A break from the Acts series this week, as I visit a church that generally uses the Lectionary for its sermons. If you want to hear something on Acts of the Apostles, go to Knaphill Methodist’s media page in the next couple of days and you’ll hear the recording of the all age service there in the sermon series.
On Wednesday, our daughter left junior school. My wife Debbie and I went to the Leavers’ Assembly at the school that afternoon, which was taken by the entire Year 6 cohort. They didn’t just look back at their favourite memories of junior school life, they also looked forward. Three of the children acted in a series of sketches, imagining themselves sixty years on at a reunion. Some children – including our Rebekah – stood up and told everyone what their ambition was. Becky’s, by the way, is to become a wildlife photographer.
Did you have a dream for your life? What happened to it? Did you realise it in full, or perhaps in a modified form? Or did it fall away?
And did you have a dream for what you would accomplish through your faith in Jesus Christ? I wonder what has happened to that over the years. Is it still intact? Or did it slip through your fingers?
Today, as we come to the end of Matthew 13, the great chapter in this Gospel of parables, we encounter a set of five final parables about God’s dream – his kingdom. Unlike our dreams, God’s dream of the kingdom, which is his ambition for creation, is one that will be fulfilled.
Let’s explore these parables in outline with the hope that we might recover our God-dreams for his kingdom. To do this, I’m not going to look at any one parable in detail, but rather pick out the big themes. Between them, the five parables give us three major themes.
Firstly, Jesus calls us to dream small. We have the parables of the mustard seed that starts small but grows into a tree (verses 31-32), and the parable of the yeast, a small amount of which leavens three measures of flour (verse 33).
Yes, these things end up big, but they start small. And the trouble with many of our dreams is that we want to go big from the start. In fast food terms, it’s as if we want to supersize them. So you can go to some major Christian conferences and leave with a rallying call to ‘take this nation for Jesus’. Or you can hear other Christians talking up massive social justice campaigns.
But, says Jesus, the dream of God’s kingdom starts small before it grows. An American Christian called James Davison Hunter has thought deeply about this. He has noticed these big projects of both conservative and liberal Christians to change society. The conservative Christians tend to believe that if we could only launch some mass evangelism efforts and see many people converted, then our culture would change. The liberal Christians identify a social evil and attempt to rally people to that cause, thinking that a political change will improve things.
Hunter, though, says that neither strategy works. What we need, he says, is ‘faithful presence’. We need Christians who will be a faithful witness where they already are. This, he argues, will be salt and light in society, and ultimately have more of a chance to bring sustained change to our world.
In this light, think back to the video you watched after we heard verses 31 to 33.
Jeremy Cowart grew up in a Baptist church in Nashville, Tennessee. He wanted to become a painter, and indeed that is how he started out in his working life. Through painting, he discovered an interest in graphic design, and through that got to learn the famous computer software Photoshop. And through Photoshop, he discovered what would become his true life’s passion – photography.
Still living in Nashville, one of the centres of the American music industry, he had several friends who were musicians. Some of them asked him to take the photos for their CD booklets. As some of those bands became more successful, so they recommended their friend Jeremy to their record companies, and this eventually meant he was asked to go to Los Angeles to shoot pictures of musicians. He became very well known among some of the world’s most famous musicians, and through that was also asked to take official photos for television programmes and some of the most famous celebrities on the planet.
As a Christian, Cowart wondered what he could do with his fame and influence. He has even been named ‘the most influential photographer on the web’. He realised that photography could bring a sense of dignity to many downtrodden and poor people in the world. Alongside all their known needs for food, shelter, money, housing and other essential things, he knew that many of these people would have their self-esteem vastly improved if they could be given a professional portrait photo.
So he started to contact people around the world in his industry: fellow photographers, but also hairstylists and make-up artists. A few years ago, on a December Saturday, they offered their skills to people in various communities. It is now an annual event, with over 20,000 professionals involved each year. They take their expensive cameras and lenses, lighting and backgrounds, make-up and so on to a local centre. They befriend people, take their photos, print them on the spot, and give them free of charge. The photographers pay all the costs, and are encouraged not just to take and give the photo, but to go the extra mile for these people.
There are wonderful stories coming out of this movement. Prostitutes have given up their trade after many years, because they finally felt loved and realised who they could be again from looking at their image. One group reported this story:
The lady with the lighter blonde hair was the first to get her photo taken. We asked her if she’d like us to do her hair and use some makeup. She was ecstatic and didn’t know what to say. She sat there with a smile on her face the whole time and was so thankful for someone to care for her.
One lady just looked at us, almost in tears, and said “why are you doing this for us?” We explained that it wasn’t because of anything in us, but because of what God has done in us that causes us to love one another and bear each other’s burdens.
We ended up giving out our contact information to everyone who attended that day and we’ve had several responses back for prayer, needing help finding a job when you have 2 felonies, and helping finding places to live and get established.
We also partnered with Crossway Publishers. They gave us 40 brand new ESV bibles to give away. We signed and gave away 38 bibles. Some people were even coming in and asking for a Bible, but didn’t necessarily want a portrait.
We got so many hugs that day!
Jeremy Cowart started out anonymous and became world-famous. His idea began small, but now touches thousands every year. This is mustard seed faith. This is the yeast at work.
Is there something small you could do for the love of God and the love of others with your talents? Who knows how it might spread and make parts of this world more like God’s kingdom.
Secondly, having begun by dreaming small we can now dream big. Here we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field (verse 44) and the pearl of great price (verses 45-46).
I once heard of a man who left a church in disgust when another worshipper told him that the only proper giving to the Lord’s work was a tithe, that is, ten per cent of his income. The man walked out, saying, “How dare he! It’s none of his business! It’s up to me to choose how much I decide to give!”
Was the disgruntled worshipper right? No. Was the advocate for tithing right? No – even though a case can be made from the Scriptures for Christians to tithe. (Although it’s a contentious issue, and I’m not going to enter into it now.)
No. The offering God wants from us is not ten per cent, but a hundred per cent. The one who discovers the treasure sells all he has to acquire it, and so does the merchant who discovers the supremely valuable pearl.
As I once heard it said – and the first part of this at least goes down well in Surrey: God is a capitalist. He only believes in takeover bids.
God and his kingdom, with its wonderful vision for how things can be and how things will be, is such a captivating, heart-stirring sight that the only proper response to it is to give our entire selves in the cause.
There was a slogan at the recent World Cup Finals which caught the mood of this well: ‘All in or nothing.’ That could summarise what commitment to Christ and his kingdom is about. When we think of what he has done for us – especially on the Cross – how can it be any less?
You start by dreaming small, simply aiming to take your gifts and talents and create a faithful presence in the world. But you back it up with a big commitment. You put heart and soul, mind and body behind that small faithful presence. It’s one thing having a dream, but it’s no good sitting around, waiting for it to happen. It takes commitment of the blood, sweat and tears variety to make it come into being.
And all of this means it’s about time we stopped playing church. You know – coming on Sunday, thinking that means we’ve done our duty to God and ignoring him for the rest of the week. Or moaning and groaning about everything we don’t like, as if faith were some consumer item to be loved or loathed. Recently I heard the story of a person who said to the preacher after the service, “I didn’t like the hymns you picked this morning.”
“That’s OK,” replied the preacher, “we weren’t singing them for you.”
Church is not being run for your benefit or mine. Church is here to give glory to God in worship and in mission, and to train us all up as wholehearted disciples. God is completely devoted to that. The only fitting response on our part is to back our small dreams with big commitment.
Thirdly and finally, we need to dream long. We come to the parable of the net, in which the good fish from the catch are kept but the bad ones are discarded, as a sign that the separation of the evil and the righteous will happen at the end of the age (verses 47-50). In today’s reading it stands alone, but just as there is a pairing of the mustard seed and the yeast parables, and of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price parables, so the parable of the net pairs with the story of the wheat and the weeds (tares) that Matthew placed earlier in the chapter, at verses 24 to 30.
These two parables encapsulate the long-term dream of God’s kingdom as a place where righteousness is all-pervasive, and evil is conquered. War, chaos, suffering, famine, sickness, and other ugly members of their family are gone, not least because God has banished those who perpetuate wickedness.
Somewhere in the heart of our kingdom dreaming is often a desire to obliterate evil now. so when sin rears its head again, or violence wins another day (and we have too many examples of that in the news right now), then we can become discouraged. Why doesn’t God throw away the bad fish now?
And if we’re not careful, our deeply committed discipleship turns into an aggressive crusade against others. What’s more, if we dare to look in at ourselves, we too are a disturbing mixture of good and evil. If we need mercy ourselves, how much more should we seek it for others?
So we need patience. God is playing a long game. There will be setbacks along the way, but none of these need deter us. To put it another way, sometimes we treat the Christian life like a hundred metre sprint, but actually it’s a marathon. So we keep plugging away, even when – as marathon runners say – we ‘hit the wall’.
The parable of the net (and the parable of the wheat and the weeds) reminds us that it is worth the slog of keeping going in kingdom things. One day people will be receptive and we shall be encouraged, but on other days we won’t.
In one of the darkest periods of my life and ministry, there was one Bible verse that just about kept my head above water, even though I didn’t understand what God was doing in the situation. It was the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, where in the light of that great hope he tells his readers, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Nor is ours.
And as those who face far worse than we do – such as our persecuted brothers and sisters who have fled Mosul in Iraq in the face of the evil ISIS movement – one day there ‘will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ for the wicked. I know we get edgy about longing for judgement and that’s reasonable when our desire for God to judge people is really some religious blood lust. But when people are suffering serious premeditated wickedness, as is happening in northern Iraq and other parts of the globe, then this is purely a heartfelt cry for justice, even if it comes within the framework of God’s long game, while he longs for even the most sinful of people to repent and find his mercy.
The long dream is one with an awesome climax, and it requires us to dream big in the level of our commitment. But it all starts with the small dream, the faithful presence in the world using our gifts to bless people outside the church now.
Will you leave this place this morning to begin – or to re-engage – small, and trust God for what he will do?