Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
July 30, 2017
What a wonderful picture Jesus gives us when he describes the Kingdom of Heaven! Jesus refers, first, to the picture of the Kingdom from that of a farmer. When a farmer plants a seed there are expectations of a bountiful crop. Then Jesus describes the kingdom in the language of a baker. When a baker bakes bread the expectation is that the hungry will be fed. Today we see how the Kingdom of Heaven was established and has expanded. As we see this exciting phenomenon and all that it means we see a very intimate picture of our relationship with our Savior in our day-to-day lives.
Picture the time when Jesus told these parables. There were just twelve followers of Jesus and a few others that hung around. Jesus saying that the Kingdom would grow to a massive scale, I am sure was lost to their understanding. One thing is clear – the Kingdom of Heaven was launched when Jesus came to earth. It wasn’t launched when Christianity overcame the Roman persecution, or when it became a state church. Even through the hard times, the Kingdom had arrived – Jesus brought it with him when he came to live among us.
We could make a distant comparison to the expansion of the United States of America. It was established with the 13 states. It did not wait to be the USA when 50 states were in the union. People were citizens of the United States from the very beginning. Of course, when we try to compare this world’s political scene to the heavenly kingdom we can’t do it very well. Here we have had bumps along the way, but as citizens of the heavenly kingdom we clearly are more than conquerors.
The dramatic development of a tiny mustard seed shows the significance of Jesus’ ministry in relation to the kingdom of God. It was difficult to imagine God’s reign when there was Jesus’ small band of disciples. They seemed impotent and weak and who could have imagined that one day many would be astonished about how their movement grew and impacted the world. Do you realize that the fastest growing religion today is Christianity! This is not very apparent here in our country but worldwide the gospel of Jesus Christ is a strong message to the oppressed peoples of the world.
To explain how the outcome is a big contrast to the modest beginnings, Matthew appeals to the mysterious forces of life. The very purpose of God is contained within the seed. Planting sets a dynamic in motion that has its natural outcome in the mature plant. As God can be trusted with the potential in a planted seed, he can also be trusted with the potential, set loose by the ministry of Jesus. With the presence of Jesus, the future kingdom is already making itself manifest!
The next parable likens the kingdom of God to another common experience. Here the likeness is found in the potency of a very effective leaven, to totally transform a huge lump of dough, despite being quite invisible to the casual observer. When Matthew talks about a large amount, the Geek literally refers to something as large as twenty to forty-five liters, which could feed well over one hundred people. The point is that the small amount of leaven, made no visible difference when it was introduced to the mass of dough. Although it seemed insignificant, being invisible in the dough, it totally transformed the dough.
Together the parables of the mustard seed and leaven illustrate typical human tasks of Jesus’ day and shows how he related well to women and men in his audience. The parables in themselves are not straightforward evidence of the grandiose dreams of Christianizing the earth. They do however, caution against a defeatism or the discouragement when Christian witness seems temporarily ineffective. One day God’s causes will triumph! Jesus likens the kingdom to a mustard seed or lump of yeast that grows from insignificant beginnings to attain a greater size, or widespread influence, than many would ever have suspected!
We mentioned the metaphor of the United States to the Kingdom of Heaven as it expanded and grew after it was first established. We can continue in the same direction by comparing how those who are citizens of the United States have various rights and privileges. We know what these benefits are and we treasure them with our whole being. As the heavenly kingdom grew and continues to grow throughout the world, we as citizens of the heavenly kingdom reap the benefits. The passage from Romans could be a series of lessons themselves. Let us highlight the benefits that we as citizens of the kingdom of heaven can expect.
The first benefit as heaven bound citizens regards prayer. How often are we overwhelmed by circumstances and we don’t know what to do. When we pray we do understand that God is listening, but we sense our inadequacy when it comes to knowing how to pray or exactly what we should pray for. How many times have we wondered how to pray for a friend suffering a serious illness? Sometimes volumes of prayer have gone up to God, but the response from heaven was not what we wanted or expected. There are times when we have conflicts about what to pray about. On the one hand, we want to pray for a new car and thank God that we are blessed to afford it. Then we feel that perhaps we should use the money for a worthy cause. But then the thought comes that if we have the new car it will show how God has blessed us. So, our mind goes back and forth. What a wonderful blessing it is that the Spirit takes over in our prayer.
When our lack of faith undermines certainty in prayer, the Spirit himself intercedes on our behalf. So intense is the Holy Spirit’s prayer that Paul described it as “groans that words cannot express.” God is the one who has complete access to the heart. His knowledge is direct, not dependent upon our ability to articulate our concerns. God is a searcher of hearts and knows the desires of the Spirit as the Spirit intercedes for us. He knows that the Spirit is interceding for saints in harmony with his will. No passage of Scripture provides greater encouragement for prayer. The Spirit comes to the aid of believers baffled by the perplexity of prayer and takes our concerns to God with an intensity far greater than we could ever imagine.
Another benefit of our heavenly citizenship relates to our circumstances. How often are we confused and perplexed by what is happening to us? We see in all our life, God is at work and directs our affairs. His direction is so effective for those who love him, that the outcome is always beneficial. The “good” of which Paul spoke is conformity to the likeness of Christ. Jesus himself suffered hardship and we at times feel that is the reason for our difficulties, so we will be more like him. But then we have a tough time understanding how this helps us draw closer to our Savior. As is often said, hindsight is 20/20 and we trust that eventually we will see the good of hardships.
We need to remember that our salvation is not something that took place sometime in the past with little or no impact in the present. A relationship is a continuing affair. The vital ongoing love for God is necessary for his active intervention in the affairs of our life. From the human side, we love God. From God’s side, we are called in accordance with his purpose. God can work with those who love him in order to bring good out of both good and bad circumstances. “In every circumstance, the Spirit works together with those of us who love God, in order that what happens will turn out for good.”
Then there is a benefit regarding the sticky question of predestination. It is amazing how often we try to explain how God plans our future and even our salvation based on this loaded word. It is comforting to know that in this passage in Romans, predestination is not concerned with election to salvation. Rather, God has foreordained that believers be brought into “moral conformity to the likeness of his Son.” What is predestined is that we become like Christ. If we were to bear no family resemblance to him, the intention of God the Father would never be realized. Here Paul encourages perseverance despite our trials. Even as we persevere, we cannot fail, because God is on our side, and it is his eternal purpose to save us. Paul is saying that his own salvation and the salvation of others is a result of God’s purpose and of God’s grace. It did not happen by chance, and it was not something that the believer earned by his own merit.
What a wonderful benefit to know that we are on the side of victory? We often speak of our being the greatest nation in the world and one that has numerous benefits and we will support our citizens worldwide. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom, the immeasurable greatness of God’s love is seen in the infinite nature of his sacrifice on our behalf. All opposition to God’s people will finally come to nothing, because God is on their side. For who or what can possibly prove stronger than Christ’s love? Jesus himself is right now at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf. Not only does the Spirit pray for us but the glorified Christ intercedes for us as well. What a wonderful comforting benefit as citizens of the heavenly kingdom, to know that Jesus is praying for us right now!
Clearly the most wonderful benefit as citizens of the kingdom heaven is the amazing love of Christ. Now the tide of spiritual excitement rises sharply! Who or what could ever separate us from the love of Christ? Paul describes a list of disasters, none of which can affect a separation between Christ and the believer. Far from weakening the bonds of love, trouble and hardship strengthen them. Persecution drives the true believer to the arms of the one who knows from experience the full range of suffering. Famine and nakedness (perhaps a metaphor for destitution) are powerless to affect the love of Christ. Danger and the sword (possibly that of the executioner) lose their terror in view of the presence of the one in whom we find ultimate safety. In all our difficult situations, we are winning an overwhelming victory, through the one who has proven his love for us. It is the love of Christ that supports and enables the believer to face adversity and to conquer it. Christians are victors who have found from experience that God is ever present. In all our trials, the love of Christ will empower us to overcome all the obstacles of life.
Heaven is here! Let us review the benefits. In prayer, we have loving support from the Holy Spirit praying for us and Jesus interceding for us. In every circumstances God is in charge and will always be there. We have been called to become more like Jesus Christ. We clearly have the victory because of the amazing love of Christ. We can be certain that nothing is able to take us away from his loving us. It makes no difference whether we die or whether we live. Angels, rulers, and powers in heaven are not able to separate us from his love. What is happening now, or what happens in the future, will not be able to separate us from his love! Our citizenship is in heaven! Victory over the flesh has been won through Christ! Be fully persuaded that the old nature has died. Serve Jesus with everything you have. You will live in victory! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!