Kingdom Ambition

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man 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.”

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Matthew 13.31–33

Why do people move to London? Opportunity, culture, life, learning: all of these things for sure. But the if one would could capture the main reason it must be ambition. If you want to make it in your field, show you’re the best, earn the most, then you move to London. The bar is higher here.

Jesus has ambition too. It’s motivated by a holy discontent; a passionate desire to eradicate evil from the earth. It’s also an ambition to rule and reign on the earth — something that would be inappropriate for any other man, but which fits within the context of his humble life and self-sacrifice, as well as the reality of his being the Son of God. And when Jesus articulates his ambitions (as he does here) they are predictions.

First, there’s the ambition for growth. That’s the essence of the two pictures. The mustard seed (those brown dots in your dijon) become something exceedingly large in comparison. The sourdough starter from yesterday’s batch, when added to these 27 bags of flour, can leaven the whole lot and feed a small village. If Jesus were preaching today he’d probably talk about going viral.

These kinds of predictions always seem reasonable with hindsight, but it would hardly have seemed reasonable at the time. Jesus was one among many claimants to the “Messiah” tag; he was nothing special to look at; and he had few followers by the end. 

So how did he know this would explode? First, he read his Bible and saw the faithfulness of the Father, who dropped promises like seeds about the offspring (seed) of the woman Eve, then of Abraham — a man most likely impotent with a post-menopausal wife — and God was true to his word. Second, he knew God’s promises to him personally; he was the beloved Son promised the nations as his inheritance. To sum it up: Jesus had faith.

This gives me hope. We live by the same kind of faith. You could look at what we’re doing and doubt. We’re a small band of people in an obscure function room in a little pub. We don’t (yet) have the benefit of hindsight to know if this thing will work. But we have faith in the same God who has made promises about his Church.

Second, there’s ambition for power. What are the birds all about in the parable? The Bible, like Atari computers, has easter eggs. And the more you know the Bible the more you see the connections. So, when Jesus's hearers listened to the parable they knew he was alluding to the picture God gave to Nebuchadnezzar; that his empire was a tree, and that the subject nations were birds in the branches. Which means that Jesus had imperialistic ambition for his kingdom. Christianity is not just a private thing (though there is an important personal element). The very word ‘gospel’ was subversive, used of emperors acceding to the throne, and of this Emperor, Jesus, claiming the nations. This is a most exciting and astounding thing; that Jesus is not just selecting individuals from the planet to be plucked out and join him in heaven, but that he’s going to redeem the planet, and that kings, prime ministers, presidents, and parliaments, are going to bring all their best cultural developments as treasure to King Jesus. It’s all going to get redeemed.

Of course, the birds do also represent us, as individuals, finding our refuge in the kingdom. The picture of God as a refuge of shelter is strong throughout the Bible, and Jesus offers that shelter in his branches to every lost person looking for their home.

Third, there’s ambition for influence. What does leaven do? It makes by-products that make bread taste awesome. It produces gases that make it fluffy, and ferments the sugars to give it that unbelievable smell. And most importantly, it has a massively disproportionate influence. 

So also the kingdom. 

Just like leaven, the kingdom is hidden. Beginning in an obscure corner of the world, the church could have been dismissed. But the Bible always respects small things: the lone prophet calling out a nation, the two words that brought light into being. So anyone who ignores the church is a fool. She may be hidden but she’s at work leavening the batch. Just look at China or Africa.

Just like leaven, the kingdom is generous. Not everybody wants anything to do with Christ’s kingdom. But the kingdom still blesses them. It can’t help but pour out blessing on the world around. Abraham was blessed so that he’d be a blessing. Jesus called his people to add salty goodness to the world. History bears this out, as time and again the church has brought blessing on wider society. It’s natural for her to do so, since she received grace from the Father, now she pours it out to the world.

Just like leaven, the kingdom is effective. Leaven changes the dough permanently, and so too the church changes the world. Just as Joseph was placed by God in the right situation so that he could save the world and change history, so too the church changes the history of nations wherever she’s placed. 

But look. Look at where all this impact and influence starts. It starts with the single seed. The seed might elsewhere be the word of God, or the people of God, but here I think it’s Jesus himself, the seed who had to go into the ground and die in order to bear fruit. And there’s the great paradox: it was in the moment of smallness, weakness, death, that Jesus began to bring his great gift of life into the world. He died, we live. He was buried, but resurrection life gets unleashed into the world. Seed, tree. 

So what about you? Do you know him and his power in your life? Are you on his side? And if you are, do you share the ambition to make his kingdom preeminent on the globe?