Sermon – The Kingdom & All the Birds of the Air

I gave my first sermon this past Sunday. It was pretty exciting for me, and it was seemingly well-received. I wish that I had had a bit more time to practice it. (I find a speech is a bit like a shoe – it must be worn in a bit before it gets comfortable.) But I did feel that it was, at the very least, well-researched and thoughtful, which is the best I could do at this point.

young-birds-1256865-m

I do wonder what my old pastor would have said about it. Actually, I don’t really. I suspect he would have said, as he did of the last talk I sent him, “this sounds more like a lesson and less like a sermon.” But fire and brimstone sermons have a way of rolling off hearts like raindrops on wax. I’d rather try to tell the truth, and tell it slant – to explain the word of God and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. I’m sure the kingdom needs both the preachers and the teachers.

I’m including the full text below.

[Please ignore the slide references… Those were for the powerpoint.]

[Slide 1]

Pastor Andy invited me to come speak here this morning. Some of you may recognize me from the children’s ministry. After getting to know the kids a bit better, I decided I wanted to focus this semester on the “kingdom of God.” This is one of the most important themes of the Bible in my mind, because it touches on all of the other ideas we see in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s first words in the Gospel of Mark are “the time is for filled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

But if that’s not enough for you to think that the kingdom is important, you can also clean it from how frequently the idea of the kingdom shows up in Jesus’s ministry. So I looked up a list of the most common words in the New Testament. So this is the calling out portion of the sermon. What do you guys think are the most common words New Testament?

[Slide 2]

{Pause for Answers}

So, at 9164 words and counting, we have the word kai, which just means and.

Joking aside, once you get past the articles and other very common words, we see that God is the number one theme. Who would have thought the Bible would be about God? Then, with 310 appearances, there is the idea of faith and being faithful. 288 times the word love appears. And coming in just behind love is the kingdom of God.

We hear so often about how Jesus is message is all about love, but we don’t really talk very much about how his message is about the kingdom.

Coming in behind kingdom, at 178 appearances, is the word save relating to salvation or savior. In church, we seem to talk more about salvation than about the kingdom as well, by a large margin. Now I don’t know that this is deliberate, but I does think it means we need to shift our priorities a bit, and revisit this idea of kingdom.

Even though the kingdom of God is one of the central ideas in scripture, I think we avoid talking about it because it’s such a mysterious idea – and difficult to place into our normal categories – that Jesus almost universally explains it in metaphors and parables. Parables are notoriously difficult to understand. Jesus himself says that he speaks in parables so that some people won’t get it, but that those who have the eyes to see should see those that have ears to hear should hear.

Today I’m going to explain one of those parables, and share how I’ve seen it most exemplified in my own life.

[Slide 3]

In Luke 13:18, Jesus is speaking and says, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

What does this say about the kingdom of God?

[Slide 4]

This is where the particulars of this metaphor are important.

[Slide 5]

The mustard seed is incredibly tiny.

[Slide 6]

Yet it can grow to a tree of large proportions, bigger than a man.

[Slide 7]

So, too, does the kingdom of God will grow in unexpected ways. No one expected a child who was born in a manger in less then respectable circumstances to become the savior of all mankind, to be God incarnate. No one expected the poor carpenter’s son to become the most influential philosophers in history. And yet, from this humble beginning, has emerged the largest religion in the world, with 2 billion people identifying as Christians all around the globe.

Now, I’d like to take a brief apologetics interlude to explain a common question that people have.

[Slide 8]

In Mark, Jesus says “it is like the grain of a mustard seed, which when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.”

[Slide 9]

So again, this is the mustard seed. It’s pretty small, as far as seeds go. Some people have pointed out that, technically, however, it’s not the smallest seed on the earth. That title goes to the watermeal –

[Slide 10]

which is, as you can see, pretty ridiculously tiny. Those are actually the plants, so the seed could only be smaller. So in light of this modern scientific discovery – of the watermeal seed – does that mean Jesus is wrong?

[Slide 11]

Well, yes and no. If you want to be such a literalist that you completely disregard Jesus’s context, then sure, you can say he’s gotten it wrong.

But the next time you tell me, “Ugh, Jordan, the worst thing in the world just happened to me: my car broke down, I lost a million dollar client at work, I flunked my test at school. I’m going to look at you, and say, liar! Because whatever happened to you, I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as gulags or the Holocaust or Rwanda, so I’m confident it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Remember, you’ll be measured as you measure.

So if we appreciate that Jesus is a master of rhetoric, and that this is simply what we call a nice bit of hyperbole, then it doesn’t bother us at all. (Especially when we discover through research that this was a common phrase used at that time in that region, where the mustard seed was the smallest seed they knew of.)

We see these sorts of things in the Bible all the time. Think of how Nebucchanezer’s kingdom was supposed to stretch “to the ends of the earth.” No, your history books were not wrong. Babylon did not extend all the way to China. But it seemed like it went to the ends of the world known to them in some ways, and it’s just the type of hyperbole you’ll get with any good storyteller.

These sorts of things shouldn’t bother us either way.

Okay, end apologetics interlude. The second message we should take away from this parable is that the kingdom of God is intended in part to serve others.

[Slide 12]

That is, it’s not just for you or for me.

Remember this line,

[Slide 13]

about how the birds of the air made nests in its branches?

Well, there’s a lot of confusion about what this means. Mostly because we aren’t nearly as good at remembering passages from the Old Testament as the ancient Israelites were. You know, we’re much better at remembering all the words to the Friends’ theme song, and Taylor Swift, and so on. But there’s one scholar who explains it quite well…

[Slide 14]

Michael Bird explains, “The identity of the birds that are drawn to the tree is left unstipulated, but tax-collectors, sinners, and the [Jews who remained during Babylonian captivity] are possibilities. The references to ‘birds nesting poses a striking connection to other Jewish texts which are regularly allusions to Gentiles.”

What are these passages?

Well, the main one he points to is in Ezekiel 17. Ezekiel is, of course, a book written during the Babylonian captivity – when Israel is in exile and it seems that God has betrayed his promises to protect his people. Of course, the problem is that Israel has been faithless, and as a consequence, God gives the Babylonians victory over them. Ezekiel is one of these Jews in exile, a prophet who receives visions from God. And interspersed with visions of God’s judgment upon Israel – the useless vine, the faithless bride, a captured lion – we get one paragraph that is a Messianic hope.

[Slide 15]

“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will… plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.”

In this context, Israel is promised that they shall grow once more and bear fruit, and that this fruit will not simply be for themselves, but also for those around them. Those of ever sort, of every nation – that is, the Gentiles – will come and benefit from their faithful growth in this time.

This is what we believe is fulfilled in the New Testament in the coming of Christ. For we see children of all the nations – from China, from Switzerland, from Africa, from America – becoming grafted into his body.

But I love this image of the birds coming to roost, because it’s actually not an image of grafting. It’s an image of different creatures being blessed through Israel’s faithfulness, of the world being blessed through Christ’s faithfulness even if they aren’t part of the tree yet.

[Slide 16]

When I first became a Christian, I was in a church where things were either black or white. You were either in the kingdom or you were out of the kingdom. Of course, it’s much murkier than that. There are many who are in the kingdom who don’t live as though they belong to the kingdom; there are many poor ambassadors of our king. And there are others, like myself, before I learned the gospel, who loved truth and justice and goodness, but saw falsehood and hypocrisy in Christianity and was reticient to join because of that. Did I turn away from the kingdom because I hated the kingdom? No, I turned away from it because I actually held many values of the kingdom, but I hadn’t seen them incarnated in the Christians around me.

So when I think about this – that the kingdom is meant to be a tree in which all the birds roost – I realize that every time I take a moment to bless my atheist parents because I remember that God has commanded me to honor and love them, the birds are dwelling in the tree. Every time a homeless person is fed by a Christian who was inspired by God’s love, the birds are building their nests. Every time parents tells their son or daughter that they are deeply loved, regardless of what grade they get or honor they earn, the kingdom of God grows. When we use our sphere of influence to share the love of God, to promote his kingdom values, the tree flourishes. The birds roost.

But I’d like to make a quick side-point here. It’s easy to think that the kingdom of God grows the most out of our strength. It’s when we’re able to offer assistance, to come from a place of abundance, to live in perfect righteousness that we do the most for the kingdom.

[Slide 17]

Yet, there’s actually a far more counter-intuitive element to the kingdom. Remember the parable is about something small producing something gigantic. If it were the biggest seed, you would not be surprised that it bore the biggest fruit. The weaker we are, the clearer God’s power becomes.

[Slide 18]

Paul writes, in 2nd Corinthians, a word from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He concludes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

So I’d like to share with you the time when I most clearly saw the kingdom of God work so that the broader culture felt blessed by the presence of the church.

After I graduated from Harvard, I worked in Boston for a few years, and I continued to support my college fellowship in a number of ways. So I was assisting with freshman outreach at the beginning of September, and I got the news quite quickly: another Harvard student had committed suicide.

He had been on leave for mental health issues. I didn’t know him personally. But I knew how he felt, how it felt to not belong, to wonder if you were good enough, to worry if your entire life would be decided by some maladjusted genes.

You see, I had struggled with the temptation of suicide as well when I was at Harvard. At first, it had been only when I felt the world was godless, when there was no point or purpose to my existence at all. Then, later, again, when I was in a very legalistic church that made me long to be a martyr that I might not have to face another 60 years of such a burdensome life. But the last time I’d really been depressed was during senior year. I had been suffering with depression and anxiety issues – caused in part by my decision to write my thesis on hell, in part by the lack of structure in my schedule, but mostly because of my own pride and inability to admit when I’d taken on too much to handle.

I almost didn’t graduate after I nearly flunked a class for failing to turn in my papers and not attending it after I couldn’t face the teacher. I can’t describe a worse period in my entire life. Just before graduation – when I was still awaiting the decision to tell me whether I would receive a diploma or not – another student committed suicide. Wendy was a Buddhist from Irvine. We had never met. She felt – in many ways – like another version of me. And I struggled to figure out why – in light of how much despair I felt, in light of how much I miserably failed more than ever before – I hadn’t considered suicide during my senior year.

It came down to this and this alone: I had the hope to know that God was using my suffering to effect some important change in myself and in those around me, and the faith to trust that all of this temporary failure would not matter in the grand scheme of eternity. I knew that God loved each and every one of us so much that He Himself came down to die on the cross that we might be freed from our sins, freed from our guilt, freed from Death itself. I would venture that He loves because that is who He is, and you can’t change who He is. He didn’t love me more for going to Harvard, he didn’t love me more for my success, and so He couldn’t love me less for not being perfect. He loves me simply for being human, and that is something at which I can never really fail.

I thought, that maybe at some point in the distant future when it was no longer painful to discuss, God might use this story for something good.

But when Cote committed suicide that September, it was just a few short after Wendy, and I knew that I needed to be a part of the conversation on mental health that was taking place at Harvard.

So I wrote an article about my experiences and published it on the website of Harvard’s Christian journal. More than ten thousand people eventually read it – including my professors, the head of Harvard’s Mental Health services, students at Harvard and MIT and all across New England. In it, I wrote the following:

[Slide 19]

“If God could turn the most terrible misfortune in history (His son dying on the cross, ridiculed and shamed) into the most remarkable event (the redemption of all mankind), then of course He could turn my nearly-flunked course into something beautiful.

[Slide 20]

Because my life revolves around Him and His glory, instead of around me and my success, my own failings and insecurities matter much less. That’s the only reason that I can share this story with you now: because though confronting my most humbling failings publicly has taken as many tears as it has keystrokes, I trust that God can use my story for greater good.”

I think this was one of the clearest articulations of the gospel I’d ever written, and it was the most read piece I ever had wrote for the Ichthus. I ended up being invited to speak to a panel at Harvard on Mental Health issues, where I also shared the gospel.

You know, I had been praying to God about wanting to come back to California. How can I share the gospel with them if I am three thousand miles away? I asked him. Why did you send me here? My parents also read this piece. My mother had read everything I’ve ever written for the Ichthus. This was by far the most revealing thing I’d written about why Christianity makes my life different (and not just why it’s true, or why it makes sense of the world), and the clearest time I’d stated what Christianity was about. And it wouldn’t have happened if God hadn’t put me in the right place at the right time.

There were other Christians at the time who also deliberately tried to speak into this culture to de-stigmatize talking about mental health. The minister of Memorial Church, Harvard’s official church on campus, wrote an article in the Crimson, our newspaper, addressing the issue. Another beloved friend of mine organized an honest conversation about mental health. It was in this way, by opening up about our weaknesses, by confessing our struggles, by exposing our vulnerabilities, that we actually managed to share the kingdom at Harvard more broadly. God used our weakness, rather than our strength, to speak into the campus.

I don’t know if anyone at those meetings we held, if anyone who read my article, actually came to faith – if they were grafted into the tree of life – but I do know that they did, for a time, come to roost in its branches. We used our sphere of influence to share the love of God. And that is the best that we could do with what we had been given.

Which leads me to my last point about the kingdom of God.

[Slide 21]

The kingdom of God works in ways that are beyond our power to control. I would have never asked God to use my story in the way that he did. God is, of course, like the surgeon who will keep cutting away the cancer that is our sin, regardless of how it may hurt us. And in that sense, the kingdom of God can sometimes be quite the nuisance.

We should expect this, from the parable. Pliny, a Roman historian, describes what mustard was like back in the day.

[Slide 22]

“Mustard… grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

In other words, it was one step away from a weed. How is the kingdom of God supposed to be like a weed?

[Slide 23]

John Dominic Crossan explains, “The point… is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired… Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses – if you could control it.”

There will be those who seek to oppose the kingdom. Even we, who know that it is good, may find it sprouting up in our lives in annoying ways that require us to re-work our lives and plans.

It was a lot of time to invest in the kingdom by writing about mental health; just writing the article took me an entire day. And then there were the prepations for conversations, the many hours I spent talking to people after that, and even, eventually, I was interviewed for the Boston local news when they were doing a story on mental health. That required spending another 3 hours – not for the interview – but for the hair and makeup and setup and ugh. That interview was incredible – I must have spent 40% of the time talking about Jesus and how he helped me get through this period in my life. And at the end, the only religious thing they included was an anchor at the end, saying how “my friends and my faith in my church helped me through.” They couldn’t even say my faith in Jesus. Lord help us if our faith is only in the church. But I pray that after it aired, some more people looked me up, and when they looked me up, they would find what I really wrote and who I really was, and how it’s not church, but God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ who saw me through. But all of this was incredbily inconvenient to me and to my life and to me fulfilling my own desires. It took me admitting that my time was not my own, it took committing to using what time I’ve been given for God’s ends and God’s purposes, and it took listening to the Holy Spirit guide me to when I need to say yes to people or interviews or writing opportunities. This is how the kingdom of God begins to overrun your life and your own plans. As Pastor David likes to say, “Man plans. God laughs.”

But if even the people of God sometimes find the kingdom to be a rather annoying weed, imagine what that means for those who don’t yet know the Lord.

[Slide 24]

Ben Witherington puts it this way “though the dominion appeared small like a seed during Jesus’ ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out.”

There are many places in the world where they try to root out Christianity. Most of you come or your parents come from China, in which commitment to Christ seemed like a threat to the communist party. I think the leaders in China recognized something that Christians in America have long forgotten: commitment to Christ is the sort of thing that breaks other allegiances, that threatens the powerful, that cannot be contained. 

And it’s not just in China, but in parts of America, too, there are those who would try to squash out the kingdom of God. A few years ago, New York City banned religious groups from renting space in public schools. Public school space could be rented out to any group willing to pay for it, and in fact, churches offered schools a much needed source of revenue. The powerful in New York said that this amounted to “endorsing a religion” and therefore violated the first Amendment. A hundred churches were forced to look for new space to rent; and many struggle to afford the prices in the city. The new rule was tried, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city of New York against churches. The case is waiting to be tried by the Supreme Court now. Please pray that they will take the case, and decide to protect religious freedom.

But, know, at the same time, we have hope that even when some strive to root out the kingdom of God, it shall prevail. For the parable of the mustard seed is followed by a similar parable.

[Slide 25]

And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” A small amount of leaven could make these three measures of flour produce 100 loaves of bread. But, as Jesus noted in another place, once bread has been leavened, the leaven cannot be removed. It will work through the whole batch. So the kingdom of God, having begun, will work through the whole world.

The question is not whether the kingdom of God will come, but whether we will, by the grace of God, cooperate in furthering it along.

Let us pray.

Heavenly father, we thank you for the words our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us, and we thank you for the disciples who passed them along to us. We ask that you might help us to be disciples who help others to dwell in the tree that is the kingdom of God. We pray for those birds who roost in the branches of this tree, that they would not fly away, that tendrils would form around their feet, that they would be grafted into this tree of life. We thank you for your son, who died upon the tree, and for the salvation he offered us there. We pray all of these things, in His name, for his glory, and for the glory of your kingdom. Amen.

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