God is at Work – Even When it’s Hard to Tell

This week in worship, Pastor Doug shares with us the Parables of the Mustard Seed and of the Yeast from Matthew 13 to remind us that God is at work, even though human eyes may fail to perceive what’s happening and that small beginnings can yield amazing results.

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God is at Work – Even When it’s Hard to Tell

Nineteen years ago, when our son Nathan was in Mrs. Sutton’s first grade class at Eddy Elementary School, he brought home a little pine tree seedling in a cup that the students received on Arbor Day. We planted it next to the hedge by the Brewster Ladies Library so he could see it from his bedroom window and in the hope that as the years passed and the tree grew, it might provide some screening between the library and the parsonage.

The week before her Ordination Council on July 19th, Pastor Barbara invited a few women over to assist her by listening to her read her ordination paper while gathered in the backyard.

My wife Jill was one of them and she noted how big “Nathan’s tree” has become in the years since we planted it in 2001 as a tiny seedling. She even climbed up into it because in her words, “It’s now a good climbing tree.”

This seemed a good way to lead into Matthew 13 where Jesus tells yet another parable involving a seed (the last two weeks we’ve heard the Sower and the Wheat and the Weeds) as well as introducing a new image for the kingdom of heaven. I’ll be sharing Matthew 13:31-33 in the King James Version of the Bible.

“31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: 32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.

33 Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”

In both the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven or yeast, we find not the natural and the expected, but the supernatural and the surprising.

A tree growing from a tiny seed and a lone woman working with a massive amount of flour and dough who could only be working for the Kingdom bakery.

A current analogy to these parables might be, “The kingdom of heaven is like a preacher who preached every Sunday to a congregation of twenty-five people in a city of two million residents. The preacher kept on preaching until the whole city believed the gospel.” That would also be supernatural and surprising.

Jesus tells these parables to the crowd at the beginning of his ministry when what he is doing is still incredibly small and hardly noticeable to the world. We have the benefit of looking back over almost 2,000 years and seeing that what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven has come to pass. From its tiny beginnings it has grown and spread throughout the world.

A New Testament scholar (Joachim Jeremias) observed, “Jesus never tired of expressing the central ideas of his message in constantly changing images.” 

In Jesus’ parables about the mustard seed and the yeast we learn that God is at work, even though human eyes may fail to perceive what’s happening.

God is at work – even when it’s hard to tell.

The images of the mustard seed and the yeast are similar in describing the discrepancy between the hiddenness of the kingdom at its sowing or beginning and the abundance of its successful development.

The key is the sharp contrast between the initial and final conditions in each case.

Small beginnings can yield amazing results. This is an important truth to remember regarding the kingdom of heaven and our own lives.

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples were beginning to recognize the reality and presence of the kingdom of heaven through the person and teaching of Jesus; many among the religious leaders and crowds didn’t. Some of them never would. These two parables are addressed to the crowds and they emphasize the action or activity of God.

A farmer taking the time to sow a single mustard seed is kind of far-fetched, symbolic reference to God’s action in the world. A mustard plant is an annual herb, whose proverbially small seeds can produce a plant from two to six feet in height, or in an extraordinary case, eight to ten feet, but it doesn’t produce a tree of any kind.

God’s action in the world, while at times almost imperceptible, as tiny as a mustard seed or as hidden as the tiny amount of yeast hidden in more than a bushel of meal is nonetheless real and will in God’s own time come to full fruition.

God is at work – even when it’s hard to tell.

From beginnings as insignificant as a garden herb, from Jesus’ tiny band of initial followers, God was growing the kingdom of heaven in power and glory.

A king who is meek and lowly (Matthew 11:25-30) and who will ride a donkey rather than a war horse into Jerusalem (21:1-9) can be represented by a kingdom symbolized by a humble garden herb rather than a great tree.

Several elements in the parable of the yeast may be surprising.

In the Bible yeast is almost always a symbol for corruption, but here it’s portrayed positively. The surrogate for God in the second parable is a woman.

This baker hides yeast in three measures of flour, that’s a bushel of flour, 128 cups! That’s 16 five-pound bags. Add about 42 cups of water to make it all come together, and you have close to 100 pounds of dough on your hands. She would have bread to feed over 150 people.

The focus of the parable is on the surprising, miraculous extravagance of the growing kingdom of heaven. 

Jesus says the whole is leavened by the little yeast.

The lump of plain, unbaked bread dough stands for the world and Jesus suggests enough dough to make it handle like the world it represents; that is not easily. In its present form it’s indigestible, and sure to wear out a person trying to knead it.   

The hiding of yeast in a batch of dough is both more mysterious and pervasive than any of the other images Jesus has used so far to illustrate the kingdom of heaven.

Seeds may disappear into the ground, but if you are willing to take the trouble to hunt for them a little later, you could find some.

No matter how many seeds you sow in the field, there is a still a lot of the field untouched or not impacted by the presence of the seeds. Yeast is different.

Yeast enters the dough by being dissolved in the liquid that makes the dough become dough. Once the yeast is in the dough, it is so intimate a part of the lump as to be indistinguishable from it, undiscoverable in it, and irretrievable out of it.

So it is with the kingdom of heaven in this world. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast in the dough.

These parables invite the crowds and us to faith in the God who is active in the movement initiated by Jesus.

They illustrate the progression from the kingdom-in-a-mystery to the kingdom-made-manifest. They challenge us to step out of the world that treats God as irrelevant and to step into the world where God is the primary reality.

These parables about the action of God suggest a response of patience and discernment on our part.

Patience to let the mustard seed grow.

Patience to let the dough rise.

Discernment to be able to recognize when the yeast in the dough has done the job.

Everyone doesn’t have the patience or discernment to understand what Jesus is talking about or what he is doing, and it’s revealing how the images of yeast and a mustard seed are used in the gospels beyond these parables. 

From Mark 3:6 we learn,

“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

The Pharisees are committed religious people out to eliminate someone who doesn’t agree with them.

The Herodians sold their souls and integrity to the political establishment of the time in return for the favors they receive. These people exist in every generation.

The Herodians want to preserve what they’ve got, even if that means siding with the king who killed John the Baptist. They’re at work throughout Mark’s gospel.

In Mark 8:14, Jesus warns the disciples, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” 

Their “yeast” is revealed in Mark 12:13, “Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words.” 

People trying to catch or trap Jesus usually end up being exposed for the manipulative and crooked people they are which is why in Luke 12:1, Jesus says,

“Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”

This includes not only in our lives, but also with the kingdom of heaven.

In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warns his disciples,

“Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Jesus was warning them about the teaching of these other groups.

Jesus uses the image of yeast in all these verses to warn his disciples about hypocrisy, false teaching, conspiring, and the threat of violence of those who have been unable to see God at work in Christ and who have been deceived and misled by human beings or the enemy.

Jesus describes the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 23:4,

“They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” 

Jesus uses the image of yeast multiple times warning his followers against being the kind of person who is dishonest in speech, conspiring to trap or catch others, being a hypocrite who says one thing and does another, or teaching others improperly by laying on burdens without seeking to lift them.

Jesus calls us to be the kind of people who are honest and truthful, who have integrity and honor, and who seek to lift the burdens of others as we serve in Christ’s name.

Jesus lifts his fingers and hands and kneads our lumpy lives.

Jesus doesn’t tie heavy loads on our backs; he helps to lighten them.

Think about in terms of the yeast and dough. Unless dough is kneaded thoroughly – unless it resists the baker enough to develop and form effective barriers to the yeast’s working  – then the gases produced by the yeast will not be trapped in cells that can lighten the lump into a loaf.

Maybe even our resistance to God and the messy mass of our sins can be kneaded and lightened by Jesus who is the Yeast who lightens our lumpiness.[1] 

 In 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 and John 12:24, the image used for the resurrection is the seed, the symbol of the mystery of life out of death.

Parables like these of Jesus invite us to have faith in God because even a small amount of faith placed in the right object can have a significant impact. Size has nothing to do with significance.

Jesus says in Matthew 17:20,

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” 

And again in Luke 17:6, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” 

The purpose of these the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast is to compare the Kingdom of heaven with the final stage of the process being described: the tall mustard shrub providing shelter and sustenance to the birds, and with the mass of dough wholly permeated by the yeast.

Neither parable carries any suggestion that it might need our cooperation to come out right.

They do invite us to patience as the kingdom grows and is transformed and to discernment to perceive the kingdom of heaven as it’s unveiled.

These parables suggest that eventually everyone will see the amazing transformation and growth of the kingdom from its almost imperceptibly small beginnings. Small beginnings can yield amazing results. 

Jesus’s parables undermine preconceived ideas of how God must work to bring in the kingdom. God doesn’t have to work in big, noisy showy ways and often doesn’t.

To say the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that becomes a garden herb – that doesn’t sound too impressive to some people. The idea that it would become a tree that birds could nest in is unrealistic and unnatural. Using a garden mustard plant and unclean yeast as symbols for the kingdom of God are as shocking as the idea of God’s anointed king being a humble, crucified servant.

It is interesting to me that Jesus teaches the parable of the leaven and later in John’s Gospel he will speak of himself as the Bread of Life. For us to get the benefit of bread it must be eaten and once we’ve eaten it, the bread becomes a part of us.

Just as leaven leavens the whole dough, so we need to allow the leaven of the Holy Spirit to work in us until God has all of us.

Seeds and leaven do their work in silence. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses leaven, salt, and light – all silent forces that are among God’s mighty powers, to describe the kingdom of heaven and those who are a part of it.

Why should we care about these two brief, seemingly old fashioned parables about God’s work in the world?

Perhaps simply to be reminded that God’s work, the kingdom of heaven, may appear unimpressive at first, and many people miss it completely, but appearances can be deceiving, and no-one will be able to ignore it in the end.

In the meantime, would be disciples must be patient and practice discernment to see God at work and not to be led astray from the teaching of Christ.

Human valuation misses the point; size has nothing to do with significance. Small beginnings can yield amazing results. God is at work – even when it’s hard to tell. Little is much when God is in it.

Questions for Discussion

1. Looking back, can you think of a time in your life when God was at work – even when it was hard to tell? How does the benefit of looking back help you to see that God was present or active?

2. “Small beginnings can yield amazing results.” If you had to come up with an image today that reflects this truth (rather than a mustard seed or yeast), what’s an image or object you might use?

3. Why are patience and discernment important and, at times, difficult when we’re seeking to see how God is active in our lives or in the world?

4. Why does Jesus repeatedly warn his disciples about “the yeast” of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Herodians? What are some of the behaviors that are present in the representatives of those groups that we don’t want to emulate?

5. What are some of the characteristics of genuine disciples that we want to be cultivating and growing in our lives and relationships?

6. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses leaven, salt, and light as images for the kingdom of heaven and his disciples. All of these are silent. How can silence help us to connect with God in a deeper way?

[1] Robert Capon, Parables of the Kingdom, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1985, 116-122.

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