May I introduce you to Methuselah? Methuselah, the Judean date palm tree? He’s only thirteen years old. The thing is: we thought he didn’t exist. We thought he was extinct.
I love this title of an article about Methuselah: “Extinct Tree Resurrected from Ancient Seeds is now a Dad.” Does that not grab your attention?
Here’s the story: For thousands of years, the Judean date palm was a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea—valued resource, a symbol of blessing. Thick forests of Judean palms covered the Jordan River valley from the Sea of Galilee to the shores of the Dead Sea. It was highly valued and hunted much like ivory tusk; its value became its demise and eventual extinction. By 500 AD the once plentiful tree disappeared.
But, hidden away, seeds remained. In 1963, six seeds were found by chance in a jar in Herod the Great’s palace in the 2,000-year-old ruins of Masada. The seeds were kept in a drawer in Tel Aviv University for the next 42 years. Finally, Dr. Elaine Solowey decided to try planting three seeds. She was skeptical, supposing the seeds’ endosperm, which fuels early growth, would no longer be viable.
She was soon proven wrong! After eight weeks, a small green shoot emerged from one seed, producing a sapling unseen for centuries. The plant was nicknamed Methuselah. It’s the oldest known germination of a seed in the world.
Now the best part! In 2011, Methuselah produced flowers… and now: He has become a father! Solowey hopes to someday plant an ancient date grove.
Improbable Progress! Invisible Potency! Unveiled Mystery!
The power of life is in the seed!
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Don’t you hate being small? It invites our “darker” thoughts. I have a small pickup, a small motorcycle, I catch small fish… How about you: do you like being small? Maybe it’s the stations in life not arrived at, significance not attained, the very personal dismay of how one’s life is measured by family, or wealth, success or happiness… Don’t you hate being small?
How about you, Church—don’t you hate being small? Attendance of your congregation slipping off due to post-Christendom or the bright blossoming church down the street? Grandiose stories of mega-conversions on international mission fields and at home still evading us?
What about the CLB? “Church of the Brethren Who?” Bare-bone budgets, layoffs, vulnerability… and on some dark nights, the wondering of relevance? Identity, confidence, hope—wrapped up in a number rather than a Person.
Yeah. We don’t always handle “small” well.
Jesus tells a story about smallness, and greatness. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… the smallest of all seeds…”
Here Jesus reveals the kingdom’s “Improbable Progress.” Not Mission Impossible, but Kingdom Improbable!
Can’t appearances be deceiving? Jesus’ kingdom (present and arriving) sure looks small! It looks like nothing compared to Rome, to Judaism, to the pagan religions of the Greeks, Romans and others. Yet Jesus predicts the present extraordinary arrival of his kingdom, even while surrounded by a motley band of semi-literate misfits! And Jesus, the leader of this kingdom, is on the way to a criminal’s crucifixion!
But Jesus says, “Just you wait and see.” And yes, Christianity has boomed all over the earth since Jesus told this parable.
But what about today? Are we fading? Are our best years behind us? This 21st century looks grim, the Church in decline. We hear of “post-Christendom,” and the marginalizing of the Church.
When, Jesus? When will your kingdom come? He says, “It’s here right now.”
In this parable, I believe the seed is Jesus! The man planting the seed is God the Father, who gave his only begotten Son, and sent/planted him in the Garden of Israel.
Isaiah 53:2 describes the Messiah and his kingdom: “He grew up before them like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground.” Jesus speaks of his death this way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Yes, Jesus is the seed of this kingdom!
My sin (our sin) is to think myself large when I am small, great when I am weak, something when I am nothing. In this whole talk of kingdom, do I feel angst, anguish and anxiety because I’m wondering, worrying, thinking the kingdom is essentially about me? That it is me?
And our sin is to think Christ and his kingdom small when it is great! When in the gospel He is all, and all His is mine.
God forgive us.
Jesus says: My kingdom is now. Here. Advancing. Unstoppable. “Kingdom Improbable (but certain) Progress!”
Then Jesus’ twin parable speaks of the kingdom’s “Invisible Power.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Jesus’ point: His kingdom has an invasive, invisible potency at work within the world… and perhaps also within you.
I watched my mother make bread with yeast. She would knead a little bit of germ-spored yeast into the inert pile of flour dough, then set the apparently-tomb-sealed-dead lumps aside under some linen towel. Hours later, voila! That tiny little bit of yeast had worked its living way through the whole batch of dough!
Jesus says his kingdom comes like this too. It comes to men and women, little babies and brilliant scholars! And his life melts, works, worms—leavens—its way into our dead inert thickness.
In the Bible leaven is most often used as a symbol of sin. Jesus warns against the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees. Paul tells Corinthian believers to rid themselves of the leaven of immorality.
But now Jesus takes the insidious and seditious image of leaven and converts it for something glorious! This is a stunning throw-down against the opposition. Sin, like leaven, is known to be contagiously invasive, growing and spawning, rampantly reproducing in the heart, in one’s neighbor, in a nation. But Jesus’ coming kingdom with his gospel of forgiveness and new life has far more invasive and contagious disciple-making-reproductive potency than that other kingdom! Where Satan’s sin-leaven abounds, Jesus’ grace-leaven abounds all the more! Jesus says, “This is my kingdom!”
Do you ever wonder whether Christianity will survive? Your congregation will survive? The CLB?
Believe! Kingdom Improbable Progress! Invisible Potency!
In faith, we pray: “God our Father, Jesus our King: King me! Kingdom me! Your kingdom come! Your kingdom come to us, and through us, to neighbors near and oceans away, until your kingdom returns for us.”
Rev. Paul Larson is President of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.