I want us to be encouraged by God’s Word this morning. We all know that Christians are such a minority in Scotland today, and so we have so few Christian work colleagues or classmates or neighbours. I think to say that born-again Christians number about 1% is pretty accurate. We can begin to wonder what the point of church outreach is here in Fife, or what the point of church planting and revitalisation is. Is anyone interested in following Jesus today? We are seeing so few lives transformed by the gospel that we are in danger of no longer believing in its power. We might think more personally about the transformation and growth in our own lives. Perhaps our own hearts are filled with doubts and fears and confusion and frustration, and the Christian life isn’t what we expected it would be. Am I encouraging you yet? In our current context, I believe these 2 short parables are enormously important. They are a powerful reminder that God’s Kingdom is here, and is growing, and one day will dominate the earth in a glorious and obvious way and with fulness. But we must understand how the Kingdom comes. These parables tell us the Kingdom will come in a hidden, quiet, and gradual way, and in a way which won’t impress the culture around us. In other words, there is a discrepancy between what God’s Kingdom is like now, and what it will be one day, and this means that is really important that we understand the way in which God’s Kingdom grows. This will keep us encouraged. God has given us a glimpse into the success of the Kingdom and what it will be like one day, and the future is bright.
In Jesus’ day, the Jews expected that when the Messiah came, change would be sudden. He would oust Israel’s enemies and Israel would be a powerful nation again, influencing the whole earth for good. Like a microwave meal, they expected quick results in a short space of time. Their expectations were wrong. Get rid of the microwave and replace it with a slow cooker. Yes, the Kingdom will prosper and grow and fill the earth, but not in the way they thought it would. Like the disciples, we might have wrong expectations about how the Kingdom will come in our own hearts, in our church, in Fife, and in the world. So, how will the Kingdom come?
1. The Kingdom will have small beginnings, with a great end
What is the Kingdom of God like? Jesus chooses to compare it to a tiny mustard seed. It’s about 1 mm long. It seems like nothing. It is so small, that it is proverbial; in Luke 17 verse 6 Jesus speaks of having faith as small as a ‘grain of mustard’. It seems so small and insignificant. Yet, this tiny seed grows into a huge bush, so large that the birds can nest in its branches. Of course, this all takes time. It happens gradually. The same can be said of yeast, or leaven. We just shake a tiny amount of yeast into the dough, but in the end, its influence is enormous. Both of these pictures are ones where a small beginning has a significant end. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like. It is unimpressive and hidden and quiet and slow, but the end is magnificent.
The disciples did not live to see the world-wide spread of Christianity we can see today. They were despised by society and weak in the eyes of the world, being martyred for their faith. What kind of Kingdom was that? Not the one they had anticipated. It would start as small as a grain of mustard seed, and seem like insignificant teaching about sin and resurrection and sacrifice and forgiveness, which would come and go. But it hasn’t gone. What was initially unimpressive is already enormous.
I loved reading JC Ryle’s description of the beginnings of the church:
“It’s first founder was One who was poor in this world, and ended his life by dying the death of a malefactor on the cross. Its first adherents were a little company, whose number probably did not exceed a thousand when the Lord Jesus left the world. Its first preachers were a few fishermen and publicans, who were, most of them, unlearned and ignorant men. Its first starting point was a despised corner of the earth called Judea, a petty tributary province of the vast empire of Rome. Its first doctrine was eminently calculated to call forth the enmity of the natural heart. Christ crucified was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness…..in spite of persecution, opposition, and violence, Christianity gradually spread and increased. Year after year its adherents became more numerous. Year after year idolatry withered away before it… The Lord Jesus said it would be so. And it came to pass.”
I hope you are encouraged by these pictures. We can see this throughout the history of the church. A few ladies begin to meet for prayer each week and months go by and years go by and nothing seems to be happening. This is outwardly unimpressive and slow and might seem like a waste of time. But the Lord answers these prayers and brings about revival.
In England, in the late 1700s, a newly ordained minister spoke at a church meeting arguing for the need for overseas mission. An older minister interrupted and said: “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” But this seed of faith would continue to grow in William Carey’s heart. He wrote: ‘Multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry.’
When Carey and his family set sail for India, life was unspeakably hard for them. They endured great pain and suffering as a family. Nothing seemed to be happening spiritually for many years. However, after 7 years, he baptised the first convert there, Krishna Pal, and after his 41 years there, he saw 700 converts. By the time Carey died, he had spent 41 years in India without a furlough. His mission could count only some 700 converts in a nation of millions, but he had laid an impressive foundation of Bible translations, education, and social reform. His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words “Expect great things; attempt great things.” Adoniram Judson spent 6 years in Burma before he saw his first conversion. After 38 years, 7000 has been converted.
What about in Kirkcaldy and in Fife and in Scotland? Is this just a parable for India or Burma? Surely, these parables call us to keep trusting in God’s plan to build his Kingdom. Jesus said: ‘I will build my church’. So, we can share the gospel with confidence, not in ourselves, but in the Holy Spirit of God, that he will be moving to draw more and more people into his saving care. We can be involved in a church plant with confidence. We can share Jesus with our friends with confidence, because God is behind the growth. It might just be one person converted here, and one there. And the results might not even be seen by us in our own lifetime! We might pray and pray for our children and witness to them. God’s Kingdom will grow slowly over time. So, keep on going.
2. Small beginnings in our own lives
We’ve been thinking of worldwide growth and church growth, but what about Kingdom growth in our own hearts as individuals? This too begins as a tiny seed of faith, and normally it takes many many years for things to change significantly. We have to be patient. There are times when as Christians we feel like we are going backwards, or even like total failures.
It is helpful to remind ourselves that gradual growth is the norm. At the prayer meeting, we’ve been thinking about all of Moses’ preparation for he became Israel’s leader. He had 80 years of all kinds of experiences, first in Pharaoh’s court, and then as a shepherd in Midian. God takes Jacob and over many years makes him Israel. He takes Simon and after many high and lows he becomes Peter. We ought to expect the Christian life to be a marathon and not a sprint. Don’t be too surprised when you have seasons of feeling nothing is happening, or if you feel disillusioned. We are not sanctified in a day. God usually works slowly but surely.
T Johnson: “The fruit of the Spirit will become increasingly manifest. Patience will defeat our temper. Moderation will defeat our excesses. Self-control will defeat our self-indulgence. Kindness and gentleness will defeat our sour tongues. This is inevitable. God’s Kingdom is irrepressible. It is a long process.”
Again, what difference should this make to us as parents, Sunday School teachers, ministers, friends, and spouses? It should give us confidence in the things which might seem insignificant to some, like praying together informally, family worship, singing choruses, meeting up with a friend, coming to the prayer meeting, coming along to worship on Sunday morning and evening, as in these ordinary things, seed is sown. And some of that seed will germinate and begin to grow, but soon after it is sown, or perhaps many years afterwards. Keep on sowing, and look to the Lord for the increase. Trust that the Lord will use these things to bring people to faith and for the growth of those who are already converted.
3. The Kingdom of God grows to dominance
Sure, the growth might be slow and gradual and imperceptible at times. But Jesus allows us to look ahead to the Kingdom’s consummation. The image of the ‘tree’ speaks of a great empire and the birds which perch in its branches speaks of the worldwide dominance of the Kingdom of God. Likewise, the yeast will work its way through the entire batch of dough. These are wonderful pictures of the future.
‘The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 1:15)
‘Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.’ (1 Corinthians 15:24-25)
‘… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2:10)
Application 1: In less than 3 months we hope to have Geoff and Maddie and Ali Murray joining us for a few years, as Geoff seeks to plant a new church in Levenmouth. Can we do that with confidence? Yes. We can do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way and pray and pray and see what happens. Attempt great things for God. Expect great things from God.
Application 2: What about our own evangelism amongst our family and friends and other contacts we have. Don’t give up with that. Even when little seems to be happening, the Lord is still at work.
I love the true story of a very old man on his croft, seeing a plant growing once again which he hadn’t seen for about 50 years. The seed was in the soil for decades before germinating. Who knows what the prayer, words and actions of parents and Sunday School teachers and friends will achieve.
Application 3: What do you want to give your life to? Your own pleasure? Just to drift along? If you give yourself to God’s Kingdom, you are investing in the only thing which will endure both in time and eternity. It’s a magnificent vision.
‘Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ (1 Corinthians 15:58)