From small beginnings - Matthew 13:31-35
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
From small things - Matthew 13 v31-33
SJN EP 8.2.15
‘Advertising,’ says the cynic, ‘is the art of getting people to buy what they don’t need by describing it in ways they know are not true.’ Today, advertising is more than big business it is a way of life, for what is most commonly associated with advertising is now the very thing which shapes the way many people look and behave. And what that something is, is of course- style. And, as Os Guinness has pointed out, ‘style is self-advertising.’ To choose a certain style is to choose a certain image we want to project. Identity- who we are-merges into image-what we want to appear to be.
Of course, the person who has elevated style to the level of a new art form is Madonna. She lives out the cliché that the medium is the message. She has total control over her shows, she writes the songs, produces the music, choreographs the dances, designs the stage set and even does her own make-up and costumes. Richard Morrison of the Times says this about her: ‘The likes of Madonna and Jackson aim to offer what can only be called the total egocentric experience: they control every aspect of their acts and are willing to dissolve the line where art ends and reality begins..’ In other words, for Madonna, image and reality coalesce so one is very difficult to distinguish from the other.
Sadly, the Christian church has not been immune from this trend either. Think for a moment of what was once considered the main purpose of the church- communicating the Gospel. At one time Christian speaking was seen as the art of conveying the understanding of truth. Increasingly it has become a matter of performance and even pretence. Surveys show that only 8% of an audience pays attention to the content of a speech, 42% to the speaker’s appearance and 50% to how the person speaks. Style has triumphed over substance. Consequently, ours is the day of the telegenic politician, the performing preacher- we like to be impressed with the impressive. But let me tell you something: when the crowds started to gather around Jesus and began to hear his teaching about his kingdom, the new rule of God he had come to bring- they were not that impressed. For them the word 'kingdom' resonated with power and glamour- the rule of Rome or Judaism's heyday under King David. But what were they to make of this northern itinerant preacher telling stories about seeds and farmers? As we saw a few weeks ago Jesus was realistic enough to know that even his own followers will, from time to time, entertain doubts. Yes, there would be the doubt about God ruling when there is so much evil in the world-hence the parable of the wheat and the weeds. But then there are bound to be doubts about God's methods- how on earth can we even begin to believe that from some obscure teacher, in an obscure corner of the world, surrounded by some obscure fisherman and turncoats, God is going to change the world? That is a mighty belief to swallow. Isn't the temptation going to be to try and outdo God and for the church ape the world by introducing some glamour and glitz? Invariably it will be so. Knowing this, Jesus gives us two pictures designed to encourage us in the belief that God's ways are the best ways and that the final results are going to be far greater than we could ever have imagined.
First we have the riddle of the seed which makes the point that the God's kingdom may be unimpressive but important- v 31-32. This is the way the NIV puts it: 'The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.' A contrast is being made between what we start with and what we end up with. What we begin with is far from impressive-the proverbial mustard seed. It is so tiny-about a millimetre in diameter. When the rabbis spoke about a minute drop of blood, they spoke of a drop like ‘a mustard seed’. In other words, it is something so small that you would hardly notice it. Then Jesus goes on to say it becomes the largest plant in the vegetable garden- nothing unusual there. That is what mustards seeds do, grow into big plants But then Jesus injects something into the parable which, to be quite frank is bizarre and which would have made his original hearers go, ‘Say what!!!!?? ‘It makes great branches so that the birds of heaven can make nests in its shade.’ That is no mustard plant known to this world. You see, Jesus is saying that the plant breaks out of its kind and becomes something else- a different genus altogether, because the tree which has great branches and gives home to the birds of heaven –eagles and the like- are the Cedars of Lebanon according to Daniel’s vision in chapter 4 of his prophecy. So what starts of as normal- a seed and a bush, becomes transmuted into something entirely different like the result of some Frankensteinian genetic experiment- a giant tree. Or to change the picture it is more like the magic beanstalk that Jack sowed in his back garden, with the branches getting bigger and taller until they push their way up into the clouds. That is the weird picture that Jesus is drawing with this parable. And it is meant to be strange, because in many ways the Kingdom of heaven is strange and the final result is so extraordinary and all encompassing, just like this ‘magic mustard seed.’
So here is the question: do you ever look at a church congregation while at the back of your mind being aware of the power of big business, the sweep of world politics and think, 'This doesn't look very much in the grand scheme of things. It is all pretty ordinary really’? What is the point of investing so much time and prayer and energy into something like this, is it really going to make that much of a difference?" Don’t you feel like that sometimes or is it just me? But that is the way it has always been-like looking at a mustard seed. Can anything significant come from this? Not very likely is it? Take the founder of this movement -Jesus. Born of a teenage peasant girl, in a remote backwater of the Roman Empire. Cradled in manger, he lived in obscurity for 30 years in Nazareth, having a broad Galilean accent, with all the crude habits of that culture, he would have wiped his nose on his sleeve. Then to die on a wooden cross and buried in a borrowed tomb. Not impressive by any standards. His followers weren't that much better either. They were more of a rabble than an organised missionary group- fishermen, tax collectors-not a professional 'high flyer' amongst them. There is the story of a bishop and his archdeacon discussing with someone what they would be looking for in a candidate for the ordained ministry. They stressed how important it was to be a good chap, have a good education, have the right sort of background. So the man said, ' Would a medical doctor be alright?' 'Oh, yes’ they said, 'Just the right kind'. ' What about a teacher?' 'Most certainly-you have to be able to communicate' 'What about a coal miner' Hardly? 'A carpenter? 'Oh, most certainly not.' And then the penny dropped as to the faux pa they had made.
You see, our constant temptation as Christians is to play the world at its own game-to go for style in order to impress. If the world is taken with buildings, the church will build bigger and better ones-crystal cathedrals and all. If the world likes its hierarchies and titles, then the church will follow suit-with its reverends, venerables and right reverends and the garb to match. If the world is sold on entertainment, then there will be Christians who will want to get a piece of that action too-the glory of chart success or the movie contract. If it is what you look like that is going to make all the difference then Botox injections will be all the rage. I remember watching an American Christian TV channel on which this evangelist couple who were sitting on gold thrones, surrounded by gold decor. The wife looked like a 60 something Barbie doll that had obviously undergone surgery which was meant to impress. Of course it had to, because the content of the message certainly wouldn’t have impressed anyone. But the result is that we are left with a parody of the Christian faith- a mirroring of the world while wearing flimsy see through Christian dress and it is not very pretty.
The fundamental error behind all of these attempts to be 'with it' is trying to bring heaven on earth, to have it all 'now'. The fact is the seed is still growing, the bush is still spreading its branches and may not look much at all-but one day when Christ returns then we shall be utterly transfixed by the result- our breath will be taken away as it would if we saw a giant beanstalk- wow!. This is a kingdom that will embrace the whole world. What began in the tiny confines of Judaism breaks out into the non-Jewish world, embracing people from every tribe and nation, rich and poor, educated and non-educated, all finding shelter and peace in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus. That is where the Church is heading. Already hundreds of millions around the world own the name of Christ- and it all began right here in Matthew 13 some 2,000 years ago. Who would have thought it? But that is the power of this message. The wonderful thing is it is still doing the same today-changing lives by bringing people in touch with the true and living God.
The next parable, the riddle of the leaven, complements the first , for this kingdom may be hidden but is effective –this is the way the NIV translates it: v 33, 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked its worked all through the dough.' A more accurate translation would be: The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.’
The fact that this is not yeast but leaven is very significant. Concentrated yeast is a modern invention. Leaven was a lump of dough left over from the last round of bread making. And Jesus talking about the kingdom of God being like leaven would have left his original hearers in a state of total bewilderment if not outright shock because in Jesus day leaven was a symbol of evil. That is the way Paul uses it for example in 1 Corinthians 5:6, when he says, ‘Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the while batch.’ So’ boasting’ -a bad thing, if not checked will spread until lots of people in the church end up doing it. Do you see? And yet here Jesus likens this agent of corruption, leaven, to the essence of the kingdom. Very strange!
But it get’s stranger because we are told that a woman takes this lump of leaven and hides it in three measures of flour. Who in their right mind would hide leaven in three measures of flour- which is over 20 kilograms which was enough to feed over a hundred people? What is going on?
You need to ask: would there be any occasion when a Jewish woman might panic and take a batch of leaven and hide it in a barrel of flour, bearing in mind what would eventually happen? Well, there is one possible occasion, namely at Passover Time. Let me explain.
The Passover feast at which the Jews remembered the Exodus was also called the ‘feast of unleavened bread’. At this time all leaven had to be removed from the house on pain of excommunication. Now imagine that a group of Pharisees decided to do a spot check on a village. They arrive totally unannounced.. What is a poor woman going to do when she hears the knock on the door, having heard whispers from her neighbour that the Pharisees were doing the rounds and there on the table is a lump of leaven? She quickly looks around and sees the flour barrel. So she lifts the lid and pushes the leaven down into the barrel just below the surface and quickly covers it up again. Now here is the cartoon bit. As the woman starts to hold polite conversation with the visiting clergy, they hear a slight bubbling noise, and the lid of the barrel starts to lift, and out starts pouring this dough, making its way down the side and then across the flour, out the room, out onto the street, taking over everything. That is the exaggerated picture Jesus might be painting here.
So it is with the message of the kingdom, the Gospel. It starts off hidden; hardly noticeable with this Rabbi from Galilee and his followers, but its effects can’t be stopped, out it goes, escaping into the world in order to transform it.
Do you know that is exactly what happened?
For example, the first institution for the blind was founded by Thalasius, a Christian monk. The first free dispensary was founded by Apollonius, a Christian merchant. The first hospital was founded by Fabiola a Christian woman. Paganism doesn't produce compassion, Christianity does. Paganism leaves sick new-born babies on the hillside to die, Christianity takes them in to enable them to live.
Whatever sins and weaknesses beset the Church we do have so much we can point to and say, 'Look at the effects of the kingdom.' Without doubt one of the greatest periods of social improvement was during the latter part of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century. Whereas France endured a bloody revolution in the name of Enlightenment, we enjoyed a spiritual revolution under the Evangelicals. But it didn't remain in the heart alone, it translated itself into action to benefit other people. Even non-Christians recognised this. This is what Professor Halevey writes of the abolition of slavery, ' But to understand the delight with which the emancipation of the Negroes was greeted, the rejoicing which took place on a large scale throughout the entire country... we must remember that the abolitionist campaign had been first and foremost a Christian movement.' Or think of improvements in popular education, so writes one of the early editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that this was, ' A striking tribute to the sterling qualities of self help and religious earnestness which were so characteristic of the Early Victorian period.' It is the leaven of the Gospel which transformed our land and is still transforming it.
Often the beginnings of what turns out to be world-wide and lasting influence can be so small . Here is an example which began in Hull in 1770 and is still having its influence felt thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. Joseph Milner was the headteacher of Hull Grammar school, which then was next to Holy Trinity Church in the market place. He was a churchgoer, even ordained, but it was by reading Hooker's sermon on Justification that he became converted, realising that he could not save himself by good works but needed saving by what Jesus had done for him on the cross. The result? Friends dropped him like a hot potato! Respectable people would walk on the other side of the street rather than talk to him, because he had become tainted with the 'E' word- he had become an Evangelical, a man who took the Bible seriously and lived it. He used to preach at Holy Trinity in the afternoons and people would crowd. Drunks and prostitutes became Christians and were changed. He started to train up and encourage men into the ordained ministry, many of them being his former pupils. By 1790 it was said that pretty well every pulpit in Hull was occupied by an evangelical-that included St Mary's Lowgate which had an amazing young man called John King. Now the interesting thing is this: it was through the influence of Milner that Richard Johnston became the first chaplain to Botany Bay, Australia. He was then followed by Samuel Marsden, who then went on to be the first missionary to New Zealand. It was Thomas Dykes, the Vicar of St John’s church which was on the site now occupied by the Ferens Art gallery who was responsible for helping build St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney. The present Diocese of Sydney can trace their spiritual ancestry back through these men to Milner and so to Hull.
Here we can see how, under God, the influence one man or group of people can have. Milner had no idea what the 21st century church in Sydney would be like. All he was doing was attempting to be faithful to his Lord by using the gifts and influence God had given him to make a difference for the good, and like leaven allow the wholesome transforming power of the Gospel to do its work.
Surely that is what we need today? We need communities of leaven working quietly and effectively in our towns and cities. We are not to underestimate our influence as Christians in the workplace, in our university, or in our street, or with our children, as prayerfully and simply witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to leave the results to God because a little leaven and a small seed can go a long, long way.
 I owe these insights to David Seccombe, INCONGRUITY IN THE GOSPEL PARABLES TYNDALE BULLETIN 62.2
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