Sunday, July 27, 2008

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

Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea.

Jesus asked the disciples, “Have ye understood all these things?” The disciples answered, “Yes” but we know that the disciples did not always understand what Jesus was trying to teach them. Even after the resurrection, Jesus had to repeat lessons they had been learning for so long. Though the Holy Spirit gave them knowledge and understanding after Pentecost, and has given the same to us today, there are still questions we ask. There are still things we do not understand.

When Jesus asks, “Have ye understood all these things?” we also want to say “Yes.” The disciples might have understood the parables better than us because Jesus used aspects of life with which they were more familiar. How many of us really know about seeds? Do we know how we would react if we found hidden treasure or a fantastic pearl? But we can look at those parables and understand that Jesus is talking about sacrifice and commitment. We can see that the kingdom of heaven is of great value and worthy of our dedication and submission. We can interpret those parables to our own lives and learn lessons that will help us grow into a deeper and more intimate relationship with God.

We want to see the parables in away by which we will benefit. Our understanding is so narrowly focused, based on our biases. We see things through our culture, our gender, our experience, our geography, our race, our religion, our hopes and our dreams. We see things a certain way because of our personalities, our financial condition, our relationships. Jesus tells the disciples, however, that they have to see things through new eyes. Now that they have the understanding of the kingdom of heaven, they have to see things through the old and the new. We have to do the same thing, seeing the world and the kingdom of heaven through the eyes of those who have been given the understanding of God. He is King and we have been called to teach the world this wonderful truth.

When we lived in England, I had the opportunity to go to a beach that was much different that anything I had experienced in America. The beach at Thorpeness was covered with small rocks and pebbles instead of sand. As I walked on the beach, considering the greatness of God, I remembered the scripture from Genesis about Abraham’s descendants being as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. I realized that this rocky beach showed this truth in a more enlightening way. On a sandy beach, every grain looks alike. However, on this beach, every stone was unique—some large, some small, some gray, some colorful, some flat and some round. I even found a stone that looked like a nose. Not only has God made the children of Abraham too numerous to count, He also made each of us original.

King Canute was known as the first English king. He also ruled over Denmark and Norway. He ruled for nearly twenty years during which time there was war and controversy over his reign. He was a harsh ruler, but England succeeded under his reign. He was so powerful that his people claimed he was like a god, able to control even the sea. He knew that was not true, so he proved it to his people on the beach at Thorpeness. At low tide, King Canute took a chair and set it at the water’s edge. As the waves rolled inland, he said, “Stop.” Of course the waves did not stop. The water level rose, to his knees, to his waist, to his neck. Finally, it became impossible for him to continue. As he left the water, he said, “See, I cannot control the sea.”

In today’s lesson from 1 Kings, we see that Solomon had the same sort of humility. By this time in Israel’s history, God’s promise to Abraham had been at least partially fulfilled. His descendants were too numerous to count. Solomon was only twenty when he took the throne of Israel, and he was uncertain of his abilities to govern. Even great and powerful kings must submit to the Lord. Solomon did not seek power over his enemies, long life or great wealth. He simply wanted to have a wise and discerning heart. He wanted to make the right decisions for his people. We wanted his rule to be just and fair. He did not want the people to think of him more highly than they ought, a temptation for all human beings. We tend to look toward greatness, forgetting that there is one who is greater. Solomon did not forget and as he humbled himself before God, he became uniquely blessed.

We hear that none will be like Solomon, before or after his life. Yet, we must never forget that we are all unique, that God has made us all different. We have our own gifts, our own personalities, and our own purpose. We are among Abraham’s descendents, but not just another grain of sand. We are called to humbly serve the Lord, not seeking from Him those things that will make us greater than others. Instead, let us ask for a wise and discerning heart so that we too can help transform this world into what God intends it to be.

There is much to be learned in the parables in today’s Gospel lesson, but there is one that stands out to me more than the others this week. Jesus said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” We look at a parable like this with a sense of victory. We believe that ‘others’ like our enemies are most certainly the wicked in the story and we are glad to know that God will take care of our enemies in the end. We are so certain about this that we think of our enemies as they will be, in that furnace of fire weeping and gnashing their teeth. Though this might not bring us joy, it does comfort us in our times of trial.

When Jesus asked whether they understood, I imagine the disciples are thinking in these very terms. Shortly before this lesson of parables, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man. The people were astonished, but the Pharisees claimed that the power Jesus used in the healing was from Beelzebub. Beelzebub was the prince of demons. In this interaction, the disciples could see that the relationship between Jesus and the authorities was not going to be congenial. The Pharisees and teachers of the law approached Jesus demanding proof of His authority—a miraculous sign. Jesus refused, establishing in the minds of the disciples that this was not going to be an easy ministry. Even Jesus’ mother and brothers were against His ministry. They were going to have enemies. The only comfort in doing work against so many enemies is to know that in the end you will be proven righteous. The proof is in the failure of the enemies to win. The proof will come when God weeds out the weeds and severs the wicked from the righteous.

We want to see this parable through the eyes of our vindication. We will be the good fish, saved from the furnace. We will be the ones who receive the kingdom of heaven. There is something deeper and more important in this parable, and the other parables, however. We are constantly reminded that we are not the king. We do not rule the kingdom of heaven. We are not judge, jury or executioner. God is in charge. He will weed out the weeds and sever the wicked from the righteous. We can’t see the hearts. Those we see as wicked may be seen much differently through the eyes of God. It is God who will make the judgment and He looks at things much differently than we do.

Isn’t it interesting that Solomon asks to know the difference between good and evil, the very sin that got Adam and Eve (and all the rest of us) into trouble in the Garden of Eden? God grants him a wise and discerning heart. The difference between Adam and Eve and Solomon is that Solomon understood that he was not God. He remained humble before God, seeking God’s wisdom as He served as king and judge over Israel. When we see parables through our own eyes finding comfort in the destruction of our enemies rather than comfort in the faithfulness of God, we live much more like Adam and Eve. We are called to be more like Solomon, humbly understanding that God’s plan is not necessarily our plan.

The bookstores are filled with books that help us to learn about God and about our faith. We can purchase reference books that help us understand the history, language and people in the bible. We can find Bible studies, inspirational books and even novels that give us food for thought. The shelves are full of devotionals—everything from thirty day to one year programs. Some of the devotionals come from the writings of theological geniuses from across the ages. Others come from modern writers who look at faith through a modern perspective. We can even buy Bibles that are focused on one particular aspect of life. There are Bibles designed for women, men, children, teenagers, teachers, leaders and students. Some Bibles come with study notes to help us understand what is happening in the text and what was happening in the world in which it was written.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different translations of the Bible. As a matter of fact, there are those who have made it their life’s work to translate the Bible into every possible language so that every person can read God’s Word for themselves. It is a long and tedious process. The translator must understand first what the text is saying in the original language and then he or she must find a way of saying that same thing in the language to which it is being translated.

This is why it is possible for us to have so many translations in English. Different people understand the original language in different ways because they see it from different points of view. And then they have to retell that thought in a way that means the same thing in the new language. This can be very confusing. There are figures of speech in Hebrew and Greek that simply do not make sense to us if they are translated verbatim. Think about how it might sound to someone who does not understand that “it is raining cats and dogs” does not mean that it is literally raining cats and dogs if that phrase were translated word for word. It would be less confusing to say that it is raining really hard.

It is a wonder that anyone hears or understands God’s Word. Yet, as we hear in today’s psalm, God opens His Word and shines its light on His people. It is God who reveals Himself to us, even as we read the many books available on the subject. We can hear God talking to us through those devotionals, inspirational books and Bible studies. We can hear God talking to us through the many different translations of the scriptures. We can even hear God talking to us through the fictional novels that see the stories through the eyes of faith. It is good, however, to always return to the source of our knowledge of God’s Word, to open our Bibles, to read the text for ourselves. For it is as we delve into God’s testimonies, words, commandments, precepts, statutes and law that God is revealed to us most simply and fully and through His Word that we know Him best.

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.”

God makes all things work for those who love Him. I don’t believe in coincidences, I believe in God-incidences. I don’t think that God works the circumstances to put us in certain places at certain times, but I do think that God uses everything that happens to us to make things right according to His good and perfect will. Whether it was luck or God was nudging us we can face the world with a much better frame of mind when we recognize God’s hand in even our trials. We can rest a little easier, live with a little less stress and take this time for more important things. Good or bad, God is with us making everything work out for our good. There is a great deal of comfort in that, especially when things don’t go so well. Just knowing that God is working things for our good, we can face the difficulties with patience and courage

Jesus uses parables to bring a deeper spiritual truth into common language for the people listening. At the same time, parables can be confusing because we want to fit our own understanding into the stories, often making the meaning too complicated or not really listening to what Jesus has to say. Now, parables can be understood in different ways, depending on one’s perspective, but we must be careful. It is so easy to make the stories fit our own opinions and interpretations while missing out on the deeper truths that God would have us know. Sometimes we even say we understand when we really aren’t paying attention to what God is saying.

The mustard seed parable is perhaps one of the best known of those we hear today. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said. We are reminded that the mustard seed is very small but the plant grows to be large enough to hold a nesting bird. This is like the kingdom of heaven because the seed of God’s Word began small—in the ministry of one man, Jesus, and has grown over the millennia to be a gathering place for many.

The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast. This is an interesting parable because yeast is usually considered a bad thing in the scriptures. We are told a small bit of yeast ruins a large amount of dough. This is in reference to the Pharisees who say one thing but do another. Their presence in the fellowship of God’s people is like poison, making the holy gathering unfit. Unleavened bread is seen as holy because it is the type of bread used in the important religious rituals of God’s people. However, the every day bread of the people did use yeast, so we are reminded that the kingdom of heaven is not just something separate and holy, but is part of the every day life of God’s people. A little leaven goes a long way and we see that from just one man, Jesus, the kingdom has grown and fed millions.

The first few parables were told to the crowds, and then Jesus left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples followed. They heard several more parables, with a slightly different focus, but still teaching how a small and hidden thing can become something of great value.

Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure found in a field. The man who found the treasure hid it again and then went to purchase the field. Now, some are bothered by the idea that the man hid the treasure again, suggesting that there are legal and ethical problems with the way this story is told. Yet, the man who found the treasure could have easily just taken it without bothering to purchase the place where it was found. We learn in this parable that great treasures come with some sacrifice and cost. How many people think that they can have the benefits of God’s grace without giving up one’s self? The man who found the treasure wanted it enough to go to great trouble to possess it. He will love and appreciate what he has received far more than the one who would simply take it from its hiding place.

Again, Jesus tells a parable about a pearl of great price. In this parable we learn that the kingdom of heaven is something of such value that we should be willing to give up everything we have to gain possession of it. It is tempting to see these two parables as a statement about the work we must do to receive the kingdom of heaven for ourselves, but we are reminded that the value is not in our work but in the treasure. These are stories about letting go of ourselves and our stuff for the sake of something that is worth so much more than we could possibly give. We are made part of the kingdom through God’s grace, and by His grace we are called to go into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him. It is not enough to know about God’s kingdom, or even to be part of it. We are called to possess it, to grasp it and hold on to it, to make it a part of our whole being.

We have to see the world through wider eyes and deeper hearts. Our understanding is so narrowly focused, based on our biases. We see things through our culture, our gender, our experience, our geography, our race, our religion, our hopes and our dreams. We see things a certain way because of our personalities, our financial condition, our relationships. Jesus tells the disciples, however, that they have to see things through new eyes. Now that they have the understanding of the kingdom of heaven, they have to see things through the old and the new. We have to do the same thing, seeing the world and the kingdom of heaven as people who have been given the understanding of God. He is King and we have been called to teach the world this wonderful truth.

When Jesus asks, “Have ye understood all these things?” we can say “yes”, but let us never forget that we are not God. Let us be like Solomon, seeking wisdom and discernment so that we might deal rightly with everyone, knowing that God is faithful to His promises.

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