Luke 13:18-21 – What is the Kingdom of God Like?

A mustard seed

Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? What can I compare it to? It’s like a mustard seed that someone planted in a garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds nested in its branches.”

He asked again, “What can I compare God’s kingdom to? It’s like yeast that a woman mixed into a large amount of flour until the yeast worked its way through all the dough.” (God’s Word Translation)

I grew up on a rural Mid-West America farm. Working with seeds was our livelihood. And making bread was second nature to us. Even though my parents worried incessantly about the weather and the price of groceries, there were two things they were never anxious about: seeds and yeast.

My dad knew that when we planted seeds in the Spring, there would be a harvest in the Fall. That’s because he knew the seed already has within itself everything it needs to germinate, take root, grow, and produce a harvest. His role was simply to tend to it all by keeping the fields free of weeds, worms, and critters.

My mom knew that when she put the bread in the oven, it would bake and rise into a glorious loaf. That’s because she had full confidence that the little bit of yeast she worked into the dough would do it’s job. Her role was simply to ensure the proper amount of ingredients and oversee the time and temperature of baking.

Since I was the youngest, I typically got the grunt work of our massive garden. I was always excited when we planted things because I knew what was coming in a few months: some delicious veggies on my dinner plate which were fresh from the garden I tended. I never wondered whether there would be food on the table, or not.

Seeds are, of course, small. If you think about it, they appear quite unimpressive. Yet, we know better. We understand that when planted, watered, and cultivated, those seeds turn into amazing plants. 

But it takes time. Even as dumb little kid, I clearly knew that my planting seeds would not result in seeing anything above ground the next day. I understood it would take a few weeks before new growth would break the ground.

The kingdom of God, Jesus told us, is like a mustard seed – a very small seed which can grow into a tree big enough for birds to nest. Unlike the mighty Roman Empire, or contemporary powerful national governments, the kingdom of God had humble beginnings. It grows, over a long period of time, to become a force greater than anything the world can produce.

While our world races forcefully on with the speed of the hare, Jesus is carefully and patiently building his church at the pace of a tortoise. In the end, the kingdom of God will rule over all creation, while the kingdoms of this world shall no longer exist. 

Even though many of us now live in a society where the quick, the fast, and the strong dominate everything, still the best things in life come as a result of tedious perseverance over an extended period of time. 

We are in such a hurry to accomplish our goals, make as much money as we can, and keep constant vigilance over our work. And for what purpose?

“What an unspeakable comfort it is to know that in the midst of humanity’s mischief, in the midst of their scheming and bad speculations, their shaping and misshaping, their activism and their failures, there is still another stream of events flowing silently on, that God is letting divine seeds grow and achieving divine ends.” 

Helmut Theilicke

Quiet, humble submission to King Jesus is at the heart of the kingdom. God is working-out good purposes in and through us with all the care of the farmer expecting to eventually reap a harvest. To get ourselves into the groove of God’s unforced rhythms of grace, we must learn to slow down, so as to not miss Christ’s benevolent kingdom. So, how do we do that?

  • Listen to yourself. Our bodies send us signals all the time, telling us what we need. There is a time for work and a time for rest, a time to hurry and a time to slow down. If we continually stressed, it could be that we are trying to force God’s kingdom into our lives or the lives of others.

But if you listen to me,
you will be safe and secure
    without fear of disaster. (Proverbs 1:33, CEV)

  • Practice gratitude. Count your blessings. Keep things in proper perspective. Sit with joy and happiness. Whenever something really good happens, slow down and savor the moment – don’t just quickly move on to the next thing. The kingdom of heaven revolves on thankfulness, not criticism.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1-3, NRSV)

  • Use breath prayers. Take some deep breaths. While inhaling, pray, “More of you, Lord.” And exhale saying, “Less of me.” Or inhale, praying, “Fill me with your Spirit,” then exhaling, “So that I may be a blessing.” Go ahead and develop your own prayers, as well.

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10, NRSV)

  • Say, “no.” If we are in the habit of helping others, it can be hard to say “no.” But if we are working to understand how to slow down, learning to say “no” is a skill we need to develop. We must set boundaries and manage our time responsibility. That means leaving plenty of time to slow down, rest, observe, and relax.

Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong. (Matthew 5:37, MSG)

  • Walk outdoors. Nature walks are an opportunity to stroll through God’s creation and notice the wonder that is all around us.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
    The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
    night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
    their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
    and their words to all the world. (Psalm 19:1-4, NLT)

  • Ask for help. To ask for what we need and want is neither selfish nor a sign of weakness. Rather, piling on responsibilities only causes us to run ragged and never get around to slowing down. Asking for help requires humility, which is the very thing needed to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8, NIV)

Spiritual formation and development are dependent upon slow growth over a long period of time. Don’t short circuit the process through accumulating more and more responsibility and constant busyness. Let God’s grace do its work and sense the kingdom of God near you.

Lord God, everlasting Father, you have brought me to this point in time.  Preserve me according to your unassuming power so that I might not be seduced by worldly might, nor be overcome by the rantings of politicians, but in all things daily direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

Matthew 5:3 – Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

The Beatitudes of Christ (Matthew 5:1-12) are not a knee-jerk, random collection of pithy phrases from Jesus on what constitutes approval from God.  They intentionally build upon each other.  If the Sermon is the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching, and the Beatitudes are the cornerstone of the Sermon, then poverty of spirit is the cornerstone of the Beatitudes.  This Beatitude is foundational to the Christian life. So, what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? 

“Poor” comes from the word “beggar.” And why does any beggar beg? Because they are in need. Beggars are desperate and destitute, knowing they need help just to survive another day. A beggar begs because he cannot rely on reciprocity; he has absolutely nothing to give in return.

Jesus was saying to the crowd following him, that true followers have a realization of their spiritual bankruptcy and have no shame in begging God to act on their behalf. The truth is that we are all spiritually destitute before God and stand in stark need of divine resources to help us. 

In reality, we have nothing of worth to give or offer to God. And we can gain nothing apart from God. Therefore, we must realize who we are and take the position of humility, not pride, and look to God.

To understand our poverty of spirit is to see that we are stripped of all self-righteousness, and absolutely need God. Knowing and understanding our spiritual bankruptcy is to see sin for what it really is. So, how do you know when you are poor in spirit?

  • The spiritual beggar makes no deals with God because they have nothing to bargain with. There is no ground from which to leverage anything.
  • The spiritual beggar doesn’t complain because they realize they don’t deserve anything. Instead, there is praise to God for such incredible grace in providing their needs.
  • Spiritual beggars are always begging, that is, praying all the time. Beggars don’t pray because it is an effective strategy to further their agenda. They pray because, if they don’t, they won’t make it!
  • Spiritual beggars take Christ on his terms, not theirs. The beggar will do anything Jesus says because he knows his situation is desperate. He has an inner attitude of total dependence upon God. Without humility before God, the spiritual beggar discerns he is hopeless. There is no room for the pride that tries to posture and position to get what I want, because the spiritual beggar knows he has none of this.
  • Spiritual beggars realize the more you learn, the more you don’t know – that you are dependent on a holy God and Holy Scripture, and not your own ideas, thoughts, convictions, and opinions. So, you willingly take the posture of listening instead of always talking.
  • The spiritual beggar knows no enemies. The late Henri Nouwen said, “Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.” Those who are poor in spirit are not anxiously clinging to their stuff, their money, or their good name. They have nothing of their own; it all belongs to God for divine purposes.

Only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven. The way is narrow and only a few are willing to truly humble themselves before God and take the posture of a beggar. If we think we are above this, then we have gone the broad way of destruction that many will find.

Humility knows that God is God, and I am not. Therefore, we orient our lives around this reality. Just as we need to respect the law of gravity and submit to its presence and reality, so it is most necessary and important to accept God’s rule and reign in this world and submit to its constant force. This is simply the way of wisdom.

We do not presume to come to you, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, to be intimately close to your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to identify with him in his death so that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood. May we forever dwell in Christ, and he in us.  Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Matthew 18:1-5 – On Humility

At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (NIV)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility. Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community. Until then, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children. For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances, whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility. Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of him/herself with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility. No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life.  That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interaction with one another is grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Therefore, caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering your opinion or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself.  The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker. The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me.  That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Lord God let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration. Amen.

Matthew 6:19-24

            There is a reason why we now have laws about texting and driving.  Trying to do those two things at once has ended in far too many accidental deaths.  A text is not worth a life.  When it comes to Christianity, pursuing earthly wealth does not compare to the significance of heavenly wealth.  Trying to live in both worlds of amassing two different kinds of wealth at the same time doesn’t work well in the end.  We cannot practice God’s will and at the same time have a moonlighting job with the world.
 
            In order to communicate this principle, Jesus let us know that we must have an unswerving loyalty, a singular commitment, toward the kingdom of God.  The earthly treasures of power, position, pedigree, and professional acumen, not to mention our personal portfolios, are things that do not necessarily advance God’s kingdom.  We will not take them with us.  But using all the things of this world to nurture and build relationships is a good thing because only relationships are permanent.  We will take people with us.
 
            If we are genuinely committed to God’s kingdom, our most cherished values will be established by God.  How we use our possessions and our influence will be informed and determined by those values.  Maintaining a kingdom-orientation to our earthly lives doesn’t just happen – we must aim for it and pursue it.  Choose today which master you will serve:  God, or money.  Don’t be found texting and driving, and don’t be found trying to have ultimate allegiance to two different gods – they both lead to accidental deaths.
 

 

            Lord Jesus, you are the Master of the universe.  My entire life is yours.  Help me to use all that you have given me in this life toward kingdom ethics so that your merciful rule will extend to all kinds of people.  Amen.