The Mustard Seed

A customs officer observes a truck pulling up at the border. Suspicious, he orders the driver out and searches the vehicle. He pulls off the panels, bumpers, and wheel cases but finds not a single scrap of contraband, whereupon, still suspicious but at a loss to know where else to search, he waves the driver through. 

The next week, the same driver arrives. Again the official searches, and again finds nothing illicit. Over the years, the official tries full-body searches, X rays, and sonar, anything he can think of, and each week the same man drives up, but no mysterious cargo ever appears, and each time, reluctantly, the customs man waves the driver on.

Finally, after many years, the officer is about to retire. The driver pulls up. "I know you're a smuggler," the customs officer says. "Don't bother denying it. But [darned] if I can figure out what you've been smuggling all these years. I'm leaving now. I swear to you I can do you no harm. Won't you please tell me what you've been smuggling?"

"Trucks," the driver says.

Sometimes what you see is not what you get. 

Today we're going to continue our study of some of the most challenging parables that Jesus told with the Story of the Mustard Seed.  

The Story of the Mustard Seed is found in each of the Synoptic Gospels--the Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The word synoptic here indicates that they all contain the same basic content, or common view.  

This short little parable teaches us that often the ordinary, the small, the insignificant and contemptible things are hiding the most glory.  It also teaches us that sometimes you have to trust that God is up to something awesome--even when it's hard to see it clearly, and even when it might even seem like God isn't really paying all that much attention. 

One of the most frequent questions that you and I ask God is, "Why?"  "Why do good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people?"  "Why did my loved one have to die?"  "Why did my marriage fall apart?"  "Why is there so much hatred in the world?"  "Why do the innocent seem to suffer whenever proud people go to war?"  

The list goes on and on, doesn't it?  I have my own list of grievances and questions that I ask God "Why?"  I am sure you do, too.  

But Jesus taught his disciples that ultimately God is going to get what God wants in the world--even though in the here and now sometimes it doesn't seem like it.  More than any other topic, Jesus taught about this new reality--a reality where the peace of God, the shalom of God permeated all of Creation.  

All of his miracles, the healings, the casting out of evil spirits, taming the elements, raising the dead---all of them gave glimpses of what the world looks like when God gets what God wants.  

This new reality, a new kingdom (as Jesus described it) was growing, breaking through the dry ground of sin, death, brokenness, war, strife and despair.  He challenged his followers to look around them, to have ears to hear and eyes to see what God was doing right under their noses.  

It's hard to see the kingdom of God--that new reality of God's peace, isn't it?  Right about now in our culture of anxiety, uncertainty, it's hard to see that God is getting what God wants in the world.  

And even in our own lives, which are often filled with upheaval, change, grief, loss and tragedy, we might be trying to sing "It Is Well With My Soul," but it isn't well with our souls.  

We struggle to live into the tension of a world that isn't as it should be, as we try desperately to hold on to God's promises that the world is being made better right in front of our eyes--which we don't really believe at all.  

Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance--it's where what you think you know and what you are experiencing don't add up.  Our brains literally cannot deal with this, and so we do everything can to resolve it.  

For some people the way to resolve the cognitive dissonance is to say that the Gospel is really all about rule-keeping, and right doctrines.  For others it's about  pursuing the latest Christian self-help craze:   10 Ways To Be A Better Christian Wife/Husband/Parent/Friend...  5 Ways To Improve Your Prayer Life... 

And some people flock to the latest, coolest, biggest churches because surely if it's bigger, it's better and maybe that's where we'll find the evidence of the kingdom of God--the signs and the symbols that it's going to be all right.   

But the Good News is bigger than all of that.   

As we're going to discover today, God not only gets what God wants, the kingdom of God is taking on significant proportions all around us---often right under our noses.  

In fact, what I would love for us all to remember today is simply this:  In the kingdom of God, what you think you see is definitely not all there is to get.  

Let's dig in to Matthew 13:31-32. 

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 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.”

Jesus is up to something in this chapter--he clearly wants his listeners to find an entry point into his teachings on what the world ought to be like, what the world will be like when God gets what God wants. 

In the kingdom of God, what you think you see is definitely not all there is to get.  

And he continues a practice that he often employed when he was teaching.  He used whatever was around him to teach--the common ordinary things that would have been easy to access for people who were part of a largely agrarian culture:  a man planting seeds, weeds sprouting in a field, a woman baking bread, a fishing net and of course mustard seeds..  

The mustard plant that Jesus references here is the black mustard plant, which does indeed have some tiny seeds, and can grow as hight as six feet tall.  But Jesus does something very interesting with this parable.  He's actually references a prophecy from Ezekiel chapter 17 where God speaks of his dreams for the Hebrew people who are in exile in Babylon:  

22 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. Ezekiel 17:22-23

So the people listening to Jesus know these passages of Scripture because they are part of their cultural imagination.  They have this notion of deliverance and the Messiah that is connected to images like a splendid cedar, a huge tree so big that birds of every kind--the nations of the earth, in other words--will nest in it and find shelter.  

And Jesus twists that image and uses the mustard plant instead of a tall stately tree. The mustard plant was the kind of plant that grew anywhere.  It would sprout up in the weirdest places.  It was insignificant.  It was all over the place.  It was contemptible to some people.  

But it would grow tall enough for all of the birds to find a nest and to discover shelter.  

Why did Jesus do this?  Why twist the prophecy around?  

I think that Jesus told that parable because he wanted his listeners to know that the kingdom of God was not just in the mountain top moments, or the big, majestic cedar on top of those mountain top moments.  The kingdom of God can be found in what seems ordinary, the insignificant and every day.  

You see most of us do the same things all the time.  We wake up, we eat the same breakfast, keep the same routine, drive the route to work to do the same job.  So it's easy for us to drive right by the mustard plants, and miss what God is doing all around us.  

So there was this guy sitting in a park playing checkers with a monkey. They played on and on, and as they did so a crowd gathered round to watch. There was a buzz in air and most of the conversation centered around the amazing monkey who could play checkers. Finally, with a tone of exasperation the man said, "I don't know why you think he's so great, I have beaten him 7 out of 10 games."

This is how you and I live most of our lives--never truly seeing God at work, never experiencing the ways that God's kingdom is growing, spreading and changing our broken world, never knowing what it's like to truly catch glimpses of precious moments when God gets what God wants for the world. 

Instead, so many of us keep struggling with the "Why?" questions:  "Why me?"  "Why God?" "Why now?"  "Why this?"  and we are tempted to assume the worst about ourselves, about the world, about God.  

And all because we are too stubborn, too unwilling to see the world the way God sees it, to listen hard for the still small voice of the Spirit telling us where to look to see the kingdom of God breaking free from the rusty chains of sin and death.  

Years ago, while I was I leading a mission trip to Mexico, one of the young women in our group came to me to complain.  She'd had an incredible experience--a mountaintop moment in her life on the same trip, the previous year.  Her complaint was that this particular trip was not meeting her expectations.  

She went on and on about how she wasn't experiencing God the way she had the previous year when suddenly a little girl from the neighborhood walked up to her and handed her a drawing she'd made of the two of them.  The girl from my group thanked her sweetly and hugged her before the little one ran off.  

Then she proceeded to continue griping about how she wasn't experiencing God.  I stopped her in mid rant.  "You just had a moment right then where Jesus walked up to you and gave you a hug---and you missed it."  

How long are you going to walk around missing out on the everyday miracles because your frantically searching for a burning bush to talk to?

How long are you going to waste your life waiting for the big things, the remarkable revelations and miss out on the way that the shalom--the peace of God-- is shining through in the ordinary moments?   

How long are you going to live your life as a Christian with your head down, staring at the sidewalk, trudging along looking for another mountain top mountain. 

In the words of the Apostle Paul, lift up your heads, sisters and brothers and let the light of Christ the king shine upon you!  Open your eyes wide!  The kingdom of God is here and is coming! It is happening now, and is not yet what it will be.  

Listen to me... the kingdom of God is all around you and within you.  

When we do the same job we've been doing for twenty years with joy and excellence, and your co-workers say "How do you do that?  I want what you have in your life."   That's the kingdom of God 

When you teach the same class for fifteen years, but there's that one kid every other year or so whose life you change forever--that's the kingdom of God

It's a friend who needs an embrace or a prayer because their life is falling apart and you know someone who can turn it around---that's the kingdom of God. 

That song on the radio that you sing at the top of your lungs with the windows rolled down... and better yet, when you hear your kid singing his own song of joy in the shower at the top of his lungs... that's all the kingdom of God.  

When you reach out and hand the homeless person holding the sign at the intersection a few dollars and a blessing--that's the kingdom of God. 

It's a kind word for the person bagging your groceries... 

A conversation about faith at the park with that person you just met who doesn't go to church... 

It's when we push back against the darkness and reflect to the world the light of Christ shining upon us because our heads are lifted high and we finally have eyes to see all of the miraculous mustard seed moments of God's kingdom all around us. 

This story isn't about how God's not in the cedar, God is in the cedar---but God is also in the mustard seed. 

You don't have to wonder "Why?" you only have to believe and step into the not yet with hope and with joy... 

Because, In the kingdom of God, what you see is definitely not all there is to get.  


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