An Unstoppable Force
When I was a youth pastor, I used to do an activity with the kids called “Bigger and Better.” I’d split them into groups of four or so and assign each group an adult driver. Then I’d send them out into a neighborhood with a paperclip. They were to try to trade their paperclip for something “bigger and better” than the paperclip. Then they’d take that thing and try to trade it for something even bigger and better. The goal was to see which group came back to the church with the biggest, best object. We got quite a bit of furniture for the youth room that way. Couches, love seats, lamps. Stuff like that. And we’d talk about our culture’s constant consumerism and drive for more. One guy took the idea of that game and decided to see just how far he could go.
Stuck in a dead-end job and strapped for money, Kyle MacDonald came up with an improbable plan: starting with one red paperclip, he would trade on the Internet until he exchanged it for a house. First, he traded the red paperclip for a fish-shaped pen. Next, he traded the pen for a doorknob. He traded the doorknob for a Coleman stove. He traded the Coleman stove for an electric generator. He traded the electric generator for a Budweiser sign and a keg of beer, which he then traded for a snowmobile. Exactly one year and 14 trades later, MacDonald finally reached his goal: he exchanged a part in a Hollywood movie for a home in Saskatchewan, Canada.
The true story of Kyle MacDonald is told in his book One Red Paperclip. Now the book is being made into a movie. Fame, fortune, a book, a movie deal, and a home – it all began with one red paperclip. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? [i] And yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is a lot like that little red paperclip. Actually, he compares it to a tiny mustard seed, and a little bit of leaven in a loaf of bread. Turn to Luke 10:18. “He said therefore …” Ok, when someone uses the word “therefore,” or “because,” they’re linking what they’re about to say to what they’ve just said or what has just happened. Jesus is linking what he’s about to say to what has just happened. We can’t understand one without understanding the other. So I guess we’d better look at what just happened.
You can look back up at V. 10 if you’d like. Let me describe it to you. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, and a woman who had been disabled for a long time came in. Luke tells us that “she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.” It’s likely that she had a disease that caused the bones of her spine to fuse together. Her face was always toward the earth, unless she wrenched herself sideways, peering upward like an awkward animal. Her gait was more of a shuffle than a walk. Her physical focus may have been down, but her spiritual focus was upward. She sought solace in worshipping God and hearing the proclamation of his Word. It would appear that she was a regular worshipper in this synagogue, because no one really noticed her. But Jesus noticed her. Jesus seemed to have a radar for the unseen. Either the ignored – not necessarily the outcast – just the people no one bothered to notice; or the hidden, those who didn’t want to be seen. Like Zacchaeus, a despicable tax collector who wanted to see Jesus. In this case, it was someone whom no one noticed. Probably ever. But Jesus saw her. And he brought her front and center.
Now, we all know that the Jews had lots of laws regulating what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. You could do some things, but you couldn’t do any “work.” So meals had to be prepared the day before, and you could only walk so far or carry so much. Stuff like that. They had it really spelled out. But in the process, they’d forgotten the point of sabbath. They’d taken something that was supposed to ease burdens and create rest and made it into an even heavier burden. So Jesus calls this woman to join him in front of the congregation on the sabbath. And he spoke to her, and laid his hands on her, and healed her. On the sabbath. To be fair, this wasn’t a medical emergency. Luke tells us that she’d been in this state for 18 years. In the grand scheme of things, what was one more day? At least, that’s what the leader of the synagogue tried to say. Look at V. 14. This guy was so stuck on what he thought SHOULD happen that he completely missed what Jesus was doing right in front of him. How often do we get stuck on what we expect or think should happen, and miss what God is doing, because it doesn’t match our expectations? Look at V. 15. So it was ok to take care of your livestock on the sabbath, to make sure they got a drink of water, but you couldn’t take care of a human being? And this a child of Abraham? Jesus emphasized that. This was one of their own people. And they would leave her in this state, even one more day? Not one more day! That was Jesus’ answer. Not one more day! Never wait in giving someone the chance to be made whole.
You see, when an abstract concept says, for example, “honor your father and mother,” it’s clear that’s what you’re supposed to do. But then when you apply it to your aging parents. Maybe when your father comes to live with you, he loses touch with reality, and you have to put him in the nursing home. You hate to do it, because he doesn’t like to be there. But when your spouse’s mother comes to the end of her life, you keep her in your home, and you take care of her. It is very easy to come to the conclusion that if you are going to honor your parents, then you must keep them in your home when they get old. But there was a different situation – your kids were grown when your mother was ill. In both cases you are trying to honor your parents. Legalism is when the application of a principle is given all the force of the principle itself.[ii]
This healing and restoration of the woman who had been bent over for 18 years serves as the back drop for the two brief parables Jesus is about to tell. So now look down at Vv. 18-21. Absolutely nothing can stop the kingdom of God from expanding, not in this woman or among the people who witnessed her healing, not in your heart or mine. And what Jesus did for her, bound as she was for all those years, he was longing to do for all of the people of Israel.
Notice first of all the small beginnings. There’s nothing spectacular about a mustard seed. There’s nothing spectacular about a seed of any kind. Have you ever seen a mustard seed? They’re teeny. Now, usually, when we think about “faith the size of a mustard seed,” we think about it as in just a little bit of faith in God is all you need. But that isn’t the point here. Jesus isn’t comparing faith to a mustard seed here. He’s comparing the kingdom of God itself to a mustard seed. This isn’t about your faith or mine. It’s about what God is doing in our lives. It’s about the kingdom of God. The kingdom itself is like a mustard seed.
The mustard seed is so tiny you can’t really even pick up just one. Try to grab one and you’ll get at least 10. It takes hundreds to make up the weight of a single paper clip like the one Kyle MacDonald used. The kingdom of God has a tiny beginning. Nothing spectacular from the outside. Easily overlooked. And yet when planted, it grows into one of the biggest shrubs, big enough for birds to perch on. In a few weeks many of us will be planting gardens. Think about the seeds you will plant, compared to the size of the mature plant from which you’ll gather a harvest this fall. Even the towering oak comes from a tiny acorn, small enough for a squirrel to carry in its mouth. The kingdom of God, the work of God, begins in very small ways. Abraham and Sarah, childless and well advanced in age, became the parents of the entire nation of Israel, through whom God would work to bring his salvation to the cosmos. Israel herself may have at one point been more powerful than her small neighbors, but she was no world power. She paled in comparison to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. And the son of God himself, born in the livestock feeding area of a small home in a backwater town.
And yet, that small seeds contains within it a dynamic force. Seeds grow. It’s what they do. Plant a seed, though, and you won’t see anything happening for a little while. Lots is happening, but it’s happening beneath the surface. It’s only when the young shoot clears the surface that we can see the growth. We have black locust trees in our yard. Locust trees have a root system that is interconnected, and they’re constantly sending out new shoots for the start of new trees. By June or July I’ll be mowing over them regularly. We even had one come up through the pavement on our driveway. It pushed through the hard packed dirt underneath, moved the asphalt aside, and sprang to life. There is a dynamic force within those tiny seeds. Growing plants can lift and move concrete sidewalks, damage the concrete foundations of homes, and cause roads to heave. That little flower seems so frail, so fragile, so easy to damage. And yet, it can push aside asphalt. There’s dynamic power in that little seed.
The same is true of yeast, leaven. It’s the ingredient in bread that causes it to rise. But it doesn’t take much to penetrate the entire loaf. Look at V. 21. The three measures of flour this person was baking is literally translated “three satons of flour.” Three satons of flour would weigh roughly 45 pounds. That’s a lot of bread. In Palestine, bread was and still is a major source of food. And because fuel for cooking was scarce, large batches were made at one time. What has the real dynamic power? The massive loaf, which without the yeast remains flat, or the little bit of yeast that causes the loaf to rise? The amount of leaven used to create the loaf was insignificant compared with the eventual size of the loaf, just as the size of the mustard seed was insignificant compared with the eventual size of the plant.
And this dynamic force is at work every follower of Jesus. Some read passages like this and think that the point is that the kingdom of God will overtake the world. In the late 1800s, it was popular to teach that the gospel would keep spreading until the world was completely Christian and the kingdom was ushered in. “Christianity is going to take over, so get on board!” was the cry. Less than a half-century later, in 1945, near the end of World War 2, German theologian and preacher Helmut Thielicke stood before his German congregation in the choir loft of his church, which has been reduced to rubble by air raids, and spoke these words: “We must not think of it as a gradual Christianization of the world which will increasingly eliminate evil. Such dreams and delusions, which may have been plausible enough in more peaceful times, have vanished in the terrors of our man-made misery. The nineteenth century, which brought forth a number of these dreams and dreamers, strikes us today as being an age of unsuspecting children. Who can utter the word [progress] today without getting a flat taste in his mouth? Who can still believe today that we are developing toward a state in which the kingdom of God reigns in the world of nations, in culture, and in the life of the individual? The earth has been plowed too deep by the curse of war, the streams of blood and tears have swollen all too terribly, injustice and bestiality have become all too cruel and obvious for us to consider such dreams to be anything but bubbles and froth.” Pessimistic? Hardly. The decades of war since the end of World War 2 have borne out the truth in Thielicke’s words. Jesus wasn’t teaching triumphalism, the view that one religion would displace all others. The day will come when Jesus is worshipped as lord of all, but that day will not come until he returns. Until then, the kingdom of God will grow as the transforming power of God works in your heart and mine.
These parables describe the growth of the kingdom of God in your heart and mind. They describe the life of Jesus growing large in us. They describe the transforming power of God that cannot be denied and will produce its results. It is said that every healthy tree has a root system beneath the surface that is roughly the same size as the height and spread of the branches above the surface. When we are deeply rooted in Christ, when our hearts and minds are fully submitted to him, the power of the Holy Spirit takes hold of our lives in ways that cannot be denied. Thielicke, in a sermon on this passage, said “If the world has not yet changed and if the [people of the world] are spiteful enough to harass us with the question of what actually has changed in two thousand years of Christianity, then the fault lies not with the wicked heathen who have sabotaged the kingdom of God but rather with the large number of Christian duds who have burrowed themselves into the ground (like a seed) and think they have done their duty … people want the gifts of the Lord Christ but they do not want him.”
As a follower of Jesus, you are one in whom Christ dwells. There is a biblical truth that we as Christians often overlook. The truth is that the Holy Spirit was given by God to take possession of the life, the individuality, the personality of the believer, and to express His divine personality, the personality of Christ, or one small part of it, in the life and personality of that believer. Paul wrote to the Galatian believers that he was “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19). So let’s come at this truth through the back door. The Bible tells of people who were possessed by demons whose lives expressed the identity of those demons. Anyone who came near these poor people would be immediately aware of the evil personality controlling the stricken person. And when, at the command of Jesus, the demon left, the person’s personality and character returned to normal. If the presence of evil in the life of a person could alter their identity, covering his or her true human personality, how much more should the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives dominate our personality and character by expressing the personality of Christ in the life of a believer who is yielding to the work of God? “ … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22). How often do we meet someone, get to know someone, and become aware of marks of the presence of Christ in their life? There is a warmth and tenderness towards life and its problems, a love a devotion you can’t find in this world, a color and life easily visible to the person who is looking. Let the Holy Spirit bring out the personality of Christ in your life.
[i] Peter Larson, Lebanon, Ohio; source: The Chronicle: Lebanon Presbyterian Church (November 2007)
[ii] Expository Preaching in a Narrative World: An Interview with Haddon Robinson, Michael Duduit, editor, Preaching Magazine, (July/August 2001)