He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
I am a ministry failure. Countless times I have given someone counsel, presented the Gospel, or encouraged someone with God’s truth with absolutely nil results. From strangers on planes to neighbors to close friends, I know what it feels like to fail – at least by my short-sighted temporal standards.
There is an unwritten rule we live by: if you’re expending effort, you had better be sure you will gain something from it – or you had better at least achieve your desired purpose. This is why dating websites are so popular. It is a zillion times easier to approach a woman through the distance of the internet than to look into her dazzling eyes and choke out a request for a date. We don’t want to tread into the unknown where our egos are at risk.
This is economical, instinctual even. We are wired to expend energy in worthwhile places and in many cases this is a good convention. Take for example, American Idol contestants. I know you’ve seen one of those horrendous auditions where the terrified young singer screeches out a song like a mammal giving birth. These youngsters, bless their confused hearts, need to spend their energy somewhere worthwhile. In their case, that would be anything but singing.
But ministry is an exception to this rule. This is due in part to the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is of the utmost importance and thus, all effort is worthwhile. When we see our fellow man on the road to eternal separation from our dear Jesus if we have a modicum of love we will try to turn his head – even if he heads up a local atheist softball league.
The primary reason ministry is an exception to the cost-benefit analysis is that the Gospel is maximally effective. When we eek out our attempt at a Gospel presentation in a coffee shop, there is spiritual nuclear warfare going on. We aren’t just a red-faced evangelist, we are a warrior from heaven. You see, when we share the story of Christ with another human being we invite the hosts of heaven into a cosmic battle. And because the Spirit intercedes for us (Romans 8:26), while we may feel more like one of those American Idol contestants, our words may come across like a John Piper sermon as the Spirit steps in miraculously.
The good news of Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection is not flashy. To claim belief in such a story is arcane and foolish to the unbeliever. But it’s true. And thus, we have the truest and most potent news in human history. This is a story that changes eternities just by telling it. It must be told.
There are several kinds of mustard plants that grow in different parts of the world. We don’t know which species Jesus referred to, and I don’t think Jesus was trying to give a lesson in botany. Mustard seeds are small and they can grow large plants – or even trees – from a very small beginning. That is what we need to know.
My wife and I just finished building our garden. After creating the border and fence, we put in the plants, which we had already started from seeds by using small trays. Now the plants are in the ground. They may grow, and if they do, it’ll be gradually. I doubt very seriously that we will look out the window and see anything shockingly different. Some of them may die. When you garden, you don’t grow vegetables, you plant them. In the same way, we don’t convert people -and God help us for even trying. If we think our Jesus sales pitch is compelling enough to change someone’s soul, we are delusional. We plant Gospel seeds by sharing the story of Jesus’ work and then we water by love and friendship. And if something does sprout in the heart of our friend, we aren’t entitled to the credit.
We are to sow Gospel seeds as we walk through life, in the cracks and soils of our context in which God has placed us. And we should do so with tact and love and without the expectation that our seeds will sprout conversion just because we planted them. But we should also understand we are not playing a trivial game. We are engaging in war, with a violent battle taking place for the soul of our friends. Because God is sovereign, he wins this battle every time – but we may not be able to make sense of it.
Lastly, there’s something to Jesus’ mentioning of the birds in the mustard tree. Because Jesus was God, he surely understood how plants grew. After all, he’d made them. And Jesus surely knew that birds eat seeds and spread them over a large distance. So if a mustard tree grows through a man planting a seemingly insignificant seed, it would attract birds. These birds might eat seeds from the tree and they might just chill there for a bit – or both. If the birds ate the seeds, they would disperse the seeds over a wide territory. If you follow this logic for a bit, you can imagine an exponential increase in mustard trees.
Our seemingly insignificant Gospel seeds might grow mighty forests, but they might not be within our range of vision. An investment in sharing the precious and powerful news of Jesus’ victory for sinners is the planting of world-changing truth. So, beloved brothers and sisters, may we run hard and scatter Gospel seed all over the place. You never know what God might grow.