To the Jew leaven or yeast was a symbol of dangerous influences in the world that could distract and lead God's people away from the truth and into sin. That's why God gave them the Feast of Unleavened Bread and its emphasis on spring cleaning not only the house of all yeast and leaven but also spring cleaning lives of the influences and sin which leaven symbolized.
And yet here we have Jesus using leaven and the yeast that fuels it as a symbol of the kingdom of God. What's he trying to say here?
Firstly, let's define our terms. What do we mean by "The Kingdom of God"?
Well, a Kingdom is defined in my dictionary as "a community, state or people ruled or reigned over by a king or queen"
There is a future aspect to the kingdom of God - heaven and the promise of eternal life in the presence of God - which is pretty good if you think about it. But the Bible also talks about living in the kingdom now, in our daily lives as we go to school or work, as we talk to our neighbours and interact with friends and colleagues, and as we meet together as a community or fellowship of believers.
As there is no physical patch of land that could be described as a kingdom over which God could rule as king, then the kingdom of God must be wherever God is allowed to reign - and that is in our hearts and lives as individuals and as a community of believers. And I use the word "allowed" because God does not force his way in. Like that famous picture of Holman Hunt which has Jesus standing at the door and knocking, God waits to be invited in.
However, Mark 8:15 says "Then He charged them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod."
Here Jesus is definitely looking at leaven as a symbol of bad influence. How do we reconcile that against his parable comparing leaven with the kingdom of God?
Is Jesus saying in Matthew's verse that the kingdom of God is an influence for evil in the world like Herod and the Pharisees? I hope not!
Is Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is a dangerous influence in the world?
Well, it depends what you're definition of dangerous. Let me use a different "d" word and suggest that if the leaven of the Gospel and the kingdom isn't a dangerous influence then it should certainly be a disturbing influence, and there's ample biblical evidence to support this:
1 Kings 18: "Ahab went to meet Elijah, and when he saw him, Ahab shouted, "There you are, the biggest troublemaker in Israel!'"
Acts 17:5ff: "They wanted to drag Paul and Silas out to the mob, and so they went straight to Jason's home. But when they did not find them there, they dragged out Jason and some of the Lord's followers. They took them to the city authorities and shouted, 'Paul and Silas have been upsetting things everywhere. Now they have come here..'"
Acts 16:19ff: "Her masters' hopes of wealth were now shattered, so they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities at the marketplace. 'The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!' they shouted"
Carl Marx condemned organised religion as "the opiate of the masses". To Marx Christianity was nothing more than a drug that taught its followers to endure all that was thrown at them, rather than standing up and being counted.
And yes, there are times when we are called to do just that, to endure, but there is also a strong sense within the Bible that Christianity has always been revolutionary - and maybe the Church has chosen deliberately to ignore this fact in order to maintain the status quo, not upset too many people.
If you think I'm talking rubbish then take a look at the beginning of Luke's Gospel at those famous words of the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 -
"The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud.
God drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power.
God gives the hungry good things to eat, and sends the rich away with nothing."
Excuse me, but that's not a God who stands by rather than putting things right. This is a revolutionary God, a liberating God who not satisfied to see injustice and pride and inequality and do nothing about it.
Let's look briefly at the implications contained in those three verses from Luke's Gospel.
Jesus talked of the kingdom being like leaven that is added to dough to make bread. What happens when the leaven or yeast is added to the dough? Well, maybe not much for a while as the yeast starts to work but then we start to see the dough expanding and changing texture.
The yeast works from inside and eventually we see the change on the outside. So Christianity -and by implication the Kingdom of God -works in hearts. And what it does is make us see just what we really are, warts and all.
When we have an encounter with God through his Son, then we are forced to look at our life in comparison with His - and that's a humbling experience. And when we realise just what God has done for us despite who and what we are, then comes a desire to change - to be worthy of such love and grace.
So it is that in the Kingdom, God humbles those who are proud.
In the Kingdom of God there is no distinction between princes and poor, mighty and meek. We label people according to our own prejudice - upper class, middle class, working class, useful, useless. God has only one label, "loved".
So it is that in the kingdom the mighty are brought down and the humble are raised up.
In the kingdom of God there are no haves and have-nots, because there is a responsibility to share - those who have plenty give to those who have nothing. Read the opening chapters of Acts to see how the early Church lived out this truth about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God brings with it the potential to change everyone who is influenced by it, just as the leaven has within it the power for change when it is mixed into the dough.
There is a moral revolution as hearts are changed, a social revolution as prejudice and inequality is removed, and an economic revolution as the love of God is put into practice at the point where lives are at risk through starvation.
The kingdom of God is a disturbing influence in the individual, in the community of believers and in the world.
Now, if it was me listening to this talk and not giving it, I'd be starting to think "Ok, so if the kingdom of God is so revolutionary the why don't I see much evidence around me of change?"
"Why do I see inequality, injustice and all the wickedness that's in this country, if this alternative (which seems so much better) is for real?"
I think the answer lies in Jesus' words to us in this very short parable. I can place a lump of dough in a bowl and wait for it to rise... And I can wait, and wait, and wait. In fact I could wait until the dough starts going mouldy and it still won't rise unless I mix in some yeast, or in the traditional manner pop in some leaven from the last batch.
The dough has no power to rise by itself. The power to rise must come from outside, and then the transformation can begin.
Archimedes discovered that if he placed a lever below a large object and then pressed on the lever he could lift the object with ease. In fact, the longer the lever the bigger the object that could be moved. "Give me a lever long enough," he said. "And give me a place outside the world to stand and I will lift the world."
If we are to be changed and the world is to be changed then the power must come not from inside but from outside. The kingdom of God exists where God reigns and more particularly where God is allowed to enter lives and effect change.
Did you hear that? God has done it all. The power for change comes from God just as in the dough the power for change comes not from within the dough but from outside, just as the power to move that large object had to be exerted by Archimedes leaning on the lever. The object itself had no power within it to move by itself.
Rev 21:5: "And the one sitting on the throne said, 'Look, I am making all things new!'"
not "I might" or "I am capable of"
God is wanting to make that change in lives, communities and nations. One thing stops him and it goes back yet again to what Jesus was alluding to in his parable.
Yeast can only do its work if there is something it can work with. In the dough it's the sugar and starch that fuels the change and produces the gas that makes the dough rise.
God can only work in lives if there is something in them that wants to be changed i.e. hearts. There is no change and cannot be until hearts are changed.
And once changed there is no going back to the state that we were, just as the risen dough can never be the same as it was before the yeast was added.
Q) But what about those people we know who have seemingly slipped away from the faith they once had?
They can never be the same as they once were
Once we have known that change in our hearts - once the leaven of the kingdom has started its work in our lives - everything that happens in our life, every thought and every action HAS to be examined in the light of our new knowledge of the love and Grace of God.
We might try and go back to our old ways; we might be tempted by the leaven of our work mates, school friends, television or magazines but in the back of our mind is the knowledge that we have walked even briefly in the kingdom of God.
And once touched by the kingdom we are like the dough when the leaven is added - we are different. We are still free to make choices that might be good or bad - God's not in the business of controlling our lives. We are not puppets whose strings can be pulled - but our choices are now made in the context that we have known the love of God in our lives.
The kingdom of God is a disturbing influence in individual lives and in our world. It changes things, it focuses our attention on the things that matter to God - love, justice, freedom, healing and joy. It overturns the values of the world and replaces them with God's values.
I want to end simply by asking a couple of questions for you to think about in the coming week.
Are you living in the kingdom of God today?
Has the leaven of the kingdom changed your life such that you can be a disturbing influence to others within your school, workplace, community and town, to be the yeast that is the agent of change, as God works through us to bring others into the kingdom?
Whose kingdom do you live in?