Adapted from a sermon given at Garden Park. The text is from Luke 13.
18Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”
20Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
These words of Jesus occur immediately after a rather telling conversation with the religious leaders of his day. Gathered in the synagogue, much like our church setting, a woman with some form of degenerative disease approaches Jesus. Unclean, unwanted, and undesirable, she should have never been there. She was an outcast from the society around her. The story tells us that she had been that way for eighteen years. This probably meant that she hadn’t been touched that entire time. Eighteen years without physical touch, mental support, the love of family, and the conversation of a close friend. She undoubtedly wandered around town begging and pleading for help, but receiving little support. The doctors that had seen her when she first became ill felt unable to help her. They had no explanation as to why she was in that condition. She was left completely on her own, with no support or love from anyone.
Until a chance encounter with Jesus.
That for her changed everything.
Jesus was in town today, something that stirred up quite the buzz among the locals. Imagine, all that you had heard about this Jesus character and he’s now not only come to your town, but to your church! You’ve heard of him healing the diseased, releasing people from spirits, letting the blind see, and stumping the religious leaders. In fact, you know a few of those religious leaders locally who could use a good tongue thrashing. Hopefully you’ll get to see some today.
So Jesus is in our hometown today, but more than that, he decides to stop by church, our church. No small blessing to be sure. A story that we will be able to share with our friends and relatives for years to come.
Jesus, obviously the guest of honor, is invited to speak and share something.
As he moves towards the front of the room, he notices that poor woman.
The outcast one. The shameful one. The ugly one. The…..the…..The Sinner.
He stops, and in a moment of compassion says, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”
Instantly she rises up and praises God.
She’s healed! Cured! Restored! Accepted! Loved! Forgiven! She gets to go home and see her family for the first time in years! She’s no longer ignored or someone to be laughed at! She treasured! Beautiful! Redeemed!
Hallelujah! Isn’t that a great story?
It is, at least, that would have been, but that’s not how the story ended.
You see, the religious leaders didn’t like that sort of thing. Well, they did, just not on a Sabbath day. Not on the holy day. There were six days to work and one day to rest, any preschooler knew that. And any preschooler also knew that on that one day you didn’t work, and healing someone was work.
Maybe this Jesus wasn’t the type of person we thought he was…
He clearly wasn’t as holy as we had heard about.
Because any holy person wouldn’t have healed on the Sabbath.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.
Jesus responds with the grace and hope that we would have hoped he had. “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
He calls them on it.
If you’re willing to do something for your animal that it needs to have a happy and healthy life, why would you not be willing to do something similar for a person in need?
There’s something sacred in that moment. Something holy that Jesus teaches us about the Kingdom of God, about a life of following God, and about the power of a movement.
What he teaches us is that the power we are given in each moment is spectacular. Each moment that we are blessed with is an opportunity to work and serve someone around us. Breathed into each moment is the chance for us to create. What Jesus reveals is that in each and every moment we are either creating life or death for those around us, creating progress and movement towards God or creating barriers that may keep people from ever discovering him. Present within each moment we are creating health and healing or destruction and illness. Jesus first warning to us is to create well. As image-bearers in this world, take the opportunity to create life-giving moments to those that the world has labeled as bad, outcast, foreign, forgotten, or excluded.
Because when we do this, we reveal something special and divine within us, and within those we are helping. We acknowledge that each person is created special in the image of God. When we create moments of life for those around us we say that the sin, mire, and fallenness of this world does not have the final say, but God’s pronouncement of, “She is good” does.
Every Sabbath I repeat a phrase to myself as often as needed. Somedays, I need to say it only a few times; and some days (like this last week) I say it seemingly every minute: You are not defined by you can make, or do, or produce, but by who you are in Christ. By repeating this, my goal is keep a right priority in my own life. My identity is not tied to my salary, my title, my popularity, my car, my family, or my hobbies. It’s not that any of these things are bad, but they must not and cannot become the focus of my life; the truth is that these things only make sense when kept in the true identity of what Jesus says about me.
With the power moments that we have, what we have seen in Jesus and identified previously, we say the same thing about those around that are hurt, broken, lost, confused, dismayed, outcast, or forgotten. We love you not because of what you could make for us, do for us or produce for us, but by who Jesus says you are.
The second thing that we see in this story is that when we choose to follow God, the ordinary can become extraordinary. If we take each moment and choose to create life for those around us, there is no telling when God might break into our world and take a mundane moment and make it an unforgettable one.
In fact, we should probably be a bit more forceful in this assessment: not only does it happen, but we should have expectant eyes to see it happen because when we sign up to have life with God, he makes a regular habit of transforming and redeeming the seemingly small things in our lives as regular sources of his blessing and grace.
The third thing that Jesus reveals to us about a life with him is is the base upon which these two previous ideas are built, and we discover it in the parable that Jesus tells after healing the woman:
“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches. What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
What does Jesus teach us about life with him?
The power of a movement.
What Jesus teaches us is that a life with him is not only full of adventure, not only full of opportunity, not only full of the chance to create life around us, but that when we do so that act has the possibility to ripple and move, spreading ever wider like a rock dropped in the center of the pond. Though the initial wave may seem small, gradually it is able to pick up steam and each successive wave has the opportunity to grow larger and impact more of the pond.
Each act in which you create something, bless someone, pray for someone, help someone, or practice faithfulness to God in some small and seemingly insignificant way, you create a ripple effect that blesses and shapes an ever widening circle of people?
Like a few tablespoons of yeast working through sixty pounds of dough.
Like a single mustard seed that can grow to provide shade for birds of the air everywhere.
Author and activist Shane Claiborne says this about the power found in yeast and mustard seeds:
Rather unassumingly, it [mustard] can blanket entire mountainsides, smother trees, and crack cement buildings. A city preacher compared it to the wild weeds that grow out of the abandoned houses and crack the sidewalks. The mustard seed’s growth would have been familiar to first-century Jews and its symbolic meaning unmistakably clear. It may have even been growing in the wild around them as Jesus spoke.
Jews valued order and had very strict rules about how to keep a tidy garden, and one of the secrets was to keep out mustard. It was notorious for invading the well-trimmed veggies and other plants and for quickly taking over the entire garden. (Kind of like yeast works its way through dough … Then they’d be left with only mustard! Jewish law even forbade planting mustard in the garden (m. Kil’ayim 3:2; t. Kil’ayim 2:8).
The Jesus revolution is not a frontal attack on the empires of this world. It is like a subtle virus or infection, spreading to one little life, one little hospitality house, at a time. Isn’t it interesting that Saul of Tarsus went door to door (Acts 8:3) trying to tear up the virus like it was a cancer? But the harder people tried to eradicate it, the faster it spread. And in the end, even Paul caught it. The mustard weed grabbed him…
In the days of the Roman Empire, it was a sign of power. Darius, king of the Persians, invaded Europe and was met by Alexander the Great. Darius sent Alexander a bag of sesame seeds as a taunt, indicating the multitude of soldiers he had. Alexander sent back a bag of mustard seed with the message, “You may be many, but we are powerful. We can handle you.” And they did.
As if that weren’t enough (and we wonder why people were so angry!), Jesus adds one more thing:
“the birds come and perch in its branches” (v. 32). Another aspect of the popular Hebrew imagery of the cedars of Lebanon is that the nations can build nests in the branches of the cedars. But Jesus puts an interesting spin on it when he says the “fowls” can come and rest in the branches of the mustard bush. The word fowls is not a reference to the mighty eagles that dwelt in the cedars but the detestable birds, the ones that ate animal carcasses (Gen. 1.5:11; Deut. 28:26). Farmers did not want fowls in their gardens. That’s why they put up scarecrows. Bless his heart, Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is “for the birds.” The undesirables find a home in this little bush.**
You see, there it is, a great way for us to see that we have come full circle.
Day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity. Jesus followers have the chance to create life for the forgotten, the undesirable, the detestable, the outcast. Within this tiny Jesus movement, there is the growing power of force: a rock dropped in a pond that creates waves, yeast working through bread, mustard seeds taking over a garden. And for a watching world the believability of the Gospel lies in our ability to live out of a belief of abundance (that there is enough for everybody) and not out of the midst of scarcity or selfishness. .What has started small is now a growing movement that is almost unstoppable.
Because we have to choose. Moment by moment, day by day, opportunity by opportunity: will we choose to bless, free, heal, restore, and bring life to?
Or will we choose the other.
Maybe the question could also be phrased like this: whose actions most closely mirror your own: Jesus or the Pharisees?
**Excerpt p334-338, from book ‘The Irresistible Revolution’ by Shane Claiborne. Published 2006 by Zondervan, Grand Rapids.