A simple exhortation today. I made you read 5,000 words last time so today I’ll keep it shorter!
This isn’t something you will ever need to know, but in my job I lead software engineers. In software development there is a nasty thing you have to do called writing release notes: when you make a new version you have to write down the list of what you did. Release notes are the description of that release. Now, often this is a complicated process because there may have been dozens of people working on it, so it is enormously challenging to get it right. In reality you rarely do. This has given birth to a saying that release notes are not what the software is, but rather what it is like. So, what on earth made me burden you with this nonsense you can’t use?
In the gospels of both Mark (4:30-32) and Luke (13:18-21) we are told a message from Jesus that starts off “how do we describe the Kingdom of God?” If we were to write the release notes for the Kingdom how do we write them? He continues (from Mark), “it is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: but when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.” So here is Christ trying to give us the story of the Kingdom, a thing to let you understand what it factually is despite the inability to actually describe it.
Now in software release notes what my engineers make is never what gets passed to the customer; always there is a person who cleans them up, makes them palatable to a customer, and this more easily read version is what makes it into the splash screen when you load up an app and it tells you what’s new. Christ didn’t give us the pure notes, He gave us the version we’d be able to understand. What that means is that there’s more to His words than the words or the simple meaning. We have to delve deeper. We have to really examine His words to pull the truth that is applicable to us from it. He didn’t tell us what the Kingdom is, He told us what it is like. There is surface study and there is deeper study here.
The surface study is of a mustard seed. Mustard seeds are small spheres, roughly the size of the round sprinkles that go on cupcakes at Christmas time. When compared to an acorn or an avocado, cherry, or olive pit it is a miniscule thing. Once you have planted it in the ground you’re not going to find it again as a seed; it’s just too small. You could find any other seed, but your mustard seed is gone from your discovery. When it grows it is a rather gangly plant that gets to roughly shoulder size before it is harvested. It is spindly, much more like thistle than anything. You can see some in the picture up top. This isn’t the plant Christ is talking about, so what He’s describing seems more like planting a mustard seed and then growing an oak tree. On the surface this describes to us a fragile thing easily overlooked (less than…) that becomes a huge (great branches) focal point of protection and peace (shadow). So right at the top this is the explanation that the Kingdom brings you peace and rest, which is a message He expounds on quite frequently. But what’s deeper?
The fact that the seed is tiny tells you that it is easy to misplace, such that even if you want to sow it you may lose it before you can. This is about the fact that you cannot casually brush up against it and get value; you must devote yourself to its care, its purpose. The fact that it is lost when planted tells us that even when it takes hold it is very easy to overlook, to ignore. This is about two things: one is that there is a time component, a waiting and tending component, and the second is that there are many competing kingdoms in our hearts, not just idol worship but also simple preoccupation. He is telling us that we have to make the Kingdom a habit, we have to focus our attention to it, but because we can’t actually see it we need to instead focus on ensuring the surrounding soil is conducive to its growth. We have to shed our sour sinful nature of seeing the dark and begin looking for the Light.
The fact that the seed is tiny and the plant is large speaks of the transformative power of the Kingdom. It starts as one thing but blossoms into another. This tells you not to presume, not to underestimate it. The blending of the Kingdom and you transforms both us, the soil, and it, the plant. With every new member of the Kingdom the Kingdom is altered. As with all plants this happens gradually, but your realization of its growth comes in spurts: “oh, hey, a sprig!” This means that when it is growing, because you made conducive soil, there is constant growth in your life, but you won’t always see it. When you do see it there is new revelation. The tree is large and strong, and of course this also has a couple meanings. Of course God’s Kingdom is strong, because He is its defender and He is mighty, but it is a Kingdom of people and that means that strength is not just for us, but in us. It is the collective body of Christ that makes the Kingdom large, that strengthens it and us.
That the tree produces a shadow for the fowl tells us that the benefit of the Kingdom is peace, rest, and shelter, yes, but it also tells us that there is an ultimate state of maximum growth, a pinnacle of the “doneness” of the Kingdom. That speaks of Revelation, of the time when every knee bows, every tongue confesses, and the Kingdom of God is the only kingdom. This is an exhortation, this is a way of cheering us on to tell us that while there can be rest here during the growth there is a time when all will rest under its shade. In the mean time, tend its growth. Seek it, or rather seek ways to expand it, to let it flourish. Let they who have eyes to see and ears to hear understand: the growth of the Kingdom is dependent upon each of its citizens.
Lord, I thank You for Your transformative power, for Your gifts of faith and wisdom. Let no heart be tainted by any words I wrote in error, but show them the truth underneath. I do not yet have a green thumb for tending this Kingdom in me, but I will never cease to ask Your gardening tips! In the name of Your Word, and my Brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen.