Surprised by Growth
by Jack Wald | March 24th, 2019

Mark 4:26-32

When I was growing up we had a garden that supplied our family of eight plus my grandmother and from time to time one or two others who lived with us. We canned and froze fruits and vegetables so that we only had to buy fruits and vegetables from the store for maybe one month out of the year.

We had a couple horses and in the fall we spread the horse manure over the garden and let it sit during the winter months. Then in the spring we turned the soil over with a roto-tiller. We worked the soil and with all that work, I could put my arm straight down in the soil up to my elbow. This meant that we had large, straight, delicious carrots that could grow without having to work their way around rocks and hard soil.

Only after preparing the soil did we carefully plant our seeds. For carrots, we took the hoe and made a straight line and then placed the seed along the trough we had made. We covered up the seed, lightly tamped it down and watered it gently. For squash and cucumbers or melons, we made a little mound and placed two or three seeds in the mound. For beans, we made a row with the hoe and placed the seeds one by one, about six inches apart. I loved planting potatoes. All you have to do is take half a potato and put it about three inches (8 cm) under the soil. It is fast and easy.

We planted the seeds, watered the soil, and waited. After a few days I began going out each day to see if I could see anything and then, one day, I was thrilled to see that the seeds had germinated and shoots were coming up out of the ground. In the days that followed I checked each day to see how the sprouts developed into plants and then continued to grow.

We took a hoe and weeded the space between the plants to make sure the nutrients of the soil were going to the vegetables and not the weeds. We watered the garden if there was not enough rain.

And then came the day when the buds appeared, indicating that fruit was on its way. In the case of tomatoes, the flower developed into a small green tomato. This grew in size over the weeks until they began to ripen and then, when they were fully red, we picked the tomatoes and began enjoying our delicious tomato sandwiches.

My favorite crop to harvest was potatoes. Putting the pitchfork down in the ground and pulling up the earth to look for potatoes was like digging for buried treasure. That one half of a potato had multiplied into eight or ten potatoes.

I’ve tried to have a vegetable garden here in Rabat but our soil is not the right kind of soil. Perhaps I need a couple horses to enrich the soil.

This morning we come to an agricultural chapter in the Gospel of Mark. Chapter 4 contains the parable of the sower, the parable of the growing seed, and the parable of the mustard seed.

The parable of the sower is well known. Seed is sown on different soils. The same seed is sown, but it falls on the road, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil. Seed was sown in my life when I was 13 years old and my oldest sister came back from university to tell us she had become a follower of Jesus, but what soil did it land on? From my sister’s perspective, I was rocky soil and there was only a negative response. Seven years later my sister was surprised to see that the seed she sowed had germinated and a shoot popped up through the soil.

Seeds are continually being sown in the lives of people Jesus wants to rescue and it takes time for some seeds to germinate.

The soil is this country is becoming richer. It used to be that it took about five years for someone to decide to become a follower of Jesus. It is happening more rapidly now. But still we have to wait.

God uses us to sow seeds and we most often do not get to see the seed sprout. You may be here in Morocco for only two to three years, and when you leave you may wonder how God used you in the lives of others. But seeds have been sown and they may not germinate until after you have left.

When we are present when the seed bears fruit, it is a great privilege. This is one of the great miracles in Christian life. The shoot pops out of the soil and we rejoice at the new life that is growing.

This brings us to the first of this morning’s parables.

The Parable of the Growing Seed
He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

This parable tells us that there are things we do and then there are things God does. It is important that we know the difference.

What do we do?

We evangelize. We disciple. We nurture and care for each other. We encourage each other. We help each other. We teach. We preach. We pray.

There are a lot of things we do. We use the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been given to us. It is important that we do this.

Paul wrote about the importance of spiritual gifts in his Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans letters. He wrote in Ephesians 4:11–16
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

This is not a sermon to talk about the importance of spiritual gifts, but it is a mystery to me why so many followers of Jesus know so little about the spiritual gifts they have been given. The church functions well, the community of followers of Jesus is a rich community, only when the members of the church and community know what spiritual gifts they have been given and are using them to build up the church.

Paul used the gifts God gave him and he used them well. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: (1 Corinthians 3:10)
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder,

This is translated also as a “skilled builder” or “expert builder”. Paul was good at what he did. Paul was an expert church planter, but he was also very clear about the difference between what he did and what God did.

Because there was discord in the Corinthian church and some people were saying they followed Paul and others said they followed Apollos, Paul wrote: (1 Corinthians 3:5–7)
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

This is what Jesus is saying in this parable. The farmer works in his field. He sows the wheat seeds and then when the wheat is ripe, he takes his sickle and reaps a good harvest. But in the months in between sowing and harvesting, the farmer does not dig down into the soil to take a closer look at what the seed is doing. The seed germinates, the wheat grows and becomes ripe, all without the work of the farmer.

This parable is found in Mark’s gospel, but not Matthew or Luke. Why did Mark include this parable but not Matthew and Luke? Matthew and Luke had the gospel of Mark in front of them when they wrote their gospels and used it as a primary resource. Why did they skip over the parable of the growing seed?

Mark recorded the stories Peter told about Jesus and I think this was one of those stories Peter told a lot. This was a parable that had more significance for Peter than it did for Matthew. Why did Peter like this parable so much?

I think Peter’s experience made this parable significant for him. After his denial of Jesus and restoration when Jesus told him to “feed my sheep,” there was a humility about Peter that made him realize that when something significant happened in his life, it was the work of Jesus that had accomplished it.

On Pentecost after the Holy Spirit had come on the apostles, Peter stood up with the other eleven and addressed the crowd. Upon hearing Peter’s message, (Acts 2:37–41)
they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

That was quite a start to Peter’s ministry. He preached his first sermon and about 3,000 were added to the number of Christians that day. That kind of response could go to the head of anyone who preaches. That is the kind of response that could easily feed the ego. But how did that response happen? Was it the eloquence of Peter’s preaching? Did he have some nifty stories to catch their attention? Was it Peter’s charismatic personality?

Don’t you think that hearing the disciples speaking in tongues so that each person there could hear them speak in the language of their home country had a lot to do with the response?

It was the work of God that brought those 3,000 believers into the kingdom that day and Peter had been humbled enough that he knew it. That’s why I think Peter liked this parable of Jesus and why he told that parable of Jesus so often.

What does this parable have to say to us?

There are things we need to do. We need to understand and develop our spiritual gifts. We need to grow in knowledge and understanding. We need to become skilled in what we do, but spiritual growth does not come from being good at what we do. Spiritual growth does not come from becoming a dynamic speaker or a good leader of a Bible study. It does not come from being a good listener to someone who is distressed, a servant to the needs of the church, or a good organizer of church functions. The church needs people who are good at all these things, but that is not where spiritual growth comes from.

Spiritual growth does not come from being good at what we do. Spiritual growth comes from abiding in Christ. Jesus taught: (John 15:5)
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

In yet another agricultural image, Jesus taught that only by being in relationship with him will we grow. If you take a branch and cut it where it is attached to the vine, within a day it will begin to wither and in a week it will be brown and shriveled. Only when the branch remains attached to the vine does it receive the nutrients that keeps it growing. Only by remaining in relationship with Jesus do we grow spiritually.

Abiding in Christ is like being a seed in the soil. We are powerless to make growth happen. And, in fact, when we one day realize that we have grown spiritually, it comes as a surprise to us. Growth takes place beneath the surface of our lives where we cannot see what is happening.

I often tell people that my nineteen years in Rabat have been the best of my life. But I also say that 2010 was the worst year of my life. In 2010 the Moroccan government deported 150 foreign Christians and intimidated those who attended Moroccan house churches. The deportations happened in three waves: in March, in May, and in June. The “parents” of the children at the Village of Hope were among those who were deported in March.

Those of us who were not deported dealt with grief for those who had been deported. For me the grief was intense because of the “parents” being taken away from the children they had raised as their own since the first days of their children’s lives. In addition to grief there was anxiety. Would I be deported next?

During those months I would drive past the road leading into our little quartier to see if there was any activity outside our villa before I drove into the quartier and went into our villa.

I made a trip outside Morocco in August of 2010 and when I flew back and approached passport control, my heart was pounding. I was expecting to hear them say that I would not be allowed to enter Morocco and would have to leave.

At the end of the year I wrote a letter to people who support my ministry in Rabat and three or four people responded, “It seems you have grown spiritually.” I replied to them, “If I did, it was not intentional. All I did was hang on to Jesus through all the grief and anxiety.”

The spiritual growth I experienced came as a surprise to me. I was not working on it. I was simply hanging on to Jesus through a very difficult time.

I have been talking with a counselor over the past couple years, working on issues that have affected my marriage and other relationships. It has not been easy. It has often been difficult. But I have seen spiritual growth take place in my life that has, once again, surprised me.

I have often wished that I could grow spiritually by relaxing in my hammock, drinking ice tea, and reading a good book. But that is not how it works. It is in the more difficult times of my life that spiritual growth has taken place.

In times of anxiety, in times of doubt, in times of grief, in times of stress I have held on to Jesus, refusing to let go and in those times, God has worked in my life, bringing growth.

We cannot make spiritual growth happen. We are powerless. We have to wait for God to do his work in our lives. Let me read from Henri Nouwen.
Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. And the more you get in touch with that divine power, the easier it will be to confess to yourself and to others your basic powerlessness.
One way you keep holding on to an imaginary power is by expecting something from outside gratifications or future events. As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed. A seed only flourishes by staying in the ground in which it is sown. When you keep digging the seed up to check whether it is growing, it will never bear fruit. Think about yourself as a little seed planted in rich soil. All you have to do is stay there and trust that the soil contains everything you need to grow. This growth takes place even when you do not feel it. Be quiet, acknowledge your powerlessness, and have faith that one day you will know how much you have received.

You are a little seed planted in rich soil. Spend time reading your Bible. Take time to reflect on what you read. Pray and then sit in silence to hear what God wants to say to you. Read other books, listen to sermons and talks. God will speak to you in many different ways. And, most importantly, hold on to Jesus. Hold on through your grief, your anger, your bitterness, your depression, your apathy or indifference, your stress, your doubts. Hold on to Jesus. Let God work and make the seed planted in you grow.

The seed in you will become a rich harvest – and that is the focus of the second parable for this morning.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

The world has some big mustard fans. I found this testimonial on the internet.

Many times I find myself in the need of a snack. What better to eat than mustard? I just rip open a little packet of yellow mustard and insert it between my teeth. Then in a slow fashion I’ll squeeze the living daylights out of that mustard packet causing the mustard to flow from the packet to the inside of my mouth. When that mustard hits my tongue it’s like a fireworks show of emotions that my tastebuds go through. My word, from excitement to complete joy, the mustard makes my day.

I get the impression this person works for one of the companies who manufacture mustard.

It takes 20 hours to manufacture yellow mustard and 32 hours to manufacture Dijon mustard. The extra time needed comes from 12 hours of fermentation that gives Dijon mustard its strong, distinctive flavor. But all mustard comes from mustard seeds and that is the source of this parable.

A mustard seed is so small that it takes about 700 seeds to make one gram and yet when planted, in just a few weeks the shrub that grows from that seed will be 4 meters high. What seems small and of little consequence can become large and of great consequence very quickly.

There are two ways to apply this parable: one is on a global scale and the other is on a personal level.

Do you know what the population of the world was at the time Jesus taught this parable? 250,000,000. The population of Palestine was 2,500,000. If there were 1,000 followers of Jesus at the time he taught this parable, that means there was one follower of Jesus for every 2,500 Palestinians and one follower of Jesus for every 250,000 people in the world. Jesus came so that the world could hear the good news of salvation and when he ascended there was only one person for each quarter of a million people in the world who could tell others about the good news they had experienced. That is a very small start indeed.

Today with a world population of 7,530,000,000 there are 2,506,000,000 who identify as Christians. Of these, 1,062,000,000 identify as Pentecostals or Evangelicals.

As an aside, I take these numbers with a large grain of salt. I have been asked to verify the number of reported Christians in Morocco and as I looked through the list of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, the numbers seemed to me to be highly inflated. I assume this is true all over the world, true for all religious groups.

Only God knows whose name is written in the Book of Life and when people ask me how many Christians there are in Morocco, I tell them that the numbers that people come up with have little meaning to me.

There is the institutional church with cultural Christians and there are those God knows as his beloved sons and daughters. There is a huge gap between those numbers.

But even if those numbers are highly inflated, the percentage of the population of the world who are followers of Jesus is much higher than in the early church. The church has gone from 1 follower of Jesus for every 250,000 people in the world in the time of Jesus to 1 Evangelical or Pentecostal follower of Jesus for every 7 people in the world today. One third of the population of the world consider themselves to be Christians.

The point Jesus was making with this parable is that a tiny, tiny seed grows into a large plant which becomes a blessing to the creatures who use it and he used this to describe the kingdom of God.

This parable is true for individuals as well.

Twenty years ago, at a missions conference in our church in Princeton, New Jersey, a missionary couple staying in our house told me about a church in Rabat looking for a pastor and thought I would be a good fit. While my response was not immediate excitement (the thought of moving to Morocco seemed far too exotic to me to take seriously), I exchanged emails and was invited to come for a visit in September 1999. I came, loved the people and the church, was invited to come as pastor, and arrived on Monday, January 10 of 2000.

I have often said that these years have been the best years of my life and that is true. But my decision to come was not only good for me. Many lives have been affected because of my act of obedience. Because I obeyed God’s call, there are churches and individuals who have come to Morocco to love people and help with the needs of Moroccans. Because of my act of obedience, there are people who have decided to become followers of Jesus and others who have been encouraged to renew their life with Jesus. I have the smallest glimpse of how God has worked through my obedience to him and I anticipate that in heaven we all will delight in seeing the ways his creative power worked through us.

This does not mean I am indispensable to God’s plan. If I had chosen not to come to Morocco, God would have found another way to accomplish his purposes, but I did obey and have had the privilege of being a part of his work.

Out of my act of obedience, many have been blessed. This is my story and it is also our story. The consequences of our decisions to resist sin and to obey God’s call, have implications far beyond our own lives. We decide not just for ourselves, but for all those who will be affected by our decisions.

When I first became a follower of Jesus, I read Psalm 40 which inspired a very strong image of my life with Jesus.
Psalm 40:1–3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the Lord.

My image was that my life was like floating in a stream and at some points it was relaxing and pleasurable, floating with the current, enjoying the view. At other times I came into the rapids and I plummeted over waterfalls and was dashed against the rocks. In the midst of one of these stressful moments, Jesus picked me up and set my feet on a rock.

Now that I was no longer being swept along by the current and being dashed against rocks, I saw life from a different perspective – and it was wonderful. But then came times when the rock began to seem so small and slippery I worried I would slip off and fall back into the current. Over time the rock grew as my faith grew and became more stable and eventually became large enough that I could invite someone to stand up with me. And today the rock is a small island with trees and grass where others can come and be encouraged.

This is how God works in our lives. He loves us and then we can love others. He blesses us and then we can bless others. Out of the obedience of our lives, he provides space for others to come along and receive his blessing.

We can sometimes get discouraged because our own lives do not seem to be making much progress. We can sometimes be fearful because the church is under attack in so many parts of the world and so weak in other parts of the world. The church suffers from persecution and apathy. The church often seems preoccupied with its own survival. Church leaders cover up abuse to protect the power and wealth of the church. There is good reason to be discouraged.

But the kingdom of God will not be stopped. It will not be thwarted. Peter made his great confession of faith, (Matthew 16:16) “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” and Jesus responded, (Matthew 16:18) “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Before Peter denied knowing Jesus, Jesus saw into the future and knew that Peter would lead the church after Jesus ascended into heaven. The church Peter would lead would be small. It would be persecuted. But it would grow, rapidly, like a mustard bush.

The church has often struggled over the centuries of its existence, but time after time, God has renewed the church. Churches gain members and they lose members, but the kingdom of God never loses members. Membership in the kingdom of God is eternal. The kingdom of God goes from strength to strength.

So be encouraged. Be encouraged for the church in the world. Be encouraged in your own faith. Hold on to Jesus and you will grow in faith.

On the night Jesus was arrested, with the disciples nervous and confused by what Jesus was telling them, with Judas about to leave and betray Jesus, with the disciples wondering what Jesus meant by saying that one of them would betray him, with the disciples wondering what Jesus meant when he said that before the rooster crowed three times, Peter would disown him three times, with Jesus saying that all of the disciples would abandon him – in the midst of all that, Jesus told them, (John 15:16)
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last

God uses imperfect people to build his kingdom. I am imperfect. You are all imperfect, but you have been chosen by God to be his beloved daughter, his beloved son. You are a seed in rich soil. Abide in Christ. Hold on to Jesus and you will bear much fruit.

If Peter were here this morning, he would tell us to be encouraged because while we sleep, God is at work.