An Uncontainable Kingdom – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

2 Samuel 11:1-17 & Mark 4:26-34

I am haunted by a vivid memory: a lush, green vine consuming a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and even a small house. The vine is kudzu, a species innocently introduced to the southern U.S. in the late 1800’s from Japan. Now known as “the vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an aggressively invasive species, often growing a foot in a single day. My vivid memory stems from seeing this vine for the first time at age nine, when my family relocated to Alabama from New Jersey. On one stretch of highway, I gawked at the shape of a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and then a small house clearly visible beneath the lush foliage. I silently wondered if our new house would eventually suffer the same fate. 

Sin is not unlike kudzu on an untended stretch of highway. In the second book of Samuel, we encounter a passage that is notoriously timeless in its relevance. A simple stroll and a lingering glance in the direction of the unknowing, innocent Bathsheba prove fatal. So much harm grown from a single, tragically misguided decision, to act on his tempting thoughts in flagrant abuse of his power as king. David’s sin rapidly multiplies in a sequence of events leading to worse and worse consequences. An innocent woman’s life is changed forever, and a good man is put to death by the king whose interests he was fighting to defend. 

When the uncontainable consequences of sin – our own, or those of others – bloom into a tangled, mangled mess in our own lives, we may rightly wonder if a humble mustard seed can make any difference. But the good news is that black mustard (brassica nigra), most probably the kind of mustard to whose seeds Jesus compares the kingdom, is an invasive species in its own right. This plant can grow up to six feet, the size of a fig tree, and was prohibited in Jewish gardens because it would rapidly overrun the other plants. Jesus may be cleverly evoking a passage from Ezekiel, which speaks of God’s exaltation of Israel as the transplanting of a cedar: 

On the mountain height of Israel

   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.

A mustard shrub is not a majestic cedar tree, but perhaps in this it has its advantage: a tiny seed yields a humble but hearty plant that is hardly containable once it takes root. To be a citizen of the kingdom of God is not to be a sovereign, but in fact far more: to spread the good news as far as the curse is found, and to enable its growth in human hearts as deep as the sin of Adam has seeped.

There is a key detail in scripture, as small as a mustard seed of a white kudzu blossom that acts like a translator between these two passages: it is Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. This long list of Jesus’s ancestors includes a single line that evokes volumes: “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Bathsheba is not mentioned by name, which is lamentable in its own right. But her original spousal relationship to Uriah evokes, in this unlikeliest of places, David’s chain of sinful actions. These actions – objectively wrong, displeasing to God, violating and traumatizing of Bathsheba, fatal for the loyal and honest Uriah, and with dire consequences that will haunt David’s footsteps – all this is a mangled, tangled mess. And it is precisely all this that is turned, transmuted, maybe even composted by God, in God’s time and by God’s mysterious ways, into our good and our glory.

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