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Well, good morning. If you are just joining us, we are in a series on Jesus’ kingdom parables. Mike Kruger kicked us off several weeks ago, beginning in Matthew 13 with the parable of the sower. And the last two weeks Pastor Tom preached, first on the purpose of the parables, and then last week on the parable of the weeds. And throughout these parables, we’ve been learning about the nature of the kingdom of God. And this morning we come to the parable of the mustard seed and the leaven.
As we approach God’s Word, let’s turn to Him in prayer.
Lord Jesus, who are we that we would receive a kingdom that is unable to be shaken. And so as we come and learn about Your kingdom, Lord, let us approach Your Word with grateful hearts that we have received this kingdom, Lord. You have given it to us. We thank You for Your Word. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Read along with me in Matthew 13, beginning in verse 31. Matthew 13, verse 31.
“He,” that is Jesus, “put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.'”
2020 has been an eventful year. A few months ago Pastor Kevin reminded us of all that has transpired in just these first few months. We have seen some of the most unique natural events take place in 2020, wild fires in Australia, a plague of locusts in Kenya, even a tornado that ripped through our own town and our very own campus. We have lost well-known men and women, athletes such as Kobe Bryant, politicians and activists such as Congressman John Lewis, church leaders such as Ravi Zacharias and J. I. Packer. We have seen our political parties as divided as ever, enduring a presidential impeachment, and we are in the midst of an election year that will surely only divide a wedge between blue and black even further.
We have encouraged a virus that has infected over 16 million people, taken the lives of over 600,000 people, caused millions of jobs to be lost, prevented us from gathering for worship for several months, and even now unable to as we normally would. It even canceled March Madness way back when, postponed The Masters and left basketball and baseball players playing in front of empty arenas. It is a virus that has changed life as we know it.
And if that wasn’t enough, we have also seen the greatest period of social unrest in this century.
It has been an eventful year and our children have not even gone back to school yet.
Friends, I don’t know about you, but at times I have been prone to discouragement this year. There are times when I check the news, I check my social media, and it has left me distraught, discouraged, and disappointed.
There are times when I look at the world around me and it feels hopeless.
And yet we come to God’s Word this morning and I believe that God wants to encourage us this morning. These two little parables are vitally important for our encouragement and our confidence in the kingdom of heaven. We’ll look at three principles in this text and each principle will have a lesson for us.
First, the kingdom appears insignificant. Second, the kingdom breaks in in visible and invisible ways. And third, the kingdom is more impressive than you’d ever imagine.
Insignificant, invisible, and impressive.
Let’s start with principle number 1. The kingdom appears insignificant. Look back with me at verse 31: “He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds. ‘”
Jesus here seeks to aim to set the disciples’ expectations right. He says that the kingdom might not always look impressive. He compares it to a mustard seed in verse 31, the smallest of all seeds, as He said, and then verse 33 later He compares it to leaven in flour. His point is straightforward and clear: The kingdom is going to appear insignificant.
Now there may be debate about whether or not the mustard seed was truly the smallest seed in the world, but friends, that’s not the point. The mustard seed was probably the smallest seed that His audience would have been familiar with. Jesus is not teaching a botany class here, He’s teaching a parable. And the kingdom is as insignificant as a mustard seed. It’s tiny. It’s truly unimpressive. It doesn’t look like anything at the beginning.
And we have to believe that the disciples thought this was very difficult to embrace. Their expectation was probably that Jesus would usher in the physical kingdom of heaven, that the Roman Empire might even be toppled and that Israel might even once again rise to prominence on the wings of the Messiah, and yet here we are in Matthew 13 and Jesus does not have a totally insignificant following, but it probably doesn’t match at all what the disciples would have expected.
Jesus had proven that He could draw a crowd. He had proven that people would be interested in His message. But then Jesus would do very strange things that would actually drive the crowds away, that would diminish His following. Jesus would say things like, “I am the bread of life and unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in Me.”
Well, what was the result of that? John 6:66: “After this, many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him.”
Wait, Jesus, I thought the purpose was to gather more people, to have a bigger movement, to bring the kingdom here on earth.
And yet Jesus says no. He says no, the kingdom is like a mustard seed. It looks small, it looks insignificant.
Indeed, at the end of Jesus’ life, we can safely say that maybe only a few hundred people called Him Lord. Even then, one of His 12 closest disciples turned away from Him.
J.C. Ryle says this: “It was a religion which seemed at first so feeble and helpless and powerless that it could not live. Its first founder ended His life by dying the death of a criminal on a cross. Its first adherents were a little company whose number probably did not exceed a thousand. Its first preachers were a few fishermen who were most of them unlearned and ignorant men. If ever there was a religion which was a little grain of seed at the beginning, that religion was the Gospel.”
Friends, the kingdom looks insignificant. There is no way around it. And this is a lesson that you and I need to be familiar with today. Certainly, we’ll get to our third point, where the kingdom looks more impressive than we could ever have imagined, but in our lives sometimes we need to have our expectations reset as well.
I have spent almost two decades living as or ministering to college and university students across North Carolina. I had the privilege of talking with many, seeing many in their university context. You all know this, but how many university students feel like they are the only Christians on their entire campus? How many university students feel like their belief in Christianity is no more significant than a mustard seed?
Friends, maybe you, too, feel this in your vocation, in your neighborhood, in your extended family. What difference does my faith make here? I feel so alone. I feel so small, so insignificant, compared to the rest of the world.
And so here’s the lesson for us today. The kingdom may appear insignificant, but don’t lose hope. Friends, don’t lose hope. Yes, it may seem like a classic underdog story, an undersized and overwhelmed Rudy trying to make the football team, but let’s not relate the appearance of the kingdom to an undersized walk-on alone. We’re talking about something much bigger, something much more significant than those things.
And I know at times the kingdom appears to be small and insignificant compared to the noise of the world around us. I know that we can feel like what difference can I make on my campus, in my neighborhood, but friends, don’t lose hope. Our Lord and Savior is telling us that the kingdom will look like this. The seed is supposed to look insignificant.
Brothers and sisters, this has been a challenging few weeks for our church. We have lost friends, family, husbands, fathers, brothers, church members. It’s a difficult time in the life of our church. But let us not lose hope. The seed only appears to be small. It only appears to be insignificant. It only appears to be overwhelmed by the world around it. Let us not lose hope in the power of the seed and the hope of what the kingdom will be revealed to be.
Friends, it won’t always be like this. Don’t lose hope in the Gospel. Don’t lose hope in the kingdom of heaven. It may look insignificant now, but just you wait. It’s not nearly what it seems.
Don’t lose hope.
Principle number two: The kingdom breaks in in visible and invisible ways.
Now, Jesus gives us two short but different parables. They are both driving home the same point, but they are different. The first parable is the parable of the mustard seed growing into a tree. The second parable is the leaven hidden in the flour, growing into a loaf of bread. Same central point: Seemingly insignificant but more than meets the eye.
But why two different parables? Is it just for added emphasis? Jesus just wanted to drive home the point? I think that’s partly the case. But I think there might be something else for us, to learn about how each works.
The kingdom can break in in visible and invisible ways.
First, the kingdom can break in in visible ways. This is what we see with the mustard seed. Yes, it may start in the ground, but eventually the seed will sprout, and we will actually be able to see the slow, methodical growth of the mustard seed into a full-blown tree. We may not be able to see it grow minute by minute, hour by hour, or even day by day, but year by year, decade by decade, century by century, we will see the mustard seed of the Gospel grow.
We see this in the kingdom across the world with new church plants, new ministries, new converts, churches that are growing in size. And when we see this visible growth, we are reminded that the kingdom is much more than we originally thought or imagined. And it’s incredibly encouraging to us, is it not? It’s encouraging to us as a church when we have new members join. It’s encouraging to us when we see children and new believers baptized into the faith. It’s encouraging to hear stories of how our missionaries and supported workers are seeing the Gospel moving and how they’re engaged in the mission of the Church, the Great Commission.
It’s also encouraging to be able to visibly see how we as a church are becoming more like Christ. It’s encouraging to hear of Christians confessing their sin. It’s encouraging to hear believers shed old sinful habits and walk in newness of life. It’s encouraging to see a hunger for God’s Word in new and profound ways.
And we have to notice that Gospel growth doesn’t always equal numerical growth. Often it can be that a believer can grow up more into Christ, as Ephesians 4:15 instructs us. We shouldn’t always equate spiritual health with numerical expansion.
But the mustard seed teaches us that often we can see the kingdom breaking in.
Friends, notice that I mention that the kingdom breaks in rather than it expands, or even grows. Pastor Kevin has written that we should think of the kingdom like the sun. When the clouds part on a cloudy day, we don’t say “the sun has grown.” We say the sun his broken through. Our view of the sun has changed, or obstacles to the sun have been removed, but we have not changed the sun. The sun does not depend on us nor do we bring the sun or act upon the sun.
Brothers and sisters, this should remind us that you and I cannot build the kingdom of God. It’s very common to hear phrases like “building the kingdom, ushering in the kingdom, establishing the kingdom” or even “helping the kingdom grow.” But notice here and in other places of Scripture that we are not the ones who grow, build, establish, or usher in the kingdom. This is not a construction or a building parable.
As George Ladd puts it, “The kingdom can draw near to men, it can arrive, it can appear, it can be active. God can give the kingdom to men, but men do not give the kingdom to one another.”
Again, as Pastor Kevin puts it, “The kingdom does not expand, it does not increase, it does not grow, but the kingdom can break in more and more.”
You and I cannot build the kingdom. We don’t contribute to the expansion of the kingdom. But we do want the kingdom to break in in more and more ways. Just as we can see the sun visibly, sometimes we get to visibly see the kingdom more and more.
Second, the kingdom can break in in invisible ways. If the mustard seed’s work is able to be observed, the leaven’s work is actually the exact opposite. We can’t see it working. And often the kingdom breaks in in inward ways in our own hearts and lives. It’s like yeast. You can’t see it, but eventually it will work its way through the entire loaf of bread.
You and I like to see things happen. It’s the American way. We like tangible results from our hard work and if we don’t see the results we want in the timeframe that we demand, then something must be wrong.
But God’s ways are not the American way. God’s ways are not your ways, or my ways. How He works to bring about His rule and reign here on the earth is often not what we think. The parable of the leaven teaches us that often the kingdom appears or breaks in silently and insensibly. That is, sometimes we don’t hear of how God is working and moving in the hearts and lives of men and women around the world. Sometimes we can’t perceive all that He’s doing.
Several years ago I got word from a close friend of mine, and I’ll call him Jim, that’s not His name, and Jim was going through a rough time. His world around him was crumbling. So as seeking to be a good friend, I went to spend time with Jim, to see how he was doing, to encourage him. And he shared and we talked and I listened, and after a while my friend said in all earnestness, “Zach, I just need to become a better person. I’m going to start training for triathlons, I’m going to eat better, I’m going to donate my time, I’m going to give money away. I need to become a better person.” And so I took the opportunity to share Christ with him. Took the opportunity to share that while all his proposed changes were fine, there was only one way to truly change, to truly better himself, and that was to see himself as a sinner apart from Christ with no lasting hope in this life or the life to come and to turn and trust in Jesus.
As is the case often in evangelistic ministry, there was no lightbulb that went off. There were no tears of repentance. There was no sinner’s prayer on the spot.
We kept talking. Eventually I left and said, “Okay, I don’t know what happened there, Lord.”
Years later I end up talking to someone who knows Jim, not even Jim directly. They tell me that Jim has given his life to Christ. He’s a member of a local church. He’s attending a Bible study, and to my surprise, Jim credits me with leading him to faith. That was a welcome surprise for me. I had no idea. Jim never told me any of that. I had no idea. The Gospel was working in ways in which I couldn’t see.
And friends, that’s okay. Sometimes the Gospel of the kingdom breaks in in ways we can’t see, that we can’t expect, that we can’t predict, but it’s still working, it’s still moving, it’s still breaking in.
And so here’s the lesson for us: The kingdom breaks in in visible and invisible ways, so brothers and sisters, don’t stop praying. Don’t stop praying.
Don’t stop praying because there are going to be times in which we are not able to see the kingdom break in which we want. There are going to be times where we can’t see all that God is doing. There are going to be times where parents are desperate to see the kingdom break in in visible ways into their children’s lives. God, would you save my son? Would you rescue my daughter? I just want to see it.
I’ve talked with so many parents who are desperate for their children to know Christ and to walk with Him and they just aren’t seeing it.
Don’t stop praying.
The Gospel may be breaking in ways in which we can’t see. So praise God for the ways we can see, but God is always doing more than our eyes tell us.
Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop praying for your wayward children. Don’t stop praying for our supported workers, and missionaries abroad and here locally. Don’t stop praying for our pastors, our officers, our ministry leaders. Don’t stop praying for those that you’re ministering to. Don’t stop praying.
J.C. Ryle, once again, says “The work of grace once begun in the soul will never stand still. It will gradually leaven the whole lump. Like leaven, once introduced it can never be separated from that which it is mingle. Little by little it will influence the conscience, the affections, the mind, and the will until the whole man is affected by its power and a thorough conversion to God takes place.”
And more often than not, friends, you and I will never be able to see all that’s going on.
So don’t stop praying.
No, we can’t build the kingdom. No, we can’t advance the kingdom. But that doesn’t mean that our prayers are useless. In divine ministry, God is completely sovereign and our prayers absolutely matter.
So don’t stop praying.
The kingdom can break in in visible and invisible ways.
Third principle: The kingdom is more impressive than you’d ever imagine.
Verse 32: “It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
The smallest seed there is, the mustard seed, turns out to be far more significant and more impressive than anyone would have ever thought.
And Jesus says this is like the kingdom. There are times when it doesn’t look like much, but just you wait. It’s larger than all the other seemingly more impressive garden plants. What appears insignificant is actually incredibly impressive in the end.
The kingdom surely appeared unimpressive when Jesus was sharing this parable. Yes, He had announced the kingdom was at hand in Mark 1, but did it really look like the kingdom of God had been ushered in? No, not at all.
And even today we could say that the kingdom still doesn’t look all that impressive. Look at the state of the world in 2020. Look at the discouraging and disheartening times that we live in. If anything, when we look around us it looks like the kingdom of the coronavirus, not the kingdom of heaven.
And you and I are all tempted to be discouraged when we are looking for the kingdom at times, and we need to remember is that the kingdom has an already but not yet reality to it. The kingdom has a present and a future reality. The kingdom has been established but it has not fully and finally broken through.
Friends, the present reality is that kingdom today is more impressive than it’s ever been to our eyes. The kingdom of God has broken in in ways and places that would have been unimaginable to the disciples. From a handful of followers in Matthew 13 to 3000 converts on the day of Pentecost. From Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome, the kingdom was breaking through in Paul’s life. By the 4th century the Gospel was known in virtually every province and every city in the Roman Empire. And just 270 years later, there were applied 10 million Christians in the Roman Empire.
Today, 17 centuries later, there are applied 2 billion people on planet earth who call themselves Christians, approximately 30% of the world.
While it may not seem as if the kingdom is very significant here in the West, according to the news and media that we consume, Christianity is growing in leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. By 2050, estimates suggest there will be more than 1.2 billion Christians in Africa, more than the number in Europe and North America combined. By that time, almost 1 out of every 8 people in the world will be an African Christian.
In 1900, more than half of the world’s population, over 50%, was considered unreached with the Gospel. Today, that percentage is down to under 30. The Gospel, the kingdom, is breaking in globally.
But it’s also breaking in here locally at Christ Covenant Church. Think about when just the first few handfuls of people gathered together to plant what would become Christ Covenant Church on Alexander Road. They had no idea what this ministry would like some 40 years later, from a very humble modular to this beautiful sanctuary and our campus. From a few handful of men and women to a large and growing congregation again, that supports church plants throughout the city and throughout the world, to supporting ministry workers on every continent.
Personally, I’ve had the privilege of leading and being a part of one of these ministries here locally, our college ministry, Campus Outreach. And exactly 25 years ago, just eight young men and women moved to North Carolina from Augusta, Georgia to help Christ Covenant reach university students with the Gospel. And they were young and they were hungry and they were naïve but they were full of faith. 25 years later that small mustard seed of a campus ministry team has seen thousands of university students profess faith in Christ. We’ve seen hundreds of missionaries and supported workers sent to all corners of the earth. We’ve planted new CO teams in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Florida, South Africa. We’ve supported new campus ministry works in the United Kingdom, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Lusaka, Zambia, and soon to be Cape Town, South Africa.
Indeed, the kingdom of God is larger than all the garden plants and it has become a tree that the birds of the air, the men and women from all corners of the earth, have come to rest in its branches. The kingdom is more impressive then we realize and it’s breaking through globally and locally.
And yet the kingdom hasn’t fully and finally appeared. We aren’t able to see the mustard seed in its full and final stage. There is more Gospel work to be done.
Yes, it is greatly encouraging that the once 12 disciples are now 2 billion worldwide, but friends, there are still 5 billion people who are apart from Christ today. Yes, we are grateful that less of the world’s population is considered unreached than a century ago, but friends, we are still talking about billions of people who know nothing of Christ, who don’t know a believer, who live in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian.
No, brothers and sisters the sun has not fully and finally broken through. We are not able to see all that the kingdom is in the world today. There is more of the kingdom to be revealed yet.
And so when we look at the world around us in 2020, and we see that what God has brought, the fact that there is more of the kingdom for us to see should actually greatly encourage us, because God is not done working in the world. He’s not done moving. His promises haven’t been fully and finally realized.
But friends, we know that they will be. We know that they will be one day. His promises are as sure as the rising and the setting of the sun. What He has promised will come to pass. The kingdom, which appeared as insignificant as a mustard seed, will one day be realized in all its glory. Yes, one day men and women from every tribe, every tongue, every people, every nation, will be standing before the throne of this kingdom and they will be crying with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
As we sang earlier, “May the seeds of mercy grow in us for those who have not heard. May songs of praise build lives of grace to spread Your Word. May the peoples praise You. Let the nations be glad.”
So here’s the lesson for us: The kingdom is more impressive than we realize, so don’t give up. Don’t give up.
Don’t give up on the full and final appearing of the kingdom. Don’t give up on the spread of the Gospel. And I know 2020 has not been what we hoped for, what we thought it might be. It is not fun to think about the education options in front of us for our children. It’s not enjoyable to be placed under stay-at-home orders for months, to lose our jobs. It has not been easy to make sense of all that’s going on in the world. It’s not our desire to worship like this, in front of a band of masked criminals you all like sometimes. This is not what we as pastors would like.
But don’t give up on the Gospel. And don’t give up on the spread of the Gospel, because one day the kingdom will be fully and finally revealed, and friends, it will be more impressive than you could ever have imagined.
Don’t give up on being a Gospel witness in your neighborhood in these trying times. Don’t give up on discipling your children well. Don’t give up on your giving, to Faith Promise and to our tithe budge. Don’t give up on the mustard seed.
As we’ve mentioned several times, Hebrews 12:28: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
Brothers and sisters, the kingdom may appear insignificant, so don’t lose hope. The kingdom breaks in in visible and invisible ways so don’t stop praying. The kingdom is more impressive than you’d ever imagine, so don’t give up.
Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, we’re so grateful for Your Word. We’re grateful that what has promised we know will come to pass, and so when You promise, Lord, that people from all languages, peoples, tribes, and nations will be gathered around worshiping the King of this kingdom, we know that that will happen. And so we don’t have to lose hope, we don’t have to stop praying, we don’t have to give up because we know Your Word is true. We thank you for that, Jesus. In Your name we pray. Amen.