Listen to it:
“The Fact and the How”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You know what the Kingdom, the Reign, of God is like. You are seeing it all around you, as you drive around or walk by the fields. Mark 4:28: “The earth produces fruit by itself: first the grass, then the head, then the full wheat in the head.” Have you ever watched the grain grow? I know, you’ve seen it taller week by week; but have you ever watched it grow? No matter how closely you watch, you will never see it actually growing. It is too slow and steady. You go to sleep and you wake up again, day and night, and the grain grows. And as much as we know about the fact that those seeds open, and the sprout comes up, and they get taller and taller until the “amber waves of grain” sway in the wind—as much as we know about the fact that things grow, what do we know about how it actually happens? How is it that a whole plant, let alone a tree, is hidden within a single seed? How is it that one seed multiplies into many? The fact is clear; the how is still as mysterious as it was when Jesus told this parable. Jesus says that this is how it is with the Reign of God. We can see the fact that people are brought to Christ for Him to touch and heal them; we can see the fact that people are baptized; the fact of the people around us in the pews; the fact of eating and drinking bread and wine; the fact of living and dying in the confession of the Name of Christ. But we cannot see how God makes people His own; we cannot see how sins are taken and washed away; how faith is given and sustained and nourished; how Jesus gives His Body and Blood with the bread and wine. And that is because “the wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know from where it comes or where it goes; thus it is for everyone who has been born from the Spirit” (John 3:8). Slow and steady is the growth of the Church; imperceptible even.
That is how it is with us as individual members of the Church as well: each of us is reborn as a citizen of the Kingdom, with Jesus as our Lord[, as Maci was this morning]; we are watered with the Word and fed by the nourishing Body and Blood, and we grow as God grants the growth. Though we cannot see it, as we cannot see the wheat grow, God’s Word always does what He intends for it; it never returns empty (Isaiah 55:10-11). But it is as certain as grain going without water and sun that we will not grow—we will die, in fact—if we do not regularly hear and read the Word and receive the life of Christ as He gives it in the Supper. There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’ book The Silver Chair where Jill Pole finds herself beside a stream. Although she is very thirsty, she does not drink because of the Lion who is between her and the water. “And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first” (20). The Lion invites her to come and drink, but she is afraid that He will eat her. “‘Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?’ said Jill. ‘I make no promise,’ said the Lion… ‘Do you eat girls?’ she said. ‘I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,’ said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it. ‘I daren’t come and drink,’ said Jill. ‘Then you will die of thirst,’ said the Lion. ‘Oh dear!’ said Jill, coming another step nearer. ‘I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.’ ‘There is no other stream,’ said the Lion” (21). Though we do not know the how, the fact is as absolute as any law of natural growth: you and I who have been baptized into the life of Christ cannot live spiritually—and, ultimately, physically—without His continual feeding and strengthening by Word and Sacrament. There is no other stream. It is spiritual starvation and, finally, spiritual suicide, to live—or rather, to die—apart from the gracious gifts of Christ in His House on His Day.
That is because the story of the Reign of God does not begin with you or me, but with the divine Seed who was planted in the womb of a virgin. The fact that “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary” is clear; the how is still a mystery. Though He was God, there was nothing spectacular about this Seed’s growth; He unfolded like a plant from a seed for nine months inside His mother. He was born in the normal way, springing up from the soil in Bethlehem, appearing as the young shoot from the branch of Jesse, the father of David. He grew and matured, nurtured and strengthened by God’s gracious Word in the Temple and synagogue. Finally, His branches had spread so far that the other plants became bitter and cut Him down, laying Him out on the cross to wither and die. But this Seed, dry and dead, opened again in life that has no end. He broke open the ground and began to spread His branches in unstoppable, vibrant fruitfulness. Those branches spread, cruciform, over the whole earth, until even we have been caught up and grafted in to the glorious Tree of Life. His resurrection now courses through our veins and pulses in every cell. And so it is that the tiniest Seed, unremarkable in appearance, has grown until there is no part of this world untouched by His life and death and resurrection. And under Him dwells every kind of bird, of every tribe and language and people and nation (Ezekiel 17:23; Mark 4:32; Revelation 7:9). The fact of the Church, born of the eternal seed of Christ, is absolute. It is the how of the Church’s growth that can never be explained or controlled.
Jesus entrusted His disciples, and He entrusts us, with the fact, not the how. He has revealed everything necessary for our salvation and life. “To you has been given the mystery of the Reign of God,” Jesus says (Mark 4:11). That revealed mystery, that open secret, is the life of the Tree, from which the fruit of salvation falls. [Here, this morning, we have witnessed one more tender shoot dug up from under the reign of the devil and her own sinful flesh, and transplanted under the Reign of God. Though we see the water, we cannot see the Blood; nor can we see her infant faith. Though we see the fact, we cannot see the how; but believe me, as one put here by God to be His hands and mouth for the sake of little ones like Maci: she lives with God. She has been planted and watered. But this is not the end; the harvest does not come at the beginning. And the devil is not going to give up that easily. But blessedly for her, and for us, neither does God give up. The Triune God, who put His Name on her, is going to feed her with His Word and, later, with the food of Christ’s Body and Blood. It is in this part of the Garden that God has put her, entrusted her to these parents, to this family, to this congregation. Pray, beloved, for Maci, and for her parents, and for all the baptized. Pray that God, who has brought His Reign to Maci would make holy His Name in her life; that He would give her daily bread, forgive her sins daily, keep her from temptation and the evil one, and finally bring her safely to the New Jerusalem, where her place waits with ours beside the holy River under the Tree of Life.] Slow is the growth, imperceptible even. [But be patient: the harvest comes at the end, not at the beginning. But according to the will of God in Jesus Christ, the growth and the harvest are assured. You have been planted[, along with Maci,] on holy ground, and this earth produces the growth from itself, though we know not how. This is where you belong, in the cool shade of Christ Himself. Delight in His holy Instruction; gladly hear and learn it; read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest and you will be like a tree planted beside streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither (Psalm 1:3). “It is good to give thanks to [Yahweh], to sing praises to your name, O Most High; the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of [Yahweh]; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that [Yahweh] is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (Psalm 92:12-15, ESV). The how is beyond us, but the fact is that the Church is planted on a Rock, even Jesus Christ, and on this Rock it can and will grow.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/09/09