By Paul Koch –
I want you to do me a favor. I want you to imagine a group of familiar faces at church. Some of them you know well. Some you would call friends. Some you say “hello” to every time you see them yet you just can’t remember their name, and now it’s at that awkward stage where you’re too embarrassed to ask. Those with the kids may be behind you so they can make a quick exit, if necessary. But mostly you can picture those who are right next to you, in their usual spot. I want you to recall this because this is something fantastic. You are seeing something that is a miraculous wonder – for this is the kingdom of God.
You are a part of God’s active rule and reign. His kingdom has drawn near and claimed you as His own. As such, He has washed and cleansed you. He has worked healing and given you new life. That’s right, God’s kingdom has not passed you by. His great work in this world has not left you on the outside looking in. You are part of it and you are caught up in it. His kingdom is not a wish dream or a distant hope; it is here and it is happening now.
The problem is that this kingdom doesn’t look like much. I mean, if the fellowship of the children of God is His kingdom, it is a strange kingdom at best. Now, we do like it when we’re comfortable at our own church and have a nice safe building in which we take refuge. But when we move beyond the walls of our sanctuary, the picture of the greater church is troubling. We see that in the grand scheme of things we are small and seemingly insignificant. We are part of a very narrowly defined confession of Christianity. More than that, Christianity itself is a broken mess. The church is marred by schism and abuse. Within and throughout this kingdom we find heresies of every stripe; the ancient false teachings are simply rebranded and reissued in the church. It would be easier to say that we are working toward becoming the kingdom of God, for certainly we can’t already be it!
But it is much more than the outward signs of a broken church that causes us to wonder about the kingdom of God. For in the same way that we can pull back and see the problems facing the greater church, so we can look within ourselves to know that this kingdom is far from ideal. Let’s be dangerously frank for a moment; this kingdom is not made up of model citizens and ever-faithful saints always doing good and seeking wisdom. No, the fellowship of God’s children is made up of addicts and prideful people. It’s a refuge for those who have hurt others, those who have failed over and again in their given vocations. This is a place of hypocrites and liars. The kingdom you are a part of today is full of broken sinners. To establish a kingdom amongst us, to use us within that kingdom, it just doesn’t make sense.
So, all of this together makes for terrible PR for the kingdom of God. We don’t offer the strength of unity or the assurance of a better life. We offer a fractured church and fellowship with a bunch of sinners. This is truly a strange kingdom.
Yet, we ought to have expected this. At least we should have been ready for the kingdom of God not look like we might have imagined. For after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus begins the proclamation of the gospel by saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.” Then this Jesus of Nazareth begins to call disciples, fishermen, and a tax collector of all things. He hangs out with the unclean, and he eats and drinks with sinners. He operates outside the power structure of the religious leaders. The kingdom of God looks weak and small. Its first advocate is already in prison and the rest of the followers are without power, prestige, or fortune.
“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.” God’s active rule and reign begins as a small and insignificant mustard seed. It is something that is easily dismissed. It is something that is ridiculed as to importance and forgotten in an instant. But that seed grows. In fact, it grows with such vigor that it will dominate the whole of the garden. It will have welcoming branches in which all can find comfort and security. The kingdom that comes with such a humble beginning is not yet finished growing, and you are part of it.
In other words, our Lord says that we ought to expect His kingdom to look strange. It’s supposed to look small and insignificant. So, just because it is fractured and full of hypocrites does not mean that it’s no longer His kingdom. These words are entirely comforting to us today. It is good to know that even though we have problems, even though we are marred with difficulties, we are still part of something greater than ourselves. So when we hear this news, we begin to say, “Alright let’s get things growing! Let’s start doing what is necessary to grow that expansive tree!”
Deep down, we don’t really want that mustard seed kingdom. We don’t want the small and weak, the foolish and insignificant. So, we roll up our sleeves and get to work. Perhaps we visit other church congregations to see what makes them successful. Perhaps we augment even the message we teach and preach to make sure everyone is comfortable. We might become more strict and concise in our expectations of members, or perhaps we become more lax and open. There are so many options, so many ways we can shift and move to find just the right balance and the right formula for success. If we are clever and diligent enough, we can really begin to see the tree grow. Our church inbox is always full with recipes for success: perfect ways to prune and nourish the kingdom so that we can fulfill our destiny.
We set forth our plans and our schemes to make it all work. Yet the kingdom still looks so strange. There are times when it all seems to come together, but then often and with a great unexpected shift it all falls apart again. We chalk it up to growing pains, we gather the remnant, and we start over with a new plan.
But from time to time, in the midst of our hustle and bustle, the Words of Christ break through loud and clear. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” The Word of God is the good seed that is sown, and it grows. It grows without the additional effort of man. God has promised that this Word will not return empty and that it will accomplish His purpose. The rule and reign of God is not of power and might, but of His Word.
This Word creates a strange kingdom; it is a kingdom that may be small and weak but He proclaims that it will not always be so. You will see the great tree He has created in the day of the resurrection. You will stand under the shade of its branches, clothed in the robes of the Lamb. You will rejoice with all the saints in the great works of our God. That glorious kingdom comes to you even now. It is a kingdom where you are declared to have died with Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism, and now you live under His rule and reign. You live as the forgiven and redeemed saints of God. So together we await the harvest day.