame. All the gospels depict that tension, of course, but you just can’t miss the way Mark gets into it right away in the very first chapter of his gospel, and how he never lets that theme go, all the way to the end. Jesus is always trying to focus on his preaching while people focus on his miracles. He’s always getting into a boat because of the crowds or retreating up a hill. He’s always being forced into the countryside because he gets mobbed in the towns, and he’s always telling people that he heals to be quiet about what he did because the new-and-exciting-thing part of the crowd growth was getting in the way of the preaching side.
And that is why, my brothers and sisters, my prayer to God today is that he would help us understand better what is and what is not the true Word of God. There is no special understanding of the kingdom’s “agricultural sciences” for us to pray for.
Do you understand what I’m saying there? Take note that in these two parables about growth in the kingdom Jesus never talks about the equivalent of something like, say, watering the seeds, fertilizing the soil or keeping crop-damaging pests under control. Do you know why that is? It’s really quite simple and obvious in the context. The reason he doesn’t get into that stuff is because, for people worried about kingdom growth, the point is that the kingdom grows big in accordance with God’s own design without any help from people at all!
Again, is this a do-nothing strategy? Not in the least! This is a “Trust the Word to Grow” strategy. You see, the other big theme that Mark gets into quickly and heavily, beside Jesus’ strange relationship with popularity, is the dangerous and false teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. You could say that they were the “kingdom growth experts” of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees thought the kingdom grew best when fertilized by all kinds of rules that helped you lead a moral life. The Sadducees thought that the kingdom grew best when potted in the proper political medium. Jesus spoke in parables to those who followed their various teachings so that they would hear the truth in simple and clear language, even though they would not want to hear or believe it. How could they? Such teachings would leave them without any credit in the kingdom and completely reliant upon the miraculous and mysterious work of God for its growth!
But when he was alone with his disciples, those who relied upon his Word and his wisdom for their spiritual growth, “he explained everything.” Do you wonder why I stress Bible class, Sunday School and the like so much? This is it: The disciples of Jesus need time for questions, for explanations—time to distinguish the true Word from the sinful nature’s prideful inventions and pseudo-spirituality. Yes, ideas for growing the kingdom abound, but faith in the Word to do its work through simply sowing the pure seed comes from hearing the Word for yourself. From that genuine, God-given faith also comes the best, most comforting, and most joy-filled evangelism, as well!
I kind of wish we’d used this text for our elders devotion, instead of the one that launched the hour-long discussion. It might have made the meeting shorter. On the other hand, it might have made the meeting longer! But I’m not worried about it. We did share the Word together, and faith came in accord with God’s promises through hearing it. Through this God grants us all the more trust that his Word will grow the kingdom—just what we need to hear. Amen.