“GOD IS DOING GREAT THINGS”
June 21, 2020
Every great teacher communicates one central truth. Whether he or she is teaching geography, history, or mathematics, there is invariably some underlying principle or message that keeps surfacing, verbally and nonverbally. As varied as Jesus’ teachings are, the central message is always there. He keeps underscoring that He came to establish a Kingdom, the Kingdom of God.
Jesus compares that Kingdom to any number of things. It’s like a grain of mustard seed. That tiniest of seeds can become a tree, ten to twelve feet tall, and provide nesting and protection for the vulnerable (birds, in this case); a safe place and a launching pad, too. The Kingdom He is establishing is like leaven in a loaf of bread. Though hidden, it permeates everything. It’s got power sensible people wouldn’t even dare to dream of. And the Kingdom of God is full of surprises . . . surprises that can change your life. Surprises that can change the world.
This week we continue the journey into the parables—a journey that we’ll be on for the next several weeks. Most of us know that the power of the parables is that Jesus took them from scenes and activities in everyday life, things that His hearers would be entirely familiar with, in order to lead them to things which had never yet entered their minds. Jesus took this parable of the leaven from the kitchen of an ordinary home.
In Palestine, of course, bread was baked at home. Three measures of flour was just the average amount which would be needed for a baking for a fairly large family, like the family at Nazareth. Jesus took His parable of the Kingdom from something that He had often seen His mother do.
Now, in Jewish thought, leaven is almost always connected with an EVIL influence. Remember Jesus’ warning against the leaven of the Pharisees (mt 16:6) That was talking about the insidious ways little notions and behaviours can creep into your life and finally, fully, twist it around. And, of course, one of the ceremonies of preparation for the Passover Feast was that every scrap of leaven (which then was a little scrap of dough kept from the last baking) had to be sought out from the house and burned.
I think that Jesus chose this illustration of the Kingdom deliberately. There would be a certain shock in hearing the Kingdom of God compared to leaven; and the shock would arouse interest and rivet attention, as an illustration from an unexpected direction always does.
The whole point of this parable lies in one thing—THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF THE LEAVEN. Leaven changed the character of the whole baking. Unleavened bread is like a water bisquit (so named, I think, because you need water to go with it): hard, dry, unappetizing, and about as tasty as cardboard.
Bread baked with the leaven is soft and porous and spongy—yeasty, tasty, and good. The introduction of the leaven causes a transformation in the dough; and the coming of the Kingdom causes a transformation in life. And, incidentally, that’s why it’s important to me that we eat the Communion with a loaf of real, leavened bread instead of a flat wafer. There is a transformation of a life and a world in the Body of Jesus Christ.
The most important point of this parable of the leaven is the great transformation caused by the Kingdom of God. But there are corallaries, there are points to be made about this transformation.
It is sometimes said that the lesson of this parable is that the Kingdom works unseen. We can’t see the leaven working in the dough, but the work of the leaven is always going on. In just this way, it is said, we can’t see the work of the Kingdom, but always the Kingdom is working and drawing people ever nearer to God.
The parable teaches that with Jesus Christ and His Gospel, a new force has been let loose in the world, and that, silently but inevitably, in the working of God’s people out in everyday life, and by the power of God to raise and change a life and our living, God is, indeed, working His purposes out in our culture, in our community, and around the world.
But, it has sometimes been said that the lesson of the parable is the very opposite of this. Instead of being unseen, the working of the Kingdom can be plainly seen. The working of the leaven is plain for all to see. Put the leaven into the dough, and the leaven changes the dough from a passive lump into a seething, bubbling, heaving mass.
Just so the working of the Kingdom is a violent and disturbing force, making changes that are plain for all to see. When Christianity came to Thessalonica the cry was, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts 17:6). The action of Christianity is disruptive, disturbing, and noticable in its effect.
Well, I think that both are true: the Kingdom of God is always working, whether or not we see that work, and there is a sense in which it is plain to see. Many an individual life is profoundly changed by Jesus Christ, and their life-change is visible.
And at the same time there is the silent operation of the purposes of God in the long road of history. But the main point is that our history and our culture, and the ways of human beings, need the leaven of transformation to be working in them, huh?
It’s powerful. IT IS POWERFUL, people!
Jesus said that His Kingdom was like the mustard seed and its growth into a tree. The point here, too, is crystal clear. The Kingdom of God starts from the smallest beginnings, but no one knows where that transformation will end.
Most of us know that the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest of all seeds—the seed of the cypress tree, for instance, is smaller. But the mustard seed was proverbial for smallness. The Jews, when they were speaking of some tiny breach of the ceremonial law, would speak of a defilement as small as a mustard seed; and Jesus Himself used the phrase this way when He spoke of faith as a grain of mustard seed.
But the mustard plant in Palestine was nothing like what we know of mustard. A man named Thompson, in his work, The Land and the Book, writes, “I have seen this plant on the plain of Akkar as tall as the horse and its rider.” He says, “With the help of my guide, I uprooted a veritable mustard-tree which was more than twelve feet high.” The Kingdom of Heaven starts from the smallest beginnings, but no one knows where it will end.
So, first, it is the fact of history that the greatest things always begin with the smallest beginnings. A Reformation begins with one person. One of the greatest stories of the Christian Church is the story of Telemachus. He was a hermit of the desert, but something told him—the call of God, yes?—that he must go to Rome. He went. Rome was Christian in name, anyway, but even in Christian Rome the gladiatorial games went on, in which men fought with each other, and crowds roared with the lust for blood.
Telemachus found his way to the games. Eighty thousand people were there to spectate. He was horrified. Were these men slaughtering each other not also children of God?
Telemachus leaped from his seat, right into the arena, and stood between the gladiators. He was tossed aside. He came back. The crowd was angry; they began to stone him. Still he struggled back between the gladiators. The official’s command rang out; a sword flashed in the sunlight, and Telemachus was dead. Suddenly there was a hush; suddenly the crowd realized what had happened. A holy man lay dead . . . all because they wanted fun. Something happened that day to Rome, for there were never again any gladiatorial games.
By his death one man had let loose something that cleansed an empire. Someone must begin a reformation. And they need not begin at a national level. They can begin it at home, or where they work, or where they play. But if one does begin it, no one knows where it will end. Because God can transform our world into great things from our little start.
A witness might begin with just one person. A group of young people from many nations were discussing how the Christian Gospel might be spread. They talked of propaganda, of literature, of T.V. broadcasting, of internet webs and links and blogs, of all the ways of spreading the Gospel in the twenty-first century.
Then the girl from Africa spoke, “When we want to take Christianity to one of our villages,” she said, ‘We don’t send them books. We take a Christian family and send them to live in the village and they make the village Christian by living there.”
In a group or society, or school or factory, or home or office, again and again it is the witness of one individual which brings in Christianity. The one man or woman set on fire for Christ is the person who kindles others.
In this parable Jesus is saying to His disciples then, and His disciples today, that there shouldn’t be any discouragement, that they each serve and witness in his or her place, with his or her family and playmates (yes, children can make a difference, too), and neighbors and acquaintances. But there is transformation
like that of a mustard seed into a great tree, or from a little leaven into a tasty, risen loaf of bread: from small beginnings, God gives growth to a Kingdom until the kingdoms of our world become the Kingdom of our God. Amen.