Sunday Sermon: What Makes Your Garden Grow?

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: Mark 4:30-32
Series: “Jesus’ Parables and the Mystery of the Kingdom”

Do you remember the Mother Goose nursery rhyme you learned as a child, the one that went like this?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Now, I’m not much of a gardener, but that seems to me to be a strange sort of garden; don’t you think? Yes, silver bells and cockle shells are types of flowers. But pretty maids? What’s that about? 

Suffice it to say that many see the rhyme as having a dark meaning, one that goes back to 16th century Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots. The origins of the rhyme are not fully known, but from what the rhyme tells us, one thing is crystal clear. This “Mary” is a different kind of gardener, she is a contrary gardener; and by that I don’t think that description of Mary refers just to her countenance. I believe it refers more to the contrary way in which this Mary goes about her gardening. But even then, the rhyme poses the question, “Does her contrary approach to gardening lead to any results? Does her garden grow?” because that’s what gardens are supposed to do. Gardens are supposed to grow.

So, how does your garden grow? I’m not talking so much about your garden at home or at your farm or on your back porch. I’m talking about what you do for the Kingdom of God and how your faith has been planted in such a way that it yields the results our God is looking for. According to Jesus, this result is what matters most to God; and if we have nothing to show for our efforts, more than likely that’s the case because of how we have been following too much the prevailing view of life and have not fully adopted the contrarian ways of the Kingdom of God.

So spoke Jesus in this Parable of the Mustard Seed. It’s a parable found only in Mark’s Gospel, though there are parables in Matthew and Luke that make a similar point. Nonetheless, the Gospel of Mark was originally intended for believers in the Imperial City of Rome, the seat of the Emperor Caesar, a ruler who would not tolerate contrarian views of any type to his authority. But of course, Christians could not accept the authority of Caesar; Jesus was their Lord. Therefore, their faith in Christ was a contrarian one in their first century world, and this parable Jesus told helped them to see that as small as their witness must have seemed to be in comparison to the greatness of Caesar and the Roman Empire, their witness to Jesus would in fact win the day. 

This parable is the last of three “seed parables” in the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the emphasis on which is the mustard seed. Now, as most of you know, in Jesus’ day, the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds. A mustard seed was no more than one or two millimeters in diameter, which is about the thickness of your driver’s license. So, unless you had lots of mustard seeds in your hand, you’d likely not be able to see one with your naked eye. Therefore, what Jesus tells us is that something as grand and glorious as the Kingdom of God stems from such a small and humble beginning as a mustard seed. 

Should that truth really come as a surprise to us? Think about how God has always worked in ways most have always missed, because they were looking in other directions. In the Old Testament we read of how God chose a people for Himself not from a mighty nation like Egypt or Assyria, Babylon or Persia, but from a band of nomads who had descended from Abraham, a nation called Israel, “they who strive with God.” We see how when God chose to send His Messiah, the Agent of His Salvation into the world, he did, as the prophet Micah prophesied, in Bethlehem Ephrathah, which though “little among the tribes of Judah,” would the one from which would come “the ruler of all Israel” (Micah 5:2). We see it in the prophet Zechariah, as he prophesied about the good future God had for His people, offered them this warning: “Who despises the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:10). And in the New Testament, we see these same contrarian tendencies played out in Jesus, who was born to a virgin, raised in a small village Nazareth, and crucified in a seemingly barren outcropping outside the gates of Jerusalem called Calvary, Golgotha in the Hebrew, the Place of the Skull. Evidently, it’s not just in our day that people have automatically assumed that bigger is always better. People in Bible days did as well, which explains why so many then and so many today miss out on so much of what God is about in our midst. They’re looking for growth in all the wrong ways and in all the wrong places.

This is not how it will be with the Kingdom of God, says Jesus. “The Kingdom is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when you plant it (not if, but when you plant it), it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

What’s interesting about this parable is that Jesus chooses the garden plant as the image of how and to what end God’s Kingdom would grow. He didn’t choose a magnificent oak as did Ezekiel or a majestic cedar as did Isaiah. Jesus chose a garden plant, a big shrub. Yes, the shrub Jesus spoke of was one that could grow as high as 8 to 10 feet. But it wasn’t the height that was the important thing; it was the fact that the birds of the air, which in the Bible always refers to the nations, will be able to come and perch in its shade.

If there’s a principle for us to take from this parable, it’s the principle that bigger is not always better; better is better, with better being our ability to live into the purpose to which God has called us – that purpose being the winsomeness of our witness that might attract those looking for a place to perch to consider the peace that perching with a people who belong to Jesus can bring.

We live in a day when there seems to be a lot of handwringing going on around the future of the church. The prevailing wisdom is that things, which were bleak prior to COVID, will be even bleaker after it, as people continue in the habit of staying away from church to the point that, as some experts are predicting, one in three churches will close their doors in the next year. And so many churches have begun doing their best to emulate the prevailing culture so that their church won’t seem irrelevant and out of touch with the masses.

But is that the best way to grow the Kingdom? I don’t think we should ever forget the words of William Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, who back at the turn of the last century, in 1911, uttered these immortal words of warning to the church: “It is not certain that religious bodies ought to cooperate with secular movements at all,” said Inge. (For) if you marry the spirit of your generation, you may well become a widow in the next.” (“Christian Ministers and Politics,” The Wells Journal, December 14, 1911, p. 6)

I don’t know what the future for Mountain Brook Baptist Church will look like post-COVID, and I don’t believe anyone does. But what I do know is that there are plenty of birds looking for a place to perch and if we at this church would be willing to employ whatever measure of faith we might have at our disposal, small as it may seem to us to be, then the God who is the Lord of all creation and who has granted to us the possibility of eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, that same God will work through this church in the most remarkable ways as we trust our future fully to Him.

Are you willing to do that in your life, and just as importantly, are you willing to do it in concert with others God’s Spirit has brought our way? It is, after all, the only way this garden will grow. And while we may not grow to be the biggest church, we will certainly grow to be the most faithful one, which in the end will be what to God matters most of all.