This is what God’s kingdom is like,’ said Jesus. ‘Once upon a time a man sowed seed on the ground. Every night he went to bed; every day he got up; and the seed sprouted and grew without him knowing how it did it. The ground produces crops by itself: first the stalk, then the ear, then the complete corn in the ear. But when the crop is ready, in goes the sickle at once, because harvest has arrived.’ ‘What shall we say God’s kingdom is like?’ he said. ‘What picture shall we give of it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed. When it’s sown on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds of the earth. But when it’s sown, it springs up and becomes the biggest of all shrubs. It grows large branches, so that “the birds of the air make their nests” within its shade.’ He used to tell them a lot of parables like this, speaking the word as much as they were able to hear.
Easter, in the northern hemisphere at least, is a time when all sorts of plants are starting to come up. Sometimes there are surprises. I well remember raising my eyebrows a few years ago when bulbs we had totally forgotten about appeared in places we hadn’t expected them.
That, of course, is the point of the little parables of the kingdom here, towards the end of Mark 4. Jesus wasn’t one to let a good source of imagery go to waste with only one or two variations. These parables, though making different points to the ‘Sower’ at the start of the chapter, are nevertheless, so to speak, planted in the same soil.
They are precisely Easter parables: parables of surprise, of seeds sown and coming up unexpectedly, of growth that nobody even understands. There is even an extra ‘Easter’ hint embedded within the first one. The man who’s planted the seed goes to bed and gets up every day – for the early Christians, ‘sleep’ and ‘waking’ were a natural code for ‘dying’ and ‘rising’ – and the seed is doing the same thing, but he doesn’t know how. It’s as though there is a hidden truth there which is both very obvious and deeply mysterious. It’s just like the deepest truth of Jesus’ whole public career: he was planting seeds that would ‘die’ and then ‘rise’, and he himself would ultimately be the seed that would die and rise, and bear much fruit – even though the people of God then, and the world ever since, can’t figure out what Jesus was all about. Much like the man going to bed and getting up again, in fact.
Within that again, there is a sense of surprise at a different level. Consider how the crop appears (verse 28). First the stalk, then the ear, then the complete corn in the ear. At the moment, Jesus is saying, there may not be very much to see. A wandering prophet or preacher, telling people that God’s kingdom is arriving; a travelling healer, gathering crowds but not getting them organized into a military body to march on Jerusalem. That was what people saw going on. What was it supposed to be all about? What sort of a movement was this intended to be?
Well, comes the answer in the parable: when the crop is ready, in goes the sickle; harvest has arrived. Some have suggested that Jesus was hinting here, after all, at an eventual military coup. But this goes against everything else we know of him. Far more likely that he was using the image of harvest and sickle, granted their obvious Old Testament background (Joel 3.13), for the coming of God’s kingdom. At present, he is saying, there are small shoots, but the time is coming when we shall reap a great harvest.
And yes: this again is a classic Easter message. New life is springing up. When a church is formed in this town, or that village, all people may see is a few folk going into a building on Sunday morning. They may think nothing more of it. But, if the church is truly planted, fairly soon there will be changes. In people’s lives. In the community and the neighbourhood. And when one single person turns to God and allows the ‘dying’ to take place in their own life – when the seed is properly sown, in repentance, faith and baptism – then nobody can tell what astonishing fruit will come up.
That leads us on to the next parable, the mustard seed. Jesus is once again explaining that just because the kingdom-work which he is beginning seems to be starting very small that doesn’t mean it isn’t the real planting of a powerful seed. No doubt he faced challenges on this front in his own day (‘How can this be God’s kingdom? Just a wandering healer with some strange ideas?’), much as we are likely to in ours (‘How can the church really be God’s people? Just a bunch of fussy old folk muttering their prayers . . . ?’ or ‘How can this person really claim to be a Christian? Just because they’ve given up getting drunk and started reading the Bible . . . ?’). But if people were expecting large-scale mustard trees to appear fully grown, they haven’t understood the way God works. Look back at Genesis 1. God has designed his world to work by means of seeds being sown, through the steady process of planting, tending and harvest.
Don’t despise small things, then. Think back to the first Easter: a few scared women, a bunch of muddled and frightened disciples. Yet within a few weeks they were standing up to the authorities in Jerusalem; and within a century the Roman emperor was getting anxious letters about those Christians in northern Turkey. Easter is like that. The seed is sown in the dark earth, but when it comes up there’s no knowing what it will do.
Sow your word in our hearts and our lives, Lord of the harvest, so that in due time we may reap abundantly and celebrate your risen power at work.