Do you worry about the future of the Church?
Let’s understand the growth of God’s kingdom.
We will look at Mark 4:26-34 and why optimism over the church’s future is valid, why the church will continue to grow as a hidden kingdom and why even the world’s greatest control freaks cannot control what is in God’s hands.
The Reading: Mark 4:26-34
26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
1. Scattered Seed
Mark 4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground
The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, where God rules. It is where God’s authority is accepted. It is also not a democracy. Democracy is our attempt at compromise in an imperfect world where we have Christians and non-Christians who want to make a society together and keep the peace. In the perfect world of God’s rule we need no other king but Jesus. He calls us to do a work. What is that work? It is to scatter the seed of the kingdom. Where? On the ground! What kind of ground? It does not say. It could be rocky soil, hard ground, thorny ground or good soil, but we scatter. Other parables show that God is happy with indiscriminate scattering of that seed. The important point is that it is scattered and not left in the seed bag.
2. While We Sleep
Mark 4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
This parable is only found in Mark. The seed grows all by itself without human effort, night and day, while we are asleep or awake. If we worry about our church, God’s kingdom is still growing. If the church in North America and Europe is shrinking, God’s kingdom is still growing. If we try to use gimmicks to force the church to grow like false gospels or man-made legalism, still the true Gospel and God’s kingdom is still growing. The question is, are we willing to wait for God to do his work instead of trying to take short-cuts and manipulation of his plan by human devices? On the other hand, do we just sit around and do no work? That is not God’s will either. The church has many critics and advisors and few who are willing to work.
The Religious Experience
A popular but false concept is that we must always have a dramatic religious experience when the Holy Spirit intervenes in our lives. It does happen sometimes. But, if we understand Mark 4:27, then Jesus taught that it was not necessary or even normal. Like a crop in a field, the evidence of the kingdom of God in our lives may be totally unseen at first. This story also contradicts another popular idea, that we must exert extraordinary human effort to make God’s reign in our spiritual lives grow or to make our churches grow. The story explains that God’s kingdom grows whether we are awake or asleep, totally without our understanding as to how. Like the crop in the field, it is God’s action that makes his kingdom grow and human attempts to dictate that growth are often flawed.
The Hidden Kingdom
Mark 4:26-34 introduces to us the concept of the reign of God being a hidden kingdom. It is not recognized by the world around us. What is it? In modern terms we could call it the reign of God. Where is that? It is among those who submit to divine authority. Although some people have such wonderful discernment that they can possibly tell who is God’s just by looking at someone’s face, most of us would need to have more information than that. It is like a crop that grows in the field. Initial evidence can be like a small green shoot poking through the soil and may be like small spiritual changes in a person’s life. As God’s realm grows, it becomes increasingly evident that he rules a person’s life even though it may not be obvious at first.
3. Automatic Growth
Mark 4:28-29 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
We scatter seed, rest while God makes the seed grow, then participate in the harvest. Our job is not to worry about kingdom growth. The Greek word for “of itself” means the same as our English word automatically. A watered plant will automatically grow. An un-watered plant will not. God causes the growth. We simply submit to his power in our lives. Paul said a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7. He planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. The farmer’s concern is not how to make it grow, but to create conditions in which it can grow, such as watering. What happens when we plant? We plow perfectly good green grass under. Do people who don’t understand, complain that we take perfectly good church programs and plow them under? Are we crazy, or preparing for new seeds?
Optimistic Church Future
Many Christians in the western world are pessimistic about the future of the church. While numbers have declined in Europe and America this past century, numbers in Africa and Asia are increasing. Did Jesus prophesy anything about this? This is one passage that speaks of the spread of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is where God reigns and God reigns in the church. There is no guarantee that our denomination or our local church will survive or that the church will always look like ours, but the future of the Christian church is very good. Even while we sleep, the church grows. The church will grow to be the largest entity on earth. In fact, today it is. Jesus seems to be ruling in the lives of up to a third of humanity. Now that’s a large kingdom.
4. Mustard Seed
Mark 4:30-31 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
The mustard seed traditionally represents something very small. It may be our small faith. It may be our small efforts. Pastors can sometimes see their work as small when dramatic changes in people’s lives do not occur. Yet, Jesus encourages pastors and lay members alike that kingdom work is never in vain. The growth is often not seen for a time, perhaps not even in our lifetimes, but it is promised to be incredible. The growth of the kingdom has gone from one man, Jesus, to billions in our time. The phrase “smallest of all the seeds” is not literal, but hyperbolic conversation, like exclaiming, “Isn’t that just the cutest kitten!” An overly literal, critical spirit here would miss the meaning of the riddle. It takes eyes of faith to see the future of even the smallest of kingdom efforts.
Control Freaks Controlling the Uncontrollable
The Church has historically been a rather unruly flock. Romans 14 indicates an early controversy over worship days and dietary requirements. Our 2000 year long discussion of various points of view is encouraged by Jesus’ instructions to worship God with our minds. When Jesus symbolized the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed (Mark 4:26-34) he was describing a rather unruly plant that was considered to be an obnoxious weed. Church leaders can be tempted to try to lord it over the faith of believers, but that is something Jesus did not want (Matthew 20:25-28). The kingdom of God will grow where God wants despite human politics. While control freaks may continue to try controlling the uncontrollable, God’s kingdom will continue to grow. Our job is to make sure we don’t rob ourselves of a place in it.
5. Mustard Plant
Mark 4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
A mustard plant is a shrub or even considered to be a weed in Middle Eastern landscapes. It can grow to 10 feet (3 meters) tall. Why did Jesus choose a mustard bush here instead of a majestic Cedar of Lebanon? Could it be that instead of looking for something big to happen for the kingdom, Jesus intends for us to see the kingdom in ordinary things, like a common weed of Israel. Though we may want to try and control it, it is beyond our control and still grows everywhere in Israel today. Is the kingdom of heaven also beyond our control? Though control freaks try to corral the church with man-made rules and authoritarianism, does God have other ideas? What some call weeds can be valuable herbs with healing properties. Is the kingdom of God also like that?
The Apostle Mark planted the first Christian church in Africa in Alexandria, Egypt. Their descendants are the Coptic Orthodox Church. How large has the church grown in Africa? It has grown from 9 million in 1900 to 380 million in 2000. Among the earliest churches in Asia were those established by the Apostle Thomas in central Asia and India. The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew spread Christianity to Armenia and the Apostles Simon and Andrew planted churches in Georgia. Between the 9th and 14th centuries the Church of the East spread as far as China and India, but declined after persecution, disease and isolation. Christian growth has returned to Asia. In 30 years, Asia may have a larger Christian population than Europe. Jesus Predicted that his kingdom would grow. It is not always obvious, because it is invisible, a spiritual kingdom.
6. The Use of Parables
Mark 4:33-34 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Jesus’ parables are riddles about the kingdom of God. Those who are not ready and willing to hear may not get the message. Those who are comfortable in this world may see the kingdom of God as a threat and dismiss it. Those who are ready to hear will delight in exploring the possibilities that parables open up. The message a parable is a teaching story. The riddle is a type of analogy. Jesus’ parables often present a moral dilemma. One makes the right choice and another, the wrong choice. Using everyday experiences, Jesus presents a contrast that teaches the difference between human thinking and divine. Parables invite us to use our minds. Parables have an affinity with the sacraments. They reveal a divine grace through common daily experiences as the sacraments provide a divine grace through common household elements.
Jesus foretold that the church’s future is unstoppable. It will continue to grow. It is God’s spiritual reign, and no one can stop the uncontrollable growth of God’s kingdom in us and in the world around us. Let’s make sure that we are a part of it.
All Scripture: New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.