This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 26th July 2020.
So, how’d’ya go? Last Sunday I set you the task of spending some spirit-searching time with God’s Spirit, to diagnose the condition of your faith and to discuss with God some therapeutic options for your growing in strength. How was that? For those who haven’t got to it yet there’s still time, (there’s always time with God), but there’s no time like The Present.
The parable of the Mustard Seed speaks to what some of us have done in the past week, and of course what we have heard in the past two weeks. Once again Jesus speaks a farming parable, and he’s still in that boat just off the beach at Capernaum, the town where he lives and the hometown of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, and James and John. The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed says Jesus, it is the smallest of all the seeds which grows to become the greatest of shrubs in its day. Perhaps this means that from little things big things grow (undoubtedly true) and that in the context of Christian faith you don’t have to have much of God to start with, but by the end of your life walk you’ll have become something big and fruitful as God has grown you up. That is true from experience, but it’s not all that Jesus is saying here.
One of my commentators informed me this week that in Jewish traditions trees often represented the rule of a king, and birds were symbols of the oppressed people of God. So the story of a shrub that becomes a tree big enough for nests is not just about how big the shrub grows from its tiny seed; the story is saying that Heaven’s Kingdom is a kingdom where the oppressed find shelter. The Kingdom of God is not just a massive empire, it’s a spacious sanctuary. Today (Jesus’ day) is not looking good for the Kingdom, says Jesus: present day Jerusalem is full of Romans, and the Roman Empire is enormous and vicious; but that’s not the future. No, says Jesus, the future is that the tiny presence of God’s new thing in the world, the Kingdom coming through Jesus Godself, will one day outshine Rome and the Romes to come (Byzantium, Russia, Britain, Spain, USA) to be a place of enormous influence and abundant shelter.
So, how do these two ideas relate, and how do they connect with us? Well it is true that big things do grow from small, no seed is ever bigger than the tree it produces, so the idea that what we see now can and will be bigger in the future, with the right conditions, is clear. That Jesus is using this as a metaphor for the rolling out of the reign of God, and that the world will be safer with more God presence evident in the world in no way undermines the idea that I can grow in faith from small faith to big and be a more effective disciple and witness. I suggest that these are related ideas, the more Christians there are in the world and the bigger the faith inside each Christian the more effective and spacious the Kingdom to come will be. And, going back to last week, the best way to build bigger Christians is that each one spends time with God assessing the growth and condition of his or her heart.
Christians who are conditioned by God’s close attention, especially at that Christian’s invitation, are chosen by God to be effective in the world. God sends out those whom God trusts to speak the truth and to speak effectively: the whole point of the Kingdom according to today’s gospel is that it is effective in saving the world. In the parable after the one about the mustard seed Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as being like yeast. Once again the kingdom is small and secretive, but give it time and it will has great significance in the future thing. Yeast is another one of those daily items that has metaphorical meaning; in Jesus time yeast was considered to be a contaminant. When the Kingdom of Heaven comes in power the kingdom’s people (that’s us) will spoil and corrupt the Roman, Flesh world; that’s the story of the Parable of the Yeast. But in the meantime, as with any parabolic saying of Jesus, shh!
So the Kingdom is small but influential, and when the time is right it will be massive and welcoming. Jesus also tells his disciples in private that the Kingdom is precious, priceless, and pure. The Kingdom is worth attaining. “Sing out your song, but not for me alone; sing out for yourselves for you are blessed! There is not one of you who shall not win the kingdom; the sick the suffering, the quick the dead,” sings Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and this is true even if it is not scripture. Buy the field, buy the pearl, sell all that you have and throw everything at this one thing because it is the only thing worth having says Jesus in Matthew 13:44-46. Even if it costs you all that you had, go and buy it. In the privacy of the house (Matthew 13:36) Jesus tells the disciples that the Kingdom sweeps up everyone in its net (Matthew 13:47) and that the good fish who represent the righteous people will be separated from the bad fish, and that the bad influences will be removed and destroyed. And the point is not to worry “oh but what if I’m a bad fish”; the point is to exclaim “thank God that one day I’ll be in a world away from those things that distract from the things of God, I am blessed!” The disciples, the ones in the house with him, understand the points that Jesus was making (Matthew 13:51) and are able to teach the same stories. The Empire of God will crush and destroy all other empires, not only Rome but systems of religious legalism and human barbarity and injustice as well.
But that does still sound a bit scary; I mean, what if I am a bad fish? Or, okay so I am a good fish (I’m a Christian) but I have a lot of “the flesh” in me and I’m easily led astray, what then? Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness offers Paul in Romans 8:26, in the context of prayer and repentance. The one who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit, (Romans 8:27), and God is this one who listens to what the Spirit says about you. “This one”, says the Spirit, “is a work in progress: not there yet but well along the way, and being cooperative towards change”. Our job as Christians, as citizens and participants in the Kingdom of God, is not to be perfect but to cooperate with the Spirit who is perfecting us. Your strength comes from God, your healing comes from God, but God is not yet finished making you strong and safe. In all things (good and not good) God works for good for those who love God says Romans 8:28, and that means that God is not restricted by your offerings but is free to use the wealth of options provided through grace. So even if you are a good fish with a lot of worldliness left in you God can still use you, and heal that worldliness while you are ministering to others. This is grace, that God can do more. If God is for us who is against us? asks Romans 8:31, you needn’t resist God’s work of restoration any longer when you know that God is kind and is working for your benefit even in the bad times.
God is for us; God is for us; and in all things we are victorious and then some because of the One who loves and guides us. But, where does this lead us? To two places I think.
- When God searches for us in the world where we live, God is listening out for the noise of Holy Spirit at work in us. It is the Spirit’s groaning within us that draws God’s attention to the work of perfection going on.
- We are not separated from the love of God. God does not not love us (a double-negative says that God loves us even if we can’t think it’s true), and God does not keep the work of the Spirit in the world secret from us, rather we are fully informed partners in that work.
Our role in God’s work is to allow Holy Spirit access to our hearts for the work of perfection, and that we join the Spirit in praying (interceding) for the world in its brokenness. Holy Spirit groans in prayer not because prayer is extraordinarily hard work (although it is) but because it is grievous work, it is groan inducing in its reality that the world is so sick and so sad that God’s essence groans with compassion. Where God has not separated us from God’s love not only are we loved by God, but we are grieved by what grieves God – we groan too at the condition of the world and we urge God with the fulness of our own guts to make the world good.
When the Kingdom fully comes there will be grace enough for everyone, and shelter and healing for all. Right now the Kingdom is small and hidden; it is insignificant compared to the globe of turmoil and the universe of pain. This small but belligerent Kingdom is God’s work and God’s solution; now heed God’s invitation for you to check your spirit with God’s Spirit for healing and perfection and answer God’s call to the purpose of being one of those who activate the Kingdom in the world. If you didn’t do it last week then I encourage you to check in with God for some spirit-care; in fact even if you did do it last week check in again for some more. And then, on the way to wholeness by God’s grace, partner with God to bring wholeness to the whole world. Go and be yeast. Amen.