Healthy Things Grow
In today's text, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God using two parables. A couple of Sundays ago, we learned that the kingdom of God is a present reality. Jesus told the people, "if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you"(Lk.11:20). And here, at the end of Mark 4, we see Jesus employing farming imagery in order to teach us that the kingdom of God is a growing kingdom.
The fact that the kingdom of God experiences growth is further evidence that it is a present, and not simply a future, reality. The kingdom of God in heaven has no need for growth--it is perfect and complete in every way. By contrast, the kingdom of God on earth is imperfect and incomplete, and so growth is very important.
The analogy of farming then, is quite suitable in that the goal of every farmer is to see growth in the crops. Farmers desire that their crops grow both in number and in maturity. It is not much use to have an abundance of crops if the crops do not grow to maturity. And, by the same token, it is not much consolation to have mature crops if there aren't enough of them to use or to sell.
I had a first hand experience of this as a five-year-old living in Niagara Falls. In our yard we had some pear trees, and I got it into my head one day that one of the trees should be chopped down. So I grabbed the weapon of choice for a 5-year-old boy--a croquet mallet--and I began to beat the trunk of the youngest pear tree in our yard. By the time my older brother apprehended me it was too late.
Every year that followed revealed the extent of the damage. Very few pears would grow on that tree, and of the pears that did grow, very few matured enough to be edible.
It is a God-ordained principle that living things grow; it is a natural thing for living organisms to grow if they are healthy. For example, I donít need to command my daughter, Anya, to grow. So long as I provide her with even a modicum of nutrition, she will grow. In spite of all the cookies and Goldfish crackers I give to her, Anya appears to be growing normally. If Anya were to stop growing, this would indicate that something was terribly wrong. Lack of growth, or stunted growth, may come from a serious injury or may indicate the presence of disease.
By the same token, if a church experiences a lack of growth, or stunted growth, it is an indication that something is wrong. I reckon that this is a fair comparison given that the New Testament often refers to the church as being a body, specifically, as Christís body. We infer, therefore, that since the church is more like a body than a business, and because the church is better described as an organism than an organization, we should expect the church to grow. If a church is not growing, there is something wrong.
If you cringed at the thought of a perfectly healthy pear tree having its growth stunted by the reckless behaviour of a 5-year-old, then you can likely appreciate how I feel as I observe Presbyterian churches throughout Ontario that are unnecessarily stunted in their growth. The Christian Church is the living plantation of Jesus Christ and, as such, the Christian Church should be growing.
As gardeners, we expect that what we plant will grow. We realize that the volume and the quality of growth may vary, but we expect growth nonetheless. We would be greatly surprised and grieved if nothing grew in our garden, yet sadly, many Christians are content with the status quo in their church. This contradicts what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us in these parables that the kingdom of God is in our midst, and is intended to grow.
Beginning at verse 26, Jesus was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop is ripe, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come"(4:26-29).
In the second parable, Jesus says that "the kingdom of God . . . is like a mustard seed, which when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so the birds of the air can nest under its shade"(4:30-32).
We should be careful to note that the kingdom of God is twice compared to something that grows. And not only is it compared twice with something that grows, but it is compared with things where the expectation is for significant growth. No farmer desires a small harvest, but a large one. And the mustard seed, though smaller than most seeds, often grows to be 10 feet tall.
The kingdom of God may have begun as a tiny seed in Palestine nearly 2000 years ago, but the kingdom has since grown, and will continue to grow as the Gospel spreads to the ends of the earth.
The second thing we should note from these parables is that the growth process begins with someone casting seed upon the soil. A gardener would never expect anything from the soil unless they had first sowed seed. The same is true with the church. Church growth is intended to be as natural as the growth of vegetables in your garden. Of course, a farm never brings forth a harvest without first sowing seed. In the same way, the church of Jesus Christ--the kingdom of God on earth--will grow where the gospel seed is being sown.
God has ordained that people will come to Christ through hearing His Word. Part of what makes the Bible so special is that it contains a message that has the power to save souls.
Charles Spurgeon once said, "the spreading of the gospel . . . is an urgent duty, to be neglected at your peril." The church, the kingdom of God, is intended to grow, but it will not grow without our participation. Weeds will grow without our help, but wheat will not.
We cannot simply open our doors on Sunday and call that outreach. If this church is to grow we must be committed to sowing the Gospel in the hearts of those who do not know Jesus Christ. We can do this by directly sharing the gospel message with friends and family, or we can do this by inviting friends and family members to come to church knowing that, at the very least, your minister can sow the Word of God as he preaches.
It should also be said that the Word of God needs to be sown often, for the times are such that one sowing may not suffice. Sow again and again, for many are the foes of the wheat, and if you do not repeat your sowing you may never see a harvest.
Recognizing that sowing once does not always bring a harvest, the apostle Paul speaks of himself as being one who sows and speaks of his colleague Apollos as being one who waters(1Cor.3:6). We conclude then, that seeking a harvest is not a one-time event. Seeking a harvest is a process, and potentially, a long one at that.
Where possible, the soil should be tilled and prepared. We then scatter the seed, water the seed, and then we do the hardest part of all--we wait. We wait because, after the seed has left our hand, we cannot cause it to bring forth life.
As Jesus has said, "the seed sprouts and grows, (but the sower) does not know how"(4:27). As the apostle Paul has said, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth"(1Cor.3:6).
With regard to the kingdom of God on earth, we are charged with the responsibility of scattering seed. We are commanded to spread the Gospel message. But nowhere in Scripture do we see human beings causing spiritual rebirth in others. Spiritual rebirth is a work of God, and a work of God alone. Yet, at the same time, there is a process leading up to that rebirth, and in that process, Christ calls for our participation.
The problem I see in many churches today is that there are very few Christians who are willing to engage in the process. We want God to do all of the work, but this is not what Scripture requires. Jesus requires that we sow the seed. And while we should not view ourselves as personally responsible for another person's salvation, we must not view ourselves as unnecessary to the process either.
God has ordained to save people through the process whereby one person shares the good news of Jesus Christ to another. God has promised, "My Word which goes forth . . . shall not return empty without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it"(Isa.55:11).
Because the kingdom of God is a present reality, because all authority has been given to Christ, and because we are His Body, I expect to see a harvest. I expect the Gospel to succeed. I expect to see the Christian Church grow, and not decline.
I expect to see a harvest, but I do not expect to find every seed springing up. I do not expect that when I preach the gospel that every person who hears it will receive it. What I do expect, however, is that where the Gospel is preached to many, it will be received by some, according to the will of God.
God does not expect you to work miracles--leave that for Him. But God does expect each and every one of His children to work the farm. He expects us to scatter the seed. God's kingdom is growing, and this church will grow also if we are faithful to share His Word with others. Amen.