Sunday, July 24, 2005

Tenth Sunday of Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

In today's Gospel lesson, we hear five different stories, all of which begin with the phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like…" In these stories, or parables, Jesus uses the every day knowledge of His listeners to describe the reign of God. Each one gives a different perspective that seems almost contradictory to the others. In the first two, the kingdom begins small and expands. In the next two one man gives up everything he has for the sake of one small treasure. Finally, the kingdom of heaven is like a net full of fish that is whittled down to a choice few.

Each story gives us just a glimmer of what it is like in the kingdom of heaven. Though one starts small and grows while another starts large and shrinks, these tell the same story about the love and mercy of God. Any one of the parables could give us fodder for a sermon or two, but we've been given all five in one day. We could easily dissect the stories; dig into the nitty-gritty details of who is the man, where the field is, what is the treasure and who are the wicked.

It doesn't help that Matthew has included these five parables with several others, stories we've been hearing for the past few weeks. We have discussed in great detail the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds, each giving a distinct and different image of the kingdom of heaven. There are probably images found in one of these stories with which we can most closely identify.

How many of us still bake with yeast? For most Americans, baking bread at home has been reduced to putting a few ingredients into a machine that does all the work. I love the convenience, but in making bread this way I lose out on the life lesson found in mixing, kneading and watching the dough rise. It is amazing to see a small amount of flour and water as it grows to double or triple its size. It is hard to believe that a small amount of yeast will help to create enough bread to feed a family.

Since I have baked food using yeast I can identify with that parable, but I have never grown mustard. I find it difficult to believe what is said in the parable because I know that there are seeds smaller than mustard, and the mustard I've seen growing is never large enough to support a birdhouse. Yet, for the people in Jesus' audience that day, mustard was the smallest seed they used in their gardens and it could grow up to ten feet tall. They understood the lesson found in the story because it came from their lives.

Someone else will understand what it means to give up everything they have for a treasure such as the man who left home and family to marry the woman he loves. The parable of the net might be the hardest for us to understand because we don't want to think of anyone being thrown into a fiery furnace, yet even through that story we learn valuable lessons.

Even though the parables say different things about the kingdom of heaven, each one only gives us a glimmer of the whole. We take each of these pieces, like the proverbial puzzle and put them all together to see the whole picture. In the end, what we see is the grace of God. It is God that grows the mustard plant so big, and the Spirit that works through the dough to make it rise. It is God who gives up everything for the sake of the treasure – and you are the treasure. And as in the parable of the weeds, it is not our place to make a judgment about which fish are good or bad, for God will be the ultimate judge.

Jesus concludes this lesson with a message for the disciples – those who would be teachers of the kingdom of heaven. He said, "Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old." Jesus is not saying that one is better than the other – the disciples were not being called to disregard the lessons found in the Old Testament scriptures, but rather, they were to find ways to share the kingdom of heaven with the people to whom they were sent.

He asked them, "Do you understand all these things?" They answered, "Yes" yet as we see the story of Jesus and His disciples unfold, they did not always understand what Jesus was telling them. Did they really know how the kingdom would expand after Jesus died? Did they truly understand the work that would be done by the Holy Spirit after Pentecost? It is not likely. In this series of parables, Jesus is showing his disciples how to make the old new and fresh, how to preach the kingdom of heaven in a way that the people would see it in their every day life and understand how it applies to their life.

So, how can we do that today? Since few of our members are actually farmers or bakers, what sort of parables can we create so that our listeners can identify with the lessons of faith? I am sure we all have our favorite illustrations, stories from our own lives that show a glimmer of the kingdom of God. Yet, we must be careful and discerning when using those lessons. Discernment, wisdom, is the greatest gift that we can receive.

This is the gift that Solomon sought in today's Old Testament lesson. When God, whom had selected Solomon to be heir to David's throne, asked Solomon what he would like, Solomon admitted his immaturity and inability to judge and guide the nation of God's people. "Give thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this thy great people?" Solomon sought wisdom.

In this story, we see the parable of the mustard seed at work. Nearly a thousand years before, the kingdom of God's people began with just one man – Abraham. Now, Solomon was being chosen to lead a multitude of people that were too large to count. One man became a great nation. Yet, that nation would go nowhere a wise and discerning leader. Solomon recognized his own limits and asked God to give him the ability to discern good and evil so that he might judge rightly and lead the people into the blessings of the kingdom of heaven.

So, we have been given a similar responsibility. The mustard seed that was planted in the days of Jesus has grown so large that all can find rest in the branches. The Gospel has been taken to the four corners of the world and billions of people have found a place in the Church. Jesus willingly gave up everything for the sake of those who now believe and we are among those who have been called to share the Gospel message with others. As Solomon followed David, we follow the disciples as the teachers who are called to take the kingdom of heaven to the world.

As we look at the parables we see that it is a difficult task. Some of the seeds we plant will fall on the path, in the rocks or in the thorns. Our enemy will plant weeds in our fields. In the end, some of the fish will be thrown in the fire. We are called to be like Jesus, to give up everything for the sake of another, even if it turns out that the treasure is not what we expect. Through it all we are to remember that God is the judge. Last week we learned that we might destroy the wheat if we pulled up the weeds. If we tried only catching the right kind of fish, we might just miss someone to whom God sent us to share the Gospel.

These lessons help us see more clearly the whole kingdom of God, for He reigns over all. This is why it is important that we seek His wisdom and discernment in all that we do, for in seeking His guidance we will find that He will bless us far beyond what we even ask. All too often, however, we ask God to bless us with the long life, wealth and victory over our enemies instead of seeking God's wisdom and discernment. When these are the desires of our heart, we lose sight of God and His mercy. We forget that all we have is given by God's grace. We get caught up in ourselves and the law while the Gospel is lost.

The Law itself is not a bad thing. The psalmist for today cries out in longing for God's guidance through His Word. In following His statutes, commands, precepts, decrees, we see the path which will keep sin from ruling over our flesh. We also seek God to teach us His wisdom that we might live rightly in His kingdom. Yet, the law is not enough. We never find life simply being obedient to a set of rules. Life is found when we dwell in Jesus who is the Word made flesh. It is Christ who reveals to use the wisdom of God, who unfolds the words of God and reveals His grace. The law brings us death so that we will be raised again in Jesus Christ and brought into the kingdom of heaven. In Christ we are conquerors, called to take the Gospel to all people that they too might have real life.

Paul writes, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?" The work of God through Jesus Christ made us free to live according to His Word. We need not worry about the seeds that won't grow or the weeds that do. We need not concern ourselves about the size of our mustard plant or which fish we should catch. These things can not keep us from the love of Christ. As Paul writes, "…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

This is the message we are called to take to the world, that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God's love for the world. He was sent to set us free to live in that love. We may still see the condemnation of the law, as the disciples saw it from the teachers of their day. Yet, we need not concern ourselves about these things, for Christ Himself intercedes for us at the right hand of God. The difficulties we face in sharing God's grace will not stop the work of God in this world.

We take this one day at a time. Even if the seeds we plant seem miniscule, or seem to fall in the wrong places, God can make them grow. Even when the yeast disappears in the flour, it is there, making it rise. The treasure we have found is worth the price of our lives, for our lives were worth the sacrifice of God's Son. In the end, some of the catch will be thrown back, the weeds will be burned. Yet, we need not concern ourselves with that since God is the judge who will choose. Even when we face the difficulties of life, we can live in the confidence that God works in all things for the good of those who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose.

His purpose is to live in the kingdom of God, even if we do not fully know or understand it. Every parable has a glimmer of God's grace and each story us to move ever more deeply into His heart. Living in His love we are called to take that kingdom to the world, sharing God's wisdom with all so that they too might know the freedom to live in His love. Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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