From small things... - Matthew 13:31-33
Well, if 'style' by which we impress people was important in the days of Huckleberry Finn, it has now been elevated to the status of a national obsession. Who we are takes second place to how we appear. The result is that we are more concerned with the superficial than the substantial, why else is the media consumed with celebrities- how they dress, what they eat, how they live? And the Christian church has not been immune from this either. Think for a moment about what was once considered the main purpose of the church- communicating the Gospel. Once 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 speakers appearance and 50% to how the person speaks. Style has triumphed over substance. and so this is the day of the telegenic politician, the showman preacher- we like to be impressed with the impressive. In the words of another Twain - Shania Twain, we are often heard to say, 'That don't impress me much.' And you know, 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 too impressed either. 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? And as we saw a few weeks ago, Jesus is 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 quislings- God is going to change the world? That is a mighty belief to swallow isn't it? Isn't the temptation going to be to try and better God on this one and for the church ape the world by introducing some glamour and glitz- you bet- as we shall see. And so Jesus gives us two pictures designed to encourage us and really believe 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.
So first we have the riddle of the seed which makes the point that the God's kingdom may be unimpressive but significant- Matt 13 v 31-32. '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.' Now what is all that about? Well, obviously a contrast is being made between what we start off with and what we end up with. What we start off 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 you would hardly notice. And I guess that if you were a visitor from Mars who knew nothing about seeds, you would take some persuading to believe that from this tiny speck a bush would come of about six to twelve feet .Not only that but the end result is so impressive that others benefit from it too-the birds come and shelter under its branches.
Now do you ever look around you at say our congregation while at the back of your mind you are 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- we are 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 change things?' Do you sometimes feel like that? It would be odd if you don't. But that is the way it has always been-like looking at a mustard seed. Take the founder of this movement -Jesus Born of a teenage peasant girl, in a remote backwater of the Roman Empire. Cradled in manger, 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 dying on a wooden cross and buried in a borrowed tomb. Not impressive at all really. And his followers weren't that much better either. More of a rabble than an organised missionary group- fishermen, tax collectors-not an Oxbridge graduate amongst them. There is a true 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 to their utter embarrassment.
You see our constant temptation 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. It was interesting when I was in America to actually watch some of the Christian channels too see this in action. There was one TV evangelist couple who were sitting on gold thrones, surrounded by gold decor. The wife looked like a 50 something Barbie doll who had obviously undergone surgery resulting in more plastic than an Airfix kit, and it was all meant to impress. And it had to ,because the content of the message certainly left much to be desired. The result is that we are left with a parody of the Christian faith- a mirroring of the world while wearing flimsy Christian dress. Friends, we must resist that.
Do you see the fundamental error in all of these attempts to be 'with it'? 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. 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 we are heading. Already 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 you see. And you know what? It is still doing the same today-changing lives-bringing people in touch with the true and living God. And it may well be that you are here this morning and the reason you have not taken Christianity seriously is that you have been concerned with all the wrong things-wanting a religion which is cool. Well, if that is what you want then try out New Age. But if you want a religion which is true-then this is where you need to look.
Which brings us to the next parable, the riddle of the yeast, for this kingdom may be hidden but is effective -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.'
Now here is the method by which God's kingdom grows. Certainly the effect of the yeast is totally disproportionate to its size- a small amount of fermenting yeast mixed into about 50 pounds of dough to bake enough bread for 100 people-that is the picture. The yeast itself is hidden, mixed in with the flour and so penetrating and transforming the whole batch. Now this is the kind of difference submitting to the loving rule of Jesus makes as we take his teaching seriously. It affects our lives as individuals-changing us from within. But it is also what happens when those Christian individuals and groups start to penetrate society. Sure, they may seem small and weak in comparison to the power brokers of the world, but the effects are startling and society as a whole benefits.
Did you know that 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.
Now 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. And even non-Christians recognised this. So 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.' Improvements in workers rights and conditions can also be traced back to the influence of the Christian faith. Here is the late Jack Lawson, MP in his book 'A Man's Life' ' The first fighters and speakers for unions and improved conditions, were Methodist preachers. That is beyond argument. And the Gospel expressed in social terms has been more of a driving power in northern mining circles than all the economic teaching put together.' It is this Gospel which transformed our land.
And often the beginnings of what turns out to be world-wide and lasting influence can be so small So let me give you 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 by Holy Trinity Church. He was a churchgoer 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. Although he wasn't ordained, he used to preach at Holy Trinity in the afternoons and he packed them in. 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. When I was over in Sydney, the Archbishop invited me to speak to all the third year students of Moore theological college at a meal he was hosting in his house- palace actually!. Now Sydney Diocese is almost totally evangelical- peppered with churches like ours. How come? Well, the archbishop on introducing me pointed out that Sydney Diocese and all those who love the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, owe a debt to Hull. Because it was Joseph Milner, William Wilberforce and others who had provided the first chaplains to go out with the convicts to Australia and they were all Evangelicals. That influence has continued right down to the present day-and they are grateful.
Do you see how under God the influence of 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 yeast allow the wholesome transforming power of the Gospel to do its work.
And surely that is what we need today? We need communities of yeast working quietly and effectively in our towns and cities. That is the idea behind the mission team on Newland Avenue. Do not underestimate your influence as a Christian in your workplace, in your street, with your children, in your home as prayerfully and simply you witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Leave the results to God because a little yeast and a small seed can go a long long way.
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