Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I’ve got a bone to pick with the person who decided on our Gospel reading today. In fact I dare say it was chosen by committee not by one individual. My quibble is that there is simply too much material in the gospel reading for one sermon – parables about a mustard seed, yeast, a priceless pearl, buried treasure, a fishing net and a slightly obscure reference to a scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven.
What is a preacher supposed to do with all that diversity?
There’s too much material for my tiny brain, so I’ve chosen to concentrate on just one of those images – that of the mustard seed. The mustard seed, any seed for that matter, is all about potential.
In Jesus’ time mustard seed was used in a kind of proverbial sense to indicate anything that was very small. He’s using it here in the same sense as our phrase ‘out of acorns mighty oak trees grow’. Small things producing much bigger things, the majesty of the kingdom of heaven being produced from something originally quite small – that’s the general thought here.
Now, I’d like to take you back in time – as far back as it’s possible to go – to the very beginning of the universe, i.e. to the beginning of time itself. If you’d been around then – and that would have been impossible of course – but, if you had been around, you wouldn’t have found the universe to be a very interesting place. There wasn’t even any matter – only energy. Even after the formation of matter – hydrogen, helium and so on, the universe was initially a very featureless place. Pretty hot – but not much else.
You wouldn’t have thought that it had much of a future – not an interesting future at any rate. But how wrong you would have been.
Just after the big bang, when the universe was the size of a mustard seed – as it was for the splittest of split seconds – you could never have guessed in a million years that eventually it would produce stars and galaxies and planets and living, conscious creatures such as ourselves capable of compassion and art and science and goodness knows what else. You could never have guessed the potential contained within the universe as it then was.
This amazing, staggeringly unlikely fruitfulness of creation is one reason why I don’t have any difficulty in believing in God. Why should an apparently lifeless, featureless universe contain such potential?
Absolute blind chance doesn’t do the business as far as I’m concerned and in the very last analysis blind chance is the only alternative to God – as far as I at least can see. But I digress, that’s not the point of what I’m saying. Potential in unlikely circumstances is the point.
Now, as I said just now, at some very, very fleeting point early on in its history the universe was, incredibly, the size of a mustard seed. And here we have a mustard seed. [The preacher holds up a mustard seed between his fingers]. I doubt if you can see it from where you are. I can hardly see it myself. It’s very small. If you knew nothing about seeds, you could never guess the seed’s potential for growth just by looking at it.
There’s a further point that needs to be made about this seed – any seed in fact. If you leave a seed in its packet, then not a lot happens. It’s not doing the job it was designed for. It remains a seed. Its potential is not fulfilled.
A seed doesn’t grow on its own. It needs help. It needs to be planted in a suitable environment. It needs to be planted in soil. It needs water, sunshine and so on as well. The plant grows from the interaction of the seed and its environment.
When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, to which Jesus likens the mustard seed, it too needs a suitable environment in which to grow. If what we do is rooted in God, in prayer, in the life of the Christian community, and not in our own egos, then growth will come forth, though we may not always be able to predict what sort of growth it will be. But whatever the growth, we will be making our own contribution to the building up of the kingdom of heaven. We all have that potential within us – however small we may think ourselves.
Don’t ever imagine that you don’t have potential. Even if you’ve used up a fair bit of potential in the past, there’s always more to come.
And we are all part of a bigger picture. We are not creating the kingdom of heaven on our own, we are making a contribution towards its being built up. We are joining a corporate enterprise.
But how big is this plant that the mustard seed grows into? Jesus makes a big thing of its size.
When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God (Jesus has various names for it), the stakes could not be higher – because the Christian hope is this: just as that mustard seed that was once the universe in its very early stages grew to be what it is now and brought forth life and consciousness and compassion and moral purpose, so the kingdom of heaven that was once centred in a penniless itinerant preacher in a small backwater of the Roman empire will spread and thus transform the whole of creation.
Nothing less than that is the Christian hope. The story of creation comes in two stages. Firstly, the universe is brought into being and then, secondly, the being of the universe is brought into unity with the life of God – what we call salvation.
Salvation isn’t just about a few people getting to heaven – though it’s partly that. It’s about the whole of creation becoming heaven – a new heaven and a new earth. Creation has that much potential. ‘Behold, I make all things new’, God says in the book of Revelation.
All things, not just some things. Well, it can’t exactly be described as a modest hope. You couldn’t possibly even conceive of anything more ambitious but, as Jesus once said: with God all things are possible.