Most are no larger than a small pebble and appear lifeless and inert. But unlike a pebble that will forever be a pebble, a seed carries a blueprint and library of instructions that enable it to become a thing rivaling the complexity of a Nissan factory.
With just a little water a chemical switch is flipped, launching the assembly of molecular machines that churn out functional parts, complete with routing instructions for the manufacture of cells that will become a bloom of an unnoticed clover or the trunk of a towering Sequoia, a nourishing pear or poisonous hemlock, a scruffy sage bush or elegant orchid, each with the ability to multiply and “fill the earth,” according to its in-built design.
Imagine burying a piece of scrap metal and returning six months later to find an automobile assembly plant making its own parts, repairing its own equipment, turning out cars, and spawning other factories, all without human assistance. What happens with a seed is no less astounding.
Seeds are wondrous evidences of Design, and so vital to life on planet Earth, that a global “seed vault” was established in 2008. Fixed in the permafrost of Norway, the vault is designed to preserve over 2 billion varieties of seeds that would be needed to replenish the earth’s flora in the case of a worldwide disaster.
Yet life-essential seeds are also held in another vault, one much older and more secure -- the pages of Scripture. Jesus unlocks the vault with a group of parables in the fourth chapter of Mark.
In the first, a sower scatters seeds that fall along the path, among rocks and thorns, and on good soil. Only the seeds landing on the latter take root to produce a bumper crop. As Jesus explains to his disciples, the “seed” is the “Word” -- the good news of the Kingdom.
When the Word is received into ready hearts, a spiritual switch is “flipped,” initiating a process of growth that leads to replication. But just as the growth from seedling to seed-bearing plant depends on sunlight for the metabolic process of photosynthesis, so the organic expansion of the Kingdom is sparked and energized by the light of Christian witness.
Thus, in the parable of the lamp, Jesus stresses to his disciples the importance of keeping the lamp of the Kingdom burning bright in open display. To closet it in the shadows of private faith, never to radiate out into the public square, is to neglect the command to love God and others through incarnational living.
Such negligence, Jesus warns, carries a penalty; the same that befell the faithless servant in the parable of the talents: “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” It is a bracing reminder that every disciple is entrusted with gifts, talents and opportunities for which he is accountable in helping the Kingdom to grow and flourish.
The next parable is more about depth than breadth in the Kingdom. Like the first, it starts with a man scattering seed upon the ground. As he watches the maturation from bud to blossoming plant, he is at a loss to explain the mysterious process. (It is a mystery that the tools of modern science have yet to unlock.)
The parable includes the symbolism of baptismal death and rebirth found in the writings of John and Paul:
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Just as the transformation from kernel to ripe grain depends on hidden instructions and processes that are not fully understood or even identified, so, too, the transformation of a human heart depends on more than mortal will and effort. As Paul would reflect some time later, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
In the divine partnership, the gospel must be sown to take root (“How can they hear [the gospel] without someone preaching to them?”), and it needs light to stimulate growth (“Now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth”). But it is God who performs the cardiac procedure making it transformational (“it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose”).
The mustard seed
In the last parable, Jesus uses the mustard seed as a word picture for the kingdom. Although the mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds in the world, it produces one of the world’s fastest growing plants, reaching an astounding 12 feet high in just a few weeks.
The growth of Christianity is no less astounding. From twelve unlikely companions during Jesus’s earthly ministry, to 120 disciples after His ascension, to 3000 after Pentecost, to 6 million by 300 A.D. and 2 billion today, there is no belief system or political or social movement that has experienced such exponential expansion. The explanation for this singular phenomenon relates to another feature of the mustard seed: shade.
Shade is a strong attractor for wildlife seeking relief from the scorching Mideast sun. Just as birds are drawn to the mustard tree for its shade, so soul-starved wanderers in the spiritual wasteland are drawn to the inviting canopy of the Kingdom.
The unprecedented growth of the Church is, in no small measure, attributed to the attractiveness of its shade -- the incarnational lives of individuals who have been transformed through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit.
Growing the kingdom
During the plagues that broke out in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries, Christians risked their lives attending to the needs of the sick and dying, while civil officials and even physicians left population centers in a panic.
In a society where abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment were culturally acceptable and commonplace, Christians rescued infants who were discarded in city dumps and cared for homeless children. What’s more, it was Christians, not politicos or community organizers, who started the first hospitals and orphanages.
Democracy, rule by the consent of the governed, and the ideals of personal freedom and human rights originated from Christian notions about the worth and value of all persons. Christian teaching fuelled the great social movements of the last two centuries: abolition, child labor laws, suffrage, and civil rights.
Christianity’s unique concern for the least and the last explains why, in the absence of atheist-run homeless shelters and a disaster relief groups, there are hundreds of Christian organizations around the globe feeding the hungry, digging wells, building sanitation systems, ministering to AIDS victims, and fighting the scourges of addictions, human trafficking and religious persecution.
For 2000 years, civilization has benefited from the culture-shaping influence of Christians who have been lighting a lamp for the lost, providing shelter for the last and least, and sowing seeds of the Kingdom through their words and works. And for 2000 years, the Kingdom has been blooming.
Image courtesy of BostInnovation.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.