The small things of God

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Mark 4:26-34


The re-introduction of Red Kites around the United Kingdom has been one of the mazing phenomena of nature in the latter years of the twentieth century.  One thing we’ve always missed in moving to Farnham was the Red Kites that flew over Twyford, where we used to live, seemingly all the time.


English Nature’s Regional Director said of the re-introduction of Red Kites in the Derwent Valley in County Durham, “it marks the opening of an exciting new chapter in the extraordinary story of these magnificent birds in the region”.


‘Exciting’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘magnificent’.  You can tell by the use of these words that this story is one that lifts the heart and the mind; that it catches the imagination in a very positive way.


And Jesus spoke in parables to achieve the same effect.  To catch people’s imaginations and to touch their hearts, to give them hope.  He told them the parables of the kingdom not so much to explain about the kingdom of God as to announce its coming and to sharpen people’s perceptions of its presence.


Jesus wanted people to understand about the kingdom of God, but the understanding that he was after was not so much an ‘intellectual grasp’ as a ‘holistic apprehension’.  It was something for which he wanted them to have a feel, a vision, a hunger and a thirst, a longing.


And so he told little stories, parables; some of which were more extensive, and one or two he unpacked, but others of which were very succinct, like that of the mustard seed.


Maybe you also have memories of those little trays where we planted and grew mustard and cress on blotting-paper at primary school?  My understanding of the mustard plant was that it was about one inch tall when harvested with a pair of round-nosed scissors.  Not much room for the birds of the air to make their nests there, I thought.  And for that reason the parable of the mustard seed was lost on me for years.  The plant itself was nowhere near big enough.


A few decades later, decades touched by occasional flicks through biblical commentaries and, of course, the demand to preach and teach on the New Testament, I have wised-up a bit and I realise that there are mustard plants and mustard plants.  Indeed scholars of a certain type can expend quite a lot of effort and discussion on the kind of mustard plant that Jesus had in mind, how big it was, what particular kinds of birds might have made their nests in it and so on.  But I have to say that if you decide to go down this line it is at least possible that you will, at the end of the day, have a far better understanding of Middle Eastern biology than of the kingdom of God.


And this possibility of distraction, of being misled by the stories, has caused me to wonder whether it was a good idea for those putting the gospels onto paper to write all Jesus’ parables of the kingdom down.  And I also wonder whether it is a good idea for us to repeat what they have written as the very word of God.  But reading the Bible more closely, I realise that they did not write them all down.  Rather, they attest that Jesus spoke in many such parables.  And that gives me real heart and cheer, because it suggests to me that what really matters here is not that Jesus told this or that particular parable which may or may not click for me; rather that he told enigmatic but concrete little tales in order to get his message across, and that what we have in the Bible is but a few examples.


But it was no accident that Jesus told stories and parables.  He told them because the story form, the parable, matches up with the kind of gospel that Jesus life and death, teaching and healing, passion and resurrection, were all revealing.  The story is not just an effective method for communicating Jesus’ ‘message’.  The form and shape of story, and the relationship it establishes between teller and listeners, is all of a piece with the kingdom of God.  To put it bluntly, Jesus did not tell stories so that his followers could go around writing instruction manuals.  His method, like his life, was far more graceful than that.


Not every story works for every person, but that is not a bad thing.  Rather, it is part of the significance of having stories at the heart of our common faith.  It gives us both permission and incentive to carry on telling stories.  Part of the challenge to the Christian is to be, like Jesus, a storyteller.  It is often by telling stories that we can participate in God’s mission.  Funeral addresses, for instance, that do not remind people of some of the tiny particularities that made a person the individual they were, for better or worse, miss the mark.  And if you listen to someone tell the story of their grief you find the same thing: tiny details mark the most significant, poignant moments.  And stories of recovery from illness or depression will similarly be anchored in moments of almost microscopic particularity – hearing a certain piece of music, noticing a flower, seeing a mother bird feed its chick – such are the turning points in our lives.


These, it seems to me, are mustard seeds of a sort.  These are the tiny, apparently insignificant, massively missable details that in retrospect have become the starting point of something great.  Many mystics have found significance in the apparently tiny.  For William Blake it was the grain of sand in which he saw infinity.  For Julian of Norwich it was the small thing in the palm of the hand, like a hazelnut, which was remarkable simply for its existence.  And in our generation the photographs of the earth taken from space had a similar effect.  Once we had glimpsed the earth from that point of view our self-understanding changed.  Once we had seen the earth as small our sense of stewardship became great.


These mustard seed moments are of immense personal and spiritual significance.  But the difference between Jesus and some other sensitive observers lies, perhaps, in his insistence on putting the moment into story, into narrative context.  For Jesus the apprehension of the mustard seed is the beginning which is then looking for a middle and an end.


Thus, when Jesus sees a mustard seed he not only seems something tiny, he also sees its potential to unfold into something great.  Thus, he sees not only what is small but also what is not visible at all.  He sees a detail of creation and perceives the full flourishing of new creation.  If we are followers of Jesus we both rejoice in the ‘as it is now’ of things and in the ‘what it might become’ of things.  For the kingdom of God is both.


Jesus said, the kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that becomes a great bush which can provide for birds and their nests.


And I would say that the kingdom of God is like the Red Kites, returning to so much of this country after 200 years.  As those magnificent birds live and breed, as they feed and fly, they give glory to God and excite in us wonder and praise.  Their daily existence speaks of redemption, of renewal and of hope: they are a parable of the kingdom.

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