Before I came to Chicago, I drove a taxi in my home city of Auckland, New Zealand. And man, did it affect my outlook on life! Forever.
If you ever want your naivety and innocence challenged, if you ever want to see and experience new things, if you ever want to be shocked and crushed, if you ever want to go on a long emotional roller-coaster, drive a taxi and choose the graveyard shift! You go into the job one way and come out another, your view of humanity will change forever. People love to reveal their deepest darkest secrets to the lonely taxi driver, and on top of that, what's done in secret, in the dark, in the shadows, is so different than what's done in the open and in the light!
One of the major lessons I learnt during that time was, it didn't matter who sat in my cab, and I drove people from all spheres of life, from very rich to very poor, from celebrities to street kids, from gangsters to church folk, life seemed to be about getting more power, money and control. Everybody wanted more! People wanted to control their worlds. They wanted to be king or queen of their little kingdoms or empires!
Every night I watched all this; but the truth is, it was my story too, I had the same goals.
This is nothing new; it's happened throughout history. Same story, same game, just different faces, clothing, ethics and methods. The same thing was happening in first century Palestine; Caesar and his army dominated with power and might, Herod and his police ruled with his iron fist, and then you had a bunch of wealthy religious leaders, called Scribes and Pharisees, strutting around controlling who they could; seeking to make the masses convert to their ways and punishing those who didn't.
On top of all that, Jewish people were seeking the Messiah! They were seeking someone who would rise up and overthrow the Roman empire through power, wealth and might. They weren't looking for a peaceful servant, they were looking for a military leader, a wise powerful king who would slaughter their enemies and cause them, as a nation, to dominate the world. They were looking for someone who'd come from the top, was anointed by God and would dominate those they thought were not worthy of His grace.
Our worlds aren't that much different, are they? Sadly, many in the Church have embraced this logic too! The desire for power! The desire for money! We see it in elections. The thought is; the only way to influence others is to rule from the top! Gain political power. Use military might. Use whatever power and wealth we have to dominate and force our values and morals on others.
Jesus came into this power hungry world, but He was the Messiah no one expected, He was a huge letdown. Jesus was born in awful circumstances, had to flee from a ruthless dictator, returned to His country of birth, became a carpenter and was executed as a criminal! When Jesus spoke, He revealed the truth, He challenged the empires or kingdoms of His day by speaking of the Kingdom of heaven through stories, through parables.
Today, I'm looking at 2 of these parables; found in Matthew 13....
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES."
Matthew 13: 31-32 NASB
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Matthew 13:33 NIV
Jesus, had ample power and wealth at His disposal, He could have joined forces with Caesar or Herod, He could have executed a lethal bloody revolution, He could have ruled the world, but He chose another way. He chose the right way! These 2 parables reveal what the Kingdom of heaven is like, and how people of His Kingdom should live in it. Like most parables, they seem passive and short, but would have shocked those listening and turned their world's upside down. These 2 parables reveal how foolish the world's logic is, and how we need to embrace the kingdom of heaven the way Jesus did and calls us too.
Jesus reveals in these parables that His Kingdom is not a "top-on-down" violent power-hungry money-wasting revolution, but a revolution that takes on a very different character. I want to share with you 3 ways how Jesus chooses to impact the world and bring God's love to us.
Firstly; Jesus uses what is small, hidden and tainted to move. The Kingdom of heaven starts off insignificant, invisible and even corrupted! In complete contrast from the world, Jesus doesn't use something big and strong like an eagle, a lion or a tall strong tree to describe His Kingdom, instead, He speaks of a tiny seed and yeast or leaven. He picks 2 things that are small, hidden and insignificant. Not only that, leaven wasn't viewed positively in Jewish culture, in fact it symbolized something evil, or something that taints or corrupts things. With what would have shocked His listeners, Jesus reveals that His Kingdom begins with what is weak, small, hidden and even tainted.
Doesn't this give us hope? It doesn't matter how small we feel, how weak we think we are, how invisible we feel, how worthless we feel or even how evil we know we are, Jesus wants and chooses to use us! In fact, He chooses to use us over those who proud and tough. His movement starts, not with self-righteous giants, but with those who know they're not worthy. Those of us who think we have nothing to give, be encouraged and know that God loves you and sees you as valuable and an essential part of His Kingdom.
Secondly; When Jesus moves, what seems impossible becomes possible! The Kingdom of heaven takes what's small and goes beyond all expectations. Jesus reveals that this seed and the yeast do not remain stagnant, they are placed in the ground and in the dough, where they can grow and move. The Kingdom of heaven is active, it is a force and is constantly moving. It's mysterious, we don't know how it does what it does, but it does it! The Spirit of God works His magic, moving at His pace and in His own way. It infiltrates the world, which in these parables are represented by the field and the dough.
Not only that; God doesn't just move, He goes beyond what's possible, making the impossible, possible through His Kingdom. When Jesus spoke about the mustard seed growing into a tree, He indicates a large powerful tree. Mustard seeds generally only grow to about 6 feet tall, but I believe Jesus purposefully exaggerated it's growth, giving us a vision of something well beyond what's normal. The same goes with the yeast, 60 pounds of dough was an awfully large amount in those days, well beyond what's normal. For a woman to accomplish such a task by hand, by herself, was virtually impossible.
Jesus knew this and so did the crowds. He was telling his listeners, the Kingdom of heaven not only loves to move with the small, hidden and tainted, the Kingdom of heaven loves to move to make what seems impossible, possible. He takes something weak and transforms it into something well beyond all possibility. Jesus takes what's insignificant, moves in it and goes beyond all hopes and dreams. Jesus doesn't want us to remain as a seed in a package or yeast in a jar, He wants his people in the soil and in the bread so He can move in them and powerfully impact the world we live in.
Jesus is telling us...
It doesn't matter how small you may feel; God can and wants to move in and through you.
It doesn't matter how invisible you think you are; God can and wants to move in and through you.
It doesn't matter how evil and disgusting you are; God can and wants to move in and through you.
Jesus delights in taking what the world sees as puny, pathetic and nasty, and using it for His glory. It's the way He chooses to move. He loves to take what's humble to shame the proud.
Thirdly: Jesus uses weak people like us to transform a broken and hostile world! The Kingdom of heaven brings change and impacts the world! When God moves, His secret hidden movement results in worthwhile and eternal change. The Kingdom of heaven transforms and attracts things! The dough and the field in these parables aren't just pointless words, they represent the world we live in.
The seed becomes this enormous tree, which attracts the birds of the air and they nest in the branches. The tree may be big now, but it's not dominating; it's attracts others and they find rest in it. The Kingdom of heaven is so different from all other kingdoms or empires, because it's not slaying or rejecting outsiders, it's saying come, find rest, find acceptance, find comfort in my branches, because we want you here and you are welcome! It welcomes those who think they don't belong. It welcomes the suffering, strangers, refugees and the oppressed. Jesus calls us to be the light the world needs, the place where people know they're loved and accepted. The Kingdom of heaven isn't a place of judgement, revenge and rejection; it's a movement of acceptance, forgiveness and peace, it's a revolution of love, mercy and grace.
The yeast or leaven serves a different purpose from the seed. Whereas, the tree reminds me of when Jesus called us the "light of the world", the yeast is like being "the salt of the earth." It is kneaded into every millimeter of the dough, impacting it and changing the consistency and texture. The bread is now changed, forever! It becomes new! The yeast, though quiet and invisible, affects all the dough and makes a lasting and eternal impact. Jesus calls us to quietly go around being Jesus in our communities. He calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our enemies and welcome the stranger. He calls us to visit those in hospitals and prisons and to clothe the naked. He calls us to imitate Him, by bringing His love and compassion to those in need.
This is the work of yeast and mustard seeds, spreading the good news of the gospel and touching all the lives around us with the love and compassion of Jesus. The Kingdom of heaven has been actively moving since Jesus spoke these 2 parables. Weak, fragile and tainted people have come together and God has mysteriously moved through us, bringing change and hope in an unjust world.
A few years ago, I met a truly wonderful man. He is almost 90 now. He lived just around the corner and served Uptown for around 60 years. Most people don't know him because he is so quiet, humble and never promotes himself. This man has a deep love and compassion for Native Americans, our homeless brothers and sisters and anyone who has been rejected by society. Nearly every morning, for around 60 years, a large number of our poor neighbors would stumble into his humble little place for breakfast, hear the gospel and receive mass. He never cared how someone looked, what they'd done in their past or how rejected they felt, everyone who entered his door was accepted and they left knowing the love, compassion and forgiveness of Jesus.
Despite being small and hidden, God has used this man and his impact has been undeniable. Ask any homeless person who's been in Uptown for a while about Father Powell and they'll tell you. People who felt no love, felt loved. People who were hungry, were fed. People who were distressed, found peace. People who were lonely, found acceptance. People who didn't know Jesus, found Jesus. They found rest and peace in the branches of God's Kingdom.
Just as the Kingdom of heaven moved powerfully through this humble servant, it's moved through countless other nameless faces throughout the centuries. Because of these little seeds and yeast, hospitals have been built for the sick, hideaways were provided for runaway slaves and victims of oppressors, blankets and tents are given to those experiencing homelessness, people have risked and lost their lives by siding with and embracing the oppressed, families have accepted in orphans and widows, prisoners are written to and visited, the hungry receive food and peacemakers risk their lives and enter war zones, bringing help and hope to those suffering.
We got to stop thinking we have to yell louder, get more money and have more power to impact our world. Jesus showed us something vastly different. He was born in horrible circumstances, was a refugee, lived without a home, was constantly harassed and died as a criminal. He wandered around the countryside preaching the gospel, helping and healing those in need, bringing hope to the poor, lost and prisoners. His humble life changed the world forever and He tells us to "do likewise". He tells us that when God moves through and in His people, the Kingdom of heaven moves to make what's impossible possible.
Jesus People has impacted Uptown and the world; it impacted me and that's why I'm here today. This impact happened not because a group of hippies drove into Chicago in a bus that said Jesus written on the side or because the phone was answered with the words "Jesus loves you". Rather, God chose to use and move in a bunch of small, hidden and tainted people to bring change; people who've been willing to spread the gospel, put others first, fight against inequality and go into the trenches; people who've been willing to love the Lord their God and love their neighbors as themselves.
Lives have been touched and the Kingdom has grown because of seemingly small insignificant acts of love. The kingdom has grown because we follow in the footsteps of our Lord. It grows because someone is willing to change another person's tire. The Kingdom grows as we comfort someone having a psychotic episode. It grows when we take the time to talk to someone troubled and distressed. It grows when we buy someone a sandwich. It grows when we visit a prisoner or a lonely soul in a Nursing Home. It grows when we mourn with someone grieving. It grows when we tutor a struggling student. It grows whenever we make a choice to humble ourselves, preach the good news in words and deed and do things to help others in need.
Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven isn't about rising to the top and using our power, it's about being a worthless seed and yeast and letting God move in and through us. It's not about choosing the right political or religious leader, it's about the people of God letting Jesus move in and through us. It's about Jesus using our weaknesses for His glory. This is how Jesus impacted the world 2000 years ago, and that's how He still impacts the world today.
Many of us feel worthless, we feel we're too small to impact our world or that Jesus won't use us because we're too tainted or invisible. These parables tell us a very different story, they tell us that God loves to move through His weak and corrupted children, and when He does, change happens; change that is greater and more eternal than anything a political leader, dictator or military giant can bring. Those kingdoms, those empires will fade, they will be no more, but the Kingdom of heaven lasts forever.
My encouragement this morning is that we grasp the fact that God plants a small insignificant seed, and then He moves in it in order to create an enormous tree and have an everlasting impact. However small, insignificant or rotten we may feel this morning, my encouragement is that we don't allow our power hungry and money making society to tell us we'll amount to nothing, God has greater plans and makes the impossible, possible. We are important to Him. We are loved by Him. My encouragement is, God wants to use us, individually and together, so that our world can be impacted for good, that we'll be His salt and His light in this corrupted world.
Let's be seeds; let's be yeast and go out and spread the good news of the gospel, by feeding the hungry, taking in refugees, visiting prisoners, clothing the naked, standing with the oppressed, counseling the lonely, grieving with those who mourn and loving our neighbors as ourselves.