He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the bird of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
He put before them another parable.
Do you think the disciples ever got tired of Jesus’ stories?
“Enough with the Prodigal and the Samaritan and the Sower Jesus! Can’t you give us something clear and concrete? When are you going to tell us what to do?”
I’ve asked, albeit rhetorically, each week during this sermon series on Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom if we’re sure we want to follow this guy.
And it’s a worthy question for reflection.
After all, Jesus never seems to shut up about this stuff – the first being last and the last being first, forgiving forever, turning the other cheek, the kingdom being like a guy throwing seeds into a field like its going out of style.
But today the question is slightly different. It’s less about the King of the Kingdom, and more about the Kingdom itself.
Are we sure this is the kind of Kingdom we want to live in? Because this Kingdom Jesus inaugurates in and through himself, it’s not very impressive.
If the kingdom we up to us, we’d no doubt pick something large, something impressive, something effective.
Remember back in the days when we could actually have a parade for the 4th of July? The whole community coming out in matching colors, the firefighters and the ambulances, and the military veterans, and the marching bands, and the FIREWORKS!
That’s impressive. It’s a sign of power and even solidarity.
But for as much as we might want to believe that’s what Jesus kingdom is like, it’s decidedly not.
Indeed, as the disciples and everyone else around Jesus found out, the Kingdom does not come in a way we would expect or create on our own.
It’s notable that, when asked how to pray, Jesus told the disciples to first pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. What’s implied in that statement, though not necessarily talked about very often, is the fact that God’s kingdom is not naturally inside any of us.
Which is just another way of saying, we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own.
Instead, it’s like a seed buried into the ground, or yeast mixed into flour, it must be done to us by the Spirit from the outside.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – teeny tiny, and yet when buried in the ground it grows to be one of the greatest of all shrubs. It’s remarkable, when deciding how to describe the kingdom, Jesus purposefully uses the smallest known seed at the time.
And that doesn’t square well, at times, for the followers of Jesus. We want something big and impressive and effective. Instead we’re stuck with a tiny seed.
Even those of us who feel like we’ve got our theology all figured out, myself included, this can rub us the wrong way.
We pray for things like greatness and we get humbled by the Lord who works in small and mysterious ways.
We ask for a sign from the Lord and we’re treated not with an earthquake but instead a still small voice.
We want God to rule by just putting the right political leaders in office so that can pass laws that will make everything perfect, but it doesn’t happen (and it never will).
We have this constant temptation to believe that we can make things right if we just work hard enough. We wrestle with a desire to bring the kingdom into being from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We think we’re responsible for, and in charge of, the kingdom.
But we’re not.
And we can’t even really see it all the time.
Notice, a mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil. Not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in the tomb was raised three days later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The mustard seed’s work happens in hiddenness, in mystery. It gets tucked away under the good soil and it becomes that which it was created to be completely on it’s own. It grows and it grows until its branches are enough to provide nests for all the birds of the air.
And the thing about mustard seeds, a thing that many of us don’t know because we’re not sowing mustard seeds in any of our gardens, is that there’s a reason we don’t plant mustard seeds. In fact, it was a punishable offense during the time of Jesus to plant a mustard seed in someone’s field because when it grows it chokes out every single plant, it resists just about every single attempt at its destruction, and it really won’t stop doing it’s mustard seed thing once it’s planted in the ground.
Like the mustard seed, the kingdom grows and accomplishes its designed purpose in spite of everything that stands against it. It cannot be destroyed and it cannot be taken away. And it will grow in spite of our knowledge for or against it.
Prior to this parable Jesus has been going on with talk about the great divine Sower and the field with wheat and weeds and it’s like he says, “Look, I’ll give it to you one more time. The kingdom is not what you think it is. It’s not military might, it’s not parades of power, it’s not the domination of democracy. It’s just the sun shining in the sky, birds flying in and out of the shade. It’s a seed that grows from nothing into something. The best thing you can do is enjoy it.”
And then, as if to drive home the same point from one further angle, he launches into a parable about baking.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.
Now, the parable of the leaven is barely even one full verse in the gospel and yet it contains multitudes. To begin with, we should sit on the fact for a moment that the surrogate for God in this particular parables is a woman – a female baker. All of the patriarchal patterns of the church really don’t have much to stand on. In other places Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, and quite notably, women are the only ones who don’t abandon Jesus in the end.
Moreover, without women preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection in the first place!
And the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus says she mixed three measures (SATA) of flour, which is a bushel. That’s 128 cups! And when you get done putting in the 42 cups of necessary water to make the bread, you’re left with 101 pounds of dough!
But Jesus doesn’t stop there – 101 pounds of dough are thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.
Unlike the mustard seed, you can’t take the yeast out of the dough once it’s mixed in. Sure, it would be pretty hard to find a mustard seed in the ground after its buried, but you could theoretically do it. But yeast? No way. The minute the yeast start to do its thing it completely transforms the flour and it cannot be reversed.
The yeast, in a wonderfully theological sense is completely and totally hidden within the dough. Which, in a way, means that the kingdom of heaven, like leavened bread, has been with us here from the beginning and will always be here. It is among us. And no amount of badness, or even goodness, can do much of anything to it.
The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of nothing. So intimate and immediate is the yeast with the dough and water that nothing can stop it. So intimate and immediate is the Kingdom in the world that there is no way on earth of stopping it from doing exactly what its supposed to do.
But, again, we, like those early disciples, are left scratching our heads about what in the world in means for us. Because if we don’t gather as the church for our marching orders then what are we really doing? If we can’t make the world a better place with three easy steps, if we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own, then what kind of Kingdom is it anyway?
How are we supposed to respond to this paradoxical set of parables?
Well, perhaps we respond like we do to baking – with patience.
Ask any baker, one of the worst things we can do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And, really, good bread is made when the yeast does what it’s supposed to do without our interfering with it.
And, please forgive this final declension into baking – how does yeast actually make the dough into the stuff of perfection. It dies and fills the dough with thousands of little pockets of carbon dioxide. And when those pockets of air are heated, the bread rises.
It’s a miracle.
Make some bread some time, throw it in the oven, and sit and watch.
And here’s the real kicker with the parable: warm carbon dioxide, the stuff that makes bread bread, is the same thing we make every time we breathe out.
The whole of the Kingdom, operates similarly by warm breath.
Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made from the beginning of creation. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same spirit, Ruah, Breath, Wind, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.
Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his rag tag group of fearful followers hiding in the Upper Room.
That same Spirit is breathed out on the day of Pentecost filling the church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world.
Even what I’m doing right now is only possible because of the warm breath that comes from my mouth as I speak. And, the best news of all, is that God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.
In the end, God’s warm breath is what’s it all about. Whether its in the bread baking in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what you’re doing right now to simply live.
Notice too, about your own breath, you don’t have to will yourself to do it, you don’t have to think about it at all for it to happen. You simply breathe. Over and over again.
Just like the leavened bread – its happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the Bread of life, the one we call Jesus is mixed definitely into our lives, it unfailingly lightens every single one of us.
The job, mysteriously enough, is already done. Finished and furnished before the foundation of the world. Completed by the One who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with his final breaths before his death, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.
Which is all to say, we are as good and baked into existence right here and right now. We have been mixed into the flour and water and yeast that becomes something we never could on our own.
The only thing we have to do is trust that Jesus will do his yeasty work. And that, in the end, when we detect the smell of fresh bread wafting from the oven of the Kingdom, we will truly be home. Forever. Amen.