Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu explains how love and forgiveness kept post-apartheid South Africa from tumbling into anarchy:
Last night I spoke on Matthew 13:31-35, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, at Uncover, our youth group:
I can remember when I was ten or eleven that I went to Chessington with some friends, and some of us were too small to go on some of the rides. Have you ever been told that you are too small to do certain things? What kinds of things are you too small to do?
In the movie, A Bug’s Life, Flik (Dave Foley) has a heart to heart chat with the little Princess Dot. Both Flik and Dot were having some difficulties “fitting in.” Flik had seen yet another idea and invention go down in flames for the sake of tradition and Dot was struggling with being too small and trying to fly. Flik takes the opportunity to share some wisdom with Dot about growing up and making a difference by using a rock from the ground and the massive tree on Ant Island.
Flik frantically searches for a seed for this practical lesson but can only find a rock and has the Princess use her imagination to pretend he has a seed. “See our tree, everything that made that tree is already contained in that tiny, little seed. All it needs is some time, a little bit of rain, sunshine and volia; it becomes a tree. You might not feel like you can do much now that’s because you’re not a tree yet. Just give yourself some time, you’re still a seed.”
Dot felt like she couldn’t do anything that really mattered because she was so small. Being small can be a good thing.
Do any of you like mustard on your hot dogs or burgers? I love mustard! As a child I even belonged to the Mustard Appreciation Society! Mustard comes from these tiny, little seeds. The mustard is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, of all the seeds in the world. They may look really small but they grow into a very large plant.
Jesus told a story about mustard seeds in the Bible and I’d like to share it with you today:
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
33 He told them still another parable: “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.”
34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
I can tell you, I’ve heard that section of the Bible a lot. To me this verse was one that I remember from childhood and Sunday school. It felt easy to understand and I was taught that it meant that big things will come out of small things. Well this is true and this is what this verse says, and we will look into this, but I was challenged to look into this verse more deeply from a passing comment in a book I read that got me thinking quite how revolutionary Jesus was being when he told this parable. There is a lot to be learnt about the Kingdom from this simple verse. I’ve been dwelling on it for a while now and I think I have only just begun to scratch the surface.
Let me share some of this with you by getting you to think how the Jewish people viewed the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. The Israelites were counting on a Messiah to come and return the reign of Israel back to the “glory days” of King David. They likened it to the Mighty Cedar Tree of Lebanon. So when Jesus came and told them of a Kingdom where service was going to be the centrepiece, it shattered expectations. Like a Mustard bush? Come on.
Can you imagine? To expect a warrior king to come and do justice for all the Roman occupation occurring in the land, and then this man comes claiming to be the Messiah telling the people to “Love your enemies?” No wonder they were up in arms and ready to kill Him.
They were expecting a great kingdom represented by the Cedar of Lebanon, much like this. The Cedar of Lebanon stood tall and majestic, but the Mustard bush? The people must have thought it a joke.
But in God’s kingdom, people, situations, and circumstances are not limited to how they appear in the natural.
- We see God using Gideon and 300 men
- Moses a man of stuttering speech
- Jesus feeding 5000 with 2 fish and 5 loaves
I could go on and on. These circumstances and situations seemed small and destined for insignificance but they all had one common factor, God was involved.
When a mustard seed grows it becomes a weed. It’s a vine-like weed which will grow and grow and will intertwine with other weeds. And they’ll continue to grow. And then they’ll come into contact with a flower, which will be overtaken by the weeds. Now they’re growing more. Soon they’ll touch a tomato plant, and pretty soon that tomato plant has been overtaken by the weeds.
In fact, Jewish law at the time of Jesus made it illegal to plant mustard seed in a garden. Why was it against the law? Because they knew that it would grow and grow, invade the vegetables and other plants, and eventually take over the garden. If you let mustard in, eventually you’d be left with only mustard. The secret to gardening for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day was: keep the mustard out!
I wonder how people reacted when they heard Jesus compare his kingdom to mustard seed planted in a garden. Did they just look shocked? Are you serious? Don’t you know about mustard? Or did they giggle? This guy is hysterical. I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to say next! Or perhaps they frowned and thought, Jesus, hush. We like you, and if you keep comparing your kingdom to mustard, you’re going to get yourself killed.
Jesus used a notorious, forbidden weed to describe God’s kingdom. He said God’s kingdom is like a man who planted a mustard seed in his garden. But people didn’t plant mustard seed in gardens. It was illegal. If you did, the mustard seed would grow and grow and take over the entire garden.
I’ve tried to think of modern-day equivalents. If Jesus was here today and asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” what would he say next? What modern-day metaphor would make the same point and have similar shock value?
Maybe: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a vicious computer virus a man sent out in an email from his computer, and it spread and spread and infected more and more computers.”
Or perhaps this: “it is not far off using a cannabis plant as an analogy. I am not saying the Kingdom is like a drug but I am trying to give some indication of the immediate effect that this statement would have had. It would have had people falling off their chairs. It is an interesting choice of analogy for Jesus to use and he knew exactly what he was doing.
If we heard that, our heads would spin. We’d say, “What? Are you serious? And the people who heard Jesus back then would have reacted the same way.
I picture a conscientious disciple pulling Jesus aside and saying ‘Jesus you can’t say things like that. People will be offended! What’s wrong with a nice rose bud, people like roses.’ you can just see it, and perhaps we still do sometimes – how concerned are we about offending people? We will see from other parts of Jesus’ teaching that sometimes the first thing it does is offend us.
The truth is that the Jewish people didn’t want a rose bud, and they certainly didn’t want a mustard plant. Remember this is a sensitive time in the Israelites’ history, they were waiting for the Messiah. They are down trodden, depressed but hopeful. They look back to the glory days and crave the future with the Israel Nation glorious again. They wanted a cedar tree. The Pharisees, the Jewish people were holding to scriptures including those from Daniel and Ezekiel that compare God’s Nation to be like the cedar of Lebanon, (and it will be) they wanted a strong and mighty Kingdom, a ruler that would expel the Romans. They were looking for a revolution of force, like the days of the Judges. A mustard seed just wasn’t going to cut it. So not only was this verse shocking it was also an insult, the concept of the Kingdom they were hoping for as a weed was not a welcome one.
So this parable goes down like a lead balloon as soon as it starts.
So what was Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God?
The Jesus revolution is subtle. It starts small, like a weed in a garden, but it spreads. It reaches out and everything it touches it grabs and pulls in. It spreads one life to another, more and more people getting pulled into it. And the harder you try to get rid of it, the faster it spreads.
I think Jesus is teaching us that the revolution is meant to be viral. It spreads like a disease. It’s a disease you want to catch, but still it spreads like a disease. When you hang out with someone who has the flu, you catch the flu. Jesus is saying the revolution should be sneezable. The revolution should be contagious, and when it comes into an area, it should grow into an epidemic.
But it will only grow into an epidemic if it’s done right. Weeds don’t come in and announce they’re taking over the garden. They don’t invite all the other plants and vegetables to a meeting and ask them if they’d like to be taken over by the weeds. They don’t hand out tracts explaining the benefits of the garden overrun by weeds. They don’t wear weed T-shirts. They don’t put a billboard up for all the vegetation to see: “For the Gardener so loved the garden, he gave his one and only weed.”
No, a weed comes in unannounced, popping up very subtly, and it starts to grow. Then another weed pops up. And if these two weeds meet up, they’ll get enmeshed, and then they’ll intertwine with another weed. Soon they’re pulling in flowers and plants, and eventually the entire garden is taken over by the weeds.
And Jesus teaches us that this is the way of his kingdom. The way his revolution is intended to function, the way it grows best, is not through public meetings, billboards, and TV. No, it’s a love revolution that spreads person to person, one individual to another. And when we try to make it something it’s not, it just won’t work quite right. But when we live it out as it’s supposed to be, watch out.
A stark warning is what A. W. Tozer said :
‘Religion today is not transforming people; rather it is being transformed by the people. It is not raising the moral level of society; it is descending into society’s own level, and congratulating itself that it has scored a victory because society is smiling accepting it’s surrender’
We have this image of an illegal seed, but the Church is very soon going to be managed by laws such as the religious hatred law. Now what would happen if we truly proclaimed the Gospel, regardless of the law, stood up against injustice and became a weed? How long until we are hated, how long until we are put in prison? The Church in the West has forgotten its roots. The Gospel didn’t come out of the heights of the Roman Courts, it came out of its prison cells.
It has been oppressed, legislated against and attempted to be managed since it began. Why are we comfortable with the world now? What’s changed?
Shane Claiborne comments that
‘In eras of injustice prison becomes the Christian’s home. So live real good, and get beat up real bad. Dance until they kill you, and then we’ll dance some more’
I would say that it is not just periods of injustice but whenever the Gospel is not welcome. That challenges me. Am I willing to go to prison? Am I willing to die?
Jesus said – Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, whoever loses his life will preserve it.
Where the Church is a weed it is thriving and a lot of the leaders are imprisoned for their faith. As the Church in the west we are very comfortable, I am worried that the world manages us as a weed. How long will we let this happen? We will be persecuted in one way or another. We need to be ready for this.
There is another aspect about the legality of the mustard seed that we need to consider. It was illegal, but it was illegal by way of customs and traditions rather than actual law. I have been challenged to take a good look at myself and realise that I have made rules for myself that have bound my usefulness in the spreading of the Kingdom.
The first part of this parable is that the man plants the seed. Nobody would have planted a mustard seed, hence this is an unconventional act and this makes me think of a friend of mine called Ed. Ed is one of those Christians that does not belong on planet Earth. I spent a lot of time with him through my time studying and he was the kind of guy who would walk up to the biggest hardest looking guy in the room and tell him that Jesus loves him. I would cringe, I would be embarrassed. To be honest I am ashamed by my embarrassment now. Ed does a lot of unconventional things, Ed is ready to be used by God. He does not belong on Planet earth because he is kingdom focused. I have learnt a lot from him.
But this is a challenge for us as individuals as well as us as a Church. What about us, what traditions or ways of doing things, or things that should not be done are actually restricting the growth of the Kingdom. Has the Church legislated within herself against the Kingdom? Let’s not be restricted by ‘the way things are always done’ or ‘how it should be’ instead let’s be open to God and abandon our substitute laws. Remember ‘it was for freedom that Christ has set us free’.
Yet Jesus continued. He kept trying to help people understand the fact the Kingdom of God is much more representative of a mustard seed. It doesn’t always take the form of a majestic tree.
- It starts small and humble.
- It spreads fast, like the mustard weed.
- It’s aroma spreads fast and is potent to the user.
The mustard seed turns into a bush, low to the ground, available to allow all sorts of animals to find shelter. The Cedar is majestic. It’s tall, ominous, and over powering. But, it takes forever to grow. It’s intended only for the Eagle to perch and it stands in opposition to all the other plants of the field.
The mustard seed, more powerful than the mighty Cedar?
Jesus, once again, turns the expectations of the people on its ear, and allows for the Kingdom of God to be accessed by everyone.
May our expectations of the Kingdom match those of Jesus.
May we take time to understand Jesus’ intentions in our own world.
I mentioned a while ago that I went to a conference on working in multi-cultural areas which was run by CURBS in Birmingham. It was an excellent day and I came away with lots to think about. One thing I have continued to wonder about was some comments that Revd Andrew Smith made about how we understand conversion in children. He was, of course discussing this issue in the light of his experiences of people from other faiths exploring Christianity but his ideas seemed to me, to have a wider resonance to children’s ministry.
He basically said that among children’s ministry resources designed to be used in a evangelistic way he only ever really saw becoming a Christian described as repentance for ones ‘old life’ and the adoption of a new life and values. He said that he realised the problems with this model when he found himself telling someone who faithfully prayed five times a day that they had to change! For him this illustrated the need to see different types of conversion and he said that he reckoned on their being about three.
1. YOU’VE GROWN UP WITH IT, NOW MAKE IT YOURS
For those of us who work in churches this is an especially valuable thought. It is my hope that the children who grow up in our church communities will never remember a time when God wasn’t a significant part of their life and our job is to nurture that and allow it to deepen.
This means that as the child gets older and their thinking develops they are able to choose to carry on in the faith they grew up in rather than slightly bizarrely repent from it. This may come in a moment of decision but is likely to be a slow process that John Westerhoff would characterise as the movement from ‘affiliative faith’ to ‘owned faith’ through a time where faith is described as ‘searching’.
2. CONTINUE DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING BUT WELCOME JESUS INTO IT.
This is a model that Andrew suggested had great value when working with people coming from other faiths. It acknowledges the good in their current practice and seeks to place Jesus in the heart of it. So don’t repent of praying five times a day but instead pray in the name of Jesus and the power of the spirit.
3. STOP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND FOLLOW JESUS
This is the model that Andrew reflected is applied to children the most but may well be the least appropriate. I’d agree with him; please hear that I’m not saying children don’t need to decide to follow Jesus but we need to be careful about how we present this. The danger is that no matter how well we explain to a child that God loves them all they will hear is that they have done things that make God so angry that he can’t be their friend until they say sorry. For some children they won’t hear about grace because they won’t get past that first image of an angry and judgemental God who is actually pretty scary.
It’s worth having a think about this and seeing how it effects the way you work. Conversion and children is a tough issue and there is more to think about than at first we realise. As a result we often see resources that are essentially resources for adults turned into language that is easier for children to understand. However by doing this we risk being left with something that is rather superficial or worse inappropriate for the children we love and serve. So have a ponder and let me know what you think.
A book I often use to plan my Christmas sermons is Joy to the world: Preaching the Christmas Story by Paul Beasley-Murray.
The book is full of Beasley-Murray’s summary exegesis of familiar passages from the gospels, the Old Testament prophecies and some of the reflections of the Good News in the New Testament letters. This year I’ve spoken at four Christingle services, four Carol Services, seven assemblies, and four youth services – whilst there is some opportunity for repetition it is helpful to have other peoples suggestions and angles on how to share some of the Christmas story in different ways.
Certainly a helpful resource to keep on your study bookcase.
I’ve posted this Bible reading plan before. We use it in The Crowded House Sheffield. If you’ve been using it then you’ll be interested in this postcard-sized version of the plan for 2014. If you’re not reading through the Bible then the approach of the new year is a good time to review your Bible reading habits. Here are a couple of old posts on why that would be a good idea – Hearing God Speak and Must I Read My Bible Every Day?This plan has a number of differences from other plans.
1. Flexibility - The plan specifies a number of chapters for each week rather than for each day. This makes it more flexible. You can read a chapter or two each day or you can read it in two or three sittings. Or you can set out reading a chapter a day and then catch up at the weekend. It means it fits more readily around people’s lifestyle.
2. Communal - It is designed to be followed with a partner or among a group of people. There is only one section each week (occasionally two shorter books). So you don’t have to read a section from one book and then a section from another book each day. It means the sections are somewhat uneven, but it makes it easy to discuss what you have been reading when you meet up with other people.
We’ve been using it for a year now and it works very well in this way. I meet up with a friend each week for lunch. It’s easy for us to discuss what we’ve been reading because there is only one Bible book to focus on.
It also means I only need look at the Bible plan once a week – I don’t need to refer to it each day.
3. Realistic - Following this plan you read the OT in three years and the NT twice in three years. This works out at about nine chapters a week. It means you are not rushing through what you are reading to ‘get it done’. I’ve found with other plans I tend to read it with my mind disengaged. This plan gives time to meditate on the passage.
There is also a version in the document in which you cover the OT once and the NT twice in two years = about 16 chapters a week.
4. Balanced - The plan balances OT history, prophecy, wisdom, Gospel and Epistles throughout the year. You move between genres so you’re never faced with reading OT prophecy continuously for six months.
Over the last few years I’ve become a fan of Henri Nouwen’s writings, so I was pleased to pick up a second-hand copy of Sabbatical Journey in the last few months. The book is a diary of September 1995 to August 1996, when Nouwen had been given a sabbatical from l’Arche Daybreak, the community in which he worked and lived. His final entry in the journal was on 30th August 1996, only three weeks before his death.
Nouwen’s diary reminds me of a Bill Bryson styled travel book, but instead of a focus on the geography, history etc., his focus is on the relationships, the conversations, the mood of the people he met with. His travels take him to California and New Mexico, Holland and Ireland, Watertown and Peapack, Freiburg and Toronto to mention a few. Alongside this we see more detail in the relationship with people like his ageing father
The main thing that struck me was the importance that Nouwen placed on celebrating Holy Communion regularly, and by that I don’t mean each Sunday, but nearly every day, be it in The Daybreak Community, with family and friends, or in a hotel room. His reflections as he celebrates this are a source of spiritual food that sustains not only his community of friends (and he has many!) but his readers as well. He also writes about the tug of war he feels between wanting to write more, yet wanting to be available as a pastor for his friends, to preside over their weddings and baptisms and funerals.
If you enjoy reading Henri Nouwen, then it’s well worth your time to sit and read snippets of this.
Desert Island Discs invites guests to select the music they’d want with them on a Desert Island, plus Shakespeare and the Bible, in a closing remark Lee Mack reflected:
“I’m glad you get the Bible, because I would read the Bible. I think it’s quite odd that people like myself, in their forties, quite happy to dismiss the Bible, but I’ve never read it. I always think that if an alien came down and you were the only person they met, and they said, ‘What’s life about? What’s earth about? Tell us everything,’ and you said, ‘Well, there’s a book here that purports to tell you everything. Some people believe it to be true; some people [do] not believe it [to be] true.’ ‘Wow, what’s it like?’ and you go, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never read it.’ It would be an odd thing wouldn’t it? So, at the very least, read it.”