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Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Do you have a hobby or something you really enjoy doing? I have quite a few, but gardening is my main one.

I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling with my garden this year—with it being so cold and damp this spring, many things are growing slowly.

But surprisingly, I’ve managed to persuade my husband to join me and have a go at growing things.

Yes, Paul has sown some broad bean seeds and planted them in the raised beds—after I had prepared them and reminded him they ought to be planted out. We now wait and see what they produce.

And we hear about seeds in our reading today.

Whenever Jesus preached a sermon, he often told a parable to drive his point home. Jesus was the master storyteller. He wasn’t like those Pharisees who quoted from the Bible all the time so they could sound religious. People soon switched off when they did that.

But Jesus told stories of everyday life that were easily understood and things the ordinary folk could relate to, like this one:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Here are THREE surprising things about the mustard seed in Jesus’ time

1. It was a weed

This parable was not what the listeners expected to hear! They hoped to hear that the kingdom of God would be like a vast Cedar tree—not a mangy bush!

The cedar grows to about 100 feet tall, and the mustard bush is about 11 feet.

The cedar flourishes in the mountains of Lebanon, a symbol of power, strength and glory. The mustard is a common weed in Israel.

Here Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like the mustard plant—nothing grand or glorious, a bog-standard, ordinary bush that grows everywhere around Palestine.

2. It was an irritant

Another thing I know about mustard is that it's pretty pungent—don’t rub your eyes if you get some on your hands! It is biting, irritating—perhaps disturbing.

That is a characteristic of mustard seeds—and the people he is speaking to know that. He is using a very apt symbol by which he indicates that the message of the kingdom of God is intended to be irritating and disturbing.

Turn it loose; it could get a whole community excited and stirred up—negatively or positively.

3. It was invasive

Farmers did not deliberately sow mustard. Its presence in the local ecosystem was often a result of its tiny seeds becoming mixed in with those of planned crops.

So, as the mustard germinates, sprouts and grows, mustard plants emerge as an unpredictable and invasive presence in the land.

The mustard plant referred to here is generally considered to be black mustard, not the yellow flower you might find in your gardens.

It's a large plant that grows up to 10-12 feet tall but grows from a tiny seed.

Pliny the Elder—writing around AD 78—contended that

Mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted. But when it has been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed, when it falls, germinates at once.

The mustard seed is a picture of the surprising, disturbing, challenging ministry of Jesus.

  • His mission turns away from becoming a mighty cedar when Jesus refuses the Devil's vision of ruling over the kingdoms of this world when tested in the desert.

  • Later He rides through the gates of Jerusalem not on the steed of a conquering king but the lowly donkey of peace.

  • Then the disciples might have looked down at Jesus washing their feet and wondered, "Is this the Messiah? Is this the cedar of Lebanon?"

  • Jesus gathers no Zealot army to overthrow Rome but a small band of misfits who gather to pray in a garden, where he tells them to put away their swords and stop fighting with them.

  • He is then nailed on a splintery tree to die a shameful death, crowned with thorns as an enemy of the state.

A true kingdom not of power, might and strength—but of love, care and compassion.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows where it’s not expected and produces pungent seeds that can irritate—but also into a plant that provides shelter and cares for any who need protection.

  • Are we welcoming the misfits, the outsiders, the weak?

  • Do we consciously give of ourselves to help grow God's kingdom here?

  • Could we be thought of as subversive, challenging and dangerous?

Jesus reveals the reign of God in mustard seeds.

It is a kingdom which begins with the small, the everyday and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders, the left out, the other, for those beyond the borders of our comfort zones.

Jesus reveals to us a kingdom that should spread like weeds, grow in unexpected and unlikely places and be hard to remove.

I suppose our challenge is to answer the question, are we growing individually and together as a church like the mustard bush—and if not, why not?


This blog post is adapted from a sermon given by Sandy Walker at New Marske Methodist Church on May 14th


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