“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”

Topical Scripture: Luke 15

It’s a July Fourth weekend without baseball. The National League was formed in 1876, the American League in 1901. In 1981, the players struck from June 11 until August 10. As best I can tell, that’s the only time in 144 years that the game was not played on Independence Day.

But all is not lost. The players began training camps on Friday with hopes of beginning the season later this month. However, if the games are played, they will be in empty stadiums because of the pandemic.

Enter Chip Messenger, a forty-five-year-old financial planner who is about to become the most popular baseball fan in Southern California. He leases a private condominium in a building in San Diego that looks over the left field of Petco Park, home of the Padres. As a result, he is one of the few people in America who will actually be able to see live Major League Baseball this year in person rather than on television.

His story made the Wall Street Journal last week. As he told the reporter, “I’m sure I’ll make some new friends.”

Even with the pandemic, the recession, and nationwide unrest, I am grateful to be an American. Every time I travel overseas, when I return, I’m so glad to be home. And I pray for my country to be a nation God can bless.

The psalmist declared, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12). We are hearing this verse often in these days. I saw it on the sign of First Baptist Church in Mineral Wells while driving Friday, for instance. But what does it mean? And what does it mean for us?

How can we be a nation God can bless? How can you? Where do you most need his blessing, help, and hope? How can you receive them by making God your Lord?

A lost sheep, coin, and son

This summer, we’re in a series called “Hope for Hard Times.” Each week, we’re focusing on a lesser-known parable of Jesus, applying its truth to our lives and challenges.

Today we’ll turn to Luke 15. Here we find perhaps Jesus’ best-known story, the Prodigal Son. I know you know it: a father had two sons. The younger demanded his share of the inheritance now, then spent it in a distant country. Finally, he “came to himself,” as Jesus said (v. 17) and returned home to his Father.

It’s one of my favorite stories. Rembrandt captured it well in a massive painting that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’ve seen it twice and have a print of it in my office in Dallas. It’s a powerful story.

But before Jesus told us about a lost son, he told a story about a lost sheep. The text begins: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” (v. 4). Shepherds were social rejects in Jesus’ day. Because they lived in the field, they could not keep the kosher dietary laws. They were known to steal from their employers and to lie. They could not enter the temple or a synagogue or testify in a court of law. It is remarkable that Jesus made one of them the hero of his story.

A flock of one hundred sheep would be an average size. Since shepherds often traveled together, this one could leave the flock in the care of a colleague while he went out to find the one lost sheep. This was dangerous business, however. By himself, he could fall victim to wolves or thieves; he could fall into a crevasse or break a limb and die. Nonetheless, he mounts up his courage and goes out to find the sheep that is lost.

Then, “when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (v. 5). This was the easiest way to carry a sheep, with its weight on his shoulders and its legs in front of him where he can hold them. We see Bedouin doing this in the Holy Land still today.

Jesus continues: “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost'” (v. 6).

Then Jesus told a second parable: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? (v. 8). Again Jesus makes an unlikely person his hero, this time a “woman.” In a day when women had no social standing or independent means, for her to have “ten silver coins” was probably her dowry, the money that she would bring into her marriage.

These coins are drachma, each worth a day’s wages. Thus, this is only ten days’ salary, not a significant sum but likely all she has. So she lit a “lamp,” a small, oil lamp, and swept the house to seek “diligently” for it. The rough stone floors of the day had many crevasses between them, so much so that archaeologists often look in such places to find coins they use to date discoveries today.

With this result: “And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost'” (v. 9).

Two ways to use our freedom

So we have a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. What makes the first two stories different from the third?

The shepherd loses a sheep and goes to find it. A woman loses a coin and goes to find it. However, a father loses a son and waits for the son to find himself. If he had done what the shepherd and woman did, going after his son and dragging him home, I have no doubt that his son would have left home for the far country the next day. So, the wise father waited for his son to “come to himself” and choose to come home.

In other words, a sheep and a coin do not have freedom, but a son does.

We are celebrating that freedom this weekend. The British writer G. K. Chesterton was right: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Ours is simple, a statement that was ratified by the thirteen colonies 244 years ago yesterday: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In a word, freedom.

However, let’s remember our earlier promise: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” How does this promise relate to the freedom we celebrate today?

First, we are blessed when we use our freedom to make God our “Lord.” Peter taught us: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Paul said it like this: “Having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).

In short, God wants us to choose to make him Lord of all of our selves, every day we live. Not just our Sunday subject but our Monday King. Not just our Savior but our Master. King of every dimension of our lives, every day that we live.

Second, we are blessed when we serve our Lord by serving others: “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13–14).

When we love and serve God and love and serve others, we make God our Lord. This does not earn his blessing—it positions us to experience it. The more our lives are submitted to Jesus in service to others, the more he can bless us, empower us, and use us. And our nation with us.

How to be blessed

So, name a part of your life where you need the blessing of God. Your need may be medical, financial, relational, or emotional. It may have to do with your past, present, and future. Name it and submit it to God.

Now make him Lord of your life, King of every dimension of your being. And find a way to serve someone in need. These uses of your freedom will not earn your Father’s favor, but they will position you to experience his best.

Don’t wait to be blessed—find a way to be a blessing. Don’t wait for God to serve you—find a way to serve someone else. And in blessing and serving them, you will be blessed and served. As you work, God works. As you give, God gives. As you love, you experience God’s love.

Imagine a nation of people who made God their Lord by serving him and each other. Imagine a nation where Jesus was King of every dimension of our lives and we loved our neighbor as ourselves. What difference would that make with the crime, immorality, and injustice of our day? With the bitterness and rancor of our culture?

Now let’s choose to be the change we wish to see. Let’s choose to be a people God can bless, then pray to live in a nation God can bless. This is the greatest gift we can give our country on her birthday. And the greatest gift we can give ourselves.


It’s up to us. A spiritual awakening must start with God’s people: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

I still remember a story our youth minister told us when I was in high school: an elderly man was famous in his village for his wisdom. Whatever their questions or challenges, he had a word for them. So a group of teenagers decided to test the old man. They caught a bird in a trap. Then they went to the old man’s small house, one of them held the bird in his hands behind his back.

They knocked at his door. When the elderly man opened it, the teenager with the bird behind his back said, “Old man, I have a bird in my hands. Is it alive or dead?” If the man said it was dead, the boy would release it. If he said it was alive, the boy would crush it to death. Either way, the wise man would be wrong.

The man looked at each of the boys in their eyes. Then he turned to the boy with the bird in his hands and said, “Young man, it is as you will.”

Will our nation be “blessed”? It is as you will.

Forgiving Is For Giving

Topical Scripture: Matthew 18: 21‒35

A man named Dave Chernosky was asleep in the house in Aspen, Colorado, where he was staying with his twelve-year-old twin children. He heard a commotion in the kitchen and went to investigate. A four-hundred-pound bear was standing in front of the refrigerator. He had opened drawers and cabinets and thrown stuff around the room.

Chernosky was able to coax the bear out into the garage, but the animal became spooked when Chernosky raised the garage door and came back into the house. The bear then struck Chernosky on the side of the head and the back. Doctors later told him that the bear’s claws just missed his eye and carotid artery.

Chernosky was able to scramble away and scream at the bear to leave, which it did.

Let’s make his story relevant to us. You may not be facing four-hundred-pound animals today, but there are bears in your kitchen, nonetheless. Their claws may be words as well as actions. They can hurt you just as deeply as any bear, in ways we can see and in ways we cannot.

One of the great tragedies of this pandemic is that it is taking so much focus from our other problems. Patients are not getting treated for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other problems as they should be. The same can be true in our relationships. If you were struggling with your marriage or family, the pandemic probably has not made things better. If you are dealing with people who have hurt you at school or work, the pain probably persists. You may have people from your past whose “claws” still hurt you today.

In our series, “Hope for Hard Times,” let’s look for hope for the relational pain we all feel. Before we turn to this week’s parable, name your “bear.” Name the relationship you most wish could be better, the person you need to forgive or seek forgiveness from. Now, let’s listen as Jesus speaks to the bears in our emotional kitchens with healing truth.

Consider the debt you owe

Our text opens with an honest question, and a surprising answer. Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).

Peter was being generous. The rabbis recommended that we forgive not more than three times. So the fisherman thought he was being gracious. Jesus’ answer must have shocked him: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v. 22). The Greek can be translated as “seventy times seven,” but “seventy-seven” is more likely the correct rendering.

Jesus’ meaning is clear: we are never to stop forgiving. There is to be no limit. No loopholes. No contingencies. But this seems an impossible request, so Jesus showed us why it is not. What follows is the most famous parable on forgiveness in all of literature.

The hero of our story is a king who has vast holdings and is owed a vast debt: “ten thousand talents” (v. 24). A talent was the highest unit of currency in the ancient world, and ten thousand the highest Greek numeral. As a result, this would be the largest financial amount Jesus could name. If Jesus had in mind the Hebrew talent, this figure would range from $15 million to $20 million.

For context, the annual revenue of all of Galilee was only three hundred talents a year. In comparison with incomes of the day, this debtor owed more than America’s entire national debt!

The king was well within his rights to sell the servant to pay the debt: “Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft” (Exodus 22:3 NIV). It was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt, but nothing prevented the king from selling the man for a sum less than what he was owed.

However, in Jesus’ story the king also resolved to sell “his wife and his children” (v. 25). Jewish custom prohibited the sale of women and children, and Nehemiah condemned such a practice (Nehemiah 5:9). The king’s decision to sell the children to pay the debt indicates that Jesus probably meant a pagan king in the historical context of his parable.

Now the servant “fell on his knees imploring him” (Matthew 18:26a), continuous action in the original Greek, indicating an ongoing act of homage and supplication. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26b), the man begged. He was foolish to think so. No person could pay back such a huge debt. But still we try. Still we make religion a way to repay the debt we owe to God. Still we worship, and give, and serve out of obligation, to earn the righteousness God can only give.

Here’s the vertical axis of the story: “Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave the debt” (v. 27).

Think of it: a debt you could never possibly repay, forgiven with a word. Completely cancelled. The slate wiped clean (1 John 1:9). Your sin buried in the depths of the deepest seas (Micah 7:19), where God remembers them no more (Isaiah 43:25).

How much has God forgiven you? Take Peter’s suggestion of seven sins as a start, per day. This comes to 2,555 per year. Over seventy years, a person who sinned at this rate would have committed 178,850 transgressions against God. Be honest—do you sin against God by omission and commission, thought and action, less than seven times a day? More?

To forgive the person with whom you have issues today, first remember how much God has forgiven you. And how much he has forgotten.

Consider the debt you are owed

Now consider the debt this person owes you, in the light of what you owe God. In Jesus’ story the forgiven servant found a fellow servant who owed him a “hundred denarii” (v. 28). A denarius was a silver Roman coin worth about eighteen cents today, the workman’s daily wage in Jesus’ day.

This was a not insignificant debt, as it was equivalent to a man’s salary for one hundred days. But the contrast between the two debts could not be more stark. In fact, the second debt is one six-hundred-thousandth the debt of the first. This is the relation of the debt owed us to the debt we owed God.

At this point the first servant had a choice. He could give to the second the forgiveness given to him. Or he could stand on the rights his king refused and require what his king forgave. He chose poorly: “Seizing him, he began to choke him” (v. 28). This was a legal “citizen’s arrest,” permitted in ancient Israel when a man owed money to another. The second servant repeated to the first the exact words (in Greek) he had spoken to the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (v. 29).

But the first servant had the second thrown into prison until he repaid his debt (v. 30). He chose law over love. He showed that his heart had not been changed by the forgiveness he had received. He was within his rights, but he was wrong.

You can make the same decision with that person who owes a debt to you. You can refuse to forgive, choosing instead to punish. You have that right. But you’ll be wrong.

Choose grace

In our story the first servant thought his injustice would go unnoticed, but it never does. The other servants were “greatly distressed” (“exceedingly grieved” in the Greek) and told their master “all that had taken place” (v. 31).

Now the master must give to the first servant what that servant gave to the second: “in anger his master delivered him over to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt” (v. 34). Grievous debts were punished in the ancient world with torture in prison. Now the servant who required that he be repaid what he was owed, must repay what he owes.

With this conclusion from Jesus: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). Not just externally but internally. Not just for the moment, but permanently. Not out of obligation but choice. As a commitment of life.

Is this a parable of works righteousness? Is Jesus teaching that we must earn God’s forgiveness by giving it to others? Not at all.

Biblical forgiveness is pardon. It is not excusing what was done to you or pretending it didn’t happen. It is not justifying the behavior or ignoring its consequences. To forgive is to pardon, as when a governor pardons a criminal. The governor does not pretend that the crime did not occur; he or she instead chooses not to punish as the law permits. The sentence, though rightfully imposed, is not carried out.

This is precisely what the king does earlier in the parable. He does not pretend that no debt is owed or excuse the mismanagement or criminality which produced it. He doesn’t ignore the enormous consequences of such a fraudulent act. He doesn’t overlook the debt, but instead chooses not to punish the debtor. This is what God has done for each of us in Christ: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Now we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18 NIV). Now we are commanded to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

To earn forgiveness? No—to receive it. It is a simple fact that forgiveness must find a forgiving heart, as a seed its soil. If I will not forgive your debts against me, I show my heart to be cold, hard, calloused. I see myself as a man owed, a person treated unfairly. I am living within the worldview of legalism, a prison made of laws. Wrongs must be made right, crimes punished, criminals convicted.

In such a worldview, my crimes must be punished as well. If I am unwilling to forgive you, it is likely that I am unwilling to be forgiven by God. I am most probably living in a world of works, where I must pay my debts even while I require you to pay yours.

Even if I am willing to be so hypocritical as to require punishment from you while expecting forgiveness for myself, I cannot experience such pardon from God, for I have not done what I must to receive it. To be forgiven by God I must admit that I am a sinner. I must confess the deep and grievous nature of my sin. I must say with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4a). When I see my sins as God does, their enormous size and horrific nature appalls me and I admit to him, “you are justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (v. 4b).

When I see my sins in this way, I see your sins in their light. I realize how small are yours and how extreme are mine. I realize how little you owe me and how much I owe the Lord of the universe. And I must forgive you, for I have been forgiven by him.

So, if I will not forgive you, I have not received forgiveness from God. For if he has pardoned me, I must pardon you. If he has forgiven me the national debt, I must forgive you anything you could owe to me. If I will not pardon you, it can only be because I have not been pardoned.


So, name the “bear” in your kitchen, the person who has hurt you. Now give grace to receive it. Receive grace to give it. Choose to pardon the person whose sins hurt you, because you have been pardoned by the One your sins crucified. Forgive not seven times, or seventy-seven times, but every time. Because every sin you confess to God will be forgiven. Start today.

Copernicus, the great astronomer, lay dying. A copy of his great book, The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies, was placed in his hands. But he was not thinking of his brilliant scientific discoveries or the universal acclaim they won him. His mind was on a far higher plane.

As one of his last acts, he directed that this epitaph be placed on his grave: “O Lord, the faith thou didst give to St. Paul, I cannot ask; the mercy thou didst show to St. Peter, I dare not ask; but Lord, the grace thou didst show unto the dying robber, that, Lord, show to me.”

Every person can come to God under these terms. And every person can give them to others. Even us. Even now.

Giving Up, Giving In, or Going On

Topical Scripture: Matthew 13:24-30

You know things are tough when Starbucks is losing money. The iconic coffee chain reported this week a net loss of $678.4 million during the quarter that ended last month. Revenue declined 38 percent from the same period the prior year.

I could depress you quickly with statistics about the pandemic, the resulting economic fallout, riots in our streets, and political turmoil in this election year. As we are living through a year unlike any other, one option for Christians is to give up, to retreat from the culture. Why should you try to change anything? What difference can you make?

A second option is to give in, to compromise, to go along to get along. As our country continues its moral trajectory with regard to sexual ethics, abortion, euthanasia, and a host of other issues, it’s harder than ever to stand up for biblical truth. So stay quiet, go along to get along. Again, what difference can you make?

A third approach is to go on, to continue to be faithful, to persevere. It is to use your influence however you can, wherever you can. It is to believe that God is using your faithful obedience to his word and your consistent witness in ways you will not be able to measure on this side of heaven. It is to believe that you can make an eternal difference if you will choose the power of perseverance.

The great need of our day is for courageous Christianity. It is for believers who will stand up and speak up, who will use their resources, gifts, and influence as boldly and strongly as they can in the strength of the Spirit. It is to refuse the enemy’s temptation to give up or give in.

So let me ask you, where is the enemy tempting you today? Where are you discouraged today? How are you tempted to give up or to give in?

Let’s listen to Jesus on the power of perseverance. Then I hope you’ll choose to go on, to persevere in the power of the Lord, for the glory of God and the good of us all.

Expect weeds

Our text begins: “He put another parable before them, saying . . .” (Matthew 13:24a). The Greek means to “set before them, to put alongside them.” It is used in other places for setting food before people.

“Parable” translates the Greek for “thrown alongside,” an object lesson set next to its spiritual truth. Jesus taught this parable as he stood alongside the Sea of Galilee, one of the most vibrant agricultural areas in the world. I’ve been there more than thirty times and am astounded each time at its beauty. It is no surprise that our Lord told an agricultural story in this area.

He sets the theme: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to . . . ” (v. 24b). The “kingdom of heaven” is that realm where God is king, where we acknowledge him as our Master and ourselves as his subjects. It is that dimension where God’s kingdom comes as his will is done (Matthew 6:10). The idea is, to make God your king, do this.

Here’s what the kingdom of heaven is like: “a man who sowed good seed in his field” (v. 24c). The Greek says he is “sowing” such seed. “Good” means genuine, without mixture of other seeds, pure, able to do what it is intended to do. It is wheat seed, as we will learn shortly, with no mixture of weeds. This will be important in a moment.

However, “while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away” (v. 25). When Jesus explained the parable later, he stated that this “enemy” is the devil (v. 39). It is not surprising that he works while the men are sleeping, for he loves to operate under cover of darkness, in disguise (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:14–15).

He “sowed” these weeds—the Greek means that the weeds were given a thorough distribution across the field. There is no place where they are not to be found. These weeds are known as “bearded darnel,” a plant that is common in the region and looks like wheat except that its grain is black. It must be separated from the good wheat, since it poisons the food it touches, causing dizziness and worse if eaten.

This part of the story depicts a very real problem in Jesus’ day. Sowing darnel among wheat was a common act of revenge, so much so that Roman law prescribed specific punishments for it.

Now “the plants came up and bore grain” (v. 26a), which would show the character of the plants as wheat. However, the weeds appeared also” (v. 26b). At the end of the day, the plants showed what they really were.

Jesus’ parable teaches us to expect spiritual weeds wherever we plant spiritual seed.

One of Satan’s subtle strategies is to tempt us to sin and then, when we refuse, tempt us to feel guilty that we are tempted. It is to bring opposition or difficulties against us and then tempt us to blame ourselves for what he has done.

The more you walk with God, the more you will walk against his enemy. No corner of the field is immune from his infestation. No pesticide can prevent it. There will never be a time on this fallen planet when the enemy will not sow his weeds.

They are growing at your side, right now.

Leave the harvest to the Lord

What do we do about them?

“The servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master did you not sow good seed in your field?” (v. 27a). The Greek syntax expects a positive answer, for they know the fault does not lie with the owner of the field. Opposition is not our fault. In fact, as we have seen, we should expect it.

The servants continue, “How then does it have weeds?” (v. 27b). There are far too many weeds for their existence to be explained naturally. In the same way, there is far more evil in the world than can be accounted for by natural circumstances or human nature.

The master has an answer: “An enemy has done this” (v. 28a). The servants’ response is natural: “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” (v. 28b). The owner’s reply is emphatic in the Greek: “No” (v. 29a). Why not? “Lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them” (v. 29b). This is why the Lord delays his return and judgment: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

So, what are we to do? “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn'” (v. 30).

There will come a time when Jesus will “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). In his explanation later, Jesus predicted: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear” (vv. 41–43).

In the meantime, leave the future with God and be faithful in the present.

Claim two facts

We have learned today to expect opposition and to trust future judgment to God while remaining faithful in the present. Now, name that place where you are tempted to give up or to give in rather than to go on. How does Jesus’ parable help? Let’s claim two facts.

First, you’re not going through your challenges alone.

In his explanation, Jesus called the good seed “the sons of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38). They were sown across the entire field, not just in one place.

No matter how alone you feel, you are never alone.

Scripture says Satan is a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). How should you respond? “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (v. 9).

Chinese churches are being closed, their pastors thrown into prison. North Korean Christians are being sent into horrific labor camps where many are executed. Christians face jihadist terrorism in Africa and widespread ridicule and rejection in parts of Europe. Whatever you are going through, know that you’re not going through it alone.

Second, Jesus’ parable reminds you that the end of the story is already written.

The weeds will be judged; the wheat will be rewarded. As my college professor used to say in summarizing the book of Revelation, “We win!”

You may feel that the culture is so far gone as to be irredeemable, but God will have the last word. You may think that the planet is too broken to be helped, but God is still on his throne. You may think that giving up or giving in is your only option, but God is still King.

So ask him for the power to persevere. Look for believers who can encourage you with their faith, and find someone you can encourage with your own. Every day, ask God for the strength to go on one more day, to be courageous in standing for your Lord and his word, to pay a price to follow Jesus.

Do this knowing that you are one day closer to eternity than ever before. And one day, you will be forever grateful that you did.


When Allied armies advanced on the North African port of Eritrea during World War II, the fleeing Axis forces did an ingenious thing: they loaded barges with concrete and sank them across the mouth of the harbor, making it impossible for the approaching troops to enter.

But the Allies hit on an even more inventive solution. They emptied several gigantic oil tanks, the kind which hold one hundred thousand barrels of oil and more and sealed them watertight. They attached chains to each of them. Then at low tide their divers attached the other ends of the chains to the barges sitting on the bottom of the harbor.

And when the tides rose, their power was so great that they lifted the sealed oil tanks and the cement-filled barges with them. It was then an easy task to dispose of the barges and reopen the harbor.

This power of the tides inspired Shakespeare to pen these immortal words:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyages of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures (Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene II).

Where will the current of God’s call to perseverance take you today?

The Mustard Seed Movement

Topical Scripture: Matthew 13:31-32

Roman Trofimov is a traveler from Estonia who landed in Manila last March but was not allowed to leave the departures area due to coronavirus restrictions. He spent 110 days at the airport before he was finally able to return home.

His experience is a metaphor for how we feel in these days. We cannot fly back to the “normal” we knew before the pandemic, but we cannot leave this airport for the “normal” after the pandemic, whatever that is.

But we have a choice: we can be passive victims stuck in the present, or we can be proactive victors who focus on redemptive ways to change the future.

Some dear friends of mine lost their house to a fire a few years ago. They spent a year in an apartment while their home was being rebuilt.

They could have resented their apartment and longed for the home they lost, but they chose to make the most of where they were. They built relationships with neighbors they would not otherwise have known and redeemed that year for God’s glory.

This summer, we’re in a series titled “Hope for Hard Times.” We’re looking at Jesus’ lesser-known parables, finding truth that speaks to our challenges in these challenging days.

Today, let’s focus on ways to use this difficult moment for God’s glory and our great good. How could God redeem this “airport” time?

From tiny seeds come giant trees. That’s the point of this week’s parable.

Let’s ask three questions: what is a mustard seed? What is the kingdom of heaven? And how do we join the mustard seed movement today?

What is a mustard seed?

Jesus’ story begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field” (v. 31). There were two kinds of mustard seeds in Jesus’ day; Sinapis nigra was the garden variety, producing a shrub, while Salvadora persica produced the mustard tree.

His story continues: “It is the smallest of all seeds” (v. 32a). There has been much discussion of that statement over the years.

The cypress tree or wild orchid actually produce smaller seeds. But Jesus was talking about “garden plants.” “Seed” in the New Testament always refers to agricultural plants, those grown for food.

And the mustard seed is by far the smallest of these, so much so that it served as a proverb in the day. The rabbis could speak of a drop of blood or a transgression against the law as being the size of a mustard seed. Roman writers used the same proverb.

Jesus’ point was made by contrast: “but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree” (v. 32b). The mustard seed could grow into a ten-foot-tall plant in a single season and could reach heights of fifteen feet around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus might have been pointing to just such a tree when he said these words.

Then “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (v. 32c). Birds love the tiny black seeds produced by the mustard tree, and flock to it from all over. They dwell there, living in the tree for a period of time. The point is clear: no one would look at a tiny mustard seed and imagine that it would produce such a tall and vibrant tree, filled with birds from all over Galilee.

So it is with the Kingdom of God, all across the word of God.

A lonely, ridiculed man building a boat saves the human race. A childless Bedouin named Abram becomes the father of three faiths. A renegade shepherd named Moses faces down the most powerful man on earth and brings his band of slaves to freedom and destiny. Another shepherd boy kills the mightiest warrior in the land and leads his people to their greatest days of glory. His son, the product of an adulterous relationship, becomes the wisest man in human history. All grew from mustard seeds to men of eternal renown.

Then the day would come when a baby was born in a cow stall and placed in a feed trough. He grew up in a town so insignificant it is mentioned not a single time in the Old Testament and was the butt of jokes in the New. None of his disciples came from the leadership of the nation. They grew to one hundred and twenty people by the time of Pentecost, a small church by any standards today. Mustard seeds, all, but the birds of the air flock in their branches today, more than two billion strong.

Who would have seen this itinerant Galilean carpenter teaching his band of peasant followers and imagined that we would be studying his words twenty centuries later? That this mustard-seed movement would one day topple the mighty Roman Empire and spread the Kingdom of God to the four corners of the earth? That it would become the largest, most significant spiritual movement in human history?

What is the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus stated that the mustard seed that becomes a giant tree is a metaphor for the “kingdom of heaven.” What is this?

Jesus began his preaching ministry by announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He taught us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). When he returns, his name will be “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).

In the Model Prayer he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s kingdom comes wherever his will is done. It comes whenever we make him our king.

As we have noted before, our culture separates Sunday from Monday and religion from the real world. We compartmentalize God into our religious activities. But let me ask you: how healthy would your marriage be if you only saw your spouse at chapel? How strong would your finances be if you worked only as long as you were in church on Sunday? How healthy would your body be if you ate only as long as you did religious things?

To make God your King is to make him the master and Lord of every dimension of your life. When you do this, your life becomes a mustard seed that he uses to grow a tree that will change the world.

To continue the metaphor, Alfred North Whitehead noted that great people plant trees they’ll never sit under. That’s precisely what Jesus promised to do with us.

How do we join the mustard seed movement?

So, what is our role? How do we join the mustard seed movement of Jesus?

First, die. The seed must be buried in the ground before it can grow and bear fruit. So with us.

The Scriptures say we are “buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). When we make Christ our Savior and Lord, we die to our old lives. In that moment, we become a “new creation” with this result: “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

But this is not just a decision we made at our salvation. It is a decision we must make every day.

Paul testified, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

God cannot do with us what we try to do with ourselves. A mechanic cannot repair a car I insist on repairing myself. The Lord can lead only those who will follow.

To make the most of your life, surrender your life every day to Jesus. Put him in charge of your life in these days of quarantine and challenges. Ask him to redeem them. Submit them to your Lord.

Second, grow. The mustard seed is planted, then it must grow. It cannot stay where it is. It must be watered, fertilized, and tended. Over time it becomes what it is intended to become.

In the same way, we are intended to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). We do this by reading his word, praying, and worshiping every day. We do this by keeping other spiritual disciplines as well—solitude, meditation, fasting, and confession.

My youth minister once asked us, “If I could snap my fingers and you became as mature physically as you are spiritually, how old would you be?”

Use these days of quarantine to grow closer to your Lord. Make time to be with him. Resolve to redeem time alone by being alone with Jesus. Use this time to grow in Christ.

Third, serve. The mustard seed becomes a mustard tree in which “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It gives away its seeds to them. And they, in turn, carry the seeds other places and start the process all over again.

God’s word is clear: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).

Find ways to serve people during his pandemic. What can you do today that you could not do six months ago? What can you do today that you will be grateful in six months you did? Who can you serve? What needs can you meet? How can you show someone the love of God in your compassion?


Do you think the coronavirus pandemic surprised God, or do you think he has been preparing you for this season of life? Did he know before you got on the airplane that you’d be in the airport? Did he know before you built the house that you’d spent a year in an apartment? Do you think he can now use your life in more ways than you can?

Martin Luther said, “It is the duty of every Christian to be Christ to his neighbor.”

If you will decide every day to die, grow, and serve, you will join Jesus’ mustard seed movement. You will be Christ to your neighbor.

Is there a greater privilege?

The Power of True Humility

Topical Scripture: Luke 18:8-14

A young Scottish preacher came to preach his first sermon in his new church. The pulpits in Scottish churches are sometimes raised high above the congregation, so that the preacher must climb up several steps to preach. This young man had just graduated from seminary and was extremely sure of himself. Bible under his arm, head held high, he climbed the steps to the pulpit, confident that his message would impress his hearers with his eloquence and learning.

But once he began, his thoughts eluded him. He fumbled and stumbled about, dropping his notes and retrieving them. Nothing went right. Finally, he finished and descended the steps, his head downcast. A dear lady sitting right by the pulpit tugged on his robe and said, “Young man, if you’d gone up like you came down, you’d have come down like you went up.”

Reading the day’s news provides a constant opportunity for spiritual superiority. When we read that Hallmark is planning LGBTQ-themed movies, we shake our heads. When we hear of a town in Massachusetts that legalized polyamorous families (three or more “partners” in the relationship), we cringe. I could go on.

In a summer series on “hope in hard places,” here’s the point of this week’s message: there is great power in true humility.

Avoid the pride of religious achievement

Jesus’ parable stars two of the most common figures of his day, at polar opposites on the social scale. He could not possibly have picked more diverse characters for the drama he describes.

First enters the Pharisee.

There were never more than six thousand of these men, widely considered the holiest people in the nation. They were important to Jesus’ time and spiritual culture, as attested by the hundred or so references to “Pharisee” in the New Testament.

Separated for God

Their name derives from the Hebrew root prs, which means to “separate” or “detach.” Some think that their movement began as a separation which occurred in the Second Temple period, when they chose not to support the Hasmonean dynasty then in power (134–104 BC). But most think that they “separated” from ritual uncleanness and the impurities of everyday Jewish life.

Two commitments characterized their movement.

First, they were devoted to the oral tradition handed down from earlier teachers. This “Halakah” was believed to originate with Moses and was given authority on the same level as the written laws of the Pentateuch. Their interest centered more in personal piety than political advancement, placing them in frequent opposition to the Sadducees and their support of Rome.

Second, theirs was a passionate devotion to personal piety and holiness. They voluntarily accepted very strict laws regarding standards of personal purity. The Pharisees fasted regularly (Matthew 6:16; Luke 18:12). They sought proselytes to the faith (Matthew 23:15). They prayed frequently (Matthew 6:5). They tithed their goods and means (Luke 11:42; 18:12). They were zealous in their pursuit of a purified Jewish faith (cf. Galatians 1:14).

Confusing religion with relationship

Unfortunately, some of the Pharisees were hypocritical in this pursuit, observing the letter of the law but missing its essence.

Jesus’ parable was addressed to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). In seeking a character to personify this problem, he did not have to look far. It was common for the Pharisees to go “up into the temple to pray” (v. 10), climbing its steps to participate in one of the several prayer meetings held there daily.

The Jews typically began their prayers with words of thanksgiving. We can picture this Pharisee standing erect, his arms spread wide, his proud words echoing in the Temple walls for all to hear. Perhaps Jesus heard a Pharisee utter the very oration he now quotes: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (v. 11).

Our Pharisee is not an “extortioner” (a swindler or cheat), an “unjust” person (someone who is unrighteous in his dealings with others), or an “adulterer.” He is superior to “other men,” and especially “this tax collector.”

As further proof, he states, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get” (v. 12). The Jews were commanded to fast only on the Day of Atonement, but many of the Pharisees also fasted on Monday and Thursday (Matthew 5:20; 6:16; 9:14; Mark 2:18; Acts 27:9). It has been noted that these were market days, when more people would see their public religious devotion. He also “gives tithes of all I get,” tithing from his entire possessions, not just his financial income, and on the gross rather than the net.

It is altogether likely that the Pharisee in our parable spoke the truth as he saw it. He probably was as externally moral and religious as he claimed to be. His culture certainly held him in reverence as one of the “holy men” of the day, the spiritual Marine Corp of the nation.

The tragedy of his soul was that he confused religion with relationship. He thought that his activity would impress God as much as it impressed his society. He believed that he had earned an audience with the Holy One by his religious zeal. Surely if anyone merited divine favor, it was this spiritual superstar.

This attitude did not end with this Pharisee.

It is still tempting to believe that we are what we do and that our status with God is determined by our status with each other. We can easily believe that we merit God’s favor by our religious achievements, that our relationship with the Father is based on our religious activity. But Jesus made clear that the Pharisee did not go home “justified” for this simple reason: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 18:14).

Pray in the humility of spiritual relationship

Now our other character enters the stage, a “tax collector.” He was as infamous to Jesus’ audience as the Pharisee was famous. The Romans established throughout their Empire a system of taxes and levies which they imposed on their subjects with impunity. Their motive was twofold: to secure financial resources for their ever-growing military complex, but also to keep the people in subjugation to their power.

In a region as far from Rome as Israel, it would be impossible for the Empire to enforce their taxation laws without local help. So, the Romans arranged for a network of tax-farmers, the publicani, who were responsible to pay the Empire what it required (Zacchaeus was likely a member of this group). These publicani in turn auditioned large numbers from the local populace and selected those who promised to pay them the largest sums. (Matthew was a well-known member of this group in Capernaum.)

So long as these tax-collectors kept their promise to the publicani, they could collect anything else they wished. The general public had no court of appeal and could refuse the tax-collector only at risk of Roman wrath.

In addition to the financial burdens the tax-collectors placed on their neighbors, their activity supported the hated Roman occupation force. If Jews in Poland were to collect taxes from their fellow Jews to pay the Nazis, their activity would be similar to the tax-collectors of Jesus’ day. These men were known to be unscrupulous embezzlers, immoral in the extreme. And their frequent dealings with Gentiles made them religiously unclean as well.

As a result, tax-collectors are often linked with “sinners” in the Gospels (cf. Mark 2:15). Matthew associates them with “prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31) and Gentiles (Matthew 18:17). Jesus could have introduced no figure to his story who would be more hated than the tax collector.

The man’s prayer is no surprise to Jesus’ audience: “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'” (Luke 18:13). His distance from the Pharisee in the Temple bespoke his low status in the community. His breast-beating was a typical sign of repentance. His prayer in the Greek pleaded with the Lord to “have mercy on me, the sinner” (emphasis added), exactly what Jesus’ contemporaries believed the man should ask from God. He prays for mercy (sometimes defined as not getting what we deserve) rather than for grace (getting what we do not deserve). If any needed such mercy, it was this man.

Now comes the shock: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (v. 14). If Billy Graham and a neighborhood drug dealer had been praying in the same church, and the drug pusher was accepted by God while the evangelist was rejected, we’d be no less surprised. When I once used this analogy in explaining Jesus’ parable to a congregation, a member of the church wrote me that week in shock that I would suggest such an outcome. I assured him that he understood Jesus’ point exactly.

Those in Jesus’ audience were confident that they were “righteous” (v. 9), a word which means to be in covenant relationship with God. In fact, the man who was “justified” (declared innocent and right with the Lord) was precisely confident that he possessed no such claim (v. 14).

Note that “righteousness” and “justified” come from the same Greek root. Only when we admit that we are not righteous in ourselves can we be made so and justified by God. Only when we know our need of God can we know God (cf. Matthew 5:3). He can only give what we will receive. And we can receive his grace only when we admit that we need it. Thus, “everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).


So, what is the point of Jesus’ parable for us? Simply this question: do we come to God like the Pharisee or like the publican?

Despite our possessions or reputation or status, before God we are all sinners. Every one of us has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23), and the payment for that sin is death (Romans 6:23). It is only by God’s grace that we can stand in his presence at all.

Do we admit that fact?

Do we receive others as God receives us? Is our church a haven for saints or a hospital for sinners? Are we a club where all must belong, or a family where all can? What if our church were a congregation where outcasts were welcome? Where the worst sinners could come?

The fact is, that’s us. Every one of us.

If we want to experience the power of God for our problems, his hope in hard times, we must come to him on our knees. If we will not admit that we are publicans rather than Pharisees, we cannot experience what the publican received. If we will admit to our Father how much we need his help and hope, we will have them.

The oldest Christian church building in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Built in the fourth century, it was partially reconstructed in the sixth century and has been venerated ever since. In a crypt below is the traditional manger where Jesus was born. I’ve been inside this church many times and can attest to the power of the experience.

The entrance is part of the story of the building. It once was high and wide, but during the medieval era, Muslim Turks sometimes rode in on horseback to assault Christian worshipers. And so, it was remade as a very small doorway, four feet wide by just three or four feet high. I had to stoop down to enter. It is called the Door of Humility. It is a concrete parable of the Christian life.

Will you make that door your entrance to God today?