In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a curious pine tree, the lodgepole pine, in the mountains of the western United States that has a small but compact and thickly shelled pinecone, carrying its seeds. If you were to take that pinecone and drop it on the ground, nothing would happen. You could bury it in the soil and nothing would happen. You could water it and nothing would happen. You could put the perfect blend of fertilizer on the soil and still nothing would happen. That’s because this pinecone requires one unique ingredient to sprout, take root, and grow. It needs fire. Fire has to pass over the pinecone to thin its hard shell—and to clear out competing plants—for the seeds within to begin to grow. And then from there it grows from that small, fire-scarred seed to become a tall, powerful tree, straight and strong enough to have served as the support in all sorts of buildings for the last several centuries. It’s provided medicines for numerous people and shelter for the creatures of the forest.
This tree is but one example of those many mysterious things that happens in God’s creation, doing what it does on its own, without any nudging from us humans. In fact, the human tendency to control and put out fires caused some issues with the lodgepole pine, preventing new trees from sprouting in some areas for a while. The tree does what it does, on its own, even if we don’t perfectly understand how or why it works that way.
We have an image of that in our parables from Jesus today. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he know not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” And what of that little seed? Even if the seed should be “like a grain of mustard seed…yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” It’s a mystery, this kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God will grow from something tiny, like a mustard seed, a pine nut, to something great, even if it’s not understood how it happens.
And that is exactly how it occurred. The kingdom of God, His rule over all the earth in grace and mercy, was not just any man, but the Son of Man, going out and scatter the seed of the Word. In city and village, highway and mount and plain and seashore, this Son of Man spread the Word of God. He sowed the good Word that God had entered His creation, that He would redeem everything and everyone held captive by sin and death. And even though that Word was not understood, even by His closest twelve disciples, He still sowed. Even though He was intentionally misunderstood by His opponents, who were challenged in their own self-built righteousness of works, who were deafened by the lies of the tempter who told them that they could be gods themselves; even though the opposed him because their self-declared innocence was challenged, He still spread the Word.
Even when those twelve disciples fell away, one in outright betrayal and all the rest out of fear, even when it was one solitary, tiny mustard seed of a believer, even only the Son of Man Himself, the seed was still planted. As a head of wheat must die and fall to the earth and be buried before it grows and produces countless grains, so too this one, small, tortured, and ridiculed Seed was crucified, died, and was buried. Those who had been watching were baffled. This was no way for a Savior to end. This was not how a Messiah was supposed to save, not according to their understanding. They knew not how any great harvest could come of this.
Yet on the third day, He rose. The Promised Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Seed of King David promised to sit on his throne, burst forth from the grave and grew. His branches went out to every corner of the earth, providing peace and shade, comfort and healing, protection and mercy to all who find safety in Him. As the prophet Ezekiel prophesied for us in our Old Testament reading today, “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant [the tender twig broken off the cedar], that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” He is the Lord, and He has done that very thing.
From one Man, the Son of Man, Jesus, the kingdom of God has grown and filled the entire earth. The seed of the Gospel is spread throughout the world and continues go out for the growth and healing of all. Even though it was not understood, and even though sometimes it still isn’t, it still grows and provides shelter, safety, and comfort. Who would have ever guessed that a crucified carpenter would be the seed that the kingdom of God grew from? Who would guessed that it would take the fire of torture from Roman guards and death on a Roman cross for that seed to germinate? Who would have guessed that by the blood of the Apostles and martyrs that the kingdom of God would grow in those lands that had been hostile to it? Who would have understood how the kingdom of God goes out or why it takes root in some lands and hearts and not others, or why it moves like a summer rain shower from one place to the next? And yet, from that one Seed, the kingdom of God sprouts and grows, and we know not how. We simply give thanks that it does and enjoy all that the harvest that the Word provides.
What is true of the kingdom of God growing mysteriously in the world is also true of its arrival and growth in your life. Through such tiny means, unimpressive by the world’s standards, the seed has been planted in your life. A little water and Word washing over a weak baby’s head. A kind word or invitation from someone who was there at the right time. A word of encouragement when you were passing through some sort of fire and trial. A bite of bread and sip of wine, the body and blood of God hidden underneath from mortal eyes, that reminded you that God has promised to make everything right and good. You don’t understand how it’s happening, especially not at the time. You may not even completely know how it all came together in retrospect. But the seed is planted and grows; you know not how.
Sometimes the growth of that kingdom, God’s gracious rule over you as your good and merciful King, is still hidden, like a seed putting down roots hidden under the ground, out of sight. Sometimes it’s obvious, like fruit coming to perfect ripeness, waiting to be enjoyed. Sometimes it’s pleasant, like sitting under the shade of the tree with a soft breeze on a warm, but not hot, summer day. And sometimes it’s like a fire passing over the shell of the lodgepole pinecone, burning and hot. But still, the kingdom sprouts and grows; you don’t understand how, but it does. Maybe when all is said and done, you will. Maybe not. But God is still ruling, and He’s ruling for your benefit, for your eternal good, to take you and plant you on His holy mountain, where you will grow and be strengthened.
The kingdom of God will grow when and where God desires, and it is for you that He makes it grow. So when you’re parched and dry, rejoice: your God makes the dry tree flourish, even as He made the crucified One rise again. When you feel small and helpless, forgotten and purposeless, don’t despair: your Lord make the low tree high, making it a shelter for the birds and beasts, His own pleasant planting. Your God will continue to work through these small, mysterious plantings—your Baptism, His Word, His Supper—to make His kingdom grow in and around you. So find your rest and shelter in that. Find your healing and comfort. Your Lord reigns. His kingdom is over all the earth and over your life, so that you would know His mercy and comfort, finding refuge in the shade of His tree, the cross. In the name of Jesus, our Shelter and Rest. Amen.