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Emmanuel Church, Plymouth
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St Paul's, Efford
Tony's Reflection 49
Don’t you just love a good rags to riches story? Especially if it is a true one.
See if you can guess who this real-life success story is about.
He left school with an O-level or two and dyslexia, but since then he has built eight multi-million pound companies, in eight different sectors, has written six books and has a personal fortune of around £3 billion.
Did you guess Richard Branson?
After failed attempts selling Christmas trees and budgies, his first successful business venture was at the age of 16, back in 1966 when he set up a student magazine, working out of a church. The magazine led to a record business in 1970, first by mail order with the first shop coming in 1971. If you can still remember the first dark and dingy Virgin record store in Plymouth, down by the pannier market, it is a far cry from the plush, bright success of the Virgin empire nowadays.
It is hard to believe this colossal business triumph had such small beginnings. What began as a backroom micro business now provides a living for 50,000 employees, worldwide.
Today’s story from Jesus (
Mark 4: 30-34
) also reflects something large and impressive coming from very tiny beginnings.
Come with me, in your imaginations. We are back again by the Lake of Galilee. Hear the water lapping gently against the shore. Feel the breeze off the lake giving welcome respite from the baking hot sun. You are right at the front of a huge crowd, sitting in total silence. You are in awe, as you watch Jesus in the boat. He casts the magic of his stories and holds everyone utterly spellbound.
The laughter dies down after the last story, all about shopping.
Jesus calls out for the crowd’s attention once more. He hardly needs to, as they are already well and truly mesmerised by his stories. He is going to show them something. Something quite extraordinary. He scrabbles around under the seat of the boat, to find it. You wonder what he’s going to fetch out.
Suddenly Jesus leaps up in the boat, with great excitement. “Here it is. Look at this…”
Jesus holds out his hand, but it looks empty.
“Can’t see a thing!” yells a heckler.
“Yes!” exclaims Jesus triumphantly, “Exactly!”
“It’s a mustard seed. It’s so small you can’t even see it. But once I plant it, it will grow into the biggest plant in the whole garden. From this tiny thing you can’t even see comes something so big that the birds will come and hide away from the sun, in its branches.”
No one in the crowd asked Jesus what is story meant. But we have the code. Can we crack open this story, too and find the hidden treasure?
I expect you are part way into solving the puzzle of this story, already. You already know that the seed is God’s message to you. It comes every time you open the Bible, or hear it explained, every time you read one of these reflections.
But what about the birds? Where do they fit? Why the emphasis on them finding shade, in the fully grown mustard tree? All the crowd had was a cute tale of garden wildlife. But once we crack this bit of the code, there is so much more to be had…
The key lies in the Old Testament which, of course, Jesus knew inside out. It has a coded story, all about wildlife finding shelter in a magnificent tree (Daniel 4:4-18). Jesus has already told us that the mustard tree represents a kingdom, God’s kingdom. In Daniel, this tree represented a kingdom, too. So both plants represent kingdoms and both plants have birds taking shelter in them. Are you seeing the similarity?
In Daniel 4, the birds taking shelter in the tree are smaller nations and people, who find prosperity and thrive thanks to that larger kingdom (i.e. the tree). This unlocks the code of Jesus’ story for us. The mustard tree represents God’s kingdom, in other words where he is ruling. The birds are the nations and people who benefit from God’s rule, even if they aren’t directly part of his kingdom (i.e. the mustard tree).
God’s rule, what happens when people follow him and go his way, has certainly brought spill-over benefits to the societies where God’s people live, down through the ages. In this country, we could talk of slavery abolished and children being educated instead of sent up chimneys. In Efford, we could look at the many families fed from over 700 bags, hampers and parcels of food, going out from St Paul’s in the last year.
Let’s get personal, though, and think of you.
When God’s message (the seed) first starts coming into your life, it starts small. You can hardly see it. Most people might not notice that God’s message has come into you. Don’t be discouraged, that will change. As that message takes root in you, you slowly bring more and more of your life under God’s rule. God’s rule grows and blossoms in your life (the seed turns into the plant). It will grow… that’s what seeds in good soil do!
What God does in you grows so beautiful, so attractive, that there’s a spill-over to others. As they come close to you (as birds to a tree), they benefit from the good things God is doing in your life. You find you have a new peace and joy, which spreads to them. You are that little bit more gentle and kind - and they like the warmth that is in you. There is something about you… God is with you!
Welcome “the seed” into your life wholeheartedly – and look forward to it blossoming!