The reading from Second Corinthians ends with one of the most stirring passages in the entire New Testament. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Apart from Christ, we are stuck in the old creation, the fallen creation, the creation marked by sin and suffering and death. But in Christ, sin and suffering and death pass away. We are made new. We are re-created.
In Christ, God wins. Through Christ we participate in God’s victory, which we experience in baptism and whenever we share Eucharist.
So Paul claims. So we believe. That is the good news. That is our Easter faith.
But many of us do not feel all that new. Sin and suffering and death seem to retain all their old power. If this is the new creation, the line between new creation and old creation is not nearly as clear as we might like.
The result is a gap between the new creation that Paul proclaims and the messy reality that we all live.
That gap will not go away. But if we turn to our gospel reading, it can help us make sense of that gap.
Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground . . . , and the seed would sprout, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. . . .”
Jesus also says, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches . . . .”
These two parables go together. According to both, the kingdom of God does not begin with fireworks. Whatever else Jesus may be saying in these parables, he is surely telling us that the kingdom of God starts small, so small we might not even notice it. The kingdom takes root and grows in ways that we do not understand. And yet ultimately the kingdom is like a seed that puts forth large branches. It changes everything.
Tomorrow, Carrie and I are headed to Maine, where we will stay with some friends. We have not seen the child of our friends in a few years. And the odds are pretty good that the first thing we will notice about their son is how much he has grown.
Our friends know their son is growing. But since they live with him every day, they cannot see the growth happening.
That is what Jesus is saying about God’s kingdom in us. It starts small. It grows slowly, almost imperceptibly. But it does grow, and gradually we become the beautiful plants that God creates us to be.
The Old Testament gives us a classic example of the painfully slow growth of God’s kingdom.
In our reading, the prophet Samuel anoints David to be the new king of Israel. This is a BIG moment. David will be the greatest king in Israel’s history. David’s reign will be remembered as a golden age. Jesus himself will be born from David’s line. Those are some pretty big branches.
But the seed of all that greatness starts very small. All of the details in our reading for this morning make that point.
Samuel is not excited about the anointing. Samuel is too busy grieving over the rejected King Saul and worrying about what Saul might do.
The people of Bethlehem, where the anointing takes place, are terrified. “The elders of the city came to meet [Samuel] trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’”
David himself was not even there at first. David’s father Jesse brought David’s seven brothers to meet Samuel, but left David at home. Only when Samuel realizes that God has not chosen any of David’s brothers does he learn that the family even has another son.
Finally, Samuel and David meet, Samuel anoints David, and the spirit of the Lord comes mightily upon David. But there is nothing particularly glorious about a grieving, frightened, mistaken prophet anointing the youngest and least likely son of Jesse to be king in front of terrified townspeople. The Spirit of the Lord is mighty, but also subtle.
But now, having been anointed by Samuel and the Holy Spirit, surely, David can embark on his long and glorious reign.
Except that he does not. Instead David enters Saul’s service, is driven out as a suspected traitor, becomes a bandit chief, and finally flees to Israel’s greatest enemies, the Philistines.
When Saul dies, David at last becomes king. But David ruled over just a small part of Israel. David had to fight a seven-year civil war before he could rule over the rest of Israel, and, during this whole period, David remained a vassal of the Philistines. Only much later does David finally become the king of a united Israel and fully independent of his Philistine overlords.
Even then David’s reign, glorious as it was in many respects, was troubled by a humiliating revolt, led by David’s own son.
Here is the point. David was anointed in secret by a prophet who had real trouble seeing his potential. He labored for years in comparative disgrace. Even when he became king, he continued to suffer very visible personal and professional tragedies. In the words of Jesus’ parables, David was a very small seed indeed. His growth into the calling God gave him was mysterious and mostly beneath the surface, indeed all but invisible for years.
But here is a second way to look at David’s life. David is anointed by the prophet of God as the king of God’s people. David is a man after God’s own heart. In important ways, David shapes the nation of Israel in his own image. David receives promises from God, and those promises finally come true in Jesus Christ.
In the words of Jesus’ parables, this is the produce of the earth, the large branches of the plant, the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
Oddly this is how God seems mostly to work: with very fallible instruments in very mysterious ways and with very odd, sometimes troubling results.
And yet, somehow, everything changes, and creation is made new in the process.
That was David’s experience. That was what Jesus taught in his parables. And that is what we an know from our own lives.
If we look at ourselves and at each other only “as mortals see,” only “on the outward appearances,” only “from a human point of view,” we will see flawed instruments who seem incapable of really doing God’s work and contributing to the coming of God’s kingdom. We will see small seeds scattered on the ground, and nothing more.
But if “we walk by faith, not by sight,” if we follow the Lord’s example and look on the heart, if we open ourselves to the Spirit of the Lord which comes mightily upon us, we will, in some mysterious, largely invisible, and probably very slow way, develop the kind of branches that can shelter others. The old will pass away, and we will become new creations in Christ.
May it be so. In the name of Christ, the sower of the seed and the source of all growth. Amen.
2 Corinthians 5:17