Sunday, July 17, 2011

Let It Grow

Text:  Matthew 13:24-43

HOW IS THE LITTLE CONCERT WE had from the Bible School children this morning like the parables of Jesus?

    Think about it.  The children came up front and sang a couple of the songs they learned in Bible School this past week.  They looked cute, the songs were fun, and when they finished everyone smiled and clapped and the kids went back and sat down.  But is that all there was to it?  Did you have ears to hear the message as the children sang?  What did they tell us about the wonderful works of God and His mercy to His people? Were you moved to praise God's holy name?  Or did you see and hear only how cute the children were?

    Jesus' parables are like the children in their presentation this morning, and as we examine our passage from Matthew we can be like the crowds that flocked to Him from all around Galilee or like the disciples who truly longed to understand His teaching.      When the crowds heard Jesus say, "The kingdom of heaven is like" planting a field or making bread or whatever, they'd smile and nod and say, "Oh, the kingdom of heaven is like our everyday lives, but better."  They only received what was on the surface.  But as Jesus says back in verse 11 of this chapter, to the disciples it was given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.  True disciples wouldn't stop with listening to the homespun story, they'd go on really to hear the parables' message.  If a disciple didn't fully understand, he'd go to Jesus and ask Him to explain.  Disciples would hear what God was doing to bring in His heavenly kingdom and be moved to praise His holy name.  They'd recognize more and more that Jesus is the King of the kingdom and yield to His claim and authority over their own lives.  They'd have ears to hear.

    So as we examine these parables of Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will be true disciples and not mere members of the crowd.  Let's see beyond the surface attraction of the stories and dig into the deeper meaning that Jesus wants us to hear.

    The parables of the wheat and the weeds, of the mustard seed, and of the leaven all have to do with things growing.  Now I don't know about you, but I get impatient waiting for things to grow.  I keep checking my tomato plants and wondering, "Why does it take so long?  I'm tired of these little green blobs!  I want big juicy red tomatoes now!"  But ripe tomatoes take time.

    It's the same way with the kingdom of heaven.  We have to wait to see its ultimate fruit.  It's not big and obvious and overwhelming all at once.  The kingdom has to grow.  And it grows along with trouble and opposition and counterfeits.

    We'll take the two shorter parables first.  Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed."  The seed in question isn't the round yellow mustard seed we're familiar with, but a tiny, practically weightless variety that can grow fifteen feet tall given half a chance.  It gets so big, the birds can take shelter in its branches.

    And, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast-- or actually, leaven, that a woman mixed in with a batch of dough.  It worked all through, and you know what happens when the dough gets baked-- it keeps rising and grows into the large finished loaf.

    So what do these parables tell us about the kingdom of heaven? 

    Maybe first we should look at what they do not tell us.  I hesitate about bringing up other preachers' bad Biblical interpretation in my sermons. Better just to preach sound doctrine and let the bad ideas die away by themselves.  But I want you to be convinced on this one thing: The things of everyday life that Jesus uses in His parables are just that: Everyday things.  They're neutral.  They can be used to stand for people and ideas and forces that are good and those that are evil.  I mention this because I once heard a preacher say that these two parables taught us that the kingdom of heaven was really a wicked thing.  He argued that in the Bible "the birds of the air" always stood for the Devil and his demons, and if the kingdom of heaven was like a tree giving shelter to the birds, then it was as evil as they were.  And, he said, leaven or yeast was always a symbol of sin in the Scripture.  So if the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, it must be an evil influence in world.

    I don't remember what that preacher's final point was.  I think it was that all churches are corrupt and we should get out of them.  But we can rely on Scripture itself to show us that he was wrong about the kingdom of heaven, and wrong about the way Jesus used the figure of the birds and the yeast in these little parables.

    For what is the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God, as Mark, Luke, and John put it)?  From the very beginning of His ministry, when Jesus comes preaching the kingdom, it's clear that the kingdom of heaven is that state of affairs where God Almighty is Lord and King, where people obey Him and do His will and are blessed because of it.  And it starts in each of our hearts as we are called to repent and follow Him. 

    So the kingdom of heaven starts small, like a mustard seed, and it grows.  The Jews of Jesus' day were expecting the kingdom of God to be the ultimate cosmic force that'd erupt into this world and basically wipe it out and replace it with heaven in a instant.  Jesus' parables teach us that the kingdom is indeed cosmic; more than that, it's divine.  But God begins it in this world, not outside of it, and He brings it in slowly, bit by bit, causing it to grow bigger and stronger and more influential from impossibly small beginnings, until we look up and behold! Everything has changed!

    The parable of the mustard seed shows that one thing that would change was the benefits and scope of the kingdom.  The Jews were used to thinking of it as something that just included them, and maybe those Gentiles who agreed to be circumcised and become Jews.  But all of Jesus' audience would recognize the image of the tree with the birds of the air taking shelter in its branches.  It's a repeated Old Testament metaphor for the great king or emperor who provides nurture and protection for all the peoples and nations under his authority.  The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.  It begins in great insignificance, but when it is full-grown the peoples of this world, not just the Jews, will come and find refuge under God's gracious rule.

    It's the same with the parable of the leaven.  The substance referred to would be sourdough starter, not the active dry yeast we use today.  Yes, the Bible does often use leaven as a figure of sin, because the influence of both leaven and sin are pervasive.  But the effect of the kingdom of heaven in the world is also pervasive, in a good way.  The Greek text tells us exactly how much flour the woman was handling, three satas, around a half-bushel.  Depending on which commentator you read, that would make thirty-six to forty full-sized loaves of bread.  And she only uses a little leaven, and she hides it-- a better translation of the Greek than merely  "mixed"-- in all that flour. Then she left it to rise.  I've never made sourdough bread, but I understand you have to let it work for several hours, even overnight.  So, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like something of very small quantity, concealed in something very large, that works over time, without anyone doing anything about it, until that larger thing is totally lightened, uplifted, and changed. 

    This is how it turned out to be as the kingdom of heaven became apparent in this world.  Think how few people still believed in Jesus after He died.  Think how few in number they were who were gathered in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost-- only 120.  Think how obscure and insignificant those people were-- fishermen and petty officials and peasants.  But they were children of the kingdom of heaven.  Peter and John and Matthew and the rest were planted and hidden in the unbelieving world by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in time, by God's working, the whole world was changed.  Before long, Gentiles were coming and finding refuge in the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Even today, even those who don't believe in Christ, even those who would never admit to there being any good in what they dismiss as religion, even they benefit from the influence of Christianity in the world.  That's what happens when God's rulership has its natural effect.  It must and will grow.

    But the kingdom of God does not grow without trouble and opposition and counterfeits.  Jesus also tells the parable of a man who sowed good seed in his field, but during the night some enemies sowed weed seeds in among it.  Verse 26 tells us that the weeds didn't become apparent until the wheat had formed heads.  When Jesus told this parable, the farmers in the crowd would recognize the weeds as a species of grass called darnel.  Darnel is a nasty little plant with poisonous seeds.  It looks identical to wheat till the heads form, and it twines its roots in around the roots of the wheat so you can't pull it out without uprooting the wheat as well. 

    So in the parable, the master of the field tells his servants to leave it be until the harvest.  Fortunately, ripe darnel stands tall while the wheat stalks droop, so it's easy to collect it first, as the master orders, and bundled it up to be burnt.  Then the good wheat can be harvested and threshed and stored safely in the barn.

    This is how the kingdom of heaven is, says Jesus.  The sower is the Son of Man; that is, Jesus Christ Himself.  The field is not the Church, but the whole world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom.

    Do you have ears to hear this?  The good seed are all those whom Jesus Christ has called to accept Him as King, those who have responded to Him in faith and accepted His death on the cross to atone for their sins.

    But along with the good seed, weed seed is also sown.  These are the sons of the evil one.  Both grow up together.  Both look a lot alike.  But a time will come when God will make a final distinction.  At Last Judgement, Jesus will send His angels and give them the command to uproot out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.   For in that day the kingdom of this world will fully become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ.  The wicked will be cast into the fiery furnace-- into Hell, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God their Father.

    Yes, we should rejoice in that hope.  But right now I hope this parable causes you some alarm, for your sake and the sake of others.  How do we know who is a son of the kingdom?  By their fruit.  By hearts truly yielded to Christ as King, trusting in Him alone for salvation and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. 

    Now, here's the alarming thing: in this world, the exterior behavior of the children of the evil one can look a lot like that of the children of the kingdom, just like darnel mimics wheat. They reject Jesus Christ, but are kind and funny and nice, and maybe they're people we care about and love.  And we can convince ourselves that that's enough, that their niceness is enough to earn them the benefits of God's kingdom, and we don't have to invite them to church or tell them about Christ, because they're good enough the way they are.

    Brothers and sisters, being a son or daughter of God's kingdom is not about being nice and kind and loving according to the standards of this world!  It's about being submitted to Jesus Christ as your only Saviour and Lord.  And that not because of any volition of your own, but because of the will and calling of Almighty God!  If you and I are wheat in God's field, it's because He planted us there.  And it is His will that through our witness He will plant many others as well, even people we'd never imagine as sons of His righteousness, and like us He can make them grow and bear fruit to His glory.

    The kingdom of heaven is not an event, it is a process.  It is something that grows little by little, until there it is and everything has changed.  The day will come when Christ will give the command and the kingdom of heaven will come in all its fullness.  But until then, however small it may seem, however it may seem to struggle, God's kingdom will grow.  It will grow, people yet unborn will find shelter in its branches, multitudes will be fed on its bounty, and the Son of Man will have His glorious harvest home.  Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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