R: “The Kingdom of God.” It is a phrase Jesus used often, especially when he was teaching the people in parables, those short stories or analogies he told in language and examples very familiar to his audience. “The kingdom of God is
like . . .” he would begin. Like a banquet. Like a farmer who went to sow some seed. Like ten bridesmaids with lamps. The kingdom of God was an important theme for Jesus.
So we, as followers of Jesus, should probably try to understand what he meant when he discussed it. What is this “kingdom of God”?
First of all, it is not a synonym for heaven or our afterlife or what happens to souls after death. Even though Jesus often used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” interchangeably with “kingdom of God,” he was not just referring to life after death. These are not parables specifically about heaven, about what happens to us after we die.
Second, the emphasis in not on a particular territory, or piece of land. In our fairy tales and fantasy stories, we often think of a kingdom as a place: “she sent messengers throughout the kingdom”, throughout all the land she ruled. But Jesus’ emphasis is not on land.
Rather, the primary focus of the phrase “kingdom of God” is the fact that God is king, that God reigns.
When Jesus uses the phrase “the kingdom of God,” he is saying, in effect, “when God is in charge.” “Kingdom of God” means the fact that God reigns—God’s kingness or kingship, God’s rule. It’s sort of like the way we use the word “presidency”: when we speak of the presidency, we’re not describing the territory of the United States, and what the land looks like, but the office of the President, what the President has the power to do, the fact that we have a President in charge—more or less, given our balances of power. “Kingdom of God” means “God’s being in charge.” So Jesus would say “God’s being in charge is like” a banquet, a farmer sowing seed, ten bridesmaids with lamps.
L: Now the idea of the kingdom of God did not begin with Jesus. In fact, we can see it develop as we go through the Old Testament. In the earliest books, the books of history including the exodus and the coming to the Promised Land, the kingship of God is presented as God being sovereign over the people of Israel: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, and you shall worship no other.” Other countries and other peoples might be following some other god, but for you, Israel, the Lord is in charge. The Lord is your ruler.
Later in the Old Testament, however, the notion of God’s kingship expands, beyond Israel, so that by the books of the prophets, we see God described as ruler over all nations, not just Israel. Not only are other gods not to be acknowledged by Israel, the fact is, it’s now explained, that they don’t really exist at all; there is no such thing as Baal or Astarte or Moloch or any other. Only God is real and has real power—power over Israel, power over all other nations, power over all of nature itself. The kingship of God includes everywhere. This is the idea we found in our Psalm today: There may be some other beings in heaven, it says—angels or seraphim or whatever—but you, Lord God of hosts, are the mighty one. “You rule the raging of the sea . . . The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it.” The kingship of God includes everywhere.
And the time will come, the later prophets would write, some day, when God’s rule will be seen by all, and acknowledged by all. “In days to come,” Micah wrote, “many nations, many peoples, shall stream to God’s house, saying “Let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, that we may be taught God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.” By the end of the Old Testament period, God’s kingship was recognized as being over all the earth . . . and it was foretold that someday all the earth would recognize that kingship.
R: This was the idea of “kingdom of God” with which Jesus began, then: God is in charge, and someday everyone will realize it.
A new twist begins, however, as the New Testament does; John the Baptist says it first: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” At hand. Close. Imminent. That “someday” is coming very soon. Jesus appears on the scene very shortly thereafter, and Mark summarizes his teaching with these words: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” Has come. The new dimension in the gospels’ kingdom of God is that humanity’s recognizing it is no longer just something that will happen someday, way out there in the future, but that that time of recognition is beginning now; all people are starting to see God’s kingship now.
But we all don’t discover important truths at exactly the same time, do we? The fact that humanity’s acknowledgement of God’s being in charge was beginning in Jesus’ time doesn’t mean that the whole world would come around in a matter of a couple days. The news takes a while to spread.
So we find in Jesus’ discussion of the kingdom of God a mixture of time frames: sometimes he speaks of the kingdom as being present already, since the process has begun of humanity’s recognizing God; and sometimes he speaks of the kingdom as being in the future, since the word hasn’t spread everywhere yet. Humanity’s recognition of God’s rule had begun, but was not yet complete.
And one image Jesus uses to describe this developing recognition of God’s rule is that of a growing plant: a plant which has begun to grow, but is not yet its full size. And this is why we get kingdom parables about plants – about farmers sowing seed, about crops and weeds growing together, about tiny mustard seeds becoming big plants. A growing plant is a picture which says that the recognition of God’s lordship has begun, but still has a ways to go before maturity. The kingdom is both “now” and “not yet,” not full-blown.
L: So let’s look at a couple of these kingdom-as-growing plant parables, and see what they tell us about God’s kingdom. One of them is the mustard seed parable: “The mustard seed,” Jesus said, “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, putting forth large branches, so large that birds can make nests in their shade.”
The kingdom of God may start small, Jesus says, but in that seemingly-small thing there is a great deal of power, and a great capacity for spreading out. The tiniest of seeds can become a very large shrub. That which begins as very small can become very large and significant.
Sometimes humanity’s recognition of God’s rule, of God’s being in charge, seems a bit too small, doesn’t it. Why don’t more people acknowledge God, and what God can do for them? Why don’t more people have faith, and treat one another as God wants? As we look for evidence of God’s being in charge, sometimes that evidence may seem small, even as small as . . . well, a seed. As we get impatient, we may want to see change happening faster than we do in the growing of a plant.
But don’t underestimate the power in a small start, Jesus reminds us. Don’t despair, as you look around, if you can’t see much evidence of God’s being in charge, or of people paying attention. The kingdom will grow, it will spread, it will become very large and significant, no matter what its size now—in its due season.
R: The other parable of growth began with verse 26: the kingdom of God, Jesus said, is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would then go about their other business, and the seed would sprout and grow, the sower not knowing how. The earth produces of itself the plant, as the sower sleeps or goes off in other directions. The plant develops on its own.
There is general agreement among writers about this parable that the key phrase is that one in verse 28 – “of itself.” The Greek word is “automate,” from which we get, of course, our word “automatic” – something which happens on its own, which we don’t have to do: the automatic transmission, shifting from gear to gear without our touch; the automatic timer, turning our lights on whether we’re in the house or not. The seeds grow, in this parable, without human effort; the sower has scattered them and then moved on to something else. The seeds, left alone, sprout and grow, he knows not how. Or as our closing hymn begins, “We plow the field and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.” God makes the seeds grow without our help.
Well the kingdom of God is like those seeds, Jesus said. The sower scatters them, but it is God who makes the kingdom grow; it happens automatically, apart from human action. The kingdom grows, we know not how.
L: So there is also general agreement that this is a parable of great encouragement, that if we understand it correctly it will really cheer us up! First of all, it’s encouraging to those of us who don’t have much faith in human nature to create things which are lasting and good and widespread. We don’t have to rely only on other people to bring about the recognition of God’s being in charge; it will happen through God’s effort, providing the seeds are sown. We don’t have to worry about our fellow human beings messing it up, or not following through. The Kingdom’s coming doesn’t depend on human capabilities.
R: And second, it’s encouraging because it means we don’t have to worry about every little step of growing God’s kingdom ourselves. We don’t have to take responsibility for the day-to-day, minute-to-minute management of the growth of the kingdom. It’s not on our heads. It will happen through God’s work, apart from us. Our part is to sow the seeds, but then we can trust God to make them grow. We don’t have to initiate each little step along the way – to personally crack open the seed, pull the beginning sprout out of its shell, push it up from under the earth. It will grow, we know not how; we don’t have to worry about that part.
We don’t have to micromanage the project, overseeing every little step. We don’t have to say “if I don’t make it happen, it just won’t happen.” We don’t have to be afraid to look away, that it will collapse without our attention. We don’t have to be workaholics or control freaks, with our hands on the project all the time, adjusting, twisting, shaping, handling.
The surgeon doesn’t keep reopening the incision to check on the patient’s progress. The carpenter doesn’t pull two pieces of wood back apart to see if the glue is working. We can step back and wait a bit for progress. God will provide the growth.
L: So when we make a contribution to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering to help spread the news of God’s kingdom, we don’t have to personally accompany our check its whole journey – to stand over the person counting the offering, to make sure it’s deposited in the bank, to make sure the Treasurer has noted it in the right category, to watch her write the check to the denomination, to go with her to mail it, to call there and make sure it has arrived, to obtain proof that it did in fact get credited to the mission account. We can drop our donation in the offering plate, and trust that it will be put to work.
R: When we bring in a guest preacher, we don’t have to stand over her as she chooses her Scripture passage, personally approve each commentary and other resource she uses in her research, supervise every step of her notetaking and writing, question her on her selection of examples, and listen as she rehearses. We can arrange for the preacher, and wait for the results.
L: We can tell someone about our faith, or invite them to come to church with us, without calling them up four times a day saying, “Well what do you think now? Do you feel any faith stirring yet?” Without showing up at their house every mealtime asking “Don’t you think you should pray over that food before digging in?” Without getting inside their head somehow and watching to see if they’re mulling over our invitation. We tell them the good news, and extend the invitation periodically, and let the Holy Spirit work on them.
R: Our Sunday School teachers don’t have to call their students every night to remind them what last week’s lesson was about, to see if they remember its point, to hear about how they applied it today, to ask again if they’ll be back next week. They can teach the lessons, and let God develop them in the listener.
L: As we think about our own faith, we don’t have to find: a Bible study to attend on Monday, a prayer group on Tuesday, a midweek service on Wednesday, a class on Thursday, a church dinner on Friday, and church services three times on the weekend. We don’t have to ask ourselves every minute of every day “What am I doing this instant to increase my faith?” We can conduct a regular schedule of worship, prayer, Bible-reading and service, and trust that God will grow our faith.
R: As a congregation, we don’t need to set out a day-by-day, hour-by-hour schedule of how we’re going to accomplish church growth, a list of new chores for each member each day, if—big if—we are being faithful in our prayer, our worship, our participation in programs, our inviting others to join us, and our service to the community. We have been told that God will grow the kingdom.
L: The good news is: we don’t have to control every step, anticipate every possibility, guard against every possible misstep, never sleep, worry 20 hours a day – to bring the recognition of God’s kingship into being. The growth part will happen, Jesus says, we know not how. We can trust God to accomplish that part.
R: Now before you relax too much, we do still have to sow. There will be no growth if the seed is not scattered. So the check to the mission fund still has to be written, the preaching of the Word provided for, the friend invited to church and told about our faith, the Sunday School lessons taught, the regular worship and prayer conducted. Those are the seeds; they won’t jump out of the seed packet and into the ground themselves. We do have to sow.
But when we do, God’s kingdom will grow, Jesus assures us. And the
result . . . well, the result is described in another plant parable: “Other seed fell into good soil, and brought forth fruit, 30 and 60 and a hundredfold.” If we do our sowing, we can trust, God will make the kingdom grow.
Thanks be to God.
Let’s pray: God we thank you for Jesus’ parables of encouragement to us about the coming of your kingdom. Help us to do our part, to sow our seeds. And then give us confidence that you are working to make them grow, to bring about our faith in your sovereignty and our love of our neighbor. Amen.