Transformers: More than Meets the Eye
The other day I was dead tired. I had just returned home from the mission trip with the youth to South Dakota. I turned on the TV and watched some TV show, and then the Simpsons came on. Not Jessica Simpson and her Hubby Nick, that is the Newlyweds, and praise the Lord it has been cancelled. No, I am talking about the cartoon with the rebellious boy on the skateboard named Bart, the genius daughter Lisa, the little baby girl Maggie. the wife with the blue beehive Marge, and Homer, the father who provides for the family by working as a quality control operator at the nuclear power plant.
In this episode, Lisa convinces the family that they should abandon the routine of pork chops on Friday for the adventure of sushi. Homer dreads going, but once he is there he discovers that sushi is really, really good. So in true Homer fashion he gets really excited, and orders every kind of sushi on the menu. The final sushi dish comes from a fish that is potentially poisonous, and in a comic mishap he ends up being told that he most likely is poisoned, and has only around 36 hours to live.
Homer spends most of the night fitfully worrying, and then he makes a list of things he wants to do before he dies. He sets out to accomplish them. He reconciles a deep rift with his father and takes him fishing, plays with his son, sits on his daughters bed and listens to her play the sax, he makes a video for his baby daughter, makes love with his wife and tells her how much he loves her. As everyone falls asleep he sneaks into the living room and puts on his walkman. He decides to listen to the Bible as narrated by Larry King. He listens to the story of Adam and Eve, fast forwards through the so-and so begat so and sos, and as he is falling asleep the last words he hears is about how the Lord wants to “turn the hearts of the fathers back to the sons, and the hearts of the sons back to the fathers”. It was if the authors were saying in this moment near death, through this ridiculous series of events, that God was reconciling the relationships in Homer’s life with his father and with his children, and somehow even with God himself.
I was touched by this episode of the Simpsons. In part because of the message which I explained earlier. But even more because somehow, someway, through God was up to his usual tricks. Sneaking his message into unusual places. Comically smuggling the gospel into the world through a cartoon about a bunch of people who most of the world would call losers. Teaching us a lesson about love and grace through a fictional father who drinks a little too much, who has gained a little too much weight over the years, watches a little too much television, loses his temper a little too often, and is a little too mean to his overbearing Christian neighbor Flanders. Storylines like this don’t show up every week on the Simpson’s, but they are not all that unusual either. Yet somehow Christians find reason to protest against these cartoons because their characters are less than exemplary role models for their children. Forgetting that we don’t come before God as exemplary role-models either, and that God has always been at work using less than perfect means to accomplish his perfect will. God is transforming ordinary Joes and Janes, and taking people that the rest of the world might call losers, and making them into containers of grace that his love can shine through.
As we come to Matthew 13, we could be equally shocked by what Jesus compares his kingdom to in the Scriptures we have read today.
The kingdom of God is like…….a weed.
The kingdom of God is like…..a fungus
The kingdom of God is like…..something dirty and buried underground
The kingdom of God is like….something you find at the pawn shop
The kingdom of God is like….a messy dirty net that needs to be sorted through and cleaned.
What is that all about. Doesn’t exactly sound appealing and exciting to me, and if you read the Scriptures it does not sound very appealing to the folks of that time either. In fact, right after this teaching he runs home and the people of his town look around and say, “Who is someone like this to say something like this to us?” And they disregarded most of what Jesus had to say.
As most of you know, the people of Jesus’ day expected something more exciting from their Messiah. They expected the messiah to be strong and to be majestic and to be a military leader. They expected Him to fit a certain image and to be a certain way. But Jesus was always subversive, and strange, difficult to understand and scandalous. His disciples were commonners, his friends were IRS agents and prostitutes. And if the prophets are to be believed, he wasn’t pretty or spectacular. The people, especially the religious leaders, expected their messiah to all about power, success, and wealth. Instead Jesus was about servanthood, sacrifice, and transformation and growth. And that becomes very clear in this passage.
We see the same thing today. It wasn’t long after the last election that we turned on Meet the Press and saw a panel of Christian leaders sitting on the show with prominent members of the evangelical right and the compassionate left in a screaming yelling argument about who had the right to have the power to speak for God. And more and more the church becomes about pushing a political agenda, getting power so that you can force your beliefs into law, and make everybody do what you want. And we forget the Jesus that says love your enemies, and the greatest among you is the servant of all (not their judge and Lord and Master).
Even in the church we see the similar attitudes thing. We think that our worth depends on how many people show up, and so we label the churches with more people as more faithful than the churches with less. We think that the important things about church are that every body agrees with and feels happy with everything, and so we water down the gospel to the least common denominator—even at the cost of our integrity. We make the church about saying the right words at the right time, about wearing fancy expensive clothes as a sign of our righteousness—as if our ceremony and our threads really impress Him. Then, we make church about our musical tastes—as if God has a preference between contemporary Christian hits from the 1400s or the 1800s or the 2000s. I am convinced that if Jesus had to comment on the state of the church in the USA—in this and many other generations, he would just shake his head and cry and say “Did you listen to a word that I said? Don’t you remember what I said in Matthew 13?”
And we see the same thing in our personal lives. We judge ourselves by how our hair looks, how young our complexion is, how nice our car is, whether people think we are fashionable or not, what the title to our job is, what neighborhood we live in. We find our value in what size clothes we can fit into, what grades we get and what degrees we have and who our friends are. And we think if we just adopt the right philosophy, if we just read the right book, then everything will be A-OK. We will be kings and queens of the mountain. And people will look up to us. And if they don’t look up to us, at the very least then they will fear us. We will grow up to be BIG in so many ways.
So what does Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is about in Matthew 13 then? I will give you three adjectives: small, hidden, and messy. And one verb: transforming.
Lets start with the verb. Transforming. I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons and they would have these toys with a cartoon. They would transform from robots into other machines to help them in fighting the bad guys, some of which were also transformers at one point. The theme song always went, transformers…..its more than meets the EYE.
Transformation is just a big word for change. In the Christian life, the true mark of new life is growth and change. Living things grow. If we are alive in Christ we grow and we change. But the path to growth and change is not always what we expect. Which brings us to the three strange adjectives for growth. SMALL. HIDDEN. MESSY. Lets start with small.
Lets look at the adjective SMALL. First we have to realize the smallness of who we are to see transformation in our lives. We have to come to God humbly. Surrendering our pride to an attitude of servanthood. Surrendering our personal preferences to what is best for others.
As I look through Biblical history, I don’t see arrogant people who have all the talent in the world being the ones that God always uses. I see God using ordinary people, who often saw how small they were compared to the God-sized task before them. I see a loner named Noah who was mocked and seemed inefficient for decades building a boat, but one families effort did not seem so small when the earth was devastated by a flood. I see a youngest son who worked herding sheep named David save his nation from a giant terrormonger named Goliath and a foreign invasion. I see a sheepherder with a sketchy past and a stutter named Moses being used as a spokesperson for God and leading his nation out of slavery. I see a grungy fisherman with a hair-trigger temper who betrayed his core values named Peter end up being the cornerstone and leader of the early church. Over and over again, we see that God uses people that the world would see as small, average, unspectacular to do great and awesome things. I have come to the conclusion that in the kingdom, especially as illustrated by this passage, that part of what God looks for are people who are not as much qualified for the task he has set before them as they are available and accessable to his spirit in their plainness and ordinariness.
SMALL also speaks to the nature of how we as people and as churches transform. To understand this, we need to understand the concept of BABY STEPS. In the movie WHAT ABOUT BOB there is this guy who has a lot of hang ups and phobias. He goes to a therapist, and the therapist gives him the concept of BABY STEPS. And as I shared with you before, this is an important idea when it comes to spiritual transformation. Spiritual growth often comes in small unrecognizable steps. At first you are going to pray you are not going to lose your temper for one week. Three months later you are in a very difficult situation and realize you were able to control yourself. God’s spirit has been slowly transforming you into a more loving, self-controlled person. And you did not even know it.
This brings us to our second adjective about what the kingdom is like as it comes and transforms our lives and our churches. It is HIDDEN. It takes work to notice the kingdom sometimes. It takes time to identify authentic faith and genuine kingdom work. Not only that, but sometimes the growth, the grace, the great things of God are hardly visible to anyone. God’s work in churches is not always measurable, not always the way we want it or expect it to look, but that does not mean it is not happening.
Think of a treasure hunter, looking and looking for something. About to give up. Then all of the sudden he finds it! The treasure of a lifetime! Does that mean all of his effort before was in vain? The years of looking and never finding. Of course not. All that in his past has been leading up to this moment of understanding and discovery.
Many of you are struggling through hard times and wonder why things could not be a little better and a little easier for once. I urge you to hold on to the faith that God can make great things out of the heartache and struggle you are going through now, even if you do not undersand it and cannot see it now. God’s kingdom comes to us like a hidden treasure, cropping up when we least expect it.
And as you look at others around you, have the love and the grace to believe that God is slowly doing things in the field of their souls that is hidden and unknown to you at this time.
We tend to look at transformation as straight line growth, like hiking up a gradual incline until we get to the summit. Or, as one prominent ministry describes it, like going around the bases of growth. First we go to first base, then we make our way to second etc. The truth is spiritual growth for many of us happens like this. We go to first base. Go into the stands and have a hot dog and a beer. Get caught in a pickle trying to make it from the stands back to first base. Then we get comfortable where we are until we are pushed to run forward in faith four years later. Hopefully some of you get my point. Spiritual growth doesn’t fit predictable patterns for many of us, and our God’s grace in our lives often appears hidden. Especially to others.
And then there is our third adjective. Spiritual transformation is MESSY.
Now one look in my office, and you will be able to tell that I am not always the most neat and tidy type of person. Right now there is a cooler on the floor, some Bible covers under a chair, stacks of books on my desk. Why. Here is my explanation why. Because I work there. MESSINESS ALWAYS HAPPENS AS A RESULT OF MEANINGFUL ACTION. (Some of us just clean up a little better than others.)
There is an equivalent to this with spiritual transformation. No real growth ever comes in our lives and in our churches without problems. If you don’t want ugliness and messiness in your life, don’t do anything, don’t stand for anything, don’t live for anything. But don’t expect anything either.
Let me quickly make a comparison to everyday life. You start a family. Soon you choose to bring a new life into the family. And that new life is beautiful and wonderful and fulfilling. But it is also very messy. In fact, it makes messes you need to clean up several times a day. That doesn’t mean that the child, this new life is bad because it is messy. Messiness is just a part of new life.
Let me assure you that following Jesus can get messy. You deal with messy people with messy problems every day. And you still have to deal with all your hang-ups and sin problems. And sometimes you do the right thing and you feel like you are getting punished for it. And sometimes you try to deal with one simple problem in your life, and realize you have to grow through a lot of other junk to deal with this one problem effectively.
Church life can get messy too. There is always someone that makes you angry. There are always hurts to deal with. People never seem to be as eager to reach out to others once they have been reached out to. Most people I talk to who don’t come to church don’t come because they have felt deeply wounded by something that happened in or with a church. Building the kingdom comes with all sorts of challenges and difficulties, but that does not mean it is not meaningful, and it is not the right thing to do, and it is not powerful, and it is not true.
I offer my life as case exhibit A.
I was in kindergarten. In Oregon, this was not required schooling at the time, but somehow my mother found a way to enroll me in a small Christian school. Despite the MESSINESS of my mother and father divorcing, I developed an interest in knowing Jesus better.
I was in second grade. Like most kids I liked getting out of school early. A couple of older ladies started a GOOD NEWS BIBLE CLUB. They picked us up from school and took us over to their home for a few games and crafts, lemonade, and a flannelgraph Bible study. The told me how much Jesus loved me. THEY WERE TWO OLDER WOMEN WHO SPENT AN HOUR WITH ME A WEEK. I had a very loving mother at home, but she was also living with an alcoholic. Mom and him were always breaking up, and getting back together. MY LIFE WAS MESSY. Yet their small effort was instrumental in me accepting Jesus. Because the kingdom of God comes in small ways. And my guess in the impact that the GOOD NEWS LEADERS were going to have on my life is hidden to them, even to this day.
I was in late grade school and junior high. I spent a school year being threatened by school bullies every day. Girls would pretend they liked me until I believed them, and then tell me how worthless and ugly I was and how nobody in their right mind could ever love me. My father never visited me, and began to stop paying child support. I was suicidal. But we found a church. A church that only had about 30 people. But it was in that small church hidden in a little league meeting house that I was surrounded by love and acceptance. I began to understand that even if I felt like I was alone and nobody loved me, that I could count on God loving me and my church being there for me. MY LIFE WAS MESSY. THE CHURCH WAS SMALL. I AM SURE MUCH OF THE IMPACT THEY HAD ON MY LIFE IS HIDDEN TO THEM. But the Kingdom of God was on the move in that church, and I am a witness.
I was in high school and we moved to Alaska. We never found a church we felt one hundred percent comfortable with. And deep within me grew a hunger to experience God and know God more. So, when I graduated from high school I went to a Christian College where I could play football. In his mysterious hidden ways, God was at work in this too. I took a class which got me to think more and more about ministry. I felt like I did not fit the mold of what God wanted a minister to be. I told God so. I told him I did not think I could do it. God told me, through my mind and through the Scriptures, that I was right but that he could do things through me. I surrendered my life to ministry.
Now I am a minister, and my life is still messy. I am not the world’s or the mainstream churches typical image of what a pastor should be. I am not a COVER BOY for Youthworker Journal or Christianity Today. I am an overweight, single pastor with a strong introverted and intellectual streak who struggles off and on with depression. I am the only member of my immediate family regularly attending worship on Sundays. I don’t have the churchy pedigree. I am small. But God is BIG. And God has and is doing things through my life that I know I cannot do on my own power.
And the same is true of you. You are a part of a struggling downtown church with a messy history. You are not a poster church for CHURCH GROWTH magazine. In fact, we as a church have major issues to work through and change through in order to grow. We are small. BUT GOD IS BIG. And God has done his work through us despite our struggles and limitations.
So now we come before God, today as a church and as individuals. Will we choose to let God use our small, broken, messy selves in ways that we can only think or imagine? Will we surrender our pride and our thirst for control and power and recognition over to him? Will we allow God to transform our lives and church into something scandalous and unexpected, something greater and better than we imagined. I hope so.