1 Samuel 15:35-16:7 | Mark 4:30-32

Right back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel the author gives us a one sentence summary of Jesus’ preaching: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”. When you read through Mark’s gospel there’s a sense in which the whole thing is just an exposition of those words: the time is now; the Kingdom is near; repent and believe.

And it’s not just Mark, either – the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew, in deference to the sensibilities of his Jewish audience, records it, or Realm of God as we might prefer) is at the heart of Jesus’ message, as told by all three of the synoptic gospels.

We’re familiar enough with the words that they have surely lost something. In particular, that they have lost their political, or perhaps prophetic, edge. For in the time of Jesus, in the land of Israel, “Kingdom” meant one of two things. It either referred to the past glories of the nation – the Kingdom of David, and of Solomon – and to the hopes and dreams of the people that they would one day see the like again; or it referred to the Kingdom that was the Roman empire.

But when Jesus starts to describe the Realm that he is proclaiming, it becomes clear (well, at least to us, with the benefit of hindsight) that it was qualitatively different from both the empire of Rome and the remembered Kingdom of David. In particular, it would become clear that Jesus certainly didn’t have in mind a political construct, a national identity, a Kingdom that would free its citizens from the power of the empire around them.

Which, of course, is deeply connected to our reflections on the call of the people of Israel for a king, from last week. Demanding a king, wanting to be a nation just like the others, was exactly not what the people of God were supposed to want.

Because the reign of God is like a mustard seed.

But before we come to the parable, let’s linger for a moment on our reading from 1 Samuel. Last week we heard the elders of the people demanding a king, despite Samuel’s warnings of what that meant, demanding a king so that they could be like the other nations.

By the time of our reading today, they are starting to discover what that means. Saul has changed from the great leader he had seemed at first, into a paranoid tyrant.

And Samuel grieves for him, but will not see him again. And, we read, God was sorry that God had made Saul king over Israel.

Just let those words sit with you for a moment or two. God was sorry for what God had done. In fact, God repented.

How does that sit with your image of God, I wonder?

It’s been said that the Hebrew Scriptures don’t just describe the people learning how to be the people of God, but that they also describe God learning how to be God of the people. They describe God as a participant in the story; not the remote, all knowing, outside of time, deity of Greek Philosophy, but engaged in the process, being changed by what happens (there are several places where we read of God changing God’s mind), and even, it seems here, regretting what God has done.

And then God moves on. Not back to a time without a king – for that is the sort of sauce you can’t put back into the bottle – but anointing a new king. A king in waiting, anyway.

One of Jesse’s sons, God says.

And when Samuel meets Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab, he is sure this is the man. He looks the part. He is so much everything a king ought to be that even Samuel is misled. But we know how this story goes.

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart

And, as I guess you know, the story ends with the youngest son, the shepherd boy, David, being called before Samuel, identified by God, and anointed as king.

Even though he didn’t look like someone would have thought a king should look.

Which brings us back to the parable, and the key question it raises in the listener’s mind:

Why a mustard seed? Whatever the parable might say, it isn’t the smallest of seeds – though it is small – and it definitely doesn’t grow into the biggest tree. Not a tree at all, really, more of a shrub.

But worse than that – in first century Palestine, no-one in their right mind would plant a mustard seed in their field. The mustard shrub was a weed, something a farmer would rip up given the chance, but which spread into a chaotic mess and resisted efforts to remove it. It’s not something you planted; but it was something that grew, unruly, unpredictably, and stayed around however hard you tried to get rid of it.

It’s not a seed that you would plant, like other seeds, and the thing that grows from it is not a crop like other crops.

Instead, we have an interesting image for Jesus’ reign, for the sort of King that the Kingdom of God might need, for the sort of nation that God’s monarch will rule: not a tall, straight oak tree. Instead, the invasive, messy, scraggly weed…

Because the people of God were always meant to be different.

The Realm of God is not like the Empire of Rome. That was a mighty tree – powerful, orderly, monolithic, hierarchical, planned, structured. The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is the weed that just keeps on appearing, no-one quite knows how, however hard the powers of the world tried to supress it, always appearing in the cracks, forcing its way through the paving into the light.

The people of God were meant to be different.

They weren’t supposed to have a king, like the other nations, a central authority to unite them; for they were supposed to be united by their worship of God, and trust that God would provide the leadership they needed when they needed it.

And if they had to have a king? It shouldn’t be the sort of person that the other nations had, Saul, the military leader, or Eliab, the man who just completely looked the part.

It should be the youngest son (I like that, being the youngest of three boys), it should be the shepherd, the musician.

The reign of God wasn’t supposed to be the oak tree, visible to the world as a powerful, identifiable, discrete force, like the other nations.

The realm of God is the weed. Different. Pervasive. Messy. Very hard to keep out, even harder to get rid of.

The people of God were meant to be different.