He was just a kid, so young and apparently insignificant that his own father didn’t consider him worthy even to attend the sacrifice offered by the traveling prophet Samuel. Sure, he was good looking, and he was tough, and he had some talent, but by and large everyone who knew him assumed he’d spend his days as an adult the same way he’d spent those of his adolescence: tending sheep, playing with his sling, writing poetry, and playing music. He was hardly a suitable replacement for a great warrior like Saul. Yet David, the least of Jesse’s sons and the unlikeliest of leaders, was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to be King over God’s people Israel.
It was just like the God of Israel to do something so totally unanticipated. He had, after all, chosen to redeem the world through the as yet unborn descendants of a pair of skeptical senior citizens named Abram and Sara. When those descendants were enslaved and oppressed by the mightiest political, economic, and military power the world had known, He called upon a hot-headed, inarticulate fugitive named Moses to take up their cause and lead them to freedom. More than once He responded to their recurring disobedience and loss of faith with reassurance and forgiveness. Why should it surprise us to discover that when Israel demanded a king (so they could be like the other nations), God responded (after an initial false start) by choosing so improbable a candidate as David? It is, quite simply, the way the God of Israel and of Jesus works: divine power manifest in human weakness, divine purpose made present in the midst of human folly. As the Psalmist says, “Some take pride in chariots / and some in horses / but our pride is in the name of the Lord.” David, whom no one expected to be God’s anointed – His mashiah – was filled with God’s Spirit and became the greatest of Israel’s kings, a “man after God’s own heart” who was destined to be the ancestor of the One through whom God would bring salvation to all creation.
The story of David serves as a nice example of the lesson Jesus taught when he told the parables in today’s Gospel reading. The reign of God, when it came, would appear first of all not as an overwhelming counter-presence to Roman or any other imperial power; rather it would come quietly, unassumingly, underwhelmingly. The Kingdom of God, Jesus explained, is like a mustard seed.
The basic lesson of this parable is easy enough to grasp. In Jewish tradition the mustard seed was proverbially known as the smallest of seeds; its diminutive size made it a favorite image of the teachers of the faith, encouraging them, as the prophet Zechariah said, not to despise the “day of small things.” God’s reign was like this most miniscule of seeds because God’s reign began with insignificance. What could be a less likely indication that the creator of heaven and earth could be at work changing the world than the anointing of a teenage shepherd as king. And what could be a better sign of that unlikely work than something as small as a mustard seed? What could be a less likely beginning for the establishment of God’s reign than a peasant teacher from Galilee and his rag-tag group of disciples? This was God’s Messiah? These were the people through whom God was going to change the world? Not likely. Not likely at all. They were practically nothing. They were like, well, like a mustard seed.
But seeds do not remain seeds, and the mustard seed, when sown in fertile soil, eventually sprouts and grows and becomes the largest plant in the garden, a shrub that can grow up to 15 feet high, big enough, Jesus tells us, to offer shelter to birds.
Big enough to offer shelter to birds. Hmmm. There’s an irony here that we dare not overlook. God’s reign begins in insignificance, like a little tiny seed, and then it develops, and it grows, and it matures, and it becomes … a shrub. Just a shrub. Not a mighty oak, nor one of the famed Cedars of Lebanon, but a modest, unassuming, and most of all still insignificant shrub. What’s that about?
What it’s about is a metaphor for the way God works in the world. God begins with weakness and impotence and insignificance, and God works through those things, and they become God’s salvation, even though the world is likely to continue to regard them as weak, impotent, and insignificant. God’s work in the world is the life together of God’s people, and in Scripture God’s people are seldom impressive by any standards except God’s. God enters the world as a peasant from an obscure Middle Eastern tribe, as an infant born to a poor unwed teenager. When that infant grows to become a great teacher with many followers, he suffers the most ignoble death imaginable – at the hands of the government. When God breaks into history and raises him from the dead, he leaves his work in the hands of the very people who abandoned him at the end of his life. When God sends the Holy Spirit to empower them to preach and demonstrate the reality of God’s reign, they gather followers who turn out to be every bit as weak and ambivalent as the people Israel had ever been. And still, God continues to work, and the Kingdom is planted, and it grows, and birds take shelter in its branches.
David was just a kid. The mustard seed grows into just a shrub. And I am part of a little church: a small, mostly unremarkable group of people who live together in rural Northeast Pennsylvania, doing the best we can to raise our families and pay our bills. On Sundays we gather to worship God, and we stumble along as best we can. We hold Vacation Bible School and we host Vision and we baptize children and we gather, warts and all, around Jesus’ table.
You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds to me like God has us right where he wants us. It sounds to me like our weakness is the very soil for the seeds of God’s Kingdom. It sounds to me like we better be careful, for before we know it we might find birds taking shelter in our branches.
When that happens, thanks be to God.