Why are there so few Christians if Jesus is as wonderful as he is?
That’s the question running through the chapter of the Bible we’re looking at this spring, Matthew chapter 13.
So far in the chapter, we’ve had two answers.
Answer number 1 came from the parable of the sower. Why are there so few Christians? Because not everyone responds to Jesus in the right way. For some, the message doesn’t go in at all. Others are distracted or give up when life gets tough.
Then we had another parable, the field with weeds and wheat in. We heard that parable explained at the end of this morning’s reading, and it gives us answer number 2.
Why are there so few Christians? Because we’re assessing the situation too early. God, the farmer, has delayed the harvest so that there can be more wheat. The world looks full of weeds at the moment. There’s a wheat shortage. Come back in hundreds or thousands of years, and there will be much more wheat – many more Christians.
Today, we’re going to build some more onto that second answer. The answer that says there are too few Christians because we’re looking at things too early on in history. And we’re going to build on that answer by looking at two more short parables.
But we get to that, let me just explain how we’re going to cover the ground in our Bible reading.
We’re not going to look at the end of the passage, from verse 36 onwards. That is Jesus explaining the parable we looked at last time.
We’re also not going to look in detail at verses 34 and 35. They’re two great little verses that simply say Jesus is doing nothing new.
Verse 35 invites us to look at the Old Testament, at Psalm 78. Look at other times when God has acted to bless his people. It’s always been the case that Go has been rejected by the very people he came for.
Now, the exact way that Psalm 78 makes that point gets a little involved to explain. I don’t want us to get distracted from the two short parables at the beginning of our reading. So we’re going to skip over verses 34 and 35, skip over verses 36 to the end, and just focus on the two parables in verses 31 to 33: The parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the yeast.
Each of those two parables is making the same three points. So let me read those two parables, and then I’ll draw out the three points Jesus is making.
“He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’ He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’”
Jesus’ Kingdom Starts Small
First, Jesus’ kingdom starts small. Jesus’ kingdom starts small.
Small mustard seed. I could have brought one in, but you wouldn’t have been able to see it, so there would be little point. Except that that’s exactly the point. If you eat wholegrain mustard, or if you cook Indian food that starts with whole dried mustard seeds, you know how small an individual mustard seed is. It’s about the same size as the small black seeds you get in naan bread, which are onion seeds. Tiny.
Small amount of yeast. In those days, they didn’t have sachets of dried yeast, 7 grams wrapped in foil. They’d have used a sourdough culture. You start with a tiny batch of dough that is alive with yeast. You work it into a much larger amount of flour. But before you bake it, you take out a bit to provide the yeast for your next batch. Perhaps you’ve done this with friends, where you pass on that seed dough to the next person.
In both cases, Jesus deliberately picks something small to begin with. Jesus’ kingdom starts small.
Jesus’ Kingdom Will One Day be Enormous
Second, Jesus’ kingdom will one day be enormous. Jesus’ kingdom will one day be enormous.
Verse 32: “It is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” The garden here is a vegetable garden. He’s probably talking about a variety of mustard called the “black mustard”, which could grow to about 4 feet in height. So it’s not the largest tree in the world. Jesus’ point still stands, though: If you had one of those on your allotment it would dwarf your cabbages.
Why didn’t he pick a larger tree? The Californian Redwood, for example? I’ll come to that.
But it’s still sizeable, big enough for the birds to come and perch in its branches. If you’re taking notes, this is almost certainly a reference back to Daniel chapter 4, verses 12 and 21. The birds represent the nations of the world. One day, Jesus’ kingdom will be so big that whole nations can perch in a tiny bit of it, take shelter in the enormous kingdom of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ kingdom, much bigger than the nations of our world, and a place of shelter for them.
And then there’s the yeast. That was worked into about 30 kilograms of flour. That’s a whopping amount of dough. That small starter made lunch for 3 or 400 people.
Jesus’ kingdom will one day be enormous.
We’re talking about the same kingdom
And then third, we’re talking about the same kingdom. We’re talking about the same kingdom.
The kingdom that is small to begin with, the kingdom that will be massive eventually, are one and the same.
That may seem obvious. But the point is this: It’s not that something small will one day be replaced by something much bigger. It’s that something small will one day grow into something much bigger. It’s the same kingdom.
This is probably why Jesus picks the mustard seed. If he’d wanted a bigger tree, he could have found one. But that bigger tree would start from a much bigger seed, like a pine cone. Jesus needs a tree that is a decent size, but that also comes from a seed that was fabled for being so small. He needs an example of something tiny growing into something big, not just an example of something big.
This third point is actually the really important one. Let me illustrate.
You catch the bus to work, as I used to, starting two stops after the start of the route of the double-decker 281 bus. Along comes a minibus. It would also get you to work, but it’s near the end of its route, so every seat is taken. You don’t get on the small bus. You know that a much bigger, more impressive, more roomy one will be along in a minute. You don’t get on the small bus. You wait for the big bus.
If Jesus’ kingdom was small, and would soon be replaced by something bigger, you wouldn’t get on board his kingdom. You’d wait for the bigger replacement. But the small and the big – we’re talking about the same kingdom.
A little boy called Jack only had one cow. One day he took it to the market to sell. The family needed the money to buy food. His mother didn’t know how much money the cow would fetch, but Jack had to get a good deal. The cow had to raise as much money as possible. It was the last source of income they had.
On his way to market he met a man who bought the cow. In exchange for a small handful of beans. The man said they were magic beans. Jack had no idea what that meant, but it sounded good, so he took the beans. His mother was furious. He took off their prize cow, their most valuable possession, and came back with a handful of beans.
You know what happened next. Jack planted those beans, and they grew into something enormous. And, to cut a long story short, the family’s fortune was made.
I often wished the parable of Jack and the Bean Stalk was in the Bible. It isn’t. Jack’s beans grew up overnight. Jesus told parables that speak specifically of the long wait between sowing his word and seeing the harvest.
But these two parables do give us a bit of Jack and the Bean Stalk. It was those same small beans that became that huge beanstalk. Which meant that Jack was actually right to invest in those beans, at least the way the story turned out.
Two simple parables. Making three points. Jesus’ kingdom starts small. Jesus’ kingdom will one day be enormous. We’re talking about the same kingdom.
Applying to today
Let’s apply this to today before we close. We almost don’t need to do this, because I hope the relevance today is now obvious, but let me draw a couple of things out.
First, don’t let the smallness of the kingdom put you off committing.
Maybe you’re here this morning, not yet a Christian. Maybe you are convinced that Jesus is the one to follow, but you’re holding off committing fully to him. And maybe one of the lingering doubts in your mind is that Jesus’ kingdom, the Christian church, is such a small affair.
Don’t be put off committing because of the smallness of the kingdom. What is small now will one day fill the whole world. It will one day be enormous.
Don’t stand at the bus stop waiting for a bigger bus to come along. The bus before you will be the biggest, the horse before you will be the fastest, the prize you’re being offered will be the best. If it looks small, it’s only because we’re looking now, before the end.
And second, don’t let the smallness of the kingdom put you off sharing.
We’ve talked about this in recent weeks. If so few people seem to decide that Jesus is worth following, it can put you off sharing Jesus with your friends and neighbours. There’s a nagging doubt that you might have been had.
Again, don’t let the smallness of the kingdom put you off sharing. One friend of mine was interviewed on the radio recently about his Christian views on some issue. The interviewer said to him: “Some people would say that you’re on the wrong side of history. What would you say to that?”
His reply was the brilliant soundbite reply that worked on the radio. But the answer from this passage is that Jesus and his kingdom are most definitely not on the wrong side of history. History still has quite a bit to run, but let it run, and it will be quite clear that those of us who have put all our eggs into Jesus’ basket are on the right side of history.
Things may look small today. But the same small kingdom will one day be enormous. So don’t be put off committing. And don’t be put off sharing.