Monday, July 28, 2014


Sermon - Matthew 13:31-33

An audio of this sermon is available here.

Discussing Jesus' use of parables, theologian Robert H. Stein notes that: 'Jesus repeatedly used illustrations from daily life. These often contain a distinctly Palestinian or even Galilean flavour. This was originally intended to make the parables more understandable to Jesus' audience, but today it serves also to authenticate them. It is clear, for example, that the Sower [Matthew 14:4 ff.] reveals a Palestinian method of farming in which sowing preceded plowing.' (Bruce M. Mezger & Michael D. Coogan ed.'s, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 567-568.) Hence 'most scholars agree that in the parables one stands on the bedrock of authentic Jesus tradition.' (Ibid, p. 568.)

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said:

…you should pray like this:
‘Our Father in heaven,
Your name be honoured as holy.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6: 9-10, HCSB)

First, note that this teaching gives us a definition of 'kingdom'. Your 'kingdom' is where 'your will is done'. God's kingdom is where his perfect will (not just his permissive will) is done.

Second, notice that to a certain pre-Christian may of thinking, this might appear to be a very strange teaching. What sort of a god proclaims that he has a kingdom that isn’t really here yet? What sort of a god tells those who believe in Him to ask that His will be done on earth as in heaven, rather than simply imposing his will with some smiting (preferably with brim stone)? As it turns out, the sort of god who gives these strange teachings is the sort of God that Jesus claims to reveal and to be. As Psalm 103:3 says: 'The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.' (KJV) He is the sort of God who becomes incarnate of a virgin teenage mother and is born in backwater Bethlehem. He is the sort of God who prefers to elicit our loving obedience by suffering for us than to have us suffer the ultimate consequence of our sin. As Joel 2:13 puts it: 'Let your remorse tear at your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful. He is not easily angered; he is full of kindness and anxious not to punish you.' (TLB)

Jesus' use of parables - in what we might call a Socratic teaching style - is wholly in keeping with his suffering-servant-king approach to the task of revelation. parables are designed not to force a message upon the casual listener. whilst yet revealing their meaning to those with sufficiently humble ears to hear. jesus would much rather entice the humble than browbeat the lofty. The Pharisees demand a miracle of Jesus for their personal satisfaction. He calls them a 'wicked and adulterous generation' who will be given no sign 'except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.' (Matthew 12:39-40, NIV.)

Jesus tells the parables of growth in Matthew 13:31-33 in the midst of rejection. He wants to encourage his disciples not to judge the kingdom of God by present appearances, for the kingdom is a growing reality. As theologian R.T. France explains:

the… parables of growth focus on the paradox of insignificant or hidden beginnings and a triumphant climax. In Jesus’ ministry this was a real issue: for those outside the disciple group it affected the credibility of an announcement of God’s reign which had apparently little to show for it; for the disciples there was the natural impatience to see God’s kingdom in all its glory, and the total eradication of all that opposed it. (Matthew, IVP Academic, 1985, p. 231.)

These parables deal with the inaugurated but not yet fully flourishing nature of God’s kingdom on earth. And despite the intervening centuries, this is a reality that Christians face as inhabitants of God’s kingdom today:

31 Jesus told them another story:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer plants a mustard seed in a field. 32 Although it is the smallest of all seeds, it grows larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree. Birds even come and nest on its branches.
33 Jesus also said:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a woman mixes a little yeast into three big batches of flour. Finally, all the dough rises. (CEV)

At the present moment, the kingdom appears small, but it's greatness will be seen. At the present moment, the gospel is opposed by many for failing to agree with their worldly agendas; but the gospel is God's blessing for the whole world and will lead to the transformation of the whole world in the new heavens and earth. At the present moment, even today, the kingdom can look insignificant, like yeast compared to flour by volume when baking bread. Three measures of meal was about 40 liters, which would make enough bread for 100 people. So, just like yeast, the kingdom of God has a powerful effect over time.

We experience this in our own lives and communities of discipleship as we put on the glory of Christ over time: 'we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.' (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV.) As Jessee Jackson once said: I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.' ( _Done_With_Me_Yet/.)

The mustard seed was proverbially minute, though not literally the smallest seed; and Jesus literally says it grows ‘greater than the vegetables’, contrasting the full-grown shrub of about 3 meters with other garden produce. Indeed, Jesus’ imagery calls to mind Daniel 4:10-12 (HCSB):

10 In the visions of my mind as I was lying in bed, I saw this:
There was a tree in the middle of the earth,
and its height was great.
11 The tree grew large and strong;
its top reached to the sky,
and it was visible to the ends of the earth.
12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit was abundant,
and on it was food for all.
Wild animals found shelter under it,
the birds of the air lived in its branches,
and every creature was fed from it.

In other words, the kingdom of God will provide refuge not just for Jews but for Gentiles as well. Its fruit, the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of eternal life, is meant for all. At the present time that fruit may seem insignificant, but it is ripening, and the great harvest is coming. Thanks be to God for his word!


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