“A Little Goes a Long Way”
Parable of the Mustard Seed
31 Here is another illustration Jesus used: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”
Parable of the Yeast
33 Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
Sarah can tell you that I know my way around the kitchen pretty well. I like to eat well, so I learned to cook at an early age. When I began working in business, I found that cooking was a stress reliever for me. I enjoyed making new things, and there was something calming for me about the task of cutting vegetables at the end of a long day. I learned how to use spices in a way that doesn’t require precise measuring, but which blends flavors. I figured out some shortcuts for getting things done more quickly in the kitchen. Over time, my enthusiasm for cooking has waned a bit, but I still enjoy the ability to whip up new recipes from ingredients on-hand, or make special meals for family on their birthdays or special occasions. I have also been able to use the kitchen skills I picked up over the years to serve in the church. The last year we lived in Kentucky I served as a cook for our church’s weekly meal ministry to the poor, where we routinely prepared meals for between 200 and 400 individuals each Saturday. All this is to say that the ability to cook has served me pretty well over the years, and I am glad I picked it up, even though I don’t do it as often these days.
Unlike cooking, though, I never really developed any ability for baking. Maybe it’s because baking requires such precision, or maybe it’s because I don’t typically eat many sweets or bread. Whatever the reason, I have just never had a whole lot of success when it comes to baking cookies, cakes, or bread from scratch.
If you are wondering what in the world the point of all this is, let me cut to the chase. When I am good at something, I am more willing to spend time working on it. Since I had an affinity for cooking, I was willing to devote time to improving my skills. But, when it comes to baking, I have tended to take shortcuts or rely on other people. This has made me lazy, when it comes to baking, and laziness almost always backfires at some point.
When Sarah had only been married a couple of years, she had a brief period of time where she had some pretty strict dietary restrictions. One of the biggest challenges was that she couldn’t eat anything with iodine in it, so anything made with regular table salt (also called iodized salt) was off the menu, including pretty much all breads. I ultimately wound up borrowing a bread maker to make homemade bread for her during that short period, but before putting in the extra effort out of love for my wife I tried the lazy man’s approach. I went to the store, bought some frozen bread dough that didn’t have iodine in it, and planned to toss it in the oven and bake it that evening.
The only problem with my plan occurred when I unloaded the car and didn’t notice that the roll of frozen dough had slipped out of the grocery bag, and wedged itself under my driver’s seat. I’m sure you can see where this is going now. It was summer, which means it was hot outside, and I left that dough under the car seat all afternoon and evening. And the next day, when I opened the car door, I was greeted with the overwhelmingly sour smell of yeast. And then it hit me. What did I do with the dough I bought yesterday?
When I looked in the backseat, the source of the smell was easy to spot. Because of the heat, our car had acted like an oven. The dough had split its fragile container and swelled to easily six times its original size, and then had baked onto the metal underbelly of the car seat. That is that last time I bought frozen dough at the store.
I’ll never forget the lesson learned that day about the power of a tiny bit of yeast to expand in incredible ways, when given the right environment. So when I read these parables of Jesus where he described the Kingdom of God as a tiny seed growing into a magnificent tree, or a small bit of yeast leavening a full measure of dough, I think about that roll of unbaked bread in our car. The underlying idea these analogies point to is that, once it takes a foothold in the world, God’s Kingdom expands quickly and forcefully. What starts small in the hearts of people quickly grows into a towering tree, and when the kingdom touches the edges a life or community, it soon permeates the whole.
II. We all have trouble seeing the kingdom of God, sometimes
It’s an inspiring notion, isn’t it, this idea that the kingdom has come and is quickly taking over the world? Theologians refer to this as the in-breaking kingdom. This new reality that we live in, since the Incarnation, where the God’s justice and mercy have come to earth, but not yet fully. But, if I’m really honest, there are a lot of days when I look around me and can’t see the kingdom of God clearly, because the brokenness of the world is looming so large. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see the kingdom of God in this or that situation? Does it bother you that we still see so much brokenness and evil in the world, when we know that Christ has already won the victory against darkness and sin? Or do you wonder why it is taking so long for Jesus to return and establish his kingdom forever? These are tough questions, and many of us struggle with them at times. The solution to these things is patience – trusting that God is in control and will complete the work he has started, in his time. But let’s be honest, most of us aren’t very patient. So, well-meaning Christians have often come up with other ways to answer these questions.
One of the ways Christians have sometimes dealt with the waiting is to give apocalyptic predictions and warnings that speculate about the future. To many, Revelation has become a message of impending disaster, instead of a love letter from God to the church. It is filled with the hope of his promise to never leave us or forsake us, but instead to bring his justice on the earth and welcome the faithful into his new creation, but we often read it as a roadmap for the end of the world, filled with fear and foretelling of doom. This response to the reality of God’s in-breaking kingdom focuses too much on the future kingdom, and in doing so distorts our view of the hope that we have in Christ, and ignores the activity of God in the present.
A second way that Christians have often responded to this period of waiting is to minimize reflections about our future hope and concentrate on the present activity of the Church. This view of the in-breaking kingdom says that the primary role of Christians is to transform culture here and now, because this is the New Creation. Our hope is in what we can do now through our freedom in Christ, not in some unforeseen eternity. But this view focuses too much on the present manifestation of the kingdom, and misses out on God’s promised future, when all things will be made right and the faithful will live with him in glorified bodies for eternity in a new heaven and new earth.
The problem is the same with both of these extreme responses to the reality of God’s in-breaking kingdom, and this period of waiting, when the kingdom has come already, but not yet fully. The problem, is that they both seek to find the kingdom “over there” somewhere, when Jesus has told us it is all around us, pervading every time and place, and pointing us from this moment toward eternity. We all have trouble seeing the kingdom of God from time to time. But we too often look for it “over there”, when it has already broken in all around us.
III. What is the Kingdom, and How does it Spread?
We aren’t alone in wondering about the kingdom of God, or why we sometimes find it so difficult to identify; the disciples wondered about these as well, and also struggled to understand the relationship of God’s work in their present and his promises for the future. In Matthew 13, Jesus taught his disciples using a string of back-to-back parables. And all of these stories had one thing in common. In one way or another, they were all about the kingdom of God. It seems there was still plenty of confusion about what exactly Jesus was trying to accomplish. In the previous chapters, we learn about Jesus traveling the countryside, healing illnesses of every sort, and teaching along the way. But he was just healing ordinary illnesses. No, he was healing the things that were impossible to cure; things like leprosy, paralysis, and demon possession. And he wasn’t just teaching the way that other rabbis were. He was challenging the religious leaders’ interpretations of things central to their faith, like fasting, Sabbath keeping, and what it means to be a true disciple. Jesus had even sent out his disciples, giving them the power to do all these same things and instructions to share the good news of repentance and belief to the surrounding towns.
Word of Jesus’ unusual behavior was starting to get around. He was upsetting the status quo, and beginning to make powerful people angry. He was even being accused of using the power of demons to accomplish his miracles. It should come as no surprise then that his family came to fetch him at the end of Matthew, chapter 12 and bring him back home before he got into any more trouble. His actions were making them look bad, and they were concerned about what would happen if he continued on his chosen path. His response to their inquiries about him was to redefine what family looks like, saying those who do the will of God are his true mother, brothers, and sisters.
We often move past this section as though his seemingly impassive redefinition of family is all that matters, but I think there is more going on there. In fact, I get the sense that, although he didn’t show much emotion at the time, Jesus was bothered by his family’s visit. After all he had been doing and saying, they still didn’t appear to understand. Even though Jesus had been demonstrating what the kingdom of God on earth looks like, the people around him couldn’t quite seem to see it. This must have bothered him, because the very next passage, from chapter 13 says that Jesus left the home later that day and went to the lake to be alone.
When people saw him, they began to gather around him, waiting to hear another word from this perplexing teacher. And since they didn’t seem to understand his actions or what he had been saying, he once again resorted to parables, to help explain this new reality that his followers were struggling to understand. In the middle of this teaching moment, Jesus told these two short stories about a mustard seed and some yeast. Now, there are a whole host of questions these two parables don’t attempt to answer. But there are two things in particular that these stories should cause us to consider.
1) First, what do we mean when we say “the kingdom of God”?
The kingdom is not a location. You can’t find it with a map. It isn’t located “over there”. The church has done a terrible job of conveying the reality of God’s kingdom, because we have made it seem like the only goal of the Christian life is going to heaven. We haven’t talked enough about the New Creation and resurrection. And we haven’t talked enough about the kingdom of God having already come, with the ability to awaken new life in its citizens and push back against the darkness. When we think of the kingdom in purely physical terms, as a place apart from this world, we risk missing out on what God is doing all around us.
Here is a better definition: The kingdom of God is God’s sovereign and redemptive activity in the world, in all times and all places. Like any kingdom, it is the place where the King dwells. Right now, we glimpse this in pieces, but one day God’s presence will overwhelm and remake the world. Then all things will life and work according to the will of our Father in Heaven.
Since the kingdom is the presence of God in our midst, it brings life and rest from the weariness of the world. Jesus described this with the image of the mustard tree, which provides a place for birds to nest in its branches. It may have small origins, like acts of love and mercy, but it eventually grows into something truly substantial, just as the small mustard seed eventually becomes a towering tree. Jesus had been demonstrating this to the people by healing diseases, casting out demons, and preaching a message of peace with God through repentance. And in Matthew 10, Jesus had told the crowds that there is rest for the weary, when they cast their burdens on him. The kingdom is life giving, because it resurrects what is dead in us, giving us new life in the Spirit, and it carries the hope and promise of eternal life with God, through Jesus’ blood.
The kingdom is everywhere, because God is everywhere. But we can’t always see it, because it is breaking in through God’s redemptive work in the lives of ordinary people, which takes time and patience, and a long view of love and justice. But everywhere we see lives transformed by an encounter with Jesus and everywhere we see his love poured out through the Church, we are catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking in. Now, we see things darkly, as through a glass, but one day we will see clearly what God has been doing in our midst.
That is the kingdom. There is no perfect way to describe it, but if we ask God to give us his perspective, I believe we can see it for ourselves.
2) The second thing these parables lead us to consider is how the kingdom grows and spreads throughout the world.
Jesus used the nature of yeast to illustrate this point. Just like yeast, we must provide the proper environment for growth. But when we do, the kingdom has the power to expand in incredible ways. We aren’t just talking growth in size, though. This isn’t really an illustration about the kingdom growing bigger; rather, Jesus was indicating that the kingdom is steadily becoming pervasive. It permeates every part of life in every time and place that God’s people stand as a witness to God’s presence. We do this, first and foremost, by inviting the presence of the Spirit into our lives and churches, setting up outposts for kingdom expansion. Then we assist with the kingdom’s expansion when we go out into the world to share with the world why the gospel is, in fact, good news.
Jesus shared these parables with his disciples to explain to them that the kingdom of God is something which starts small, but blossoms into a life-giving refuge for those who seek it, and that it spreads like yeast until it touches every part of our lives with God’s grace. This helps us understand a bit more about what the kingdom looks like and how it spreads, but even armed with that information, we are still left with our initial questions. Why do we have difficulty identifying the kingdom around us? We know what to look for, so why don’t we always see it?
1) First, I believe we miss the evidence of God’s kingdom, because we are looking in the wrong place. I mentioned earlier that there are two extremes at play among Christians: those that look only to the future, and those that look only to the present for answers. I believe we need to ask God to broaden our vision. We should ask him to remind us of our future hope purchased for us by Jesus, while remembering that the good news is also for the present. We are called to live fully as citizens of this kingdom, which has already come, but not yet fully. When we embrace the truth that God has called us to live as his children in the present world, we find opportunities to expand his kingdom to those who are living far apart from him. And when we place our hope in the promises of God, we can love sacrificially now, because we know that our future is bright.
2) The second reason we can’t often see evidence of God’s kingdom is because we haven’t invited God to first establish his kingdom in us. In order for a seed to grow into a tree it must first be planted. And in order for yeast to spread throughout the dough, it has to be added to the mix. Until a person has received the forgiveness for sin that God offers us through Jesus, and begins trusting him as their Lord and Savior, they do not belong to the kingdom of God and will not see it’s presence in the world. Until we invite the King to take his rightful place on the throne in our lives, we will always be standing just outside the kingdom gates, unaware of the riches contained within.
When we look for the evidence of God’s kingdom both in our present situations and his promised future – not just “over there” somewhere – and when we have asked God to establish his kingdom in our hearts, I believe he gives us a new perspective. He allows us to see that anywhere acts of loving-kindness, self-sacrifice, mercy, justice, obedience, and worship in Jesus’ name are happening, we are witnessing God’s kingdom breaking steadily and forcefully into our world
I don’t know about you, but with all of the crazy stuff going on in the world today, more than anything else I need to see that God is still working to make things new. But we will never be able to discern how God is working in our community or our nation or our world, until we see people and situations the way God sees them. And that can’t ever happen unless we invite Jesus to take complete control of our lives. Until we fully surrender to him and ask the Spirit to fill us with his presence, I think we will have a tendency to be more like the people who surrounded Jesus, observing his miracles and his teaching, but never recognizing the presence of God’s kingdom in our midst.
Let’s seek God together this morning in prayer, and ask him to show us his kingdom for what it is.
V. Closing Prayer
Heavenly Father, we are so grateful that you sent your Son, Jesus, to die upon a cross for our sins. We thank you that, by receiving him as our Lord and Savior, we are set free from the power of sin and the fear of death. Father, would you help us to live as citizens of your kingdom. Would you help us to see all that you are doing around us in the world? Would you show us how we can participate in your kingdom work today, even while we wait for your promises for our future to be fulfilled. And would you show us, even now, those things in our lives that we have not yet submitted fully to you. We love you, Jesus! And it’s in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.