It’s Like This...
The religious folk were getting it all wrong. Jesus had been going about the country for some time now, spreading his message and backing what he had to say with remarkable demonstrations of power and authority. But the leaders were uncomfortable and increasingly hostile towards this man from Nazareth who, in their opinion, simply didn’t fit the mould. How could a truly godly man fail to uphold the spiritual status quo? They saw Jesus as a radical who rejected all that they held dear and they didn’t like it, not one little bit.
Last week we considered what was possibly Jesus’ last visit to a synagogue and we saw that there was no meeting of minds between him and the religious establishment. Jesus’ understanding of what God’s Law taught concerning right and proper behaviour was the polar opposite of the views held by the synagogue rulers. Tensions were relentlessly mounting. The prospects for the future looked very unpromising.
It is against just such a background that Jesus told two short complementary little stories. He wanted to leave his hearers in no doubt concerning the true nature of God’s Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God
To focus the minds of his hearers Jesus asked some questions. As a general introduction to what he was about to say he asked:
"What is the Kingdom of God like?"
We’re not giving the impression that Jesus waited for any answers to be forthcoming but if he had I wonder what sort of response he might have met with.
I wonder too how you might go about answering his question. Would you be able to answer it? Or would you perhaps be made to realise that you didn’t know that much about the Kingdom of God and that you needed help?
But Jesus didn’t stop for an answer. Instead, having introduced his subject, he immediately continued by posing himself a question:
"And to what shall I compare it?"
Jesus’ method was designed to catch and hold the attention of his listeners. He wanted to spark their interest in what he was about to say. He was about to tell two short stories about the Kingdom of God.
The theme of the Kingdom was an important one both in Jesus’ thinking and in the subsequent teaching of the early church. Altogether the NT contains more than 100 references to the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven or simply the Kingdom.
Luke in his Gospel has already told us a number of things concerning the Kingdom of God and he will tell us a good deal more in the coming chapters. In all, Luke refers to the Kingdom of God more than 30x.
Before we consider what Jesus says here I want to take a step back in order to remind you of some of the fundamental truths we need to keep in mind as we think about the Kingdom of God.
Firstly, the Kingdom of God does not refer to any particular geographical location – this Kingdom is to be found wherever God’s reign and rule is both recognised and willingly submitted to.
Secondly, the Kingdom of God is something very positive – it is a good place to be, a good thing to which to belong. Everywhere the Kingdom of God is referred to in the Bible the underlying assumption is that this Kingdom is a good thing. Consequently anyone in their right mind would want to be a member of this Kingdom. If you don’t realise this then you’ll fail to understand what the Bible is talking about.
Thirdly, the Kingdom of God needs to be entered. In other words we do not automatically live there. Did you know that? If you do what if anything have you done with that piece of information?
Fourthly, when we start thinking seriously about the Kingdom of God, about our own personal relationship to it and how we personally might enter it, we can easily fall into error in one of two opposite ways.
On the one hand, we can assume that entry into the Kingdom of God is easy and something that is entirely within our power and ability to do. If we think like that then we’ll rely upon our own efforts or we’ll put off taking a decision to a later date because, we imagine (wrongly) that we’ll be able to enter it whenever we choose. And so we won’t look to God for his merciful help and we won’t turn to him in our need because we simply won’t see how great our need actually is.
On the other hand it is possible to focus so much on the difficulty of entering the Kingdom that we might convince ourselves that entry for us is simply impossible. We admire others perhaps and are pleased for them but as far as we are concerned we think that there is no hope and so we give up any idea of ever belonging to God’s Kingdom.
Both extremes are to be avoided – true it is not easy to enter but entry is nevertheless possible – we’re even told that amongst its citizens are to be found some pretty unlikely characters too! Neither cockiness nor despair is the appropriate way to respond to hearing about the Kingdom of God – we must avoid both extremes.
The Kingdom of God must be intentionally sought out and pursued. We have already said that no-one automatically lives there and that we each need personally to enter and now we must add that no-one somehow just falls into the Kingdom either. If you won’t bother yourself to seek this Kingdom one thing is sure you won’t enter it.
We must take care that our own behaviour doesn’t hinder others from pursuing and entering this Kingdom.
v.19 "(The Kingdom of God) is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches."
What did Jesus mean his hearers to understand from this?
Well the fundamental idea is a simple one – it is all about growth!
The Kingdom of God then must not be seen as something that is static or dead rather it is very much alive and growing.
The mustard we grow in the UK tends to be on the small side and relatively short-lived but in a Mediterranean climate certain varieties can easily grow into trees large enough for all kinds of birds to roost in.
But whether it’s grown in the UK or in the ME one thing remains the same the seed has to be sown!
I’ve plenty of packets of seeds at home and none of them grows until they’re sown (and some of them not even then but that’s another story!) The man is Jesus’ story, who was busy sowing his seed, was a perfect illustration of what Jesus himself was doing as he went about teaching and preaching. The "seed" that Jesus sowed however was not mustard but the good news of the Kingdom of God.
Over the succeeding centuries Jesus’ followers have carried on the same task of "sowing the seed" and as they have done so the kingdom has gone on growing and growing. And as it grows and expands more and more people come to find rest and shelter in its branches.
When I’m gardening I must admit I do like seeds of a decent size and mustard seeds aren’t really my cup of tea at all. A packet costing £1.99 may well contain around 750 individual seeds – they don’t look particularly impressive at all. Mustard is an ordinary-looking little seed but it does have an impressive ability to grow into a mighty plant that’s highly prolific. (When Jesus told this same story on another occasion he changed it slightly in order to emphasise the small size of the seed – an apparently insignificant beginning could nevertheless lead to great results.)
Jesus point here is slightly different. Yes, the Kingdom of God began quietly and small but the emphasis is more on the fact that it did not suddenly appear on the scene ready-made and in its final completed form. The beginning might be really rather inauspicious but the Kingdom was destined to grow and so must not be ignored because of it wasn’t yet fully grown.
If we pause to think for a moment about Jesus’ life and ministry although he had caused quite a stir teaching crowds his followers remained a small unimpressive lot. The important in the land hadn’t been impressed by him nor by his teaching and even now were in the process of falling out with him big-time due to his views which differed so greatly from their own. Did that all mean that nothing was happening? Did that mean that Jesus could be safely sidelined? Not a bit of it was Jesus’ answer "think about the mustard seed"!
The story becomes perhaps even more relevant when Jesus returned to heaven leaving his disciples to carry out the mission he had entrusted to them of taking the good news to the ends of the earth. How foolish that all looked! How on earth was that ever going to come about? Just think about how Christianity got going:
The initial team was made up largely of educated fishermen
They were based in an obscure province on the fringes of the Roman Empire
Their message seemed designed to fail and to be rejected by all and sundry – they had to proclaim that their leader had been crucified and such a Christ was a stumbling block and a foolish one at that to the natural man.
Add to that the fact that persecution fell regularly upon its adherents and its friends.
Who would give it any chance of success? And yet... and yet... here we are 2 millennia later and still the Kingdom of God is alive and well and continuing to grow. The message concerning the Kingdom of God continues to be preached (or if you prefer sown) and men and women continue to enter it as they put their faith and trust in that crucified Christ.
The mustard seed that is the Kingdom of God has quietly and steadily grown. The message of the gospel has spread surviving and thriving in the face of mockery and in the teeth of ferocious opposition. Village after village has been entered, region after region has been penetrated, country after country and continent after continent. The Kingdom of God has grown just as Jesus said it would.
In English we have another expression that would apply equally well to this extension of the rule and reign of God, I wonder whether you know it: "Great oaks from little acorns grow."
The second story that Jesus told ran along similar though complementary lines.
Once again he presented what he had to say in the form of an answer to a question:
v. 21 "And again He said, "To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?"
The Kingdom of God is multi-faceted and we should not allow ourselves to think we have understood all there is to understand about it just because we have understood something.
Jesus continued with another illustration:
v.22 "It is like yeast which a woman takes and buries in a bushel of flour, to work there till the whole is leavened."
This time the emphasis is not so much upon outward expansion but more upon the idea of complete penetration. Whereas the mustard grew into a plant here the leaven didn’t grow but diffused to totally affect the dough.
Leaven takes time to work and it works inwardly silently diffusing until not one part of the lump is left unaffected.
So this is what Jesus means: the Kingdom grows outwardly in size and scope but at the same time it transforms inward reality as it progressively permeates the whole. In other words when a person enters the Kingdom the Kingdom also enters him and starts to produce that radical change from the inside out, a change which cannot and will not be limited.
What do we know about this?
Once again I need to remind you that being a Christian, being a redeemed member of God’s Kingdom, is no small matter. You don’t become a Christian without radical changes deep within being set in motion. Plenty of folk might like to try to tell you they are Christians but if there is no inner reality heading in the direction of an ever fuller appreciation of and submission to the reign of God then whatever else they are they are not true followers of Christ and their Christianity is nothing more than social or cultural.
And what is your Christianity like? Are you believing in Christ part of the expanding Kingdom of God or are you still a stranger to his grace? Come to Jesus and put your faith and trust in him. Don’t try to improve yourself. Don’t wait until you feel more worthy or more spiritual. Come now to Jesus Christ and enter this spiritual Kingdom where the Kingdom characteristics are righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Many of you are true believers and already members of this Kingdom – rejoice and be glad – and go on submitting to his rule in your life allowing him to extend his gracious influences into every dark recess that still remains in your life.
And may God our Father be glorified