Do you ever feel like giving up in the Christian life? It’s too hard. It’s too much effort. God seems to be blessing other people and never you. God seems to be blessing other churches but never ours.
Perhaps you feel a failure as a Christian. Other people are succeeding in the Christian life and you are not. Other people’s prayers are answered and yours aren’t. Other people are full of joy but you are weighed down with sorrows and worries and doubts.
The apostle Paul tells us that Christians are “more than conquerors!” But many Christians have times when they feel they are not conquering nor even coping, but barely surviving. Instead of reigning in life” many Christians feel they are not waving but drowning.
Such feelings are normal. This morning we are going to look at four parables which Jesus told which describe “the normal Christian life.” Four parables which aren’t often preached about because they give a different picture of life and growth from the one we would like to have. Four parables about the ways God’s kingdom grows.
Matthew 13:31 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 your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
On the surface here is a parable about spectacular growth. The smallest of seeds becoming the largest of trees. If you have ever grown mustard and cress in a pot on your windowsill it is hard to imagine the tiny see which grows into that tiny shoot growing into the biggest of trees! But here is the point of the parable. Big things grow from small beginnings. In God’s Kingdom, great things will come – but they come slowly and gradually over a long, long time! A long long time!
But we live in a world of instant everything. We look for rapid results and dramatic growth. We want everything yesterday – but mustard seeds take time!
I read an article recently saying that trillions are the new billions. Really big amounts of money used to be measured in billions (the American billion of one thousand million). Now people talk casually about trillions of pounds or dollars. Millions of millions. The capacity of hard disk storage in computers used to be measured in Megabytes (millions of pieces of information), then it went up to Gigabytes (billions). Now you buy hard disks measured in Terabytes – trillions of pieces of information. So many things in our world are getting bigger and bigger. That is what the world expects.
We live in a world which measures success by size. Big numbers. Lots of money. And popularity – being well known. A world where people pursue celebrity for its own sake. Not being famous for any great or worthwhile achievement. Just being famous. The world of X-factor.
And some Christians expect the same in their Christian lives or in their churches. They expect a story of growth and success all the time. Everything getting bigger and better every day, always the newest and the best.
The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that in God’s Kingdom success will come. But it will come slowly, imperceptibly, and very very slowly. Because God measures success not by size, not by big numbers but by holiness, love, and faithfulness. The standard by which God measures success is the sacrifice of the cross.
Some churches and particularly some styles of worship portray the Christian life as always successful, always victorious, always big and growing even bigger. The parable of the mustard seed, and others we will look at in a moment, remind us that it isn’t necessarily meant to be that way.
When the Toronto blessing hit England the Baptist church which was at the forefront of the blessing was in Wimbledon led by Rob Warner. Rob was on the Leadership Team of Spring Harvest and he championed that outpouring of God into Baptist circles. 15 years later Rob is now a university lecturer in Practical Theology. In his book “Reinventing English Evangelicalism”, Tob has some strong words on some of the kinds of worship he once so passionately advocated.
“Some kinds of contemporary song promotes a universal ecstatic spirituality that promises a sustainedly passionate devotion to Christ, with the expectations that every believer will speak truth to all mankind and that whole towns are presently filled with joy and compelled by the Gospel. Neither the New Testament nor church history gives credence to such expectations. Given the current condition of the church in Western Europe such songs indulge a wilful disregard for reality. They represent a heavy cocktail of the promise of an altered state of consciousness through exuberant singing – the charismatic equivalent of clubbing – combined with the exaggerated hopes of entrepreneurial evangelicals, persisting in denial faced with the failure of inflated promises.
(Some kinds of worship provide) disposable worship songs with an imminent sell-by-date. Contemporaneity has been secured, while eccentricities of spirituality and exaggerated claims of present day success have been promoted. Here is a Mephistophelean pact with modernity: the hidden price tags are a ruptured tradition, a heightened potential for a theologia gloriae unfettered to a theologia crucis, a growing biblical illiteracy, a replacement of parousia hope with expectations of imminent success, and a quasi-gnostic, ecstatic and escapist spirituality (pp.84-85).”
Forgive the long words – it was his PhD thesis. But what Rob is saying is that churches and styles of worship which talk only about success and growth are unbalanced and unbiblical.
Last week we looked at the Parable of the Sower – or we could call it the parable about the four kinds of soils. That ends triumphantly.
8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. …. And Jesus explained his parable like this. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Bearing fruit. A hundred, sixty or thirty-fold. That is the part of the parable our success-obsessed world likes to hear. But there is more to the story than the happy ending.
Here lies the danger of some thriving growing, on the surface successful, churches. Some of them are successful because they preach the heresy of health, wealth and prosperity. But others which do not give a much more subtle message of “success”. The idea that if a church is following God it will thrive and succeed. Easter reminds us that the path to glory is through suffering – if you will not bear the cross you will not bear a crown.
The truth is that the history of the church is not full of success stories. When churches and denominations have appeared strong and successful in human terms, they have actually been at their weakest spiritually. It is the blood of the martyrs and the lone voices of the missionary evangelists which has been the seed of the church far more than great preachers and huge congregations. Those Christians who have remained faithful unto death and not given up despite the rocky soil of persecution or the heat or the sun of the temptations of deceitful wealth. The Christian life will ALWAYS be hard!
The Scriptures do not promise the church a a golden age of blessing and success. The prophets and the Scriptures foretell wars and rumours of wars, deceit and betrayal and persecution and suffering and distress and only those who stand firm to the end will be saved – not my words but the words of Jesus in Matthew 24. We can already see the beginnings of that opposition to the gospel in our own society, and things are only going to get worse. And it is those churches which have preached an unbalanced gospel of victory and success which will disappear first when their congregations discover that following Jesus demands a cost which they didnt know they would have to pay.
Church = ship, the ark of salvation.
Some people seem to think church is a pleasure cruiser – it’s not
Chatham historic dockyards, warships and lifeboats – not an easy ride!!
EPH 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
For the Ephesian church, success was not going to be about huge numbers and continuous victory. Success would be about just surviving!
2 Cor 4:12 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you Carrying around in our body the dying of Christ. Given over to death for Jesus’s sake! ALWAYS. That is what Paul understands to be the normal Christian life, just as much as being more than conquerors! If the going is tough – don’t be surprised. That’s the way it is always going to be!
The parable of the mustard seed – growth comes, but it takes a long long time! Now more briefly three more parables about how God’s Kingdom grows, which say much the same thing.
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Small things matter – God cares about the little things – even the very hairs on your head are all numbered. The tiny bit of yeast working its way through the whole loaf – that is how the Kingdom grows.
Winifred Waller – retired Baptist Deaconess who worked all her ministry in small Home Mission aided Baptist churches.
“Do not despise the day of small things.” Zechariah 4:10
Single word of testimony
Random act of kindness, turning the other cheek or going the extra mile
One person praying faithfully privately for years unseen except by God.
A cup of water
Matthew 11:42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Matthew 25: 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’A little can change a lot – as long as it is mixed in thoroughly. You may sometimes feel the little things you do don’t matter. The prayers you offer don’t seem to make a difference. Nobody seems to notice. Don’t give up just because you don’t see spectacular results!! Don’t be discouraged!! God DOES notice. Every little thing we do counts for His Kingdom. “Do not despise the day of small things.”
And one more thing about yeast. And seeds. Summed up in the words of Jesus in John’s gospel. John only records one of Jesus’s parables about seeds, so you know it is important!
John 12 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Growth demands sacrifice. The seed dies to form the new plant. The yeast dies when it is baked into the loaf. Growth demands sacrifice – that is the way in God’s Kingdom!
One final parable about growth. In Mark 4 just before parable of mustard seed
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces corn—first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
The parable of the seed growing secretly. We can’t see things growing. We look for results. We look for growth and we look for fruit. But for much of the life of the plant we cant see anything – it is growing unseen underground. Then we see small signs, shoots. Slowly day by day the plant grows, but we don’t see the fruit until the very end and then it is time to be busy with the harvest!
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate results in your service for God. In work with children or young people. In sharing your faith with neighbours and friends. In prayers for healing. Don’t be discouraged if you have to be patient and wait – that’s the way it is in God’s kingdom.
And remember – and we cant do anything to make things grow 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces corn.
So it is in the Kingdom of God. There isn’t anything we can do to make things grow quicker. Nothing we do will produce the fruit – it is God who gives the growth. We can only pray for God to send rain and sun and give growth = prayer is essential!
1 COR 3:6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labour. 9 For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
This is the way the Kingdom grows. Not usually spectacular success. But slowly and often imperceptibly. This is the normal Christian life. Hard slog! Like a mustard seed, or yeast. Like a seed which falls into the ground and dies. Like a seed growing secretly.