Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears, let him hear.

The lectionary gives us three weeks from Matthew 13; last week we heard the parable of the sower, this week is the parable of the weeds and next week includes the parables of the treasure in the field, the pearl of great value and the net. At the end of next week’s passage, Jesus asks His disciples if they understand all that He has said. They say, “Yes.” Jesus responds, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

We usually read these parables separately, interpret them individually, and there is value to that practice. After all, every book, paragraph, sentence, word and even “jot and tittle” in scripture are given for us to learn, understand and apply to our lives. The words that we take for granted in the text are often the keys to truly understanding what God is saying. But sometimes it is good to look at the scriptures as a whole, to read our selected passages in context and to understand them in the whole purpose of the writing. A few weeks ago we considered chapter 10 in its fullness. This week we are going to do the same with chapter 13.

Chapter 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 we have here is interesting, and important. Jesus sits in the boat on the water while the crowds stand 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. This is actually a judgment scene; we can see that in the parables Jesus speaks during the discourse, particularly in today’s passage.

Jesus reminds us that there will grow up in our midst people who are not really Christian, they do not truly believe in Christ. This reminds me of a story that I heard that came out of a persecuted part of the world. I don’t recall where, but I’m not sure it matters: this story could come out of any place where 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.” Those congregants who got up and left are the ones who would quickly tell the authorities about the Christian soldiers for their own benefit. They are nominal at best, and as Jesus tells us, sometimes they are even planted by Satan.

We don’t like to think about this truth, because we know that Jesus has built His church to commend and encourage one another. We gather to worship together, to pray for one another and to encourage 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.” See, 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.

Now, as we looked at chapter 13 at Sunday school on Sunday, one member was extremely bothered by seeing the text as a whole. She didn’t want to know how these fit into a judgment scene. She wasn’t bothered by the reality that there will be a judgment scene, but she preferred to look at these parables as she always had, as comforting promises to those whose hearts are good soil, who are the seeds He’s planted, 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 risks it all for the hidden treasure and the great pearl. But she was upset that she now saw these parables in this new light. There will be judgment, and she feared, perhaps, that she would not benefit the way she had always expected.

Here’s the thing: we can’t just take chapter 13 by itself, either. This message of judgment falls in the middle of the whole story. Matthew is a brilliant rabbi and he tells the story of Jesus, of faith, of salvation in a very ordered and purposeful way. In chapters 1-4 we meet Jesus and learn who He is. In chapters 4-16 we hear what He has to say. The first three of five discourses are found in these chapters, including the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), a missionary address (10) and the parables of the Kingdom. Chapters 16-28 cover the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah. Two more discourse are found in those chapters. The community exhortation is given to teach the Christians how to live together and do God’s work and the final discourse looks at the end times.

During this Pentecost season so far and through the fall our focus has been and will be on this center part of Matthews book. We’ve seen Jesus do miraculous things (the ten acts of deliverance in chapters 8 & 9) to prove that He has the authority to say what He says. We’ve talked about the missionary address and the truth that we will face rejection. In chapters 11 and 12, Jesus lives that rejection, first from the crowds, then from the leaders and from even His own family. That brings us to the parables at the scene of judgment. See, we will all experience judgment, but those who reject Jesus 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 what He has to say. 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 “shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth?” So 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 onto the right path? It doesn’t matter, God will save them anyway.

But we know this is not true because Jesus tells us that some will end up in the furnace of fire. So, as faithful Christians, we are called to share the Gospel of truth with everyone so that they might hear the Word and believe. As we heard last week, we are called to scatter the seed everywhere because God is gracious and merciful. It is up to Him to cause the growth. As we hear in this week’s text, it isn’t up to us to decide who is a fruitful plant or a weed. God will take care of it. Perhaps, and this is my hope, that ultimately everyone will hear and believe, but I’ll leave that up to God.

All we can really do is live in the hope of God’s promises; after all, that is faith. While we are reminded that the law kills, we have the grace of God to comfort us. We are no longer bound by the law, because Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law. And yet, I come back to the verse I quoted earlier, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” We are not meant to throw away the “old”: the Law. We are meant to see it in the context of the “new”: the Gospel. We need both Law and Gospel. Martin Luther had a saying, “Simul justus et peccator,” which means that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. We are at the same time righteous and yet we still sin. We still need the Law to turn us to God even while we have the Gospel to comfort us in our failing. We treasure both.

We need to know there is judgment for the rest of the story to make sense. There is no need of a cross without it.

That’s why we still look at Old Testament scriptures like today’s Psalm. I wrote a few weeks ago about another verse from this psalm; I focused on how it speaks of the law over and over again in many and various ways and that it was probably used as a learning tool for instruction on godliness. The writer may have been a priest who was passionately devoted to the Word of God; he also humbly acknowledges his own failure to live up to it. While today’s passage continues the focus on the word, it is also filled with Gospel.

The English Standard translation of this psalm uses the word “promise” twice. “The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep your words. I entreat your favor with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise.” The first promise is from the writer to God, promising to obey Him. The second seeks God’s faithfulness to His promise. Despite the order of these promises in this text, it is obvious that the psalmist knows that his promise is dependent on the one spoken first: God’s. We cannot by our own power be obedient to God’s Word without faith in God’s promise.

I looked up the word that is translated promise in this version of the text and it has many possible translations. The thing that is particularly interesting is that the word is a verb meaning “to say.” God’s promises, just like His law, are spoken for us to hear. As you read through the entirety of chapter 13, notice how often Jesus mentions hearing. “He who has ears let him hear;” hearing and belief go together. Those who reject Christ and His Word don’t hear because their hearts are dull.

Jesus explains to the disciples why He speaks in parables. Now, we often explain it by saying that Jesus uses everyday knowledge as examples of the kingdom of God. People in agricultural communities know what it takes to grow grain and that a mustard seed is very small. They know that weeds grow in the fields and that seed can’t survive on the path, rocky ground or in the thornbush. The fishermen know what it is like having to throw some fish away because they aren’t suitable for food. They all wish for the treasure that will make their world better.

But when Jesus explains why He uses parables, He doesn’t say it is to make it easier for the people to understand. He says that He speaks in parables because only those with faith will see, hear and understand the meaning. The parable keeps the hidden things of God from those who do not hear with their hearts. Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” He wasn’t asking if they had an intellectual understanding; He was asking if they believed it in their hearts.

I’ve always laughed at their answer because it is obvious as the story continues that even the disciples do not really understand everything Jesus is trying to teach them. It isn’t until Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit that they truly ‘get it.’ Yet, in Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story, they do understand in the way Jesus wants them to hear: with their hearts. They believe. They follow. They risk everything for the sake of the Kingdom. They trust that God’s promises are true.

The same can’t be said about others. As a matter of fact, chapter 13 ends with Jesus returning home. The people in Nazareth know Jesus and they have a hard time believing that He has the authority to preach and teach. They don’t have faith, and their lack of faith makes Him powerless among them. They don’t hear with their hearts even though they try to hear with their ears. The rejection, the confusion, the misunderstanding continues through the rest of the story, ultimately leading to the only conclusion that can have an eternal impact: the death of Jesus.

Isaiah writes in today’s Old Testament lesson, “Jehovah of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.” This is most certainly true. There is no god but our God. However, there are lots of false gods, including ourselves. The false gods could do nothing. They had no power. Did the gods create the world or establish God’s people? Can they see the future? Of course not. Can we do any of those things? No.

We look to ourselves, our own power, and our own abilities to control our world. We interpret the scriptures to mean what they want them to mean, to benefit ourselves and we make our world as if we are the god of it. We put our jobs, our relationships, our homes, our churches and even our own bodies, minds and hearts above God’s Word. We think we know the best way to spend our time and our resources. We make our wants and needs the priority and we forget to worship the LORD. But nothing human can create something out of nothing. Our human flesh cannot predict tomorrow. We won’t find comfort in the things of this world.

We aren’t God. We don’t know what God knows. We might face difficulties. We might struggle. We might suffer at the hands of another. And we can’t possibly know the difficulties, struggles and sufferings of our neighbors. All we can do is live in hope knowing that the hope we have in Christ is not just a wish or a dream. Hope in the promise of God is worth waiting for, waiting patiently because God is faithful.

Did we create the world or establish God’s people? Can we see the future? Of course not. This is why it is not our task to remove the weeds from the wheat fields. We do not know God’s entire plan. We do not know what good might come of what has been done in the field or in the world. We can only trust that God is faithful and that His promises are true. The problem of living in the world was not just a problem for the people in Isaiah’s day. Paul’s letter addresses the same difficulties. The people, though they knew the grace of God, still thought they could find comfort in the ways of the world. We are children of God and as such we are called to live by the Spirit, not by our flesh. We have been adopted by God and He is our Abba, Daddy.

One of the most difficult aspects of Christian faith for a non-believer to accept is the idea found in today’s Epistle lesson. It is the reason so many people fell away from Jesus in the end. Paul writes that we are joint heirs with Christ—something we like very much. We like the idea that we have been adopted as children of God, that He is our Abba, Daddy. However, Paul reminds us that as joint heirs in the promise we share in every aspect of Christ’s reign, including His suffering. He writes, “…if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.”

We create the god we want to worship, often ignoring or rejecting the parts that don’t fit into our idea of a loving God. We set aside the Law holding desperately to that which makes us feel good. But then we lose sight of the whole message, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” We need both Law and Gospel. We will be blessed beyond measure, but we’ll also experience the same suffering that Jesus experienced. We will be rejected, we may even die. In faith we promise to do so, but only because we have trusted in the promise God spoke before we were ever born. It is hope in His promise that helps us to keep our eyes on God even when we struggle with the fear of judgment.

We can’t see or touch or feel the hope we have in Christ. We have been waiting, not so patiently, since the promise was made. The whole creation has been groaning as we await its fulfillment. The world looks no different today than it has for thousands of years. 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 that we will receive in His day. It will be a day of judgment, but we have nothing to fear. We have heard the Gospel, and while we do not always understand intellectually the things we read or emotionally the things we experience, we who have heard with our ears do understand in our hearts and faith is the assurance that God will adopt us into His Kingdom. And we will shine forth like the Son forever.

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