Topical Scripture: Matthew 13:31-32
Roman Trofimov is a traveler from Estonia who landed in Manila last March but was not allowed to leave the departures area due to coronavirus restrictions. He spent 110 days at the airport before he was finally able to return home.
His experience is a metaphor for how we feel in these days. We cannot fly back to the “normal” we knew before the pandemic, but we cannot leave this airport for the “normal” after the pandemic, whatever that is.
But we have a choice: we can be passive victims stuck in the present, or we can be proactive victors who focus on redemptive ways to change the future.
Some dear friends of mine lost their house to a fire a few years ago. They spent a year in an apartment while their home was being rebuilt.
They could have resented their apartment and longed for the home they lost, but they chose to make the most of where they were. They built relationships with neighbors they would not otherwise have known and redeemed that year for God’s glory.
This summer, we’re in a series titled “Hope for Hard Times.” We’re looking at Jesus’ lesser-known parables, finding truth that speaks to our challenges in these challenging days.
Today, let’s focus on ways to use this difficult moment for God’s glory and our great good. How could God redeem this “airport” time?
From tiny seeds come giant trees. That’s the point of this week’s parable.
Let’s ask three questions: what is a mustard seed? What is the kingdom of heaven? And how do we join the mustard seed movement today?
What is a mustard seed?
Jesus’ story begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field” (v. 31). There were two kinds of mustard seeds in Jesus’ day; Sinapis nigra was the garden variety, producing a shrub, while Salvadora persica produced the mustard tree.
His story continues: “It is the smallest of all seeds” (v. 32a). There has been much discussion of that statement over the years.
The cypress tree or wild orchid actually produce smaller seeds. But Jesus was talking about “garden plants.” “Seed” in the New Testament always refers to agricultural plants, those grown for food.
And the mustard seed is by far the smallest of these, so much so that it served as a proverb in the day. The rabbis could speak of a drop of blood or a transgression against the law as being the size of a mustard seed. Roman writers used the same proverb.
Jesus’ point was made by contrast: “but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree” (v. 32b). The mustard seed could grow into a ten-foot-tall plant in a single season and could reach heights of fifteen feet around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus might have been pointing to just such a tree when he said these words.
Then “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (v. 32c). Birds love the tiny black seeds produced by the mustard tree, and flock to it from all over. They dwell there, living in the tree for a period of time. The point is clear: no one would look at a tiny mustard seed and imagine that it would produce such a tall and vibrant tree, filled with birds from all over Galilee.
So it is with the Kingdom of God, all across the word of God.
A lonely, ridiculed man building a boat saves the human race. A childless Bedouin named Abram becomes the father of three faiths. A renegade shepherd named Moses faces down the most powerful man on earth and brings his band of slaves to freedom and destiny. Another shepherd boy kills the mightiest warrior in the land and leads his people to their greatest days of glory. His son, the product of an adulterous relationship, becomes the wisest man in human history. All grew from mustard seeds to men of eternal renown.
Then the day would come when a baby was born in a cow stall and placed in a feed trough. He grew up in a town so insignificant it is mentioned not a single time in the Old Testament and was the butt of jokes in the New. None of his disciples came from the leadership of the nation. They grew to one hundred and twenty people by the time of Pentecost, a small church by any standards today. Mustard seeds, all, but the birds of the air flock in their branches today, more than two billion strong.
Who would have seen this itinerant Galilean carpenter teaching his band of peasant followers and imagined that we would be studying his words twenty centuries later? That this mustard-seed movement would one day topple the mighty Roman Empire and spread the Kingdom of God to the four corners of the earth? That it would become the largest, most significant spiritual movement in human history?
What is the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus stated that the mustard seed that becomes a giant tree is a metaphor for the “kingdom of heaven.” What is this?
Jesus began his preaching ministry by announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He taught us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). When he returns, his name will be “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).
In the Model Prayer he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s kingdom comes wherever his will is done. It comes whenever we make him our king.
As we have noted before, our culture separates Sunday from Monday and religion from the real world. We compartmentalize God into our religious activities. But let me ask you: how healthy would your marriage be if you only saw your spouse at chapel? How strong would your finances be if you worked only as long as you were in church on Sunday? How healthy would your body be if you ate only as long as you did religious things?
To make God your King is to make him the master and Lord of every dimension of your life. When you do this, your life becomes a mustard seed that he uses to grow a tree that will change the world.
To continue the metaphor, Alfred North Whitehead noted that great people plant trees they’ll never sit under. That’s precisely what Jesus promised to do with us.
How do we join the mustard seed movement?
So, what is our role? How do we join the mustard seed movement of Jesus?
First, die. The seed must be buried in the ground before it can grow and bear fruit. So with us.
The Scriptures say we are “buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). When we make Christ our Savior and Lord, we die to our old lives. In that moment, we become a “new creation” with this result: “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But this is not just a decision we made at our salvation. It is a decision we must make every day.
Paul testified, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
God cannot do with us what we try to do with ourselves. A mechanic cannot repair a car I insist on repairing myself. The Lord can lead only those who will follow.
To make the most of your life, surrender your life every day to Jesus. Put him in charge of your life in these days of quarantine and challenges. Ask him to redeem them. Submit them to your Lord.
Second, grow. The mustard seed is planted, then it must grow. It cannot stay where it is. It must be watered, fertilized, and tended. Over time it becomes what it is intended to become.
In the same way, we are intended to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). We do this by reading his word, praying, and worshiping every day. We do this by keeping other spiritual disciplines as well—solitude, meditation, fasting, and confession.
My youth minister once asked us, “If I could snap my fingers and you became as mature physically as you are spiritually, how old would you be?”
Use these days of quarantine to grow closer to your Lord. Make time to be with him. Resolve to redeem time alone by being alone with Jesus. Use this time to grow in Christ.
Third, serve. The mustard seed becomes a mustard tree in which “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It gives away its seeds to them. And they, in turn, carry the seeds other places and start the process all over again.
God’s word is clear: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
Find ways to serve people during his pandemic. What can you do today that you could not do six months ago? What can you do today that you will be grateful in six months you did? Who can you serve? What needs can you meet? How can you show someone the love of God in your compassion?
Do you think the coronavirus pandemic surprised God, or do you think he has been preparing you for this season of life? Did he know before you got on the airplane that you’d be in the airport? Did he know before you built the house that you’d spent a year in an apartment? Do you think he can now use your life in more ways than you can?
Martin Luther said, “It is the duty of every Christian to be Christ to his neighbor.”
If you will decide every day to die, grow, and serve, you will join Jesus’ mustard seed movement. You will be Christ to your neighbor.
Is there a greater privilege?