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“Then He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.'” (Luke 13:18-19)

They are the largest and tallest trees on earth. One is a Coast Redwood that reaches 380′ straight into the air, the other is a Giant Redwood that boasts a trunk 36′ in diameter. Colossal in size, each began life as a tiny seed.

A mustard tree can’t rival the sequoias for size, but the contrast is similar. It goes into the ground as a kernel less than .005″ across. It matures into a tree that can shelter the birds. Such is the pattern of God’s kingdom: small start, exponential growth.

How small? Eight believers small when the Flood began. Abraham and childless Sarah hardly resembled the great nation God promised they’d become. Elijah calculated that he, himself, was the last believer in the land. When God greenlighted the return from captivity, only a remnant went back to Jerusalem.

In the New Testament, you’ll find only one forerunner to the Messiah, just twelve fulltime disciples, one Samaritan woman to bring her village to Jesus, one Ethiopian eunuch to take Christ to his people, two men, Paul and Barnabas—and later Paul and Silas, to carry the seed throughout the Gentile world.

At any time, the kingdom can be the size of a seed, a tree, or anything in between. While the small-stage seems most worrisome to us, the parable shows that the kingdom is not about numbers or size. It’s about God drawing sinners to Himself through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:25).

With attendance numbers in sharp decline, this is a reminder the modern church needs. The temptation is to help the Gospel along by making it more impactful, emotional, exciting, appealing, and so forth. Is this what the Lord wants from His people? No. The kingdom may appear to be gasping for air and ready to die, but it only seems that way to us. For Elijah’s one, the Lord had seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal. From Abraham and Sarah’s one son, the Lord continues to assemble a spiritual family that outnumbers the countable stars. No matter how small, insignificant, or unlikely it seems, cast the seed and know that God will bless it.

The reason? Because the Mustard Seed is also the Seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15. The eternal God came here in the most unpredictable of ways. Born as a helpless baby, cradled in a feeding trough, announced to lowly shepherds, Jesus was spurned and rejected by the very people He came to save. The men He personally trained were the very ones who betrayed, denied, and/or deserted Him. Jesus was completely alone on the cross when He was also abandoned by His heavenly Father. His body, like a helpless-looking seed, was buried; only to rise on schedule, as predicted, with all power and glory. His resurrection proclaims, “Mission accomplished. Payment accepted. All sins forgiven.” Jesus is the Mustard Tree. We are the birds who find shelter in His branches.

Our world is getting darker and our congregations smaller. It’s terribly sad, but not surprising. Unless we’ve abandoned the Gospel, no one should start hanging crepe above the church doors. Overcoming darkness and unbelief are God’s specialty. Scatter the seed with confidence. It looks small and inconsequential, but one day we’ll see how sequoia-like His kingdom really is.

James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.