"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." 1 Peter 3:15

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Condemints and the Kingdom

There was a popular commercial that came out in the mid eighties. It has been satirized in the movie Wayne's World as well as in many TV shows. It starts out with this beautiful Rolls Royce driving down a quaint country road. It comes to a stop as another Rolls Royce pulls up along side it. the back window rolls down and a man in a fine suit says with a perfect British accent, "Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

With one ad, the way we view mustard was changed. All of a sudden mustard moves from the world of the squeeze bottle-everyday man to the high class world of the rich Grey Poupon Sophisticate.

But, I think Jesus had a different view of mustard. In Matthew 13, Jesus describes the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven through the use of Parables. As we look at some of these parables, specifically the parable of the mustard plant, our challenge is to ask ourselves, "How do we live as the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth?" Matthew, 13:31-33 says,

31 Here is another illustration Jesus used: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”

33 Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

Shane Claiborne, in his short sermon on this passage pictures giggles from the crowd, and maybe even a few hushes directed towards Jesus as he shared these stories. We hear it said that cleanliness is next to godliness. to a Jewish person at this time, orderliness was next to holiness. The mustard plant was far from orderly. It was like a weed. It could quickly take over a garden, choking out the other vegetables. Father Thomas Keating says that a mustard plant in a household garden was forbidden.

But Jesus goes on. He tells how the birds will come and make nests in its branches. Shane Claiborne, points out how this imagery isn't anything new to this audience. They would be familiar with the Psalms and the Prophet Ezekiel speaking of the Cedars of Lebanon and the Birds resting in their branches. Ezekiel 17:22-23 says,

22 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take a branch from the top of a tall cedar, and I will plant it on the top of Israel’s highest mountain. 23 It will become a majestic cedar, sending forth its branches and producing seed. Birds of every sort will nest in it, finding shelter in the shade of its branches.

So here is an image of God making his kingdom into something great and majestic. a Cedar of Lebanon, not much different then the Great Redwood Trees of California that tourists gaze upon with awe. These people hold the image of these great Cedars in their heads, and then Jesus says that The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard plant. From a tall tree to a garden shrub. Not much more then a weed.

The Jewish people expected the Messiah to be a great political and military leader that would bring them their freedom. They expected a Cedar of Lebanon who would stretch out his branches, not a man who illegally plants mustard in a garden.

Ezekiel later speaks of Assyria as being once like a Cedar of Lebanon (chapter 31) with its great branches outstretched to the birds. He said all the trees in the garden of Eden were jealous of it. But because of its pride in its beauty, God cuts it down.

So what do we learn from this?

The first lesson we learn in living as the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth is that it starts small, but then it grows. And more importantly, it spreads. It stretches across the whole garden, affecting all plants in its path. It isn't majestic like the Cedars of Lebanon (that majesty we will witness in Christ's second coming). It is simple, it is common. It isn't proud.

Jesus's audience probably would be just as startled by His parable of the yeast. Throughout the old testament, on many occasions yeast is viewed as unclean, something to be avoided. it was often associated with evil. Shane Claiborne points out that Jesus spoke of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16). Their yeast was false teaching. And here Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast. Why?

This is our second lesson. I believe that once again Jesus is speaking of how the Kingdom of God spreads, this time showing how it permeates culture. Unlike the Pharisees yeast that was false teaching, I believe The Kingdom of Heaven's yeast is God's perfect truth.

But let us savor this mustard a bit more. Why a mustard plant? though it is a humble plant, not much more then a weed, Mustard is powerful.

Both Ray C. Stedman and Shane Claiborne share this story. Darius, king of the Persians, invaded Europe with a great army, and met Alexander the Great. To taunt Alexander, Darius sent him a bag of sesame seeds , indicating the vast multitude of soldiers he had at his command. When Alexander received this taunting gift, he sent back a bag of mustard seed to say, "You may be many, but we're tough and biting and pungent. We can handle you."

Our third Lesson is that the kingdom of heaven carries a message that is powerful, biting and pungent. But it is also flavorful. It is desirable. As Jesus said, the birds rest in its branches.

I agree with Shane Claiborne when he says that these birds are the anybodies, the fowls the crows, all those who desire to find rest in The Kingdom of Heaven.

In the next two parables, Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven as treasures that one is willing to sell all he owns to get a hold of, one a hidden treasure in a field and the other a pearl of great value. Looking at this passage it seems almost idolatrous. Why would someone give up everything for a treasure? He could loose so much more then just his possessions; his family, his friends, his job. It seems idolatrous until we see what this treasure is. It is the simple, perfect truth. It is a place of rest. it is powerful and pungent. It is The Kingdom of Heaven. We are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth now.

Are we living this way?

The other day I was in a bookstore in a mall in Winnipeg. The store had just opened, and the employees where walking around making sure the shelves looked just right. I was looking at a book that my eyes shouldn't have been looking at (not a very strong example of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth) when I overheard a couple employees talking to one another. They spoke of a lady and the employee who had helped her the other day. The lady came in and asked if there was a Christian Books section. The employee brought her to the very small section, but before she left her she said, "If you are looking for a book with some real substance may I suggest you visit our sciences section." The two employees talked about how this was inappropriate, but how they had no problem with what she said. One of them, a young man said to the other, "...I mean, I have no problem with them believing what they believe. Just as long as they don't shove it on me. I don't shove my beliefs on them."

Those words stuck with me. We hold the Kingdom of Heaven in our hands. We hold the greatest treasure. A treasure worth giving up everything for. Should we not desire to share it? If we knew the only way out of a burning building, would we not share that with others, even if they were convinced the flames weren't there? Even if we were convinced they didn't want to hear it?

How do we live as the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth?

Are we growing like mustard grows, becoming more spiritually mature as we spend time in Gods word and in prayer, and silence before him?

Are we spreading like mustard spreads, sharing the joy we have found with others, obeying the great commission of bringing God's truth to the ends of the earth, starting here and growing out?

Are we permeating culture, like yeast permeates, reaching all people in all sorts of ways through the different talents God has given each of us so that we can share his truth?

Are we a place for down trodden birds to find rest?

Are we giving up everything we own for this greatest treasure as so many of our brothers and sisters around the world have to do everyday, many giving up their lives? Or are we like the seeds that fell on rocky soil and when we are persecuted, we give it all up. Or perhaps we are the seeds that fell among the thorns and we get choked out by the distractions, and pleasures of this world.

a couple chapters earlier in Matthew Jesus speaks of John the Baptist, Matthew 11:11 says,

11 “I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is!

Wow. do we believe this? John was great, but his ministry could only point to Jesus's coming. We have seen Jesus fulfill what he came to do, dieing on the cross for mankind and rising again, bring the kingdom of heaven here to earth. John could only point to the one who would bring this truth, we point to the one who has brought this truth.

Yes, mustard is flavorful. Are we? God's word says that salt that has lost its saltiness is good for nothing but trampling under foot. If you take salt and put it on a canker sore, it will sting and hurt, but it will heal. Mustard as well has been used medicinally, and mustard as well carries a bite to it. Its that pungency we've spoken of. We can live in kindness and love to others. We can taste good. But we must come with a bite. We may offend. We may anger. We may be persecuted. We must verbally share the gospel with those who don't have the great treasure we hold. because flavor without the bite just isn't mustard, and that's just not what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

The Kingdom of Heaven isn't Grey Poupon. It's the big, yellow squeeze bottle mustard for every man and woman. So, I encourage you, please....Pass the mustard.

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