Sunday After New Year January 3, 1999
123, 373, 294, 49
Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. These are the Words.
In the Name of our Lord Jesus, Who has made us subjects of His kingdom, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
A well-known rule of engineering states that whenever you increase the size of a structure, you must also increase the strength of its base. The tallest skyscrapers in New York City are the ones that have the deepest and most massive foundations. The highest dams—like Hoover and Teton—are the ones that are broadest at the base. You can see this on a smaller scale when you go camping and put up a tent. The bigger your tent is, the longer your ropes have to be, and the stronger the stakes that you pound into the ground.
The same rule applies in the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom continues to grow and expand throughout the world, and will do so until the end of time. But as it grows up, it must also grow out: its base in the lives of individual believers must be broadened and strengthened. God says to His people, “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your habitations; do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you shall expand to the right and to the left.” —Isa 54:2-3. God’s kingdom grows—and must grow—in two different ways, vertically and horizontally. And that’s exactly what our text for today is about. Jesus tells two parables, parables that might seem to be completely unrelated—until you realize that what He’s talking about are these two different ways in which the mission of His church is carried out. As we begin a new year, let us consider the theme—
Growth is one of the definitions of life; without growth, there can be no life. Even in the oldest human body, new cells are constantly growing and being added to the system. When growth stops, so does life.
God’s kingdom is also alive, and it too is growing. God’s kingdom, of course, is not a living organism, like a horse, that you can put a saddle on and ride. Neither is God’s kingdom a geographical place, like the United States, which grows in population and territory over the years. If you asked the average Christian where the kingdom of God is, he’d probably say, “In heaven,” and he’d be partly right. Heaven is part of God’s kingdom, but not all of it. When some Jews asked Jesus that same question, He answered, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” —Luke 17:20-21.
The kingdom of God is within you. It’s in the hearts of Christians! God’s kingdom can be found in every place where a single human being has heard the Good News about Jesus and believed it. Every soul that receives the Gospel by faith extends that kingdom a little further, and makes the realm of our heavenly King a little larger. And if you consider the beginnings of that kingdom, I think you’ll agree that its growth has been nothing less than explosive!
Jesus uses a striking picture to show us how the kingdom of God is growing outside in the world. Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden. In Bible times the black mustard plant was raised for its oil, and for seasoning foods. You can still find it in spice racks today. Have you ever seen a mustard seed? I used to carry a bunch of them around to show my confirmation classes. They really are tiny—so small they’re almost like dust. And yet from this tiny seed can grow a plant that’s fifteen feet tall. A man took, and cast the seed into his garden; Jesus said, and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it
In this parable, the planter is God, the seed is the Word, and the garden is the world. The seed was first planted when God sent His Son, the incarnate Word Himself, into the world. It was a tiny seed—a microscopic grain of human dust—a baby, born into a poor carpenter’s family almost 2,000 years ago.
But how that seed has grown! The Word was passed on to the twelve disciples, who in turn were commissioned to spread the Word even further. Soon the Gospel branched out into the whole civilized world; by the middle of the Second Century there were hundreds of churches throughout Asia, the Middle East, Asia Minor, Africa and Europe. By the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, the power of God’s kingdom had become so great that Napoleon once remarked, “Men will forget Julius Caesar’s name; they will forget the name of Alexander the Great, and they will forget mine; but the name of Jesus Christ will live forever!”
Like the mustard plant, God’s kingdom has grown so that its branches extend throughout the whole world. Millions upon millions of people have confessed Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin. And the plant is still growing—more branches are being added to the tree every day. Our little group of Christians here in the Tacoma area is one of the most recent twigs to appear on that tree. Vernon, British Columbia—Sioux Falls, South Dakota—Live Oak, Florida—Nidubrolu, South India—all these are tender shoots on the plant, through which God’s kingdom is branching out and expanding.
Yes, God’s kingdom is growing! It is growing outside, in the world. More and more people are being won for the Gospel. In more and more places, God is causing His saving Word to be preached. And God promises that His kingdom will continue to grow and expand right up until the end of time. Jesus said, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” —Mat 24:14.
But what’s the explanation for this phenomenal growth? What is it that feeds and supports this colossal plant? You remember what I said in the beginning: when you increase the size of a structure, you must also increase the strength of its base. Simultaneously as God’s kingdom is growing externally, it is also growing internally, among the individual members of the kingdom. And that’s what the second parable is about. God’s kingdom is also growing inside, in your life.
Jesus was a master teacher, and surely this text proves it. He just made a garden preach a sermon. Now he makes a kitchen preach a sermon! And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
We can’t possibly miss Jesus’ point. Everybody knows what leaven—or yeast—is, and everybody knows what it does. You put a tiny amount of it in a batch of bread dough, and eventually it multiplies and works its way through the entire batch of dough and causes it to rise. When you bake it, the result is light, fluffy bread that is wholesome, and good to eat. The Gospel works that way in the heart of a human being. It may start out like a tiny bit of yeast—just a little spark of faith in the corner of a person’s heart. Typically, it’s a person whose sins have been bothering him. He suspects there may be a God, and he knows he’s not right with God. He’s tried everything he can to be good and feel good through his own efforts, but it hasn’t worked. And then he hears a rumor. He hears a friend or a relative talking (you, maybe?)—talking in a cheerful voice about freedom, and forgiveness, and a life that doesn’t end! He asks a few questions, and some brave Christian who’s not afraid to confess his or her faith (maybe you!) tells him about Jesus. Tells him what we believers already know: that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. That He invites poor, wretched failures exactly like us to come to Him for forgiveness. That He already kept all the Commandments in our place. That He already bore the punishment of our sins for us. That, in Him, we have been made truly free from eternal death and hell!
And this person begins to hope. He begins to read the Bible; he comes to church to hear God’s Word taught and explained. The Holy Spirit goes to work on him, through the Word and sacraments. The yeast has been injected, and it starts to percolate through his whole mind, his whole life. If it has its way, pretty soon that good leaven of God’s Word is going to be the guide for everything he thinks and says and does, seven days a week and 365 days a year! Paul says that God’s holy Word provides “…for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” —Eph 4:12-13. That is how a Christian is born, and how he grows to maturity, like a batch of bread that the yeast causes to rise. And that is how the kingdom of God grows on the inside.
On the other hand, it’s easy to mess up a batch of bread, as I’ve found out every time I’ve tried to bake it myself! If it’s too cold, the dough will never rise. If it’s too dry, the dough will never rise. And needless to say, it’s not going to rise if you forget to put the yeast in! I’m afraid that all too often we hinder our own spiritual growth by creating for ourselves an environment in which it’s difficult for the Word to work. Let’s cut out the extraneous things—the striving after money, the struggling for worldly success, the time-consuming activities that keep us from cultivating a close relationship with our Lord. Let’s clear the board for what’s really important. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “and all these things shall be added unto you.” Let’s seek Him first in our lives, and allow Him to make of us wholesome, finished Christians, “prepared for every good work.”
And whatever we do, let’s not leave the yeast out! You’ve got a Bible at home—read it until it’s dog-eared! Read it to yourself, and read it to your children. If you want to make a new year’s resolution, resolve never again to miss a single chance to hear God’s Word preached here in the Lord’s house. You’ll never go wrong by making that kind of resolution—the Word and its resulting blessings will spread and grow in your life in just the same way that yeast permeates dough. Paul said, “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” —1 Th 4:1-3.
Someone once remarked: a Christian’s faith never stands still—at any moment it’s either going forward or back, getting stronger or weaker. How about yours? Let’s give God’s Word the opportunity to work inside of us, in our hearts. Then we can be part of the explosive growth of God’s kingdom outside of us, in the world. May God grant it, for Jesus’ sake, AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.