"The seed of faith that we have may be as small as that mustard seed, but watered and fed it will grow and become a mighty tree."
Do you watch any of the TV soap operas? If you do, have you ever tried to forecast whats going to happen in the episode youre about to sit down and watch? After all, if you watch it regularly and know all the characters and the sorts of lives they lead, and know perhaps that there hasnt been a death or marital break-up for some weeks - dont you start looking for those little hints in the script that tell you that very soon something major is going to blow up. And then it happens and you laugh and say "There you are, told you so!"
The fun is in looking for the clues that the scriptwriters have to put in to make the outcome seem plausible. If we havent taken in the clues, then sometimes the crisis catches us by surprise.
"When will the Kingdom of God come?"
It sounds like the Pharisees were searching for clues as well, but for something a little more important than whos falling out with whom in Neighbours, or whos the new character in Friends.
What prompted the Pharisees to ask Jesus this question? Did they respect his opinion as a teacher? Were they just trying to catch Jesus out, and hoping that hed say something outrageous that they could use against him? Or did they detect something in the life and ministry of Jesus which made them curious - were they putting two and two together and afraid they might come up with the right answer?
What were the Pharisees looking for? Where had they got this idea of the Kingdom of God from?
The idea that God is King and as such rules, or wishes to rule his people is evident throughout the Jewish scriptures. Until King David, human monarchy just wasnt good enough for Gods people. The wonderful OT character Gideon after a great victory was asked to be King, but told the people, "I will not rule over you. The Lord will rule over you." There might be a human monarch as a figurehead, but behind the scenes and ultimately in charge was their God, reigning over all things.
In both Hebrew and Aramaic the words "reigns" or "rules" and "kingdom" come from the same root, and emphasise forcefulness of rule rather than of a territory being governed - as we might think of a King ruling over a country - Gods kingly rule is a phrase often used to describe this idea of the Kingdom, and seems a more adequate description.
But just as God ruled over his people in the present time, there was also a hope that God would extend that rule over all the earth, and finally be acknowledged as "Lord of All"
There were two ways in which this might happen. Firstly by a gradual process through the witness of Israel, and secondly by God intervening to establish His Kingdom at a particular moment in time. This moment in time, which generations later would continue looking for, was called "The Day of the Lord" and was to be a day of upheaval, a day of judgement and a bringing together of all under Gods kingly rule.
So when the Pharisees stopped Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and asked him when the Kingdom might come, this was the tradition from which they came. They were looking, as had previous generations, for signs of the coming day when Gods kingly rule would be established over the whole earth.
And where were they looking? Probably to the skies, for some cosmic sign of supernatural activity. Chariots of fire! Star wars! Earthquakes! Trumpet blasts! After all, this was their mighty God establishing his Kingdom. He wouldnt choose to make himself known by any less extravagant manner, now would he?
So how did Jesus react to this question ? Have you noticed that wonderful quality that he had, of meeting people where they are, not trying to be smug and point out the obvious - but being sensitive to the moment. Well here he is again, happy to speak of the Kingdom of God and use the language of scripture as used in the synagogues, because from the moment he opened the scroll at the start of his ministry, and read those wonderful words from the prophet Isaiah
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor..." and ended by saying "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!" that is exactly what he hoped people would see - that here was indeed the fulfilment of scripture in their presence, and the establishment of his kingdom.
Unfortunately, although hes happy to use the phrase, Jesus never actually explains entirely just what he meant by the "Kingdom of God". He says to Pontius Pilate that "My kingdom is not of this world". At other times he talks about entering the kingdom as we might enter a country. But more often he seems to be referring the idea of Gods kingly rule that we mentioned earlier. Perhaps the nearest he came to giving his disciples a definition is in the words we use most Sundays in the Lords prayer.
"Your kingdom come......Your will be done."
Where Gods will is done with perfect submission, then, according to the bible, is his kingdom revealed. No wonder then that the Pharisees were having difficulty working out what to look for. Jesus tells them that the Kingdom of God is never going to be found by looking up at the sky, or indeed anywhere in nature. Its not a physical thing that they can touch, feel and keep for themselves, but its there all the same - "within you" or "among you" he tells them. It is a present reality waiting to be grasped.
"Whens the Kingdom coming?" asked the Pharisees. "Give us a date!"
"Too late!" replies Jesus. "The Kingdoms already arrived. Gods power and authority are already evident..... and youre still looking in the wrong place. You need to open not only your eyes, but your minds to the reality of whats going on around you."
Jesus talked to them in the language of scripture because he hoped that they would open their eyes to the possibilities that God wanted to reveal to them - the blessings of the Kingdom - which at that moment they were unable or unwilling to see. For generations the prophets had forecast a time when Gods kingly power would be displayed on earth. Now, in the person and ministry of Jesus that time had come, and because the Kingdom was "in the midst of you" the Kingdoms blessings - forgiveness, salvation and eternal life - were there for all to enjoy.
All the Pharisees saw in Jesus was a somewhat charismatic but itinerant preacher who had gathered a few followers around him, and who was saying disturbing things, and apparently performing miraculous acts. They could neither see him as the fulfilment of scripture, or the power of God at work through his words and actions.
Luke the gospel writer tries to help his readers in their understanding of the Kingdom. As well as Jesus words to the Pharisees that we have read in chapter 17, Luke tells us that after Jesus had driven out a demon from a dumb man, he told his critics "If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you."
To his disciples he says "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom."
If the Jews had listened and understood the parables that Luke retells then they would have glimpsed aspects of life in the kingdom.
If the Jews had understood the power behind the miraculous deeds that Jesus performed, they might have seen a sign of the coming of the kingdom of God, as the power and will of God operating in the world. "If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." And most importantly, it wasnt just through Jesus that these signs were evident. When Jesus called the Twelve disciples together, he gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God.
So why couldnt the Pharisees see the wood for the trees, so to speak? Well, the kingdom has to be sought. And the seeker has got to mean business. We can read the story of the rich young ruler who was so close to understanding what the Kingdom is all about, and yet when it came to the crunch just couldnt bear to be parted from his money. And what about the parable of the sower, where there are so many distractions to prevent the seed germinating.
Jesus told his disciples that "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables....." And why? Perhaps so that they would have to struggle to understand, and in struggling set aside those things which would otherwise distract them in their search.
These two verses from Lukes gospel, speaking as they do of the kingdom in operation, initiated through the life and ministry of Jesus, dont give us a complete picture of Jesus teaching on the kingdom, as it is clear that he looked to the future for a final demonstration of Gods ruling power. The miracles were a sign, but the battle with Satan still raged and awaited the final showdown. The seed is sown and grows, before the climax of the harvest is reached - by which we understand that Jesus will return in glory.
The challenge for us is in essence the same that faced the Pharisees. Is the kingdom of God a present reality in our lives; is our understanding of living under Gods kingly rule reflected in the way we live. Did we mean business when we said "yes" to following Jesus, and are we mindful of the cost of such a commitment.
If were serious and mean business, then the entry requirements for the kingdom are simple. "Unless you change," says Jesus in Matthews gospel, "and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven...... for whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
Humility, forgiveness, simplicity and trust - the qualities that matter, the qualities that Jesus himself showed. For what is life in the kingdom if not life modelled on the life of the one who brought it to our present age. Its standards are high and make demands on our loyalty and devotion. Yet our submission to Gods kingly rule is in our very best interests - as well we might expect it to be - because his kingdom, like hidden treasure or a pearl of great price, is the one thing of supreme value in life, for which any sacrifice is worthwhile.
We watch our TV soaps as if they are real life, and try to guess wholl be running off with who, or have a dreadful accident - because of course weve read somewhere that the actor wants out of the series. We know the characters intimately, their actions, their expressions, their weaknesses and strengths. We look for the clues as a TV detective might in order to suss out whats coming next.
But its still not real life. Real life is what we live day to day, with its richness of characters and crisis every bit as interesting as the TV soap. But theres so much more to real life - if well only look at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and accept the difference that this can make to our lives.
"What is the kingdom of God like?..... Its like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew, became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches....."
The seed of faith that we have may be as small as that mustard seed, but watered and fed it will grow and become a mighty tree. The more we accept the reality of the Kingdom of God then the more blessings we receive from living as if it is a reality - not just words on a page.
"Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth"
As we strive to live up to Gods expectations for our lives, as we put our faith into action - then the Kingdom is revealed.