These parables are great news for pastors; they are great news for control freaks; and they are great news for people who despair about the future.
They are great news because they tell us that the Kingdom of God is like a seed that has been sown. It will grow. So there is no need to be anxious and no need to think that it all depends on me. It will grow whether we worry about it or not. It will grow whether we fuss over it or not. All that it needs is space and time.
So what is this Kingdom of God which will come?
The Old Testament looks forward to the establishment of the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, on this earth.
It will be a Kingdom which will be ruled over by a king, a descendant of David; and he will reign for ever. The Jews knew that person as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. He would establish righteousness and justice and freedom.
Creation, and the laws which govern creation, will be reordered. Power structures will be transformed; those whose survival depended on the death of others will discover that their well-being depends on the well-being of the other. The prophet Isaiah uses picture language to explain this: the young child will lead, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.
And when Jesus came, he announced that the Kingdom of God was near, was present in him, and would one day come in fullness. He declared that the rule of God had begun, and that he was the ruler. His rule is one of peace and mercy and gratuitous generousity and love. It is a place in which people find healing and liberation from all the things that paralyse us; in which we will find fulfilment in the work that we do and joy in the presence of God and of each other. It will be a place in which there is no more death.
Obviously it is very hard for us to imagine. We are talking about a transformed, transfigured space and time. The pictures that Jesus used for this kingdom were of lost children coming home, of banquets and wedding feasts.
And so it is not surprising that after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples ask him: "Is this the time, when the Kingdom will be established in its fullness? And Jesus basically says, ‘No. Not yet. But you are to be my witnesses to the whole world. You are to live in the light of the fact that it is coming’".
So here, in Mark 4, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, is coming.
The seed has been sown.
1. It will grow in the lives of individual men and women.
Those of us who are control freaks, who want to set up structures and systems for all situations, need to hear this.
We need to do what we can do, but we also need to trust this to God. The Kingdom of God will grow. And if the seed of the Kingdom of God has been planted into the heart and mind of an individual man, woman or child, it will grow. That is why Philip could be so laid back when the Ethiopian eunuch came to faith (Acts 8).
I think of people I have known who have become Christians and have grown in faith, often in spite of what the institutional church or other Christians have done.
Obviously we do have a responsibility before God for each other. Seeds need space, but they also need watering. In 1 Corinthian 3:6, Paul talks of how he sowed the seed and Apollos, one of his colleagues, does the watering. But he goes on to say, 'it is God who gives the growth'.
So yes, it is our responsibility to share in the work of sowing and of watering, but in the end the seed will seek to grow. It is in its DNA.
And if the seed of the Kingdom of God is there in our heart we will want to grow. You will want to grow in understanding and in faith and in love. You will choose to read and study the bible. You will choose to spend time in prayer. You will choose to meet together with other believers. You will choose to struggle with God when he seems absent. It is not a question of being told to do anything. If the seed has been sown you will desire to grow.
Of course we'll make mistakes. There will be false starts. We will be incredibly enthusiastic, and probably enthusiastically wrong. We will go down many wrong paths. We will put people off.
But if the seed is there, it will grow.
Andrew was given a dinosaur egg (not a real one!). We had to put it in water, and leave it. At first it didn’t do anything. The temptation was to pick it up and give it a shake. But we left it. We gave it time. And amazingly this thing did grow inside the shell and it did crack open.
2. The seed of the Kingdom will grow in the world.
I am talking here about Church growth, but not about the growth of individual church communities or particular denominations.
I am talking here of the growth of the church, the whole people of God, as God sees it. It is made up of all the people who have turned to Jesus Christ and who have called on him to have mercy. It is the community of people who belong to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who are part of him, and who are part of each other.
In other words, in the Kingdom your identity, your destiny, your freedom, your joy is tied up with my identity, my destiny, my freedom and my joy.
Fellowship is not just one way of growing as a Christian. Real fellowship is actually what being a Christian is all about.
Paul speaks of the vision of this Kingdom in Ephesians when he writes that the purpose of the church, and of the different ministries in the church, is 'that we might come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.' [Ephesians 4:13]
But the promise of Jesus is that the seed will grow in the world.
We see signs of that growth in the growth of the church overseas;
We see signs of that growth in the growth of congregations where people love each other and love the outsider
But the promise is that the seed will grow; it will reach maturity; it will become 'the greatest of all the shrubs'.
Of course, the growing process is messy.
As the people of God grow up together into maturity, we will go through the hormonal teenager phase, the thinking I can all do it on my own phase, the 'I'm all on my own' phase, the exhausted parent phase, the mid-life crisis phase, the thinking we are it phase, the letting go phase: and not necessarily only once or in that order. And we will as a community, and as churches together, make wrong decisions and be absolutely convinced that they are the right decisions.
But God will not let go of us. The seed will grow.
And much of the time, the growing process is invisible. It is under the soil stuff. And just as the seed grows and becomes a plant under the soil, and then erupts from out of the earth, so the Kingdom of God, which has been growing under the surface, will explode into fullness when Jesus returns.
So these two parables are good news for pastors – we have our part to play, but it is not all up to us; they are good news for control freaks – we can let go a bit: give people space and time; Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, ‘I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to competion on the day of Jesus Christ’. [Philippians 1:6].
But, and this is much more important: these two parables are very good news for our world. They tell us that the seed of the Kingdom of God has been sown in this world, that it is growing (it is very messy and often invisible), and that one day - we don't know when - it will grow to maturity; and it will grow to become the greatest of all the plants. And it will bring blessing to others.