Back in February, I made a trip out west with my Dad and two brothers. That trip occurred roughly two weeks before things began to be shut down around the United States with the Coronavirus. What is interesting looking back is a conversation I had the night I arrived. When I got to the airport, I took an Uber shuttle to the place where we were staying. My driver that night was a man from China who specialized in providing transportation to tourists from Asia visiting the American West. As you can imagine, he had all sorts of knowledge of the virus, how it had affected his business, his homeland and even his own family who still lived in China.
Our conversation was all about a foreign virus on the other side of the world. Yet, what strikes me looking back is that to the best of my memory, I don’t really remember us discussing its effect on the U.S. But in reality it was already at work in various parts of our country unbeknownst to either of us.
When I recall that moment, it is a good reminder that we never fully know what is going on just below the surface and we also often don’t know how seemingly small things have already spread their tentacles into situations or areas of life all around us without our knowledge.
Jesus gets at the same thing with his brief story in Matthew 13 of a woman working yeast into dough for bread that she was baking. This quick story which only takes up one verse in chapter 13 is one of eight different stories that Jesus tells in this same chapter. Each, in its own way, helps to illustrate a different dimension of what the Kingdom of God is like.
With the yeast, I want to suggest that two of the teaching points of the story are the same lessons that I started with today related to the early days of the Coronavirus. First, the story of the yeast is a reminder that things are happening underneath the surface to which we are oblivious. In the story, the yeast is an active agent at work inside the loaf. Second, the story of the yeast is also a reminder that even small things can work their way into countless areas of our lives and world. Jesus is clear in his story. The yeast is a small ingredient but it ultimately affects the entire loaf.
Now, before I go any further, I want to suggest that when we talk about things at work unbeknownst to us or with a deeper impact than we realize, these are often conversations couched in negative terms. I think of how we talk about cancer. Our biggest fear is being oblivious to cancer growing in our body and only discovering it once it has invaded every area of our being. Or, we speak of someone talking behind our back and before we know it countless people have heard the lies being told about us. Or, as we are living through right now, we think of a virus that arrives in our midst without our knowledge and before we can blink its not just in China, Asia, Europe or even Seattle but instead it is right under our nose in Laurens County.
I bring up this negative element because the idea of yeast in the Biblical day also had a negative connotation to it. As an active ingredient, harnessing the power of bacteria and other living organisms in the cooking process, the Jewish people saw the use of yeast akin to something rotten and thus unclean. In fact, as you will recall, the Jewish people often used unleavened bread which is to say bread without yeast in it. Yet, when Jesus talks about the role of yeast in this particular story of baking in Matthew 13, he isn’t speaking from a negative perspective but rather he offers yeast and the way it works as a positive illustration of the way the kingdom of God works. (Matthew, Vol. 2, Daily Bible Study Series, William Barclay, 1975, pg. 79)
In essence, Jesus affirms that not only do sinister things sometimes work without our knowledge or with far ranging effect or consequences but he also affirms that the Kingdom of God from a very positive perspective can work in the same way.
Think about it. It is very hopeful to know that there is more going on in our world than meets the eye. Sometimes, in these days, all of the news that we are aware of is just more bad news. As a result, it can be so hopeful and helpful just to know and be reminded that God and God’s kingdom are also at work in hidden ways, in below the surface ways, in ways unknown to us. There is always more good happening with God than meets the eye.
At the same time, it is equally helpful and hopeful to know that little things have far ranging consequences not just in bad ways but also in good ways. It is so helpful to know this in a time when we feel like we can do so little or when we feel so limited. Yet, just like the yeast, our small contributions often reach places and people far beyond our comprehension.
Let me give you a real time example of this in conclusion this morning. Of course, one of the ways that most churches have adapted to these days is offering services online. With many churches still not open on Sunday morning and those that are having a small portion of what we call normal attendance participate, it is easy get down on ourselves and feel that the empty pews or locked doors tell the whole story. Yet, I have encountered minister after minister who have story after story of how their services are finding their way to the most unlikely of people and to places unbeknownst to them. Just last week, a friend told me that he had learned that a couple in another state who had not been engaged in church for several years was watching them every week. He didn’t know the couple but felt compelled to call, thank them and build some type of connection with them over the phone. Needless to say, the kingdom was growing in ways he could see and expanding way beyond anything he would have imagined.
It is happening. It is happening today. Let us trust that it is and in our trust, find hope. Amen.