Pastoral Burnout

Elijah: A Nature Like Ours – Burnout, Depression & The Let-Down Effect

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Special Sermon

 

Turn with me to 1 Kings 18:1–40 and I want to read two stories about the prophet Elijah today, but we need to read a large section so we can get the whole story. A lot has already happened up to this point, but you’ll figure out how things are going as we read. The only thing you really need to know is that the current king of Israel is an evil guy named Ahab who married an even worse, pagan woman named, Jezebel, who did everything they could to insult God and provoke His anger.

Elijah comes on the scene as God’s messenger and tells Ahab that because of the horribleness in Israel, He was going to bring a three-year drought. God then tells Elijah to take off for a while. During this time, a good man named Obadiah becomes governor under Ahab, which is a pretty difficult job for a faithful man of God. We pick up the story in 1 Kings 18:1.

“After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.

And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the LORD from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid a hundred men of the LORD’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” And Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”

That’s what I call a power encounter. Elijah, the man of God called during a very difficult time, stands alone on the mountain, surrounded by hundreds of enemies – but he’s bold, brash, and confident. So much so that he not only builds his altar but soaks it with buckets and buckets of water. And then BOOM, God shows up in an amazing way! The people’s hearts melt. They have seen firsthand that the Baals are fake and the Lord is God. Elijah is vindicated, the people turn on the false prophets, then as the people repent God ends the drought with a great rain. Elijah even tells Ahab he better get going because the whole country is about to be one, big, flooded, mud pit and if he didn’t leave now his chariot was going to get very stuck.

Wouldn’t we all like to have God use us in such a way?

The book of James in the New Testament actually uses this passage to say that this sort of encounter isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Christians. In fact, James 5:13–18 says that the same God, the same Spirit, the same power that was at work on Mount Carmel is available to the people of God in the church. He says,

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”

A Nature Like Ours

Our first instinct might be to say, “Nah. That’s Elijah. He’s the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. I’m not like him!” Today’s message isn’t about prayer. What I want to focus on right now are the words, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…”

Other translations say that “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” (NIV) or “Elijah was just like us…” (BSV) or “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are…” (KJV) and James’ point is to argue against the idea that Elijah was special somehow.

Remember the story in Acts 14(:8-18) where Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and God heals some people through them, but everyone starts to worship them as Zeus and Hermes instead of believing in Jesus? The whole crowd starts getting ready to treat them as gods and offer sacrifices to them and Paul tears his clothes and cries out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are men of like nature with you, and we bring you good news…” “We’re not gods! We’re just regular people! Jesus is God! Jesus has the power! Jesus did the miracle! Let’s talk about Jesus!”

That’s what James is saying too. Elijah was just a guy that God chose to work through. Elijah was just a guy who did what God told Him to do. When God said to pray for a drought, he did. When God said to pray for rain, he did. Elijah didn’t make the rain start or stop. No one can do that except God. Elijah was just a regular guy who just said what he was told to say. God had the power. God did the miracle. Let’s talk about God.

That’s the whole message of the book of James. You want an answer to prayer? You want to see Jesus at work in your life and others’? Here’s how: It’s not believing that you’re super special and powerful, it’s knowing you are not but trusting Jesus and just doing what He tells you to do anyway. Then you’ll see His power.

What Was Elijah Like?

But I want to go back to 1 Kings for a bit and take a look at the kind of guy Elijah was – because it’s easy to think, “Oh sure, you say ‘he’s just a guy’, but he’s, a super-saint. He was always praying, always trusting, super humble, charismatic, organized, full of joy and trusting God all the time…. that’s why God used him. I’m not like that. If Elijah had half the problems I had, then the story would have been different…”

But let’s look at 1 Kings 19. These verses come right after the Mount Carmel power-encounter, right after the rains come, right after all that amazing God stuff….

“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.”

 Elijah hears that Jezebel is after him and what’s his reaction? You’d think it would be to put the boxing gloves back on, ring the bell, and call round 2 – but no. We see terror, depression, suicidality. This often happens to people after great battles, even if they are great victories. You’ve probably experienced this. Things don’t go so well for a while, but you’ve been putting up a fight – or you have a bunch of days where some really cool stuff happens. You focus on a project and it goes really well… you have an awesome, busy vacation… you have some kind of personal breakthrough… you run a race or paint a picture the best you’ve ever done… and then, for some reason, the next day you feel totally deflated, depleted and depressed. You were flying high yesterday – proactive, energized, able to get the job done – but today, now that the stress has let up, you can’t handle anything. You’re foggy. You get sad. You get sick. The amazing thing you just did yesterday looks worse than it did. You spiral into a funk. Ever felt that? Where does that come from?

Some people call it the “Let-Down Effect” or “Adrenal Fatigue” and you’ve probably experienced it. It basically means that our bodies are capable of squirting all kinds of helpful hormones into our system to keep us going when we need energy, but those resources are finite and once the stress is over (whether it’s good stress or bad) those helpful hormones are depleted, our systems start to crash, and our bodies and minds start to unravel. You’ve probably felt this if you jump into an exercise you haven’t done in a while. Day One goes great, you’re surprised how well you do, but the next day you feel like you’re going to die.

That can happen mentally too. You tell your body that you can’t afford to be grumpy or tired right now – so you hold all those negative feelings in, push down that stress reaction, overlook all the stuff that’s bothering you – so you can get the job done, enjoy the vacation, or whatever – but those brain chemicals run out too. And living in fight or flight for that long has filled your body with stress chemicals and other issues. That box of emotions you’ve been packing inside your heart gets full and starts to leak. I’m sure you know the feeling. This may be part of what Elijah was going through.

Some people, if they are naturally or usually more anxious or depressed than average, or naturally have less energy than average, or have learning or physical disabilities, start with a deficit and end up requiring more of their minds and bodies than others. An introverted person has to psych themselves up to go to a party, or give a presentation, or have a discussion they’re not looking forward to. A person with ADD has to psych themselves up to be able to buckle down to study for a long time or pay attention during an important family dinner or meeting. Your average person can wake up to an alarm clock, eat breakfast, take a shower, and go for a walk – but for someone with depression, that takes way, way more energy to do and then actually requires some recovery time! Maybe Elijah was that kind of person too. Wouldn’t surprise me.

Look at what happens here. Elijah, the man who had just confronted thousands of armed zealots with great courage, knowing that God absolutely had his back – is now scared of one woman. So much so that he takes off and “ran for his life” 200 kilometres South. He’s not praying or doing anything positive. He’s running as far away as he can, to the very edge of the Promised Land. He gets there and is utterly exhausted. He’s so scared he won’t even tell his servant where he’s going and takes off into the wilderness, alone, and collapses under a shady tree. At that moment, depression really takes hold. He ran away to escape death. But what does his exhausted, depleted brain say?

Look at what he prays. He says, “It is enough.” Literally, that means, “Let it be enough.” “I’m done, Lord. I can’t take anymore. Please let this it.”

Then he says, “Take away my life”, meaning, “I want to die. Kill me, God.” He ran away to escape death! How muddled are his thoughts? How messed up are his emotions? How depleted are his mental and physical reserves? He’s so down he wants God to kill him. “God will do it better than Jezebel”, he may have thought.

He says, “I’m no better than my fathers.” Here we see how utterly disappointed he is with himself. He feels like a total failure. Keep in mind the Mount Carmel encounter was only a week ago! But now, all of that is forgotten. All he sees is how cowardly he is, how fruitless his ministry has been, how impossible the fight against Jezebel is, how nothing will ever change, how he’s not the right man for the job, how he has no help, no support, no comfort, no hope.

Now, keep in mind, these are all lies – but that doesn’t matter. His brain is incapable at this point of processing truth. He’s so stuck in the dark that he can’t see the light.

He prays this one sentence prayer and passes out.

Consider our phrase from James again, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…”. We see Elijah on Mount Carmel with fire from heaven or confronting the evil Ahab, or praying for rain and seeing a flood and we think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” But we often forget about Elijah under the broom tree a week later. Elijah wasn’t super-human. He was just a guy who said “yes” to God. That’s James’ point. God showed Elijah grace in choosing him even though he was a very weak vessel. Elijah obeyed and God gave him everything he needed on Mount Carmel. But the story isn’t about how special Elijah is. All Elijah did was say “Yes” and then go where he was told to go and say what he was told to say. God did everything.

God’s Gracious Response

I don’t want to leave the story without looking back at 1 Kings 19:5-8 to see God’s response to Elijah’s prayer. Did he kill him? Rebuke him? Let’s see.

“And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

How does God respond to this utterly spent man, who is totally depressed, took off on his responsibilities, gave his resignation, and then seriously contemplated suicide? Wind and fire? A booming voice from the mountain top?

No. He sends an angel to deliver some pancakes. No sermon. No judgment. No guilt. No pressure. Just some pancakes. And then the angel left him alone to sleep some more. Elijah’s problem wasn’t lack of faith – his problem was physiological. He was physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. He didn’t need a lecture or pep-talk or guilt-trip. He needed pancakes and some rest. God knew that. God knows our physical limitations. He’s not disappointed with us for being human.

What does God do next? What does the angel say, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” God acknowledges that Elijah’s problem isn’t faith, it’s physical. “Dude, you’ve rested, but now you need to eat some more.” God, for now, completely ignores the content of Elijah’s prayer that he prayed in that depressive funk, and just says, “Ok, eat something. You’re not done yet, but I totally agree that you need to recharge. Take some rest. Eat some food. Once you’re ready, I’ve got something else for you. Now that you’ve slept, sit up and eat and you’ll feel better.” What’s the prescription? Prayer time? Meditation? Worship songs? Big meeting? A new schedule? A better list? Nope. More pancakes. And these were like, seriously good pancakes too. Had to be like Lembas Bread from Lord of the Rings. Because they fuel him for a while.

With his body rested, his belly full, things started to look a little better. Is he fully recovered? Heck no. Is he 15% better than when he laid down and wanted to die? Sure. He’s got enough in the tank for whatever thing God has next. Elijah’s depression prayer is forgotten, Elijah gets up, says “Yes” to God again. And God doesn’t send him to take on the world again. God gives him a break for over a month, but keeps him moving forward. And sends him to mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, where God first spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel. In other words, instead of sending Elijah back to work right away, God bring Elijah back to Him. He brings Elijah back to the genesis of his faith. Back to basics. Back to what brought Elijah and God together in the first place. And they have a long talk.

I’ll leave the reading of the next part of 1 Kings 19 to you, but suffice to say that after Elijah has recovered a bit, God meets Elijah in a powerful way, deals kindly but appropriately with his needs, his attitude, and his sins, but also brings him back for about 15 more years of ministry – even mentoring God’s next prophet. God saved Elijah by His loving kindness.

God Prefers the Weak But Willing

Let me close with this: When God calls a person to salvation and wants to use a person for His kingdom, He doesn’t call the strong, talented, powerful, influential, wise, and smart. He prefers people who are weak but willing. They know they are weak, but they are willing to say “I’m not sure why you chose me, but Yes, I will go. I will do it your way, in your strength, in your time, because I know I can’t do it on my own.” And then He equips them to do the job.

That’s the strange part. God bypasses the already capable so He can equip those who are incapable. God bypasses those who seem to have it all put together, in favour of people who are a mess. God bypasses the intellectually superior in favour of those who know they don’t know it all. God bypasses those who are secure unto themselves and chooses people with great insecurities because they are the ones who know they need Him most. God prefers the weak but willing. Then He equips those people, making them stronger, smarter, more powerful, more influential, wiser, and more talented. All He requires from us is to say “Yes, Lord.” And since that person knows where they came from – and everyone else knows where that person came from too, and the wild improbability that they would be able to pull off what they are doing – God gets the glory. God blesses us, we feel useful, and He gets the glory. It’s a good deal.

“Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” Flawed, emotional, prideful, prone to depression, anxiety, even suicidality – but God chose Him, equipped Him, put Him in the right place at the right time to do amazing things – and all Elijah had to do was say “Yes”. And then, even when Elijah had a total meltdown, God didn’t turn His back on him and head off for someone better who wasn’t so damaged. No, God was gracious, loving, kind, patient, truthful – and gently scooped Elijah back up, set him on his feet, strengthened him, and kept using him.

That’s what God does. That’s how God sees you, your family, and this church. No one is too messed up, too far gone, too weak, too stupid, to be saved and to serve. What disqualifies someone is pride and a hard heart. What matters is simply saying, “Yes, Lord. Despite my weakness, insecurities, failures, and fears, I will serve – but I won’t go unless you go with me. I can’t do anything of value on my own.” (Ex 33:15) That’s a heart God can use.

So, my encouragement to you is the same as before. Don’t write yourself off – or anyone else. If you’re in sin, stop, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness and healing and He promises to do it. But your past or current mess, or the past or current mess of that person who has been blowing up their life, doesn’t mean God is done with them, and it doesn’t mean God can use them or you to serve His kingdom.

Maybe it’ll take some time. Maybe you need some recovery time. Don’t feel bad if you’re under the broom tree right now. Don’t feel guilty that life wiped you out. You are a human being, even as we are. Don’t feel bad that your brain and body are depleted and all you can do these days is sleep and eat some pancakes. That’s ok.

But – but while you are there under the broom tree, don’t think God’s done with you. Don’t think God’s mad at you. Don’t think that God is disappointed with you. He’s not. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) You need to accept help, accept that you’re depleted, accept you are weak and let him and God’s people minister to you.

And for that person you are concerned about, that seems like they’ll never recover? All that needs to happen – literally the one thing that needs to happen – is for them to ask God for help. Consider the prodigal son. Consider Peter who denied Jesus. Consider Elijah. He ran as far as he could, gave up, and passed out. But, in that dark moment, he simply said, “God, I’m done. I’m spent. I’m a mess.” It was a cry for help, and God used it. Sure, what He asked God to do was wrong – but that didn’t stop God from helping him. God took that cry for help and used it. God knew what He really needed. Why did God answer that prayer? Because it had the single, most important ingredient God can use to change a life – humility. All the words were a mess – but within his heart was the ember of humility that God could use to restart his fire.

So that’s what we’ll pray for. We’ll pray for those who are weak, and we’ll pray for humility. Humility to accept our limitations and receive God’s amazing grace.

Don’t Underestimate the Small Things (Parable of the Mustard Seed)

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Jesus & Parables

When Jesus was speaking to crowds, instead of wowing them with His intellectual power or overwhelming them with theological lectures, He often spoke in little word pictures that captured people’s attention and forced them to use their imaginations to think through big ideas. We call them parables. There may be other smaller points woven into the story — and Jesus’ parables often have wonderful details that have be discovered and discussed for generations – but in each parable there is almost always just one big idea.

He used these parables to both hide the truth and to reveal it. When the crowds would gather to listen to Him, Jesus would tell a story that, for the person who was open to the voice of God and wanted to learn, would be easily understood and readily applied – it would open their eyes to see a new vision of God and His Kingdom. But the person with the hard heart, who was only there for selfish reasons or to see the spectacle, or who was being careless in their listening, the stories were hard to understand… or if they did understand, the conviction they would feel wouldn’t bring them to repentance and a new love for God, but instead, guilt and anger and a desire to shut Jesus up would build in their hearts, adding a few more bricks in the wall between them and God.

It is my hope that today, as we open up and read one of Jesus’ parables, that our hearts would be open, pliable and ready to hear what God wants to say to us.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Please open up to Mark 4:30-32, the Parable of the Mustard Seed.:

“And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’”

So, what’s the big idea of this parable? Well, let’s remember our context and draw it out. Jesus is talking a lot about seeds and soil in this chapter.

If you recall, The Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils) is about the importance of the soil being ready to receive the seed, or the importance of realizing that the condition of our hearts will determine how we hear the voice of God. The Parable of the Growing Seed, which we looked at last week, is about the process of growing and all the time and stages that are required to get from seed to mature plant. The big idea there was that spiritual development requires patience.

Here, in the Parable of the Mustard Seed Jesus gives us a different picture. His focus isn’t on the planting of the seed, or the stages of the growth. Instead He uses a comparison. He holds up a tiny, little mustard seed which no one in the crowd can see… and then points to a huge mustard bush and says, “Do you realize that without this little tiny seed, you’d never have that giant plant?”

So what’s the big idea? Do not underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant things. Jesus is using hyperbole, or exaggeration here, and isn’t trying to be scientific. If Jesus was in Canada or the US, he might have used the Giant Sequoia tree as His example. A mustard seed is very, very small, and can grow to be very, very large by comparison – large enough to hold bird’s nests and for an adult to take shade under!

Too Little Too Slowly

This parable was important to the disciples because though they believed Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t really understand what that meant. Back in Mark 1:14-15 we learn that Jesus’ message was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” so we know that Jesus has been teaching about the coming Kingdom. They’ve already seen him perform miracles, healing lepers and paralytics and many others. They’ve seen Jesus come face to face with the Pharisees and call Himself by the title “Son of Man” and “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark  2:28). They’ve seen great crowds follow Jesus, and heard demons cry out “You are the Son of God” before Jesus ordered them to be silent. And Jesus has appointed the twelve apostles, the core leadership group for His new Kingdom.

By all accounts, Jesus next steps should be to gather an army and march into Jerusalem, and then on to Rome and the rest of the world… but He’s not. In fact, He’s withdrawing from the crowds, shunning the spotlight, avoiding people who want to set Him up as king.

And so, the disciples were bewildered, discouraged and becoming impatient. They wanted a political kingdom on earth that would bring peace and prosperity soon – and they were starting to think that Jesus had something else in mind.

This series of parables about soil, seeds, plants and trees, is meant to remind and encourage them that though its beginnings may seem small, their parts seemingly insignificant, and the pace not as quickly as they would like – in the end, the Kingdom Jesus is setting up will be glorious and all encompassing, conquering evil and embracing all the peoples of the world.

He was encouraging his followers not to turn away simply because the beginning of their walk with Him was so meager and obscure. Perhaps they began to wonder how this Galilean carpenter, speaking mostly to a few fisherman, and gathering crowds whose size ebbed and flowed depending on Jesus’ popularity that day, would ever hit it big. When would the explosion of change come? When would Jesus finally make His move and set everything right?

Their impatience was growing, and so Jesus message to them is this: Don’t underestimate the small things.

An Insignificant Kingdom

We still struggle with this today, don’t we? We’re not much different than Jesus’ first disciples. In our own lives and our own spiritual development, we’re just as impatient – which we talked about last week. But it extends outwards too, doesn’t it? When we look at our church, or the statistics about how other churches in our country and across North America are doing, it’s sometimes hard to see the greatness and power of God’s Kingdom.

It doesn’t look the way the old “Onward Christian Soldiers” Hymn describes it: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God…”

We have a little better view when we get to speak to missionaries from around the world, but in our own little township, in Carleton Place, in Ontario and in Canada, it’s difficult to see God’s kingdom as anything but small, divided and powerless and .

Despite our age of rising and falling Christian superstars, most churches are small and getting smaller, full of normal people listening to obscure, struggling, stressed out pastors and ministry leaders who are just trying to do their best and seeing very little change. Pastoral burnout is now a common phrase in the circles that I run in.

Churches and pastors go on, week after week, year after year, waiting for revival, waiting for the kingdom to break out, trying new things, each new idea underperforming or not having the staying power to help for long, and they keep waiting for Jesus to send the spirit, to send a miracle, to come back, to… just do something… and He doesn’t.

We are very much like the disciples looking at Jesus and wondering what he’s doing, and why things take so long and seem so small. When will the big break out come? What must we do to see a huge revival?

We look at our ministries, our church, our own gifts and abilities, and all we see are a few grains of mustard seed – and it doesn’t look like much.

But we learned last week that inside of that seed, which is the voice of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is great power! It’s not about our efforts and our abilities, but about the power contained within the message of God.

And without a doubt, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest message the world could ever hear! It solves our deepest human needs and introduces us to the greatest Source of love, forgiveness and joy we could ever expect to meet. And yet, when we speak it to our spouse, to our family and friends, or to our coworkers, this amazing, life-changing, powerful, Spirit charged message isn’t received with joy, laughter, tears, and thanks – but usually with a wave of the hand, a mocking grunt and a request to keep that nonsense to ourselves.

We look at our testimony, and the Gospel, and we see only a tiny mustard seed – too small to help anyone. And yet, in obedience to God, and out of love for Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we drop that tiny little seed onto a huge, huge field of dirt and stones and birds and thorns… and it’s so small, that by the time it leaves our hands, we can’t see it anymore – it’s like we did nothing at all.

And we ask ourselves. What was the point of that? I don’t even know where, or if it landed anywhere it can grow! Why bother dropping it at all.

This parable is for us who long to see revival and spiritual growth in our nation, our church, our family and ourselves – but who don’t see it yet.

Small Beginnings

Here’s a little perspective for those of us who need a reminder about small beginnings:

The world started with two people, then it restarted with Noah’s small family of six. The nation of Israel began with a couple of barren senior citizens named Abram and Sarai. At many times during the history of Israel, there were was only a small remnant of believers who believed in God – everyone else had turned into pagans.

The life of the most significant person in human history, Jesus Christ, started in the tiny town of Bethlehem, born in a hewn out, rented cave and laid in a feeding trough. Jesus chose 12 men to start his church, and even among them there were only 3 that saw his whole ministry. And he took them three years just to go through boot-camp, and they all ran away in the end. And before Peter preached the sermon at Pentecost, every Christian in the entire world could fit into one room (Acts 1:12-15).

In all of Jesus life, including his flight to Egypt as a baby, He only got about 200 miles away from Bethlehem. Paul travelled a lot, but he never got further than 1000 miles from Jerusalem. And even with all of the seminaries, missionaries, and powerful movements of God, it has taken two thousand years for the message of the gospel to spread to every nation of the world. And as powerful and beautiful and life-changing as the gospel is, and with as many thousands of missionaries there are in this world, there are still many people groups who have never heard the name of Jesus.

In other words, the mustard seed Kingdom that Jesus planted isn’t done growing yet. Have patience, keep praying, stay obedient.

Let’s Talk About Mustard Seeds

I want to switch gears here and talk about a few applications that I want to pull out of this parable for us today. Each one is captured under our big idea of not underestimating the significance of small things. Just as we look at the mustard seed and we think, “This isn’t even big enough for a bird to eat, let alone to find shade and make a home in.”, we may look at some things in our life the and think they are no big deal – only a mustard seed – small, insignificant, nearly meaningless, and underestimate their value and impact in our lives.

But Jesus reminds us that though things start out small, they don’t always remain that way. We are told that these little things grow up. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God growing up, spreading far and being fruitful for all time. But His message can be applied in many different areas of our life.

Let me give a few examples of things that start out small, but when they grow up, they can become big deals in our life.

1. Small Wastes of our Time and Attention

The first are the small ways we waste our time and attention. Throughout the Proverbs we are warned about not wasting our time and our energies on foolish and useless things. Proverbs 15:14, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” or verse 21, “Folly delights a man who lacks judgement…” I was really convicted about this this week.

Now, I’m not going to stand up here and say that every moment of every day needs to be dedicated to either work, prayer or Bible study, but we must all realize how insidious small wastes of our time and attention are.

Think of it. We say, “Just one movie or show – it’s only one evening, no big deal.” “Just one more game – no big deal.” “Just one more YouTube video.” “Just a quick check of Facebook.” “Just a quick read through this celebrity gossip magazine… just to see what’s going on.” “Just a quick look at the newspaper.” Just one. Just a bit. Just for a minute. Just for a little while. Just until it’s over.

I don’t know what your go-to time waster is (in full transparency, mine are YouTube, Netflix and Cracked.com), but each time we go to them it is a potential mustard seed that can grow into much more. For me, I really struggle with staying focused on things that matter and not getting sucked into pop-culture. It can steal our time away from our church, our family, our friends and from God. These little mustard seeds, which we allow to grow in our minds, slowly take over our attention spans, our thought life, our time, our energy, and our concentration. Perhaps you’ve caught yourself spending more time than appropriate thinking about things that are only fantasy, or have no basis in reality. Do you ever get caught up in something that has little value to you or anyone else?

This is something I struggle with all the time. So, this is a little heady, but let me read to you something that convicted me this week from a book called “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. It’s from a section entitled “Acquiring Peace and Zeal for Perfection”.  In other words, how can we find peace and have a passion for getting closer to Jesus and being better Christians? (Now, keep in mind, this was published about 600 years ago – but it is going to sound like it is written for today.):

“We should enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?”

It sounds like he’s talking about wasting time watching tv, or on the internet or Facebook, doesn’t it?

“Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance. Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation? Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts. We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent.”

Have you ever felt that? Taken up with passing things, not spending any time trying to conquer vices, but distracting yourself from them instead? It leaves us cold and indifferent to God and to others, doesn’t it?

“If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.”

That question: “How can a man… who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?” bugged me this week. Especially the phrase “seeks strange distractions”. That’s what I do. I seek out “strange distractions”. I get so caught up in novelty, and all the cotton candy that mass media is feeding into people’s minds. I struggle with it all the time. My mind is full of useless frivolity and I spend far too much time living in the world of fantasy. Maybe you know this struggle too.

And if I’m always wasting my time and attention on useless, fruitless, foolish, pointless, meaningless, worldly, temporary, nonsense – it’s no wonder that I don’t have a God-centred peace. If I live, constantly distracted, allowing my mind to be pulled in a thousand different directions and polluted by every “whim and fancy” that comes across my path – then I’m not likely to grow very deep in Christ, am I?

Therefore, my first encouragement is for each of us to be careful about the small wastes of your time and energy which, though they look like nothing but a little entertainment, can rob us of peace, joy and spiritual maturity.

2. The Seed of Sin

The second thing that grows up like a seed is sin. James 1:14-15 says,

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Our sins, the smallest and the greatest ones of our lives, all begin like insignificant seeds. That’s how Satan sells his temptations. He’d never walk up with a full mustard seed bush and say, “Hey, can I grow my big, evil plant right in the middle of your life?” Of course not! No, he says, “Hey, here’s this tiny, little, thing that brings you pleasure. You can barely notice it! No one will ever see it! And you can get rid of it so very easily. It’s just a tiny little thing. How much harm can this tiny, little seed do?”

Whether it’s gossip and slander, lust and pornography, anger and bitterness, fear, lack of contentment, jealousy, disobedience, stealing, lying… it all begins in our mind as a little seed of desire, and that little seed, when it is allowed to germinate in our souls, grows into a plant that starts to become a problem, and then, “when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Maybe you’ve asked yourself: How did it get this far? Why am I so angry? Why am I so bitter? Why can’t I stop cussing or hurting people or lying or cheating? Why do I have these sinful, sexual thoughts all the time? How did I dig myself down so deep into this hole? Why do I keep spending even when I have no money? Why am I obsessed about that topic? Why am I always comparing myself to others? Why am I always upset, afraid, and discontent?

It’s because you bought the lie that Satan told you about the mustard seed. You thought your secret, little sin would be no big deal. Just a little corner of your mind that no one would ever see and which you would always have under control. But that seed grew. And it got thirsty. And it started to ask for more. And instead of repenting to God, asking Jesus for help, and turning to the power of the Holy Spirit, you fed it. And it grew. And now it wants more, and it’s getting out of control. You feel guilty all the time. Your attitude is affected. You are hurting others even without meaning to. You’ve tried to get it under control, and for a little while you can, but it’s not too long you find yourself doing it again – and again.

Sin starts as a seed. What you need to do is call the Gardener. God needs to rip that weed right out of you. You need to realize that it’s sin and start to hate it. You need to repent of your sin – meaning that you don’t want it anymore, you want to quit, admit you can’t handle it anymore, that you’ve sinned against God and others, and that you need Jesus Christ to forgive you and take the penalty for that sin. Jesus promises He will forgive you, and that all the condemnation you feel for that sin can be placed on His shoulders, and you can be free. It’s his gift to you, bought by His blood.

And then you need to give permission to the Holy Spirit to clean up your mind and your soul. To through and kill the whole plant, right down to the root. It’ll take time, and require a lot of prayer, patience, obedience and diligence, but God promises to help you every step of the way.

And then… when Satan comes with his little mustard seed again… and the alarm bells from the Holy Spirit start going off in your mind… don’t let it in. Stop it while it’s small.

3. Small Talk

Never underestimate the impact that your words (or someone else’s words) can have on a life. We may think that it’s no big deal for our kids to play with, or for us to hang around, that person. We know that it’s not a good idea, but we don’t want to avoid them or say anything, or drop the friendship, because we’re being “nice” – but every sentence they speak is full of seeds, and some of them are falling on you and your kids. Words are powerful.

This works both positively and negatively. And we may not think that our few little conversations can have much impact on someone – but as we spread our little seeds, let’s remember the power that they have. Whether it’s the cashier at the store or a little talk with someone here at church, a text, a card or a note, those little seeds have the potential to grow some big fruit.

However, in the same way, a little dig, an eye roll, a sigh, a little gossip, a backhanded comment, or a scoffing remark can be the seed that Satan uses to grow in the mind of a person to choke out their joy. We’ve all had the times where we’ve been destroyed by a few words or a cutting glance.

4. Small Acts

In the same way as sin is like seeds, so are our acts of obedience to God. Each little act of obedience, whether we want to do it or not, can be used by God to grow into something substantial.

We may not feel like what God is asking us to do is all that important, but think of the small bird that sits on the branch, which makes the pine cone fall, which moves the pebble on the ground that that bumps into another pebble, that rolls down the hill, and gathers some speed, and knocks larger rocks around, and begins the avalanche that changes the face of a mountain.  Perhaps God is calling you simply to sit on the branch… because He wants to move the mountain.

Conclusion

I’m sure there are many more mustard seeds we could talk about, but let’s close for today and thank God that He has decided to grow His Kingdom slowly, steadily, with strength and stamina, and let is join Him in having respect for the small things.