Sunday, July 30, 2017

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 7:6-9
Psalm 125
Psalm 8:28-39
Matthew 13:44-52

What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Parables are similes, figures of speech that directly compare two different things, using the connecting words “like,” or “as.” Jesus often used these figures of speech to describe the kingdom of heaven for the people. It helped for Jesus to take something very mundane and knowable to describe the spiritual, divine world of God. The scripture writers, particularly the prophets, tried to put to words what it was like in heaven. They used images that are extraordinary, frightening, and magnificent. We can try to imagine what heaven will be like; we even try to give it descriptions based on our human knowledge. Artists, poets, writers and filmmakers have all tried to find a way to make us see what is unseen. But everything they create is just a shadow of the real. We won’t know what heaven really is until we experience it for ourselves. But we can hear what Jesus has to say and know what it is like.

The Gospel lesson for this week includes a number of parables, all about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses these 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.

Our passage for today is preceded by a few other parables which were told to the crowds. We’ve heard the parables about seeds and weeds. Jesus also talked about the mustard seed and leaven, two very small things that can become huge. Then Jesus left and went into the house. His disciples followed. Jesus revealed the meaning of the parable of the weeds and then told several more parables, with a slightly different focus, teaching how a small and hidden thing can become something of great value.

Jesus told 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 are called to a living faith.

After Jesus spoke to the crowd and the disciples in parables, He asked the disciples, “Have you 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.

Parables are often hard and confusing. We don’t always understand the earthly aspects of Jesus’ examples, and the spiritual aspects can be even more difficult. How many of us really know about seeds? Do we know how we would react if we found hidden treasure or a fantastic pearl? 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.

I think the final parable might be a little harder. Jesus said, “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind, which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away. So will it be in the end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”

We look at a parable like this with a sense of victory. We believe that “others,” our enemies, are 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. Sadly, this brings us a sense of joy, although it doesn’t give us comfort.

When Jesus asks whether they understand, 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; they wanted 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.

When Jesus asks, “Have you understood all these things?” we want to say “Yes.” 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 been 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.

We should not rejoice over the destruction of anyone, even our enemies.

We have to see the world through wider eyes. 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.

I’m reading an historical fiction book set in ninth century England. This was a time when the island was still divided into smaller kingdoms, and it was a time of almost constant warfare as men tried to become the sole ruler. It was a time when foreigners tried to usurp the authority of those who had long dwelled in the land. In one scene, a large Viking army landed on the coast. The king approached the enemy as soon as possible, before he had time to gather his army. He approached the enemy with just enough strength to prove his authority and yet with humility and grace. The enemy was suited for war fare, but the king was dressed as if he were attending a great feast. The king presented his enemy with gifts and demanded nothing the Viking was not willing to give. Every step was shocking to the Vikings because it didn’t make sense to them that the king would risk so much, and yet in the end the king was victor of this battle.

We don’t have to defeat our enemies. Living faith means trusting that God is with us and that He will ensure that everything will be made right.

It doesn’t always make sense. I know that every time I struggle with the parables of Jesus, I come up with different ideas. We recognize the reality that we can’t do it without God. That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s epistle. We are weak, but God is able to search even our very hearts and speak the words we are unable to speak. He knows all the things we do not know and He ensures that all things work together for the good of those who love Him. God is truly greater than we might expect, able to make incredible things happen; He is more valuable than the riches treasures of earth. Just like those examples in the parables, God is able and He will do exactly what He has promised.

Paul writes, “He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would 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 cannot keep us from the love of Christ. As Paul writes, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How does a king stand firm against a hoard of dangerous Vikings? In the case of this king, he did so with faith in God. He was a Christian, and though he knew that he might never leave the camp alive, he could trust that God would be faithful to His promise of eternal life for all those who believe. It seems, at times, that we stand alone in a world that is against us and our Christian faith, too, but we can trust in God. Old Testament text assures us that God loves us and that He is faithful. We don’t need to be part of an army; He didn’t choose us because we are many. God has chosen us because He loves us.

The psalmist writes, “Those who trust in Yahweh are as Mount Zion, which can’t be moved, but remains forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so Yahweh surrounds his people from this time forward and forever more.” How we live in a world of sin is dependent on our perspective. When we trust in God, we know that we will be unmoved even when tragedy strikes.

This is the message we are called to share is that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God’s love for the world. Jesus was sent to set us free to live faithfully in that love. We will face enemies; Christians have faced enemies during every generation since Jesus. Yet, we need not concern ourselves about these things, for 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.

He calls us to living faith in the kingdom of God, even if we do not fully know or understand everything He has taught us. Every parable has a glimmer of God’s grace and each story draws us to move ever more deeply into His heart. Living in His love we are called to take His kingdom to the world, sharing God’s wisdom with all so that they too might know the freedom to live in His love.

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