Sunday, July 19, 2020

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 119:57-64
Romans 8:18-27
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body.

It takes us three weeks in the lectionary to see the whole of Matthew 13. Last week we hear the parable of the seeds, this week is the parable of the weeds, and next week includes three parables about a treasure, a pearl and a net. We usually read these parables separately, interpret them individually, study every word in depth to fully understand what God wants us to know. Every book, paragraph, sentence, word and even “jot and tittle” in scripture are given for us to become the disciples He has called us to be. The words that we take for granted in the text are often the keys to truly understanding what God is saying, so it is valuable to look at the texts with a magnifying glass.

But sometimes we need to take a step back and look at the scriptures as a whole. We usually do try to put the passages in some sort of context, but we rarely take whole chapters to see how the stories and experiences fit together. For instance, we are finishing a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount. Some commentators think that Matthew 7 should not be considered part of the Sermon because it appears to be a number of random thoughts. Yet, if you look at the Sermon as a whole, you realize that chapter 7 is the “application” part of the message. How do you live the expectations of chapters 5 and 6 in your relationships with other people? Each different passage in the whole Sermon is important for us to learn, but we will grow even more if we see how it all fits together.

Matthew 13 begins (as we read last week) with Jesus going out of the house to the sea where the crowds gathered around Him to listen to Him preach. The image is interesting, and important: Jesus was sitting in a boat on the water while the crowds stood on the shore to listen. This is not a typical picture of a preacher, is it? We are used to our preachers standing in a pulpit while we comfortably sit in our pews to listen. Chapter 13 is actually a scene of judgment as is obvious in the parables, especially the one in today’s passage.

Jesus told a parable about a farmer who planted a field. During the night an enemy planted weeds in that farmer’s field. It was not until later that the farmer’s workers realized that there were weeds in the midst of the plants. They wondered if they should remove the weeds. We want to get rid of the weeds because we know that they take important nutrients and steal the water necessary for good growth. Unfortunately, all plants look similar at the seedling stage; it is easy to confuse a weed and a good plant in the early days of growth. It is not until the crops begin to mature that the farmer can tell the difference. By then the roots of the weeds are intertwined with the wheat. It is impossible to pull the weeds without damaging the crops.

The farm hands might think they know the best way to deal with the fields, but the farmer knows what is best. Sometimes the weeds can be beneficial. Wildflowers (which are, in essence, weeds) serve to give character to fruit like grapes. If you taste wine carefully, you may be able to identify flavors such as mushroom and lavender in the wine. Some plants become stronger because they send their roots deeper into the soil seeking water and nourishment. A landowner knows the plants, the risks and the benefits and is careful to do what is best for his fields. While it might be good to pull the weeds, we don’t always know which weeds to pull.

Jesus reminds us that there will grow up in our midst people who are not really Christian, they do not truly believe in Christ.

I have heard a story that came out of a persecuted part of the world. I don’t recall where, but it doesn’t matter: it could have happened anywhere that Christians are persecuted. A congregation was gathered one Sunday to worship, fearfully but faithfully. The all knew that anti-Christian soldiers could invade their sanctuary and kill them for worshipping Jesus. Suddenly the door flew open and several armed men stormed into the church. They told the gathered crowd that anyone could denounce their faith and leave, but those who stayed would die. A majority of the congregation got up and left. The soldiers closed the door, locked it and sat in the rear pew. The Christians looked at them with questioning eyes. They said, “It is very dangerous for us to worship, so we didn’t want anyone here who were not willing to die for Jesus. Go on with the service, pastor.”

This story has come up in my Sunday school class regularly and we all struggle with whether or not we would be one who would risk life or who would leave. We’ve talked about the work we still believe we have to do in the world. We’ve talked about our grandchildren. We’ve talked about a million different reasons why we would get up and leave rather than stand for Christ in that moment. It is easy to have the confidence in the safety of a place free of persecution, but how will we respond when the danger is real?

And yet, the deeper we’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount, the more I’m convinced that God is calling us to stand even when our lives are at stake. If He has work for us to do, then that day will not be the day we die. We can’t judge the hearts of those who walked out that day, but it is likely that at least a few would be the very ones who would have reported those Christian soldiers to the authorities for their own benefit. Every person who walked out of that church may have had good reason to do so, but they are nominal Christians at best, and as Jesus tells us, some are even planted by Satan.

We know that Jesus built His church and we are uncomfortable with the thought that there might be some who are not truly believers in our midst. The church exists to encourage one another. We gather to worship together, to pray for one another, and to share our gifts. We rely on one another to keep us on the right path, but how can we stay on the right path if we are led by those who are purposely leading us down the wrong one? It is no wonder that the servant in today’s passage asks the master if they should pull out the weeds. We don’t want anyone in our midst that will be a risk to our lives, growth, faith, hope and peace.

But God says, “Don’t worry. My seeds will grow and survive and bear fruit, and I will nurture and protect those whom I have planted; the righteous will shine like the sun in my kingdom. In the end I will take care of the weeds; I will pass judgment on the seeds planted by the devil.” This is a passage about judgment; in the end the works of the devil will not succeed. The hard part is that we can’t always determine between the works of God and the works of the devil, that’s why God warns us to let Him deal with it. Sometimes we make mistakes in our quest to cleanse the church and we destroy those whom God has planted.

I am not sure we want to see how these parables fit into a judgment scene. We aren’t bothered by the reality that there will be a judgment scene, but we prefer to look at these parables as we always have: as comforting promises to those whose hearts are good soil, those who are the seeds He’s planted, those who are the good fish. We want to see God’s hand as He grows the mustard seed and the leaven. We know it will be hard, but we want to be the one who gives it all up for the hidden treasure and the great pearl. We struggle when we look at these parables in this new light. There will be judgment, and we fear that we may not benefit the way we have always expected. We will all experience judgment, but those who reject Jesus as He has revealed Himself to be will not like the way the story turns out.

We are reminded of this for two reasons. First, we can fall away. We can be led so far off the path that we will reject Him and His Word. I understand why so many prefer the Universalist ideology where God saves everyone. We have a hard time, especially today, accepting that a loving God would let anyone suffer the kinds of punishment we see in these texts. Who wants to believe in a God who “will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”? These stories of judgment, of law, cause us to cry out to God for mercy.

The second reason we hear these texts is because of our neighbors: they might be the ones who are falling away or are being led astray. If we think everyone is saved anyway, why would we ever share the Gospel? Why would we introduce our neighbors to Jesus? Why would we try to help them on to the right path? It doesn’t matter if God will save them anyway. Why risk our lives for the Gospel if God is going to save everyone? Unfortunately, this teaching is found in some churches. We just have to remember that it isn’t our job to root out the false teachers. It is up to us, however, to delve deeply into God’s Word so that we will be ready to stand when we are faced with the false teaching meant to lead us astray and so that we can help our brothers and sisters in Christ stay on the right path.

Jesus explained that He is the landowner who planted the seed and the evil one is the one who planted the weeds. The field is the world in which we live. We learn through this parable that the children of God will live side by side with the children of the evil one. We may want to do some weeding ourselves; but we are reminded that we do not know what God knows. We might think someone is a weed when they are really doing just what God intends, something beneficial to God’s plans that we do not know or understand.

We can’t tell the difference between those who are true of faith and those whose faith is false. We can’t read their hearts. Even those who ran out of that church in the story could be believers with a weak faith. We don’t know. We see the world through a very narrow point of view and we stand firmly on what we have demeaned right. They might be wrong. Their false ideas and false gods might seem obvious. But we don’t know how God might take that person and transform them and their work into something good.

Like the weeds in a wheat field, the truth will eventually come to light. We might be tempted to uproot those we think are coming from the evil one, but in doing so we do not know the damage we might do to someone who is weak in faith. We do not know how they may actually help us to mature and grow strong in courage and faith. Persecution is a strength builder. God knows what He needs to do. We are simply called to live as God has called us to live, trusting that our God is just and that He will take care of the wheat and deal with the tares. We may just find that what we thought was a tare is actually someone with whom God has not yet finished His work. We might just find that we are made better by being in their presence. In the end all will be right because God is faithful.

And God is in control.

“King of the Hill” is a fun game that kids love to play. One kid climbs a hill and the object is for the other kids to make them fall off. The one who gets to the top of the hill and knocks the “king” to the bottom gets to be “king” until someone else makes it to the top. The kids end up rolling down the hill, sometimes more from laughter than from knocking each other around.

I don’t think we stop playing “King of the Hill” when we grow up, although our games don’t take place on hillsides. They take place in boardrooms and offices. Sometimes we see those who are on the hilltops above us and do whatever it takes to knock them down so we can move up. This is not the best way to get ahead in our careers, but unfortunately it has worked since the beginning of time. Too many men became king by getting rid of a sitting ruler through warfare. In today’s world, the “king” is knocked down through less violent, though no less dangerous means. It doesn’t take much to destroy a person’s status, position, finances, or reputation. Just like the childhood game, for some the object of life is to get to the top of the hill and stay there by any means. Watch any political race and you’ll see men and women doing whatever it will take to put them on the top.

I thought of this game when I was reading and rereading this week’s Old Testament lesson. Doesn’t God sound like the big guy who has made it to the top of the hill and is calling out for everyone else to try to knock Him off? For many, this is a bothersome image of God, particularly because we see bullies grow up to be corporate bullies that destroy lives with their ambitions. However, God is not some bully playing a game. He is God. Who is there that can knock Him off the top of the hill?

The reality is that we let a many things knock God off the top of our hill. We put so many things first: our jobs, our families, our romances, our education, our hobbies, our interests. We set God aside to take care of the business of living. Anything that we put ahead of God becomes our god. Though He is the One and only, we make gods of so many things. “Who is like Him?” Can money stand up against God? Can our wishes and dreams? Can our opinions really be greater than God? What about our truth? Are our gods reliable? Can they declare their greatness ahead of God?

Nothing stands greater. There is nothing that can knock God off the top of the hill, but we get confused and look to so many things as if they are gods. We might confess God is the greatest, but when we rely on them above God we are relying on something less than God, they are merely pebbles next to the Rock. None are like Him.

We may have a million reasons to walk out the door of that church because we are facing the possibility of death for the sake of Christ, but when we do so we put those million reasons ahead of the God who is in control. While it is not up to us to judge others for their choices, it is up to us to live the life of discipleship that Jesus has taught us to live. It will never be comfortable to face persecution, but He expects us to be faithful not matter what.

I had a head of extremely bright, blonde hair when I was a girl which my mom would make into tight, bouncy curls. My head was Cindy Bradyish. The process was not an easy one. My mom used hard, prickly, pink curlers. She washed my hair at night, put in the curlers and then sent me off to bed. My hair dried overnight and left behind beautiful curls. Unfortunately, those curlers were extremely uncomfortable from the beginning of the process to the end. It hurt as Mom was rolling them because she often snagged a piece of hair and pulled on it too hard. It was impossible to find a comfortable position with those hard curlers on my head. Then, in the morning when it was time to take them out, the hair once again snagged on the prickly parts. Through it all my mother used to say, “We have to suffer for beauty.” I liked my curls, but I think I would have preferred life without those curlers.

Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us.” The world looks no different today than it did before Jesus’ birth. It is still filled with sinners, suffering and pain. Yet, there is a difference because we now live in a hope that does not disappoint; a hope in the promises of God. Jesus Christ gives us a hope that is real, a hope that is assured. We look forward to the day when we will have true peace not only in our hearts but in the whole world. Even the creation will live to the glory of God. This hope is not something that we can make ourselves; we can’t push God off the top of the mountain and expect to experience peace. We can only patiently wait for it to come in God’s time and way. We can look toward that hope in the midst of our sufferings and know that one day we will inherit the promised Kingdom.

It may seem impossible sometimes, especially when we are out there in the world facing the weeds that have been placed in the field by the evil one. We want salvation to be complete today and the evil to be gone for eternity. However, it is not yet time for the field to be harvested. There is still work to be done. There is still growth to be made among the people of God and people to be saved by His Word. It is hard sometimes. We face difficulties; we suffer at the hands of evil men. However, those sufferings make us stronger. By God’s grace, our roots grow deeper and our stalks grow thicker. The fruit that is produced becomes more and more abundant. We may suffer, but in doing so we identify with the One who has brought us into the Kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote that we are joint heirs with Christ. We can get behind this idea. We are glad to be adopted as children of God, that He is our Abba, Daddy. However, Paul also wrote that as joint heirs in the promise we share in every aspect of Christ’s reign, including His suffering. In verse 17, he wrote, “...if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering equals pain and weakness. It indicates a sinful nature. People just don’t want to worship a God that calls His people into a life of suffering. Yet, it is in our suffering that we find strength, courage and God’s grace. God is not a masochist who seeks to cause His people pain, but to save the world it was necessary that He share in our suffering. Then, by the blood of His suffering we are brought through our suffering into something greater. He will make things right in the end, and in the meantime, our struggles will make us more faithful if we keep our God where He belongs: as the King of not only the hill, but of everything.

The psalmist knew how to persevere despite opposition. Although I can’t possibly say better than the writer and two thousand years of translators, I like to paraphrase the text of Psalm 119 to see more clearly the Law and Gospel found within. “You have given me all I need, so I promise to obey everything you have spoken. I have sought your face with my whole heart; have mercy as you have promised. I have seen my failing and repented according to the evidence of my sin. I will quickly obey all God’s Law. I was trapped by the wicked but I held on to your teaching. I will be thankful for your right verdict. I am friends with all who follow your authoritative rule. The earth is full of God’s lovingkindness; teach me your boundaries.”

These words show us that God is a kind and just ruler. The life He calls us to live is never easy, but it is the life that will give Him glory. It is also the life where we will find peace. Chasing after the top of the mountain might get us somewhere, but there’s always someone behind us that will threaten our place at the top. Chasing after false gods might make us happy and satisfy our desires, but those gods will never be able to give to us what we truly need. There is no hope in heresy. No matter how hard it is to wait or how fraught with danger that time might be, it is worth holding on to the promise of God because He will be true.

God has planted us in this world, and the evil one has planted weeds. I don’t know about you, but I see too many weeds these days. I want to see the promise of last week’s lesson fulfilled, the harvest of 100, 60 or 30 times as much planted in the good soil, but I wonder if God’s Word is falling on deaf ears. I find myself crying “Come, Lord Jesus” because I am ready for that time when the righteous will shine like the sun and the weeds will be cast into the furnace of fire. And yet, is that any better than the Universalist response? Will I bother to share God’s grace with those who I have deemed unworthy? Some people will be judged and sent to the fire, but it is not up to us. God is in control. We can have hope that all will come to know the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved, and in that hope we will be disciples who share God’s grace with all in our path, even if they will persecute us for our faith.

Paul reminds us that hope is not something tangible that we can see or touch. We want immediate gratification, but what good is a hope that is already received? It is no longer hope but it is fulfilled. There is then nothing to look forward to. Our hope rests in the fulfillment of His promises and we can be assured that those promises will be fulfilled because God is faithful.

Would it be better for it to be finished today? Yes! We cry out to Jesus to return so that He can finally set all things right. But as long as we have breath, then God has work for us to do. There are still those who have not yet heard the Gospel. It might hurt a bit at times to be a child of God. We will face persecution and suffering for our faith, but as we live in the Spirit which we have received from God, we’ll wait expectantly along with all of God’s creation for that moment when He finally finishes the work He began in Christ Jesus. For now, we are the first fruits of that work, holy and dedicated to God so that others might see God’s grace in our faith and come to believe.

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