5th Sunday after Pentecost July 9, 2017
226, 396, 46, 753 (Alt. TLH 52)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
The Collect (prayer of the Day): Lord God, bless Your Word wherever it is proclaimed. Make it a word of power and peace to convert those not yet Your own and to confirm those who have come to saving faith. May Your Word pass from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the lip, and from the lip to the life that, as You have promised, Your Word may achieve the purpose for which You sent it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”
And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.
What he holds in his hand is no bigger than a speck of sand. It is hardly noticeable. Just a speck. If he mistakenly drops it, he may never find it again. Yet, letting go of it is the only way to see how big it really is.
A gardener is holding in his hand a seed. In our text it is a mustard seed, but for common comparison, think of a sunflower seed. Think: mammoth sunflower seed. It begins as such a small speck. Yet, drop it in the ground and, with God’s blessing, it can stretch out taller than a fully grown man. A mustard seed would be even smaller, and yet get just as big. A full grown mustard plant can reach up to 6 and 1/2 feet tall.
But, in order to see how big it is, we must first let go of it. We must give it into the hands of God, and leave it to the soil that He has created and that He has blessed. And there we leave it. We can’t even see it any more. It is lost in the dirt. But there we have His promise. There we have His hands, reaching into the soil, holding it, blessing it, cultivating it, and there what once was so small, becomes something great.
Today we consider one of the paradoxes of God’s kingdom. That is, when God’s kingdom reigns among us, when He rules in His great royal power, when He does what a divine King should do—there appears a paradox where two seemingly contradictory things prove to be both true. Today Jesus shows us in a parable that something which seems so small, insignificant, even impossible and not worth even noting to so many, turns out to be the greatest thing of all. The Kingdom of God Starts Small, But Becomes Great.
We’ll look at two examples of God accomplishing great things from small beginnings. (1) We’ll consider Israel which was brought low, but which becomes the soil for God to sprouts something new in Christ. (2) We’ll consider the CLC is sown as something which seems small and insignificant, but which is sheltered by the eternally great grace of God.
The Lord was descending upon Israel like a great and mighty lumberjack. With axe in hand, the Lord descends upon his own people. The time had come to bring down all that is lifted up. And that axe was the great Babylonian army. So Isaiah writes,
For the day of the Lord of hosts Shall come upon everything proud and lofty, Upon everything lifted up— And it shall be brought low— 13 Upon all the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, And upon all the oaks of Bashan; 14 Upon all the high mountains, And upon all the hills that are lifted up; 15 Upon every high tower, And upon every fortified wall; 16 Upon all the ships of Tarshish, And upon all the beautiful sloops. 17 The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, And the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; The Lord alone will be exalted in that day. (Isaiah 2:12-17)
Israel had forgotten the Lord, they no longer feared his wrath, and they no longer longed for His promises. They had become consumed with a pursuit of something great in their own eyes—they wanted a kingdom of glory, so they exalted themselves in their own eyes. God would come down with his axe, rendering Israel helpless and cut off. They would be carried of by the hands of the Babylonian armies in 586 B. C.
It was in this setting that Ezekiel would later prophesy. Ezekiel tells a parable which pictures the judgment. A great eagle with large wings and long claws will come to Israel and pluck off the highest branch; he will carry it away and plant it on another mountain, but it will dry up and wither. Then God himself will pluck a branch, a young sprout, and replant it on his own mountain. And then the LORD says,
“On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the LORD, have spoken and have done it.” (Ezekiel 17:23-24)
Israel was brought low. Their great city was destroyed. Their kingdom was lost. And for centuries to come, they would be subject to other kingdoms and other rulers. It is in this setting that Christ would finally come. But He would come not for those who were exalted, but for those who had been brought low. He was not interested in the glorious pursuits of the Pharisees and scribes and religious class. He was interested in the small and insignificant—those who suffered, those who were broken, those who were sinners and knew it. These were the people that meant so much to Him, those who were just a speck in the eyes of the nations.
To what shall we compare his kingdom? Is it like the great Babylonian monuments and temples adorned with the riches of their victories? Is it like the great Greek armies led by Alexander the Great, conquering the vast majority of the known world? Is it like the great Roman Caesars that expanded empire and laws over all the nations? No, it is like a speck of sand held in the hands of a farmer. The reign of God is like a mustard seed. Something that must be dropped into the soil, lost from the eyes of the world. Hidden away in the soil, crucified, dead, and buried in the earth. Jesus was no king as the world would know it. Look at him. Powerless to overthrow the Jewish authorities who come at Him with swords and clubs; powerless to free Himself from the Roman ropes which hold His hands; powerless to help himself down from cross. Or so it seemed. Just a speck, now lost and buried in the earth.
But there He was in God’s hands. God, who had reached into the soil, into death itself, fulfilling the wrath that He Himself justly held against the world. Then He took what was brought so low, and made so small, and made it into something great. When no one was looking, Jesus rose from the dead and sprouted something new; a twig that would be planted on the highest mountain, where all who believe would find shelter.
And there they found shelter. In the smallest of beginnings. There were no great and glorious temples—they met in house churches, hidden away from the Jews who rose up against them, unable to withstand the Romans who would soon outlaw their religion. But they would meet together, congregations of those who found shelter under Christ. And that shelter was all forgiving, all encompassing, all embracing, all glorious. The Kingdom of God Starts Small, But Becomes Great
The seeds were sown, and the centuries that would follow would prove God’s promise to be true: what was once small, would become big. The Church would grow, and with it would also sprout up weeds. False teaching would plague the Church, always threatening to crowd out those who seek shelter. Time and time again, just like Israel, the Church would be drawn back to a pursuit for glory. A pursuit of something greater, something bigger. In order to accomplish this, churches would have to compromise, they would seek to find the kingdom in some place other than where God has promised it.
This is why the Church of the Lutheran Confession was sown. Because other Lutheran churches were seeking something bigger at the expense of the kingdom. The ELCA is today the largest Lutheran church body in America. They boast over 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations in the United States. And in the 1930’s and 40’s this church body was the primary reason for why the CLC broke fellowship with the Wisconsin synod and the Missouri synod.
For over a century, the ELCA has been compromising, changing doctrines, making things more agreeable to the culture we live in, and so they have grown quite large. This is appealing to the world and it is appealing to our flesh. Compromising with God’s Word means there is no need to suffer or face the pains of being humiliated at the cross.
In the eyes of the world, the CLC doesn’t have much going for it. We are seemingly insignificant. How often don’t you tell someone you belong to the CLC and they look at you sideways: “Never heard of it.” Our numbers place us among the smallest church bodies in America. It is virtually unseen by the world—a speck compared to the Roman Catholic Church or the ELCA, or Islam, or Judaism. We are not on spoken of by news casters nor do we have lobbyists in Washington. But the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. And here gathered around His Word, not compromising, we are specks in the hands of God. Here we have His promise. We have His hands, reaching into this soil, holding us, blessing us, cultivating His word among us, and that Word’s power, which what once was so small, truly accomplishes something great.
How else could so much be done by so few? Look at our mission work overseas. What began in the 1980’s with just one missionary and a few contacts, has grown to hundreds of thousands of brethren. This did not come about through compromise. This is has come through a thorough teaching of God’s word. That is why we support these missionaries. That is why we support the building of seminaries. That is why we support ILC. The CLC is seemingly insignificant in the eyes of the world, but God is able to do great things through this ministry of the gospel.
Remember, the way that Israel was to recognize God’s kingdom was by its strange lowliness. “And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the Lord, have spoken and have done it.” This is what God does. He reaches into our churches (which do not appear to look like much) into the lives of sinners who are mere dust themselves and does great things; He forgives our sins, gives us faith, and welcomes us into the true greatness of His eternal kingdom.
The Kingdom of God Starts Small, But Becomes Great. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.