In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a couple of images to describe our kingdom presence in the world: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:13-16)
You know it immediately when you take a sip of milk that has gone bad. You taste it when you’ve let a bottle of coke sit too long and the fizz is gone. Milk, coke – when they go bad you know it. But salt? Only when it sets in the saltshaker so long that it has crusted over and has to be chiseled out and thrown away. The only light that loses its effect, that doesn’t dispel darkness, is the one that is not turned on or is hidden away from sight.
And so, when you complain that you just don’t have any effect on this world – that it is so wicked, so overwhelming – think about the powerful effect of the small things:
· Just a pinch of salt can turn a bland meal flavorful
· One small candle can make the darkness flee
· The Colorado River begins as a little mountain stream
· A microscopic single cell is the beginning of a human life.
· One small child born in a stable changed the world
· The beginnings of the early church, not even recognized by Rome, considered an insignificant Jewish sect, yet has outlasted that same Roman empire by two millennia.
We are so accustomed to thinking big things prove success:
· Big business, big budgets, big skyscrapers
· Even the church has bought into the mindset: Big churches, big buildings, big programs, big budgets
· And lots of noise to show how well things are going
We all play the game “If I were God.” Yes, you do. Every time you say, “Why doesn’t God answer me?” “I prayed and God didn’t do what I asked.”
God said thru Isaiah “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9)
[Picture – fish] God has, time after time, contradicted our human assumptions about success. When Paul confronted the problems in Corinth, it had a lot to do with that success mentality: Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 1:26-29)
God always chooses the small, the weak, the cast aside to accomplish his purposes. Why? So that there will not be any doubt about where the success came from.
God’s kingdom begins in the smallest way and grows – taking its power, not from human standards of success, but from a complete reliance on God
God’s kingdom – where God rules sovereignly in the lives of his people. Not a place, not a geographical spot on the map, not a time – but in our hearts.
His subjects – those who by faith trust God implicitly to care for them and allow him to set the direction for their lives.
Jesus illustrates this very principle in terms of two common figures: a mustard seed and yeast. Both are pretty simple – Jesus wasn’t concerned with being profound.
Jesus was probably walking through a marketplace when he told these parables. Suddenly he stops at a merchant’s booth and reaches down into a bowl and lifts a tiny seed with his finger and says “Do you see this mustard seed? That’s what the kingdom of God is like.”
He told them another parable: “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.” (Mt 13:31-32)
Jesus says the kingdom of God begins simply, like the tiniest of seeds -- so small as to seem insignificant, yet capable of growing to tremendous size when given the right environment and circumstances. A mustard plant – such a small beginning, yet when full grown, birds nest in it.
Then he pauses at a table where an old woman is kneading bread dough. He reaches into her bowl and lifts a tiny grain of yeast and says, “Do you see this grain of yeast? That’s what the kingdom of God is like.”
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Mt 13:33)
Yeast – each granule so tiny, yet living and capable of causing tremendous growth when provided the right environment and circumstances.
The baking of bread was always a big event in our house when I was growing up. An old glazed earthenware bowl nearly the size of a small bathtub – all the ingredients mixed together – over in the corner the yeast was put in a bowl of warm water, bubbling and moving. Then at the right moment it was added and the miraculous process began – it would double and triple in size.
Jesus used this picture of yeast to describe the power that the kingdom has to grow and transform the life of the one in whom it has found a place.
Now, Jesus will also use the image of yeast to describe the influence of evil that the Pharisees had (“beware the leaven of the Pharisees”). This legalism that was so contrary to the grace of God – it works the same way – it begins small and almost imperceptibly, but grows until it poisons the whole.
That’s exactly the kind of thing James was warning about when he talked about the power of sin: … each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15)
There is a bristlecone pine near the tree line on Long’s Peak. It has stood for over a thousand years, twisted and gnarled with the passing of time and the brutal heat and cold. And yet it weathered all those years, until one day a couple of years ago it snapped and fell over – its trunk hollowed out because a beetle had found its way into the core and begun devouring it from the inside out.
Just as surely as God’s power can work within a man’s life to transform him into a strong healthy Christian, Satan can work through sin. The malicious gossip and slander of one person can destroy the spiritual lives of dozens.
Which force will you allow to dominate and fill your life – the yeast of the kingdom of God or the leaven of sin?
What is Jesus really trying to tell us?
First of all, he is telling us about faith.
Faith is not a commodity to be bought and sold and manipulated. You cannot grow faith – you can plant and water and nurture, but you cannot control it.
Someone said, “I want a faith as large as a mountain.” Jesus said, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed you could move a mountain” – it’s not about the size of my faith, but about the reality of God’s presence.
If I have the tiniest, most insignificant fragment of faith – that’s all God needs to work with. I place myself in the path of faith building experiences, I let God do the growing of my faith, I start seeing what God is capable of doing.
When the Roman centurion came asking Jesus to heal his servant, and says to Jesus, “Just say the word and my servant will be healed,” Jesus replied – “I’ve not found anyone in Israel with such great faith…”
When the Canaanite woman came to Jesus begging for him to heal her daughter and said “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” Jesus responded, “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
Neither of these knew anything about religion, they hadn’t been in Sunday school all their lives, they weren’t devout, spiritual people. All they knew was that Jesus could heal their loved one and they believed it with all their heart, and put their trust in Jesus. That is the essence of what Jesus called “great faith.” Trusting that Jesus can do what we cannot do for ourselves.
As long as the seed stays in the shell; the yeast stays cool and dry – it is incapable of growing and becoming what God created it to be. As long as faith remains sheltered and unused -- it is incapable of growing and changing lives.
God works in the midst of struggle and crisis and heartbreak to grow our faith. When you’re in control, when everything is going according to plan, when you have your life just like you want it – who needs God? Faith? I believe in myself!
It’s not until you step out into unfamiliar territory – stretching yourself – allowing God to work in areas where you’re not in control. It is when we find ourselves dealing with our own struggles and uncertainties, when the storm comes into our life that God finds opportunities to do things that we shut him out of before.
Faith grows when we learn to trust God instead of ourselves and find out just how powerful he is – not that he comes up with the answers we think are logical, but answers that we would never dream of. Faith is simply trusting God to accomplish what I cannot – allowing him to rule sovereignly in my life.
That doesn’t happen overnight – we put the old man to death, but we have to keep throwing another shovel full of dirt on the grave every day – “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Second, he tells us we need to redirect our perspective.
We all dream of doing the great and spectacular things – to be recognized and respected for our success and accomplishments. Even preachers aren’t immune. It’s the preachers at the megachurches, the guys who speak at the conferences, the ones who are always in demand – that we admire and wish we could be like.
But, you know, it’s going to be in the small things, the unnoticed things that I’m going to make a difference – visiting an elderly widow in the nursing home – hugging my kids and praying with them – sitting in a hospital room with my neighbor while they wait for test results – taking groceries to a family who are struggling financially – sitting across the table from my friend and telling him about the good news of Jesus.
That’s what the kingdom is about – setting aside my ideas of grandeur and putting on the towel of a servant and taking up the basin of water to wash the feet of a brother. Jesus, Peter and James remind us over and over in scripture: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Finally, he is telling us it takes time and patience – and that’s the tough one – because by nature I am impatient – I want things to happen now! I’m the kid who had to dig up his bean seed in the Dixie cup every day to see if it had grown over night.
But that’s not how God works. Jesus told a parable about a patient farmer – “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)
God’s own nature is patience. Peter tells us: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
It’s a powerful reminder of how truly not in control we are. No matter how much we want something to happen, we can’t make it happen.
The question we are forced to ask ourselves is “Am I willing to trust God?” – I may not understand growth, I can’t control it, it doesn’t relieve me of my responsibility to do my part (the farmer did have a part). But ultimately, am I willing to trust God?
Paul talks about this process of spiritual growth and the development of faith: What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) God gives the growth. I can’t do it for you, you can’t do it for yourself. Only God can grow faith. But he will if you give him the opportunity.
Are you allowing God to bring your faith to maturity? Are you watering and fertilizing and caring for that precious seed of faith? Or are you allowing Satan to work – do you find yourself giving in and compromising with the world – are you letting worldly priorities choke out and strangle the life of the seed – are you neglecting and starving the seed?
At the beginning of the chapter in Matthew where Jesus tells the parable about mustard seeds and yeast, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who scatters seed everywhere, some grows some doesn’t. But when Jesus explains the parable he adds, “The seed is the word of God.” I hope the seed of faith has been planted in your life. I hope it has found a heart that is eager and honest where it can grow and thrive.