I have good news for you today, news that puts all the other news into perspective, the news that Jesus of Nazareth went about announcing in the cities of the 1st Century. Are you ready?
The kingdom of God has come near! The kingdom of the living God has come near!
Will you turn to one another and announce this good news?
Let us pray.
Dear God, we believe that you enabled Luke, the physician, to accurately write down the words of the LORD Jesus we are going to look at today. And we pray in your mercy and grace that you would cause these words to come alive in our experience as never before. For we pray this in the matchless name of Jesus.
I invite you this morning to give your attention to two short, complementary parables, through which Jesus gives us his perspective on his mission in the world. As you would expect, given what we have experienced thus far in our studies in the parables, what Jesus reveals is another surprise, a surprise that changes our understanding of what is going on in the world right now.
1. It is Jesus’ Perspective
The parables are recorded in Luke 13:18-23. Did you notice, as we read the text, that twice Jesus asked the question, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” (v.18 and 20) On other occasions, we hear simply he says, “The kingdom of God is like. . .” This time, he begins with a question, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” The emphasis is on the “I”. The point being that the one who is bringing the kingdom of God into the world, the one who is bringing the kingdom of Heaven to earth, the one who is causing the future to spill into the present, the one who is answering the prayer he taught us to pray your kingdom come, is now going to tell us his understanding of how the kingdom ordinarily comes. He is going to give us his perspective on his mission in the world. And it is a surprising perspective.
The kingdom of God, the advancing kingdom of God in the world, is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted, and like leaven which a woman took and mixed. Even on a casual reading of the text, we can see that these two parables belong together. Many New Testament scholars call them “twin parables”, not only because they teach complementary truth, but because Jesus employs two complementary genders to illustrate how his government operates in the world.
The Kingdom of God is like “a man who. . .” and “a woman who. . .” What is significant to realize is that using both the male and female to illustrate something about the living God is unheard of and radical thing to do. Those Scribe or Pharisee or Rabbi would never do that. But Jesus did, and it is not the only place he did. Later in Luke, Jesus will be teaching about his coming again. He will say, “Two men will be in the field, one will be taken, the other will be left. There will be two women grinding at the same place, one will be taken, the other will be left.” And then there is in his most famous parable recorded in Luke ch.15, Jesus will explain that he is seeking sinners and welcoming them into his family by speaking of a man seeking a sheep and a woman seeking her coin. Unheard of. Scandalous!
2. A Mustard Seed and Leaven in Dough
The coming of the holy God to reign as king is like a man sowing seed in his garden. The coming of the holy God to reign as king is like a woman hiding leaven in a lump of dough. As we have done on the previous days of the Conference letter, let us step back and review the larger context in which Jesus speaks the twin parable.
The larger context involves John the Baptist. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, is living out in the desert, away from all of the glitz and hype of the city. And he senses that there is something cataclysmic in the air – the living God is about to move in a new and powerful way (which is what I sense He is doing in our time). John is shown by God that there is something cataclysmic is taking place through his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. So he cries out, “prepare ye the way of the LORD”.
After John was arrested, Jesus comes on the scene, following 40 days in the wilderness, where he is wrestle with the cosmic power of evil and won. He comes on the scene with his Gospel, or God’s Gospel, as he calls it. The good news that has huge implications not only for the private religious realm but for the public secular realm. “Today,” He says, “The time is fulfilled.” Today, in him, and because of him, history has reached a major turning point. A great threshold has been crossed. It is time for what? For the inbreaking of Heaven! For the rule of God to invade the world! It is time for God’s new world order, a new eternal dynasty.
Jesus then begins healing people and freeing them from the demonic, not to prove that his good news is true news, but because the kingdom he is bringing into the world is all about healing and freedom. (Even so, LORD, bring it on.) Jesus then preaches his sermon on the mount, probably the most famous sermon ever preached, in which he describes what happens to people when the king breaks into their lives. They become “beatitude” people. If you want to understand more about what that means, my book (Note: The Beatitudes.) has been translated into Chinese and you can get it in the book store. “Beatitude” person – poor in spirit, mourning over the condition of the world, gentle, hungry and thirsty for justice, merciful, pure in heart, makers of peace, people who do not echo the behavior of those who hurt them, people who do not retaliate, people who are learning to bless those who persecute them, who are even learning to love their enemies.
Jesus then sends his first disciples out to announce this Gospel. In towns and villages, they announce what Jesus announces, “The kingdom of God has come near.” People were healed, people were delivered. People began to move toward holiness.
But for all of that preaching and teaching and healing, the world is still profoundly broken. For all the light that is breaking through, the world is still a dark place. So, John the Baptist is confused. He is in prison, he hears reports of what Jesus is doing – good reports, but not what John expected, not as good as what he hoped for. That something cataclysmic in the air is not coming cataclysmic enough. So he sent messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the coming one, or should we look for someone else?”
More to the background of Jesus’ twin parables. Jesus is increasingly finding himself in trouble with the religious leaders – Jesus is not religious enough! He is not doing things the way religion should do it. He heals a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. And all he gets is complaint – working in the Sabbath. And then he speaks the twin parables. I think we can summarize what Jesus is saying in this way – the Kingdom of God does not come the way other kingdoms come. That something cataclysmic in the air does not come in cataclysmic ways. Not ordinarily. There are times when it comes in a big way, but not ordinarily. Ordinarily, mustard seed and leaven.
Consider each of these images separately.
ii.The Meaning of the Tiny Mustard Seed
“What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus says, “To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed which a man took, threw into his own garden and it grew, and became a tree and the birds of the air nested in it.” The language of the parable is very appropriate when speaking about kingdom. For a number of Old Testament texts, God pictures kingdoms as trees. It had grown large enough for birds, i.e. other kingdoms, to live in it. For example, Ezekiel 31:1-14, God speaks to the kingdom of pharaoh, king of Egypt, as a tree growing very tall, and “all the birds of the Heavens nested in its boughs.” In Daniel 4:11-12, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has a dream about a tree growing very large, “the birds of the air dwelt in its branches.” In Ezekiel 17:22-23, God speaks of his people in such terms – God speaks of a sprig from the top of a cedar and God planted it Himself. And God says, “It will bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar, and birds of every kind will nest under it, and they will rest in the shade of its branches.” So Jesus walks into this Old Testament background to give us his perspective on his mission in the world. Although the kingdom he brings into the world will one day grow as John the Baptist expected, until it is large enough for all the kingdoms of the world to rest in it, the kingdom began small, much smaller than John expected, like a mustard seed.
“Like a mustard seed” was the 1st Century way of referring to something very small. A mustard seed is about a millimeter in diameter, and it takes 750 master seeds to weigh one gram. Yet, from a tiny mustard seed, it will grow a tree 8 to 12 feet high, large enough for a man to climb. Jesus is saying to John the Baptist and to us, “The kingdom is not coming as cataclysmic as you hope. It looks very tiny right now. But you just wait and see. Do not despair. Hang on to the potency of the mustard seed.” So tiny, so apparently insignificant alongside the other seeds, yet it grows into a plant larger than all the other plants in the garden.
iii.The Effect of the Tiny Mustard Seed
And is this not what happened after Jesus spoke the parable? Do we not, 2000 years later, see fulfillment of Jesus were right before our eyes? The tiny mustard seed has grown way beyond its tiny beginnings. The Gospel is spread all over the world. Yes, there are many people and many people groups who have not yet heard the Gospel. And I’m going to do my part, make sure that they do hear. But think how far the Gospel has already spread. Millions and millions of people have come to rest in the branches of Jesus’ tree When Jesus first spoke this parable, he likely had about 100 followers. And he only had 12 enrolled in his intensive training course. One betrays him. One, James, son of Zebedee, is killed just after the movement starts. Yet look how it grew. Peter took the Gospel to Asia Minor to the Jews living in the diaspora. Andrew too brought the good news to the people of southern Europe. Thomas planted the seed among the Parthenian and eventually brought the Gospel to south India. Matthew bore witness to Jesus among the cannibals in Anthropophagi where he was executed, an act which was so troubled that, as Matthew died, the tribal king was converted. Philip bore witness to a eunuch from Ethiopia who took the Gospel to his people. Philip helped establish churches in Armenia, Athens and Hierapolis where he was executed. Simon the Zealot and Jude, as a team, took the mustard seed to Persia to what is now known as Iraq. And Bartholomew took a copy of Matthew’s Gospel to India and eventually to Armenia. And on it goes. So tiny, and yet see how it grows, and how it is growing. Jesus’ followers are on every continent, nearly every country in the world. The tiny seed is growing and growing and growing.
iv.The Meaning of the Hidden Leaven
And the invisible leaven is leavening. “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” Asks Jesus. “It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three pecks of meal until it was all leavened.” Now It is important to see that Jesus is focusing not so much on the leaven itself as on the leavening process. One scholar put it, the kingdom has not been compared to the leaven, but to what happens when you put the leaven in a batch of meal.
In Jesus’ day, bread was the basic food staple. Because there are no bakeries or supermarkets, women bake their own bread at home. My wife even does this in this modern day. Leaven or yeast was put into a mixture of wheat and barley to cause the mixture to expand and rise. But the women did not use fresh yeast each time they baked. They kept the fermented piece of dough from the previous baking, mixing it into the new batch. And the little, hidden leaven or the yeast had remarkably big and visible effect. The hidden has visible effect. “Put the leaven into the dough, and the leaven changes the dough from a massive lump into a seething, bubbling, heaving mass,” as William Barclay puts it. So it is with the kingdom of God – often (actually, usually) unseen, yet its effect is everywhere, seething, bubbling, heaving, turning things upside down.
v.The Effect of the Hidden Leaven
The kingdom of God hidden in the dough of the world is powerfully at work. For 2000 years, now people have been benefiting from the Gospel even when they did not know the Gospel. People from all over the world are benefiting from the hidden Gospel, even though they do not know the Gospel. Hospitals, schools, women rights, racially quality, human rights are all the consequences of Jesus bringing in the kingdom. William Barclay, a New Testament scholar, reminds us that Jesus came into a world that marginalized the sick and the weak. Jesus came into a world that marginalized children and women and people of different color and economic status. In the 1st Century Sparta, for instance, when a child was born weak or damaged, he or she was simply left on the mountain side to die. The hidden leaven of the kingdom of Jesus changed all that. The disciples of Jesus took care of such children. They took them into their own homes and raise them as their own children. The first home for the blind was founded by a Christian monk named Falius. The first free dispensary was founded by a Christian businessman named Apollonius. The first hospital was founded by a Christian lady named Fabiola. I would encourage you to read the book by Rodney Stark entitled the Triumph of Christianity. Especially in his chapter entitled “Misery and Mercy”, where he describes the awful, filthy disease-ridden conditions of the cities of the 1st Century, and how he describes the disciples of Jesus entering into the mess and bringing the transforming power of the Gospel. Stark quote from another book entitled Plagues and Peoples, where he speaks of the nursing ministry has begun by the disciples of Jesus, where he makes the claim that Christian nursing reduce the mortality rate by 2/3. Every time a person goes into a hospital, whether he or she knows it, they are benefiting from the leaven of the kingdom. Every time someone gets an education, whether he or she knows it, they are benefiting from the leaven of the kingdom. Every time anyone does science, whether she or he knows it, they are benefiting from the leaven of the kingdom. The scientific method that has led to the technological marvels of our day was born out of the leaven of the Gospel. It is a Gospel that gives us a vision of the world, the vision of the cosmos that allows for science to emerge. I know that, in our time, the Christian faith gets bad press. Especially in Canada, we have very bad press. Some of it is deserved. Christians are not perfect people, so we have done some imperfect things. And not all who use the label “Christian” are in fact Christians. So some of the bad press is warranted, and we need to repent of some of what has been done in Jesus’ name. But where would the world be without the Gospel? Just look at the places in the world today that have not yet received the Gospel. Or look at the places in the world which one time did embrace the Gospel but no longer do, like Europe, North America – once one of the most Christian parts of the world now rejecting the Gospel, suffering the awful consequences.
1.The Visible Part of Growing
Now, clearly, the obvious point of Jesus’ twin parables is that the little will become big and the hidden will become visible. But the deeper point, “the mystery of the kingdom” as Jesus puts it, is that little itself is powerful, and hidden itself is transformative. That is the encouragement of the parables. Life is not in the eventual consequences of the sowing of seed and the heaving of the leaven. The encouragement of the parable lies on the mustard seed itself, in the leavening process itself. The mystery of the kingdom is the power of littleness and hiddenness. Yes, the Gospel does sometime come in big and visible ways, like in Pentecost, when Jesus poured his Spirit on 5000 people. And like other times in history, when the Holy Spirit moved in power through whole cities and nations, in the so-called Great Awakenings, for which I am praying my heart, with many of you asking that the Spirit moves through our city and nation than ever before. He can, and He has.
Vancouver is one of the most secular cities in the world. We are 3-4% Christian. Yet the church is growing again, largely because Chinese Christians are immigrated to Vancouver. They of course are bringing their money, but they are bringing the Gospel. Right now in Latin America, thousands of people come to Christ every hour, almost one new Pentecost every day. Right now in Turkey, thousands of people are coming to Christ, and they are bringing their neighbors to cry. Missionaries tell me they cannot keep up with demand for people who want to be discipled. Right now in Iran, hundreds and thousands of people are meeting Jesus.
2.The Invisible Part of Growing
It appears that in troubled places, the trouble simply drives the seed deeper into the soil and causes the leaven to spread. But the encouragement of the parable lies deeper, in the tininess and hiddenness itself. Ordinarily, the kingdom comes in little, hidden way, which means that we in our time, can resist the temptation to spruce up the Gospel to make it bigger and more visible. But the Gospel will do just fine on its own. Let it stand as it is. Seemingly as small as a tiny mustard seed, seemingly as insignificant as invisible leaven, one day the kingdom will come in a cataclysmic way. But before that day, the kingdom ordinary comes in a little and hidden way. Until that day, the Gospel does not get the headlines. I went online this morning. It is not on CNN, BBC, or any newspaper front cover. The Gospel does not get the headlines, and that is okay. The Gospel does not need headlines to have its way in the world. Jesus does not need the headlines to accomplish his purposes in the world.
Littleness and hiddenness. Has this not been God’s way throughout the history of the world? Of all the peoples, which people did he choose to be his first covenant people? The big and the visible? No. He chose the Jews. When in the time of elections, they were not a great nation. Indeed, they were no nation at all. Just one man – Abram and Sarai, living in ancient Iraq. And when God raised up the king for his people whom that he chose, is he big and highly visible? No, he chose David, the youngest, the smallest of a forgotten clan. When God chose a mountain on which to uniquely dwell, what is the big and highly visible? No, he chose Mount Zion, the smallest and most obscure hills of Jerusalem. And when God came to earth in person, God incarnate himself in our flesh and blood, where is he born? In a big name, highly visible city of the world? Jerusalem? Alexandria? Athens? Rome? Sure we will choose Rome as the place for him to be born in the world. But no. He chose Bethlehem, a little, insignificant village of the jet set path. In the last book of Bible, in the grand apocalyptic visions of the glory of God, what is the central figure? A grandeur of all? Size of the throne? The lightning and the flashing? No. the lamb, the little lamb. Although little, he stands at the very center of it all. Even in the new creation, in the New City, Jesus is still the lamb. But he is the lamb of all the glory of God radiate in the new creation. “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” asks the one who brings the kingdom. Littleness and hiddenness. Through littleness and hiddenness, transforming the cosmos.
3. The Story of Lesslie Newbigin
I want to share with you my favorite story about the way Jesus does his mission in the world. It involves the former bishop of the church of south India, Lesslie Newbigin, from whom I have learned so much. He received a message one day, asking him to go to a remote village in south India which he had never heard of, to baptize 25 families. He went. And he was able to piece together the story of how these families were prepared for baptism. It was a story in four acts, as he discovered. Here is his story.
Act one. A water resources team had come to assist the villagers in digging a well, so they can have clean water supply for the first time in their history. The man in charge of this team was a Christian. He was not formally trained, even theologically naïve. He was not good at communicating and verbalizing his faith, but he made it clear he was a Christian. He left behind the impression of a good, caring, honest, sincere man.
Act two. 3-4 months later, one of the people of the village was visiting a neighbor town to do some shopping. A representative of the Bible Society sold him a copy of St. Mark’s Gospel. The man brought it back and started reading it. Reading in an Indian village means reading out loud. So the man sits on the veranda of his house reading this strange book. And of course people with nothing better to do gather round and listen. They start discussing. Week after week for several months, you have a group of people reading St. Mark’s Gospel which is totally strange to them. They try to make out what is it all about.
Act three. Along comes what we call an “independent evangelist”. We have a remarkable breed of such an evangelist in south India. Each one is totally independent of any human agency, and each one has a “hotline” to God and knows exactly what God intended. They go round the villages preaching fiery sermons. One of the independent evangelists drops in our village and preached a fiery sermon. He left behind a track which simply said, “If you die tonight, where will you go?” Act three closes with alarm and a despondency in the village.
Act four. The village decides they better do something about it. They will try to find out what this Christian faith is all about. They remember a village 5 miles away where there is a Christian congregation. So they write and they ask these people, “Tell us what this is all about and about this man Jesus.” These Christian people are day-labors. One of them has broken his leg and is unable to work. So the people say, “You go to the village, spend a month and tell them what you have.” So he does. So Newbigin wrote this. “The result of these acts was I was sitting down in front of 25 families as eager for the Gospel as well instructed as any group in that circumstance could find. None of us knew about the four acts. No agency of the church had any idea what was going on.” And I love this line. “The strategy was entirely in other hands.”
Littleness and hiddenness. It is what is going on in your life and mine. It is what is happening in your workplace and in mine. It is what is happening in your condo complex and in mine. It is what is happening in your city and in mine. It is what is happening all over the Chinese world. It is what is happening everywhere in the world. Jesus is invisibly leavening in the dough with his Gospel. He is working his little-but-powerful mustard seed conspiracy.
I received an e-mail this morning from one of my former students who is living here in Hong Kong. He quoted words that I regularly quoted to students who were discouraged about the conditions of the world. There are words that the great missionary is E. Stanley Jones used to speak to discouraged Christian leaders. Jones says, “The early Christians did not say in dismay – What the world has come to. But they said in great delight – Look what is come to the world.” Jesus has come to the world. With his good news, the kingdom of God has come near.
Let us pray.
LORD Jesus, thank you for opening up your perspective on your mission in the world. Will you give us eyes to see. Help us see, how your kingdom is working in a little and hidden way. I specially pray for my sisters and brothers living here in Hong Kong. Help them see what you are doing. Help them see the moving of your kingdom. Break through all the confusion and chaos and help us see. And with people around the world we pray Your kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.