Jesus & Parables
When Jesus was speaking to crowds, instead of wowing them with His intellectual power or overwhelming them with theological lectures, He often spoke in little word pictures that captured people’s attention and forced them to use their imaginations to think through big ideas. We call them parables. There may be other smaller points woven into the story — and Jesus’ parables often have wonderful details that have be discovered and discussed for generations – but in each parable there is almost always just one big idea.
He used these parables to both hide the truth and to reveal it. When the crowds would gather to listen to Him, Jesus would tell a story that, for the person who was open to the voice of God and wanted to learn, would be easily understood and readily applied – it would open their eyes to see a new vision of God and His Kingdom. But the person with the hard heart, who was only there for selfish reasons or to see the spectacle, or who was being careless in their listening, the stories were hard to understand… or if they did understand, the conviction they would feel wouldn’t bring them to repentance and a new love for God, but instead, guilt and anger and a desire to shut Jesus up would build in their hearts, adding a few more bricks in the wall between them and God.
It is my hope that today, as we open up and read one of Jesus’ parables, that our hearts would be open, pliable and ready to hear what God wants to say to us.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Please open up to Mark 4:30-32, the Parable of the Mustard Seed.:
“And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’”
So, what’s the big idea of this parable? Well, let’s remember our context and draw it out. Jesus is talking a lot about seeds and soil in this chapter.
If you recall, The Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils) is about the importance of the soil being ready to receive the seed, or the importance of realizing that the condition of our hearts will determine how we hear the voice of God. The Parable of the Growing Seed, which we looked at last week, is about the process of growing and all the time and stages that are required to get from seed to mature plant. The big idea there was that spiritual development requires patience.
Here, in the Parable of the Mustard Seed Jesus gives us a different picture. His focus isn’t on the planting of the seed, or the stages of the growth. Instead He uses a comparison. He holds up a tiny, little mustard seed which no one in the crowd can see… and then points to a huge mustard bush and says, “Do you realize that without this little tiny seed, you’d never have that giant plant?”
So what’s the big idea? Do not underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant things. Jesus is using hyperbole, or exaggeration here, and isn’t trying to be scientific. If Jesus was in Canada or the US, he might have used the Giant Sequoia tree as His example. A mustard seed is very, very small, and can grow to be very, very large by comparison – large enough to hold bird’s nests and for an adult to take shade under!
Too Little Too Slowly
This parable was important to the disciples because though they believed Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t really understand what that meant. Back in Mark 1:14-15 we learn that Jesus’ message was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” so we know that Jesus has been teaching about the coming Kingdom. They’ve already seen him perform miracles, healing lepers and paralytics and many others. They’ve seen Jesus come face to face with the Pharisees and call Himself by the title “Son of Man” and “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). They’ve seen great crowds follow Jesus, and heard demons cry out “You are the Son of God” before Jesus ordered them to be silent. And Jesus has appointed the twelve apostles, the core leadership group for His new Kingdom.
By all accounts, Jesus next steps should be to gather an army and march into Jerusalem, and then on to Rome and the rest of the world… but He’s not. In fact, He’s withdrawing from the crowds, shunning the spotlight, avoiding people who want to set Him up as king.
And so, the disciples were bewildered, discouraged and becoming impatient. They wanted a political kingdom on earth that would bring peace and prosperity soon – and they were starting to think that Jesus had something else in mind.
This series of parables about soil, seeds, plants and trees, is meant to remind and encourage them that though its beginnings may seem small, their parts seemingly insignificant, and the pace not as quickly as they would like – in the end, the Kingdom Jesus is setting up will be glorious and all encompassing, conquering evil and embracing all the peoples of the world.
He was encouraging his followers not to turn away simply because the beginning of their walk with Him was so meager and obscure. Perhaps they began to wonder how this Galilean carpenter, speaking mostly to a few fisherman, and gathering crowds whose size ebbed and flowed depending on Jesus’ popularity that day, would ever hit it big. When would the explosion of change come? When would Jesus finally make His move and set everything right?
Their impatience was growing, and so Jesus message to them is this: Don’t underestimate the small things.
An Insignificant Kingdom
We still struggle with this today, don’t we? We’re not much different than Jesus’ first disciples. In our own lives and our own spiritual development, we’re just as impatient – which we talked about last week. But it extends outwards too, doesn’t it? When we look at our church, or the statistics about how other churches in our country and across North America are doing, it’s sometimes hard to see the greatness and power of God’s Kingdom.
It doesn’t look the way the old “Onward Christian Soldiers” Hymn describes it: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God…”
We have a little better view when we get to speak to missionaries from around the world, but in our own little township, in Carleton Place, in Ontario and in Canada, it’s difficult to see God’s kingdom as anything but small, divided and powerless and .
Despite our age of rising and falling Christian superstars, most churches are small and getting smaller, full of normal people listening to obscure, struggling, stressed out pastors and ministry leaders who are just trying to do their best and seeing very little change. Pastoral burnout is now a common phrase in the circles that I run in.
Churches and pastors go on, week after week, year after year, waiting for revival, waiting for the kingdom to break out, trying new things, each new idea underperforming or not having the staying power to help for long, and they keep waiting for Jesus to send the spirit, to send a miracle, to come back, to… just do something… and He doesn’t.
We are very much like the disciples looking at Jesus and wondering what he’s doing, and why things take so long and seem so small. When will the big break out come? What must we do to see a huge revival?
We look at our ministries, our church, our own gifts and abilities, and all we see are a few grains of mustard seed – and it doesn’t look like much.
But we learned last week that inside of that seed, which is the voice of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is great power! It’s not about our efforts and our abilities, but about the power contained within the message of God.
And without a doubt, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest message the world could ever hear! It solves our deepest human needs and introduces us to the greatest Source of love, forgiveness and joy we could ever expect to meet. And yet, when we speak it to our spouse, to our family and friends, or to our coworkers, this amazing, life-changing, powerful, Spirit charged message isn’t received with joy, laughter, tears, and thanks – but usually with a wave of the hand, a mocking grunt and a request to keep that nonsense to ourselves.
We look at our testimony, and the Gospel, and we see only a tiny mustard seed – too small to help anyone. And yet, in obedience to God, and out of love for Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we drop that tiny little seed onto a huge, huge field of dirt and stones and birds and thorns… and it’s so small, that by the time it leaves our hands, we can’t see it anymore – it’s like we did nothing at all.
And we ask ourselves. What was the point of that? I don’t even know where, or if it landed anywhere it can grow! Why bother dropping it at all.
This parable is for us who long to see revival and spiritual growth in our nation, our church, our family and ourselves – but who don’t see it yet.
Here’s a little perspective for those of us who need a reminder about small beginnings:
The world started with two people, then it restarted with Noah’s small family of six. The nation of Israel began with a couple of barren senior citizens named Abram and Sarai. At many times during the history of Israel, there were was only a small remnant of believers who believed in God – everyone else had turned into pagans.
The life of the most significant person in human history, Jesus Christ, started in the tiny town of Bethlehem, born in a hewn out, rented cave and laid in a feeding trough. Jesus chose 12 men to start his church, and even among them there were only 3 that saw his whole ministry. And he took them three years just to go through boot-camp, and they all ran away in the end. And before Peter preached the sermon at Pentecost, every Christian in the entire world could fit into one room (Acts 1:12-15).
In all of Jesus life, including his flight to Egypt as a baby, He only got about 200 miles away from Bethlehem. Paul travelled a lot, but he never got further than 1000 miles from Jerusalem. And even with all of the seminaries, missionaries, and powerful movements of God, it has taken two thousand years for the message of the gospel to spread to every nation of the world. And as powerful and beautiful and life-changing as the gospel is, and with as many thousands of missionaries there are in this world, there are still many people groups who have never heard the name of Jesus.
In other words, the mustard seed Kingdom that Jesus planted isn’t done growing yet. Have patience, keep praying, stay obedient.
Let’s Talk About Mustard Seeds
I want to switch gears here and talk about a few applications that I want to pull out of this parable for us today. Each one is captured under our big idea of not underestimating the significance of small things. Just as we look at the mustard seed and we think, “This isn’t even big enough for a bird to eat, let alone to find shade and make a home in.”, we may look at some things in our life the and think they are no big deal – only a mustard seed – small, insignificant, nearly meaningless, and underestimate their value and impact in our lives.
But Jesus reminds us that though things start out small, they don’t always remain that way. We are told that these little things grow up. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God growing up, spreading far and being fruitful for all time. But His message can be applied in many different areas of our life.
Let me give a few examples of things that start out small, but when they grow up, they can become big deals in our life.
1. Small Wastes of our Time and Attention
The first are the small ways we waste our time and attention. Throughout the Proverbs we are warned about not wasting our time and our energies on foolish and useless things. Proverbs 15:14, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” or verse 21, “Folly delights a man who lacks judgement…” I was really convicted about this this week.
Now, I’m not going to stand up here and say that every moment of every day needs to be dedicated to either work, prayer or Bible study, but we must all realize how insidious small wastes of our time and attention are.
Think of it. We say, “Just one movie or show – it’s only one evening, no big deal.” “Just one more game – no big deal.” “Just one more YouTube video.” “Just a quick check of Facebook.” “Just a quick read through this celebrity gossip magazine… just to see what’s going on.” “Just a quick look at the newspaper.” Just one. Just a bit. Just for a minute. Just for a little while. Just until it’s over.
I don’t know what your go-to time waster is (in full transparency, mine are YouTube, Netflix and Cracked.com), but each time we go to them it is a potential mustard seed that can grow into much more. For me, I really struggle with staying focused on things that matter and not getting sucked into pop-culture. It can steal our time away from our church, our family, our friends and from God. These little mustard seeds, which we allow to grow in our minds, slowly take over our attention spans, our thought life, our time, our energy, and our concentration. Perhaps you’ve caught yourself spending more time than appropriate thinking about things that are only fantasy, or have no basis in reality. Do you ever get caught up in something that has little value to you or anyone else?
This is something I struggle with all the time. So, this is a little heady, but let me read to you something that convicted me this week from a book called “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. It’s from a section entitled “Acquiring Peace and Zeal for Perfection”. In other words, how can we find peace and have a passion for getting closer to Jesus and being better Christians? (Now, keep in mind, this was published about 600 years ago – but it is going to sound like it is written for today.):
“We should enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?”
It sounds like he’s talking about wasting time watching tv, or on the internet or Facebook, doesn’t it?
“Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance. Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation? Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts. We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent.”
Have you ever felt that? Taken up with passing things, not spending any time trying to conquer vices, but distracting yourself from them instead? It leaves us cold and indifferent to God and to others, doesn’t it?
“If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.”
That question: “How can a man… who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?” bugged me this week. Especially the phrase “seeks strange distractions”. That’s what I do. I seek out “strange distractions”. I get so caught up in novelty, and all the cotton candy that mass media is feeding into people’s minds. I struggle with it all the time. My mind is full of useless frivolity and I spend far too much time living in the world of fantasy. Maybe you know this struggle too.
And if I’m always wasting my time and attention on useless, fruitless, foolish, pointless, meaningless, worldly, temporary, nonsense – it’s no wonder that I don’t have a God-centred peace. If I live, constantly distracted, allowing my mind to be pulled in a thousand different directions and polluted by every “whim and fancy” that comes across my path – then I’m not likely to grow very deep in Christ, am I?
Therefore, my first encouragement is for each of us to be careful about the small wastes of your time and energy which, though they look like nothing but a little entertainment, can rob us of peace, joy and spiritual maturity.
2. The Seed of Sin
The second thing that grows up like a seed is sin. James 1:14-15 says,
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Our sins, the smallest and the greatest ones of our lives, all begin like insignificant seeds. That’s how Satan sells his temptations. He’d never walk up with a full mustard seed bush and say, “Hey, can I grow my big, evil plant right in the middle of your life?” Of course not! No, he says, “Hey, here’s this tiny, little, thing that brings you pleasure. You can barely notice it! No one will ever see it! And you can get rid of it so very easily. It’s just a tiny little thing. How much harm can this tiny, little seed do?”
Whether it’s gossip and slander, lust and pornography, anger and bitterness, fear, lack of contentment, jealousy, disobedience, stealing, lying… it all begins in our mind as a little seed of desire, and that little seed, when it is allowed to germinate in our souls, grows into a plant that starts to become a problem, and then, “when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Maybe you’ve asked yourself: How did it get this far? Why am I so angry? Why am I so bitter? Why can’t I stop cussing or hurting people or lying or cheating? Why do I have these sinful, sexual thoughts all the time? How did I dig myself down so deep into this hole? Why do I keep spending even when I have no money? Why am I obsessed about that topic? Why am I always comparing myself to others? Why am I always upset, afraid, and discontent?
It’s because you bought the lie that Satan told you about the mustard seed. You thought your secret, little sin would be no big deal. Just a little corner of your mind that no one would ever see and which you would always have under control. But that seed grew. And it got thirsty. And it started to ask for more. And instead of repenting to God, asking Jesus for help, and turning to the power of the Holy Spirit, you fed it. And it grew. And now it wants more, and it’s getting out of control. You feel guilty all the time. Your attitude is affected. You are hurting others even without meaning to. You’ve tried to get it under control, and for a little while you can, but it’s not too long you find yourself doing it again – and again.
Sin starts as a seed. What you need to do is call the Gardener. God needs to rip that weed right out of you. You need to realize that it’s sin and start to hate it. You need to repent of your sin – meaning that you don’t want it anymore, you want to quit, admit you can’t handle it anymore, that you’ve sinned against God and others, and that you need Jesus Christ to forgive you and take the penalty for that sin. Jesus promises He will forgive you, and that all the condemnation you feel for that sin can be placed on His shoulders, and you can be free. It’s his gift to you, bought by His blood.
And then you need to give permission to the Holy Spirit to clean up your mind and your soul. To through and kill the whole plant, right down to the root. It’ll take time, and require a lot of prayer, patience, obedience and diligence, but God promises to help you every step of the way.
And then… when Satan comes with his little mustard seed again… and the alarm bells from the Holy Spirit start going off in your mind… don’t let it in. Stop it while it’s small.
3. Small Talk
Never underestimate the impact that your words (or someone else’s words) can have on a life. We may think that it’s no big deal for our kids to play with, or for us to hang around, that person. We know that it’s not a good idea, but we don’t want to avoid them or say anything, or drop the friendship, because we’re being “nice” – but every sentence they speak is full of seeds, and some of them are falling on you and your kids. Words are powerful.
This works both positively and negatively. And we may not think that our few little conversations can have much impact on someone – but as we spread our little seeds, let’s remember the power that they have. Whether it’s the cashier at the store or a little talk with someone here at church, a text, a card or a note, those little seeds have the potential to grow some big fruit.
However, in the same way, a little dig, an eye roll, a sigh, a little gossip, a backhanded comment, or a scoffing remark can be the seed that Satan uses to grow in the mind of a person to choke out their joy. We’ve all had the times where we’ve been destroyed by a few words or a cutting glance.
4. Small Acts
In the same way as sin is like seeds, so are our acts of obedience to God. Each little act of obedience, whether we want to do it or not, can be used by God to grow into something substantial.
We may not feel like what God is asking us to do is all that important, but think of the small bird that sits on the branch, which makes the pine cone fall, which moves the pebble on the ground that that bumps into another pebble, that rolls down the hill, and gathers some speed, and knocks larger rocks around, and begins the avalanche that changes the face of a mountain. Perhaps God is calling you simply to sit on the branch… because He wants to move the mountain.
I’m sure there are many more mustard seeds we could talk about, but let’s close for today and thank God that He has decided to grow His Kingdom slowly, steadily, with strength and stamina, and let is join Him in having respect for the small things.