Monday, September 17, 2007

Underdog! (Luke 13:18-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 16, 2007

Would you know the Savior if you saw him?

Of course… he would come with peals of thunder, lightning flashing, and angelic trumpets sounding. Or even if he came as a man, he would glow with a supernatural light, the essence of his God-ness.

In comic books, Superman is a type of the Savior. By ‘type’ I mean that he is patterned after other real-life saviors, most notably after Jesus himself. This is one of the really interesting things about comics or fantasy literature. It isn’t just make-believe stories for kids, it is a two-dimensional look at the great themes of human experience: good, evil, virtue, sin, judgment, and salvation.

This Fall, there will be a Hollywood movie remake of a cartoon that used to run when I was a kid. It’s based on the Superman story (which has overtones of the Gospel), but it’s geared down even a few more notches.

Maybe some of you will remember these characters: Sweet Polly Purebred, the damsel in distress; Simon Bar Sinister, the evil villain; and Shoeshine Boy, a clumsy, nerdy kid (dog) who shined shoes. But, when evil threatened and Polly was once again in trouble, he would dart into a phone booth and become a human-like dog superhero, Underdog.

Or if none of that jars your memory, maybe this most famous saying of his will [in my best Underdog voice]: “There’s no need to fear; Underdog is here!”

Whether intentionally or not, comic book heroes like Superman and Underdog get another aspect of the biblical story right: not only has a savior come from outside our world to rescue us here in this world, but this hero is humble, often-unnoticed, yet capable of amazing things.

Why talk about comics this morning? Stories point beyond their two-dimensional world to greater things. Jesus told stories. This morning, we are going to look at two stories he used to help describe what the Kingdom of God is like.



The Kingdom of God: Public Expectation

We’ve talked before about the public expectations about the Messiah at the time Jesus lived. The coming of the Messiah was greatly longed for and he was expected to be a mighty warrior returning to usher in God’s reign on earth. In practical terms, in Jesus’ day, this mighty King would drive the Romans out of Israel and restore the kingdom in God’s name.

So, with that expectation about the Messiah, there were corresponding expectations about the Kingdom of God. It was the earthly kingdom brought in, blessed, and protected by God. The Messiah was God’s anointed prophet, priest, and king.

Throughout Jesus’ teaching ministry, there is evidence that many who followed him believed not only that he was the Messiah, but that he was that kind of Messiah. For example, the Zealots were a kind of underground resistance army waiting for leadership to arise against the Romans. At least two of his disciples belonged to this group. They were, no doubt, hoping Jesus would be that leader.

Perhaps because of this expectation, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to talk about what the Kingdom of God was, and what his role and that of his followers were supposed to be.

In Luke 13, he gives two analogies to help explain what God’s Kingdom is like. Let’s look at each one in turn.


The Kingdom of God as Mustard Seed

The Kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches. (v. 19)

This is an analogy, so it does not give us a perfect understanding of what the Kingdom of God is like, but it does tell us something about it.

Two things stand out. First, the mustard seed is tiny when you are looking at it and hidden when planted. Jesus was telling the people that the Kingdom wasn’t coming in quite like they imagined. It had humble beginnings. It might not look like much right now, but like the mustard seed, it would grow into something quite substantial. In fact, the mustard plant in that part of the world can grow to 9 feet in size. That’s an enormous plant! So, this described a message Jesus often proclaimed. The Kingdom is now here, but it is not yet what it will become. Nonetheless, seek, believe, and serve.

The second thing about the mustard seed is that because it grows to such great size, it is large enough for birds to find shelter and refuge there. They will even make their nests (homes) in its branches. So also the Kingdom of God is our future home and a present refuge in times of trouble and “rain”.



The Kingdom of God as Leaven

The Kingdom of God… is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened. (v. 21)

Jesus moves quickly into a second analogy. This one has one point, but several implications. Leaven is yeast. It is the element that is put into floury dough to cause a chemical reaction and cause it to ‘rise’. Like the planted mustard seed, the leaven is hidden when it is first put inside the dough. But also like the mustard seed, it soon makes its presence known through its ‘fruit’. It transforms the ‘world’ around it, changing flat tasteless matzo into fresh, rich bread.

It strikes me as interesting that Jesus would choose to talk about three pecks of flour, given his three day burial (what an amazing image of yeast ‘entombed’ in dough!). Whether that was intentional or not, the illustration of the Kingdom being like yeast teaches us about the transformational influence of God’s presence in our world, even causing lifeless men and women to ‘rise’ to new life.


A Place in the Kingdom

So, hopefully having learned something about the Kingdom of God, what do we do with that knowledge? How do we relate to God’s Kingdom?

First, Jesus has taught us that God’s Kingdom is already here, but not yet fully realized. We will not be fully and completely joined to the Kingdom until we live with God in Heaven. And yet, also because of Jesus, we are already declared citizens of that Kingdom. And, as those bearing the imprint of our citizenship and filled with the Holy Spirit, we bear witness to God’s Kingdom through our words and actions. We are ambassadors for the Great King even now.

So, there are several points of application here.

Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God…”. We are to look for signs of God’s present rule in our world and in our lives. God as King is our first priority and our first allegiance, even now and in this world.

Not only are we to seek or look for God and His Kingdom, we are also to serve God. All Jesus’ language about “come and follow” and obedience and discipleship… that’s all a description of what it means to be God’s servant. Jesus modeled this perfectly through his own obedience and humble service, and we are to imitate and live that obedience out in our own lives.

Like the risen dough, we follow and serve God by being filled with God’s Word and Spirit. It is that transforming power of God’s presence in our lives that changes us from the inside out.

While we are still strangers in a strange land, our heavenly citizenship also means that we have the security of an eternal home. That means we also have a present refuge and sanctuary in this world. In the coming weeks, as we progress in Luke 13-14, we will study some of the implications of belonging to God and being a member of His household and a citizen of His Kingdom.

Jesus taught so much with simple words and examples. “Pay attention,” he said, “otherwise you might miss what God is doing.”

It may be the opportunity to invite a neighbor to church or an open door to share personally about why God is important in your life. It may be an opportunity to serve God in the church or in the neighborhood. It may be a need that you become aware of that you have the resources to address in Christ’s name. It may be a new sense of the importance of prayer. It may be responding to a call of God on your life – saying ‘yes’ to serve or obey God.

God’s presence and Kingdom is humble and does not demand attention; sometimes, it is even hidden. Like Underdog’s “Shoeshine Boy” or like Clark Kent, many other things will seem more attractive, more powerful, and more worth your attention. But God’s presence and power, embodied in His Kingdom, changes everything around it, including the lives of those who seek and serve Him. And when we are changed, we begin to leaven – to introduce God-change – to the neighborhood and world around us. Amen.


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