Good morning! And welcome to the UK if you've arrived recently as an international student! I'm sure you'll be aware that the UK is moving (slowly!) towards 'Brexit'! Britain is leaving the European Union – on March 29th 2019. Now there is lots and lots of discussion about what the UK's future will look like outside the European Union. But one thing is certain: trade relationships outside of Europe will become more important than ever before – not least in Africa.
And that's why, at the end of August this year, Theresa May made her first trip to Africa as prime minister. She visited Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa and she announced that the UK planned to boost investment in African after Brexit. She pledged £4bn and expected another £4bn to follow from the private sector.
One week later, on 3rd September, President Xi Jinping of China attended the China-Africa investment summit. There he unveiled an extra 60bn dollars of funding for Africa from both government institutions and private companies. Impressive!
But why is everyone rushing to invest in Africa? Economically the principle is simple: you invest now in what will grow in the future. Economists see the potential growth of the African economy in the coming years – and so governments and companies invest in it. Well, my question for today is not about economic investment, but spiritual investment: is God's Kingdom worth investing in?
1. God's Kingdom is like a mustard seed - it starts very small, but will finish very large
Let me start with a word on the context of Matthew 13. In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus is teaching about God's Kingdom – that is the Kingdom of which he is the King. Jesus is the King of the universe, but his Kingdom doesn't grow by political influence or military strength, but by people discovering that he is King.
And Jesus is teaching about God's Kingdom here using parables. These are stories which contain a spiritual meaning. They communicate the truth about God's Kingdom to those who will listen carefully but hide the truth from those who won't listen carefully.
The two parables in Matthew 13:31-33 bring us to two hobbies which British people love more than anything – gardening and baking! And as Jesus teaches us about what God's Kingdom is like – we need to decide whether or not we're going to invest in it. So let's listen carefully.
My first point is all about Kingdom Growth. God's Kingdom is like a mustard seed – it starts very small, but will finish very large.
"He put another parable before them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man (let's call him Alan Tichmarsh, the famous British gardener!) took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'"
To Jesus' original hearers, the mustard seed was the smallest of all the seeds they would plant. Still today, a mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds you can find, only 1-2mm in diameter. But when the mustard seed grows, it grows bigger than other plants in the garden and becomes a tree 2m-4m high, which birds can come and nest in. Massive growth. A 2mm seed grows into a tree! The mustard seed is a parable of God's Kingdom. It starts very small… but finishes very big.
It's a bit like the internet! When I was born, the internet only existed as ideas in peoples' heads, but now 51% of the world's population has access to the internet. Very small start …. Very big phenomenon today! It's a bit like the River Nile! The source of the River is so small, but the mouth of the River is so great. It starts very small… but finishes very big!
Well, when Jesus first told this parable to the Jewish crowds, it must have been a real shock to them. Because the Jewish people did not expect a small beginning to the Kingdom of God – they expected God's Kingdom to come suddenly, obviously and powerfully. But no! Jesus is teaching that God's Kingdom will start very small.
Look at Jesus' first coming. It was unimpressive. As a child, Jesus was a refugee, as an adult an unknown carpenter. He appeared in public for three years of promising ministry. But that all stopped suddenly when he died on the cross, abandoned by his closest friends. The Jewish people assumed that Jesus could not have been God's King, because his first coming was so unimpressive. And they were right – it was unimpressive…. like a mustard seed. But they were only partly right because they didn't look ahead to Jesus' second coming.
Because Jesus also says that God's Kingdom will finish very large. Like a mustard tree.
The Bible tells us Jesus died on the cross for a purpose – to reconnect rebels like us to God. He rose again from the dead. He returned to heaven. He is now with his Father there. And he will return to fully establish his Kingdom forever. On that day, everyone will see that Jesus is the greatest – they will see that he is the King of the Universe – above all political leaders – above all other religious leaders – above everyone and everything. And everyone in the world – and each one of us here this morning –will bow the knee before Jesus and say that he is King, either with joy as his children or in fear as his enemies.
And on that day, everyone will see Jesus' Kingdom is the biggest 'thing' out there – bigger than China's economy, bigger than the US army, bigger than UK tea consumption, bigger than Italian pasta production, bigger than Coca-Cola, bigger than Facebook, bigger than Amazon or Taobao or Wechat or Whatsapp.
Everyone will see that Jesus' Kingdom is worth investing in. The question for each one of us this morning is this: Do you believe what Jesus is saying about God's Kingdom – that it starts small – and will grow very large?
Some of you will be cynical about Jesus' words. You're thinking:
'Christianity in my country is dying slowly. You cannot see anyone under 60 years old in church on a Sunday. The secular worldview is sweeping away the church like waves over a sandcastle. Soon all that's left will be empty church buildings.'
'The church in my country is so small. I don't even know any Christians back home. Everyone follows another religion. It has been like this for hundreds of years. It's never going to change.'
Friends, if that's you, don't be short-sighted!
Jesus is saying God's Kingdom is like a mustard seed. Yes, it starts small, it looks unimpressive – Jesus knows that – but it's going to become a tree! It's going to be massive! And at the moment, all over the world, whether you like it or not, the church is growing!
But while some of us need challenging, others of us need to take comfort from Jesus' words.
Maybe you feel like you are on the losing team with Jesus. You're the only Christian in your family, the only Christian on your course, the only Christian family on your street. And you think: 'If Jesus is so great, why am I the only one who seems to be following him? Why don't more people follow him? Why do I try and tell others about Jesus? Am I investing my life in a lost cause?'
Brothers and sisters, God's Kingdom is like a mustard seed – it doesn't look impressive now…. but look forward! Remember that the small mustard seed will grow into a large mustard tree! And that means that nothing you can do for Jesus' Kingdom will be a waste of time. It's not a waste of time to make space to read your Bible each day and pray for your family members to come to know Jesus. It's not a waste of breath to talk to your friends about Jesus, because some of them (perhaps the most unlikely ones!) might turn to him. It's not a waste of energy to meet regularly with other Christians on Sunday and in small groups to encourage each other to live for Jesus. Because Jesus' Kingdom will be very large. It's worth investing in.
And today God's Kingdom is actually growing faster now than at any other time in church history. We can see the partial fulfilment of the parable of the mustard seed! Here are some statistics! In 1960…
…0.2% of the population of China believed in Jesus, now it's 5.7%
…0.1% of the population of France were evangelicals, now it's 1%
…2% of the population of Angola were evangelicals, now it's 22.5%
2. God's Kingdom is like yeast – it works behind the scenes, but will have a massive impact
That's my first point. God's Kingdom is like a mustard seed – it starts very small, but finishes very large. My second point is all about Kingdom transformation: God's Kingdom works is like yeast – it works behind the scenes, but will have a massive impact.
"He told them another parable. 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman (let's call her Mary Berry the famous British baker!) took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.'"
I wonder who likes making bread? Or pizza dough? What ingredients do you need? Flour, water – and yeast! Mary Berry would be very disappointed if you didn't know that!
In the Bible, yeast often has a negative meaning. For example in Matthew 16, Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This describes the subtle but comprehensive damage caused by false teaching. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul also talks about the danger of sin spreading in the local church like yeast working its way through the dough. But here yeast is positive – it's compared to God's Kingdom.
But what specific point is Jesus making by using the image of yeast? Well, on one level, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast are both making the same point in that God's Kingdom starts unimpressively, but has far-reaching results. But there is a distinction between the two parables.
While the parable of the mustard seed zooms out to show us big picture growth of God's Kingdom around the world, the parable of the yeast zooms in to show the growth of God's Kingdom in individual Christian believers to make them more like Jesus Christ.
It is amazing how God works in people who believe in Jesus! We each receive the message of God's King Jesus – a simple message. But the message completely transforms us, like yeast working steadily through a batch of dough. I think of one student from Hong Kong who became a Christian here in Newcastle a few years ago. He said this about how his life had changed since he became a Christian:
Before I was quite a self-centred person. I think now I will focus less on myself only, but think about other peoples' needs. I used to be quite an arrogant person, but now will be more humble. I have learnt to forgive and forget, whereas in the past I used to always blame people. Most importantly, I trust God with all my heart and listen to what the Bible teaches us.
I remember meeting his proud parents and they told me that they were very impressed by how he had changed since he had come to the UK. He changed because he met Jesus who changes lives. So do you believe what Jesus is saying about God's Kingdom – that it works behind the scenes – but will have a massive impact?
If you're not yet Christian, maybe that's why you're here this morning. You've met a Christian – or a group of Christians – and there's something about them that confuses you. They are different. And you're interested. Why are they changing? Can the same happen to me? If that's you, I have two suggestions for you:
1. Read the Bible! Find out more about Jesus, the King of the Kingdom – the one who turns lives around.
2. Come to church! Look at the lives of Christian people and ask them how Jesus is changing them.
If you are already Christian, this parable should bring joy to your heart! You see, it's so easy to be discouraged in the Christian life. Satan is always whispering in our ears: 'Why are you wasting your life trying to follow Jesus? There's no point! You'll never change! You're useless! God can never use you!'
The parable of the yeast says: 'That's rubbish! If God has started working in you, nothing can stop him – he will surely finish his work when Jesus returns – and as he works in you, he will be working through you to grow other Christians and bring those who don't yet know Jesus to trust in him.'
God's Kingdom starts very small but will grow very large.
God's Kingdom works behind the scenes but has a massive impact.
That's what Jesus is teaching here.
Will you believe it? Will you invest your life in God's Kingdom?