5 July 2020 - Pentecost 5 - Matthew 11:25-30

The life that people lead in many of the undeveloped societies of the world is very labor-intensive. In such societies there is very little in the way of mechanization, to make the common tasks that people perform go more easily.

There is, instead, a lot of physical work to be done - by women and men alike. There is a lot of lifting and carrying.

Two examples of this sort of work would be the job of a homemaker, in carrying water from the communal well to her home; and the job of a bricklayer, in carrying bricks from a distant kiln to the place where he is constructing a building.

These tasks are, however, not performed by simply lifting, with both arms, the burden in question - a bucket of water, or a stack of bricks - and then lugging that burden across the village with great difficulty. Instead, for the carrying of water or bricks, a yoke is used.

A yoke is a piece of wood that is carved in such a way that it rests comfortably on the shoulders of the person who is using it. It extends out a little distance from each shoulder, with a hook of some kind on each end, to which two objects of equal weight can be attached.

A yoke does not eliminate the work of a woman carrying water, or of a man carrying bricks. It does not lift their burdens from them completely.

But it makes the burdens bearable, and it makes the work easier to do. This is the image that Jesus intends to call to our minds, in today’s text from St. Matthew, as he issues this invitation to us:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus is not talking about the kind of yoke that animals wear, for pulling a heavy plow. He’s talking about the kind of yoke that people wear, for carrying a heavy burden.

We in America live is a society with many labor-saving devices and mechanized conveniences. But at a deeper level, the life that we lead in this world - with respect to the struggles of the soul - is in its own way very “labor-intensive.” It is often very difficult to bear the emotional and spiritual burdens of this life.

In this world we experience many injustices, and many disappointments. We get worn down by criticism, by frustration, by ill tempers and ill health.

We are discouraged by our own weaknesses, and by the inadequacy of our attempts to fulfill the obligations we have toward others. In our own strength we can’t be the kind of people we want to be, and that we know we should be.

And worst of all are the burdens that lay heavily on our conscience. We can’t forget the sins and mistakes of the past. We can’t undo all the harm we’ve caused.

We have failed those who relied on us. We have betrayed those who trusted us. Guilt and remorse over these moral transgressions weigh us down.

All of the stress that arises from these inner burdens, as we lug them around in our minds and souls, makes us tired: emotionally and spiritually tired. And as we accumulate ever more of these burdens, as the years pass, they sap away ever more of our strength.

But it is to people like this - to people like us - that Jesus speaks his words of invitation in today’s Gospel:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

When Jesus offers us his divine grace and his healing peace, he does not promise that the burdens of this life will disappear. But he does promise that through him, these burdens will no longer overwhelm us.

Our human frailty will remain, even as the old sinful nature remains as a constant source of temptation. But in the forgiveness that Christ offers, our eyes are turned upward, away from our failures, to the regenerating mercy of God.

We rest peacefully in the love of Christ, and are rejuvenated by that rest for the vocation that Jesus then gives. We are filled with a new life, brought to us by God’s own Spirit. And God invigorates us with a new joy, and with a new confidence in him, as he tells us:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God’s pardon in Christ through the cross of Christ, together with the indwelling Spirit of Christ, is like a yoke, which allows us, even in our weakness, to bear our present and future burdens in such a way that they will not crush us. And the gospel alleviates these burdens to such an extent that we begin to see new opportunities for new avenues of loving service to others.

In the strength of the Lord we pursue those opportunities. We expend ourselves, willingly and cheerfully, for others.

We don’t spend all our time, and use up all our energy, feeling sorry for ourselves, or dwelling on the mistakes of our past. We look to the future, with optimism, and with a happy expectation that God will be a part of our future.

Jesus has purchased us with his own blood. We belong to him. Our future belongs to him.

When new hardships do come our way - and they will still come, for as long as we dwell on earth - the yoke of Christ will allow us to bear up under them. The troubles of this world - as heavy as they may become - cannot and will not destroy us.

We know in faith that we have an eternal habitation in the heavens, prepared for us by our Savior. And so we press on, and move forward, invigorated by the living hope that is ours through the resurrection of Christ.

We live for Christ. We work for Christ, as we serve him and the people he calls us to serve. And when we sin, we go to Christ in repentance for forgiveness and cleansing.

We do still remember our mistakes: not in such a way that we are paralyzed by guilt over them, but in such a way that we take the lessons we have learned into a new future, with a deeper humility, and with a greater wisdom.

Every day, by faith, we arise from the deep rest Christ has given to our conscience, when he lifts from us the guilt and shame of our sins, and gives us his peace. And every day, we take the yoke of Christ upon our shoulders, so that we can fulfill our duties and bear our burdens - our joyful duties, and our manageable burdens - in the strength of Christ.

The yoke of Christ doesn’t remove our burdens from us. With the rest of the world, we, too, will suffer. We will endure struggles and trials.

When Jesus invites us to come to him in faith for forgiveness, and to be fitted for a yoke, he is not thereby inviting us to a life of ease. As with the homemaker and the bricklayer in a primitive village, he is, instead, inviting us to a vocation of work, and to a life of bearing a cross in his name.

But wearing and using his yoke - in the knowledge of his sustaining presence and renewing love - makes that work possible. Wearing and using his yoke - in the promise of eternal life that is ours through him - makes the bearing of this cross not only possible, but something we willingly embrace with a firm reliance upon our Savior.

Jesus makes himself sacramentally present among us in his Holy Supper. When we come to him today, specifically as he invites us to himself in the words of this Supper, we are also coming to him in response to the invitation he offers in today’s Gospel.

We are coming to him once again for rest, from the burdens we cannot bear in our own strength or in our own righteousness. And we are coming to him once again to have his yoke placed upon us, to lighten our load.

In him, through his help, we can successfully bear the burdens he has called us to bear. In him, through his grace, we can faithfully live in the way he has called us to live.

Jesus says: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Jesus also says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus says, “Drink of it, all of you. This cup in the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Jesus also says: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Amen.

12 July 2020 - Pentecost 6 - Isaiah 55:10-13

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” This familiar axiom reminds us that the power of words - both written and spoken - can be and is greater, and more enduring, than the power of force and violence.

External threats and coercive pressure can change people’s bodily actions, and make therm outwardly conform to a tyrant’s demands - even as they internally resent this oppression. But the power of words can re-shape minds and change hearts, and lead people to embrace new ways of thinking and believing.

The great orators and authors of human history have used their skill with words to instill in their listeners and readers both fear and courage; to bring people to tears, or to fill people with indignation. Rhetorical skill can be used to deceive or to inform; to manipulate or to inspire.

When considering the subject of Christian proclamation, we should think about how the power of words is brought to bear on the task that Jesus entrusted to his church and its ministers, when he said:

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

But the Word and message of God, as it is preached and taught - and even as it is whispered to oneself, or read silently from the sacred page - is not the same as human messages, which can be strengthened or weakened in their impact and influence, depending on whether or not they are delivered with high rhetorical and linguistic skill.

When I was a seminary professor, I used to tell my students that they needed to learn a style of sermon delivery that was natural to them, and natural to the text: so that they could be proper conduits of the Word of God, and allow God’s Word to have free course through them.

I told them not to block or mute God’s Word, or overshadow and cloud God’s Word, with either an unnatural dullness or an unnatural flamboyance. So, they were not to become jokesters and showmen in their pulpits - or outside of their pulpits. And they were also not to read a sermon carelessly and thoughtlessly, in a lifeless monotone voice.

Neither of those ways of preaching would be natural. Both of those ways of preaching would get in the way of the message.

The reason why I emphasized these things with my students, is because God’s Word has its own intrinsic supernatural power. It’s power is not augmented by a preacher with a high mastery of language, and it is not diminished by a preacher with an unassuming and calm manner of speaking. And this doesn’t just apply to professional preachers, either.

I am reminded of a story told in my hearing many years ago by a man named Bill Cetnar, who previously had been a high-ranking member of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. But one day, as he was going from door to door, he came to the house of a simple Christian man who did not slam the door in his face - as often happened - but who talked with him.

He told Cetnar about the grace of God in Christ, about the peace of God’s forgiveness, about the gift of eternal life, and about the confidence and comfort of the faith that God’s Spirit works in those who hear and believe the gospel. The man was not particularly eloquent or well-spoken, and at the time Cetnar felt that with his well-rehearsed polemical responses to everything the man said, he had won the argument that day.

But as Cetnar continued his story, he said that in the days and weeks that followed this conversation, the words of that man kept echoing in his mind and probing his conscience. He began to lose sleep, as the things this man had told him about Jesus and salvation, over time, caused him to doubt, to question, and eventually to reject everything he had previously believed.

Bill Cetnar became a Christian. Before long, his wife Joan also became a Christian - by means of the same message of Christ crucified for sinners that had changed her husband’s heart, and that he had then shared with her.

What a marvelous story he told. What a marvelous thing happened to him, through the power of God’s Word.

God’s Word truly does have, within itself, the power to convict the conscience and to persuade the will; to convert the heart and to enlighten the mind. It has within itself the divine power of the God from whom it comes, to fulfill God’s purposes with those whose souls it touches.

Through the Prophet Isaiah - as we heard in today’s Old Testament reading - the Lord himself says:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

I want to ask each of you a question. What do you think God’s purpose for you is, as he speaks to you today?

As God’s living Word comes to you, and gets inside of you, what do you think he is trying to accomplish? As the inspired Scriptures are read, and as their message is expounded, how would success on God’s part be measured, in the outcome of this reading and exposition in your life?

You know, sometimes people get angry at their pastor - people in other churches, of course, not here. But they get angry at their pastor because his sermons sometimes make them feel uncomfortable.

These sermons make them think about things they don’t want to think about. These sermons do not come across as emotionally uplifting, but they come across as judgmental and critical. Or so it seems to them.

But do you think it’s possible that God, at least occasionally, wants people to feel uncomfortable when they hear a sermon - if those people have become too comfortable otherwise, with things that are displeasing to God?

Is it possible that a sermon that makes you feel uncomfortable, is making you feel that way, because it is a faithful and accurate unfolding and application of God’s law, as God’s law condemns compromises and accommodations that you have made with a sinful world, or with your own sinful nature?

In his Second Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul instructs Timothy regarding the need to be firm and faithful in the preaching ministry to which God has called him. Paul tells him:

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings.”

And yet, as Timothy rightly divided the Word of truth - in distinguishing law and gospel according to the text, and according to the circumstances of his listeners - he would be serving simply as a vessel and instrument of that Word. At a deeper, supernatural level, the Word of truth itself would be rightly dividing itself, through Timothy.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

A preacher is God’s instrument for delivering God’s Word through the ear and into the conscience. And God’s Word, in turn, is God’s instrument for suppressing and slaying the old nature within each of us, by the judgments of his law; and for enlivening and raising up the new nature that his Spirit has planted within each of us, by the forgiveness and regeneration of his gospel.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, God himself declares: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.”

And that’s why you should listen to your pastor, and believe what he tells you, when he speaks these or similar words to you:

“Hear the holy and comforting Word of our Lord: ‘Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’”

“Lift up your hearts! By the authority of God and of my holy office, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

These are not the pastor’s words. They are God’s words. And they are God’s words for you, with the inherent power to create the faith they call for, and to bestow the forgiveness of which they speak. God is making you alive through these words. God is healing you through these words.

If you do like some or all of your pastor’s sermons, I hope it is not because you think they are entertaining and humorous, or because you think that they soar to the heights of rhetorical eloquence. Rather, I hope it is because you can hear God’s voice through those sermons.

And sometimes, what God would say to you truly will make you uncomfortable - at least at first. That’s what God intends to do, and that’s what he does.

It’s not the pastor doing this. It’s God’s Word doing this, so that his Word will not return to him empty.

Through what is preached - when God’s own commandments and their application are what is preached - the Holy Spirit convicts the world “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit convicts you concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.

God’s ultimate goal and desire, however, always is to comfort those whom he addresses, and whom his Word impacts. This comfort, however, is always the comfort of Christ: “who became for us wisdom from God - and righteousness and sanctification and redemption - that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’” - quoting the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

God’s Word will never comfort you on the basis of your glory: your wisdom, your righteousness, or your self-sufficiency. That’s not the purpose for which he sent his Word into your mind and heart.

The message of the cross will comfort you, because in the death of Christ for you, God gives you life. The message of the resurrection will comfort you, because in Christ’s victory for you, God promises that he will never leave you or forsake you.

The message of the gift of Christ’s Spirit comforts you, because by his indwelling you become a new creature in Christ, are given the mind of Christ, and grow into the image of Christ.

The Christian faith is very much a religion of the Word of God. God’s Word gives form and definition to everything in our faith: our doctrine and our morality, our values and our priorities, our inner devotion and our outward ritual.

We read and chant God’s Word; we sing and pray God’s Word; and with a humble trust in him, we receive God’s Word and internalize it, over and over again, in sermon and in sacrament.

We live according to the instruction and direction of God’s Word, and we die in the hope and peace of God’s Word.

The Christian faith is not a religion of subjective mysticism or philosophical speculation. We are not on a search for God. Instead, we rejoice to know that in his Son Jesus Christ - whom he sent into the world to be our Savior - God has found us.

God speaks, and we hear him. God gives us warnings, and we heed him. God makes promises, and we believe him.

God reveals himself to me, and works for me and in me, by the power of his Word. And I respond to everything that God has done, and is doing, with prayers that have been shaped by his Word, and that match these sentiments from Psalm 119:

“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes!”

“With my lips I declare all the just decrees of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

The Lord says:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Amen.

19 July 2020 - Pentecost 7 - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“We’re on a mission from God.” This oft-repeated line by the character Elwood Blues, in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” was always good for a laugh.

But today, with all seriousness - based on what Jesus tells us in his parable of the wheat and the weeds - we are able to say that we really are on a mission from God. Jesus has planted and placed us in this world, to grow and to live, and to be a blessing for this world for as long as this world exists. That is our mission.

In his story-telling, Jesus uses the image of seeds being sown in more than one way, and as an illustration of more than one doctrinal point. The Gospel reading we heard last Sunday, from St. Matthew, included the parable of the sower, where the seed that was sown represented the “word of the kingdom.”

As that parable developed, Jesus used various illustrations to represent the different ways in which his word is or is not received by people. The ideal kind of receptivity to God’s Word, which Jesus commended, was illustrated in terms of seeds falling on good soil, and fruitfully producing grain. He explained this illustration as follows:

“As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

In the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel - which comes immediately after the section of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard last week - Jesus switches gears, and now re-purposes his image of seeds being planted, as an illustration of a different point. In today’s parable, he begins with these words:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.”

When Jesus was asked to explain this parable, he said:

“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom.

So, in last week’s parable, the seed was God’s Word, planted in us - in our hearts and minds. In this week’s parable, the seed is us, planted in this world.

Psalm 24 reminds us that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.”

God has never relinquished his claim to that which he created - even with the corruption of sin infecting God’s world, and even with the devil exercising a usurped tyranny over God’s world.

In spite of all this, God sustains the world with his providence. And in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, he plants his people in the world, as “seeds” that are filled with life and potential.

He inserts them - he inserts us - in all the many arenas of human government and community service, human art and culture, human science and education, that exist in human society.

In the name of his Father, Jesus bestows upon the children of his kingdom, vocations of work and productivity for the well-being of the world, and of all who live in the world. He calls his people to live ethically, in service to God and man - even in the face of the forces of wickedness, evil, and godlessness that would oppose all that we do, and all that Christ does through us.

And most of all, Jesus places us in this world, embedded as we are within all the nations of the world, in order to point all nations toward another world. This is the coming new world of resurrection and righteousness, which Jesus has opened to all, through his victory over sin and death; and to which Jesus invites all, in his admonition and exhortation to repent and believe the gospel.

By planting us here on earth, to fulfill these purposes according to his will, Christ is not thereby placing upon us a crushing burden. He is not giving us an impossible task, so as to drive us to discouragement when we inevitably fail.

Rather, he is simply asking us to be who we are now in him - and to live out the life that he has given to us - in the midst of those whom he wants to draw to himself. He does this through the faith that we proclaim, among ourselves and to them; and through the love that we show, among ourselves and to them.

Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says this to his disciples of all times and places:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

But that’s not the only way in which we live out our status and our character as children of our Father in heaven. St. Paul describes another aspect of how we, as God’s people, reflect his light to those who languish in darkness, when he writes to the Colossians:

“You have put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

Within the fellowship of the church, as the cynical world is watching us, the ethnic prejudices, economic jealousies, and cultural divisions that bring so much pain and turmoil to fallen humanity, have no enduring place, and will be overcome. We are learning a new way of thinking about and treating all those with whom we share a common redemption by Christ, and a common indwelling of the Spirit of Christ.

But we are indeed still learning this, and growing into this. We are being renewed in knowledge after our creator.

Because of the sinfulness that continues to cling to us, we never fully succeed in being perfect imitators of Christ. In this world, we are traveling together on this road, as Jesus leads us; but there are bumps on that road.

And that’s why Paul continues his encouragement to the Colossians, with these words:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

When we are weak, he is strong - for us, and in us. We are sustained by the joy and comfort that come from Jesus’ own promise that he is with us always, even to the end of the age.

And he really is with us: speaking his absolution and pardon to us, through the lips of his called ministers; coming into us, and renewing his gracious mystical union with us, through the consecrated bread and wine that we eat and drink in his Holy Supper.

We spur one another on to good works, and to a greater maturation in Christian virtues. We exercise patience with those who sometimes annoy us, and we are grateful that they exercise patience with us, when we sometimes annoy them.

We overlook little offenses and forget about them, while we deal carefully and constructively with the more serious and dangerous sins that a Christian brother or sister might fall into.

And so, in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul also writes:

“Be at peace among yourselves. ... Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another, and to everyone.”

Others in the world in which we have been planted, are watching this too. They are watching and listening as we admit our failures - to God and to one another - and as we are forgiven by God and by those whom we have hurt or disappointed.

They are watching as we show forth to others - who are crippled by guilt and paralyzed by fear - the culture of reconciliation in which we now live.

They are watching as we invite them to come to a place where they will be respected, as people created and redeemed by a loving God; but also to a place where they will learn from a holy God about Christ’s truth, and the spiritual freedom he brings, in opposition to the devil’s lies, and the spiritual bondage in which Satan holds the unbelieving world.

Again, we hear Jesus’ explanation of today’s parable:

“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”

Not everyone who watches us, will be drawn to the Savior in whom we trust. Many will watch in order to find opportunities to criticize, to accuse, and to attack.

Many will not only attack the Christian faith and those who adhere to it, but with an irrational anger at God will rebel against all that is good and pure - also against God’s natural law in the conscience, and against the voice of their own conscience - as they impulsively destroy themselves and others.

St. Paul describes them in his Second Epistle to Timothy:

“In the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

Sadly, they thereby show themselves to be “sons of the evil one” - weeds who have been planted in God’s world by God’s enemy. With their haughtiness and hatred, their persecutions and perversions, they want to wear us down, shut us up, and choke out the vitality of our faith.

And yet, as we continue to share God’s world with them, and await God’s final judgment with them, we don’t stop praying for them, loving them, and serving them according to our callings. And we don’t stop speaking God’s message of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ to them, with the hope that some of them will be translated from Satan’s kingdom to Christ’s kingdom, and will become and be Christ’s seed after all.

Even in the midst of threats and trials, suffering and death, Christians listen with humble reverence to what their Savior - and the world’s Savior - says to his beloved church:

“I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

But, eventually, all of this will be over. Someday the end will come. Justification and vindication for those who know Christ, will come. Judgment and punishment, for those who chose the way of death and evil, will come.

In his parable today, Jesus said:

“When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

And in his explanation, the Lord issues a clear and direct warning to the world. In closing, I’ll just let him speak it again, without comment:

“The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” Amen.

26 July 2020 - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 13:44-52

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells three parables. The one to which I would like to draw your attention is this one. Our Lord says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

We can appreciate the idea that some things are more valuable than other things. And we can understand a person’s desire to have something that is of great value - even if it means that he will have to make a great financial sacrifice, in order to obtain it.

In his parable, Jesus picks up on this common human frame of reference, in order to illustrate the desire of God to obtain and to possess that which is of great value to him.

The parable of the pearl of great price, or the pearl of great value, has often been interpreted to be teaching that we should put a high value on Christ, and on the eternal life that he gives, so that we would be willing to sacrifice everything else in this world in order to have him and it.

According to this interpretation, you and I are the merchant. God and his Word are the pearl. But remember that Jesus tells us that this parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and about what is going on in the kingdom of heaven.

And in the kingdom of heaven, God is the primary actor. So, when Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, he means to say that God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.

It is certainly true that you and I should put the highest value on God and on our relationship with him. We should be willing to give up everything else that we have, in order to have him.

But that’s not really the point of the parable. Before you consider how valuable God is to you, you need to consider how valuable you are to God.

But here is where there might be a problem. When you look at yourself, as a member of the sinful human race, and as a sinful individual, you would probably wonder if God actually sees much value in you.

And when you compare yourself to others, you can probably think of quite a few people you either know, or know about, who seem to be less sinful, and more valuable, than you are.

I know, and know of, many men, who are better husbands, better fathers, and better pastors than I am. And I know lots of people who I think are better human beings than I am: people who are more patient and more compassionate, less lazy and less selfish.

So, a parable about the lengths to which God is willing to go, to procure the pearl that is of greatest value to him, may not be such a comforting parable to me - or to you. When I look at my failures and flaws, it’s pretty easy for me to conclude that if I were the merchant - if I were God - I would not set my heart on possessing such a one as myself.

Of all the pearls that are out there, I am not of great value. I am of hardly any value at all.

Of all the nations of the ancient world, the people of Israel would not seem to have been of much value, either. In the days of Moses, the Hebrews were not a highly sophisticated people, or a militarily powerful people.

They hadn’t establish great empires. In fact, they were slaves, living at the lowest level of degradation and humiliation, under the control of the Egyptians.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, were a great nation. They had one of the grandest empires of the ancient world. Their architectural monuments are with us to this day.

They were really something. But the Hebrews? They were nothing.

It would make a lot of sense to us, if God would have perceived the Egyptians to be the most valuable and desirable nation to have as his own special people, and if he would have chosen them. As far as earthly nations go, they were the most impressive of all, at that time in history.

But is that what happened? Among the peoples of the ancient world, was Egypt the singular pearl of great value in God’s eyes, and in God’s heart?

In today’s first lesson from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses, by divine inspiration, says this to Israel:

You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

So, Israel was the chosen nation after all. In that time and place, Israel was the pearl of great value after all.

Why was this? Because of the grace of God, and because of the promises of God.

God had promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation - a nation great in the eyes of the Lord, even if not in the eyes of the world. He promised him that he would give this nation its own land.

And he promised that he would bless all other peoples through this nation - and in particular through the promised Messianic Seed of Abraham.

This Seed - Jesus - would be brought forth from Israel to redeem Israel, and all other nations, from sin and death. All other nations would be blessed through him, because he would unite people from all nations into a new spiritual Israel - whose dwelling place, with God, would be a heavenly promised land.

So, God had a reason, and God had a plan, when he chose the Hebrews - the most unassuming and most inglorious of peoples - to be his own people.

God’s gracious choice of Israel in the time of Moses sets the context for understanding today’s parable. But this choice of Israel was itself only a prelude to what today’s parable is really about.

When God chose the physical nation of Israel, liberated Israel, and established Israel in its own land, he didn’t really have to pay very much of a price. He made the Egyptians pay, and he made the Canaanites pay, but God himself did not pay.

In today’s parable, however, the merchant - that is, God - sells all that he has, and he makes a great sacrifice, in order to purchase the most valuable pearl. And in his establishment of the new Israel through Jesus, God did indeed pay a great price.

God’s liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery did require an exertion of miraculous power - in the ten plagues that he unleashed on the land. But it did not really cost God very much personally. God’s liberation of the church from its slavery to sin, however, cost him dearly.

The most perfect of human lives was sacrificed. The most loving and obedient of men was killed. God’s own Son, in human flesh, was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” to be crucified.

The redemption price was the life of his own Son - actually God’s own life, insofar as God himself was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. As St. Paul tells us in the Book of Acts, God purchased the church with “his own blood.”

God gave up his most cherished possession, to purchase his church. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

So, the church as a whole is the pearl of great value. This is because of God’s love and grace, and not because of anything inherent in the human members of the church.

And this is because of God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him and his Seed. Those who are in Christ, are in this promise, and are beneficiaries of this promise. St. Paul explains in his Epistle to the Galatians:

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. ... And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

In your own person, and in your own thoughts, words, and deeds, you fall far short of God’s standard of righteousness - and of your own standard of righteousness. In your own person, according to your own merits, you are not valuable. You are not a pearl of great value.

But in Christ - whose body was given into death to redeem you, whose blood was shed to atone for your sin, and whose righteousness has been credited to you and draped over you - you too are the pearl of great value.

In Christ, each and every one of you is that pearl. You are a member of the church, baptized into Christ, and baptized into the promise of Abraham.

Millennia ago, God chose Abraham because of who God was, not because of who Abraham was. In Christ, God chooses you as well, because of who he is, and not because of who you are.

He considers you to be valuable, whether you consider yourself to be valuable or not. And because God considers it to be so, it is, eternally, so.

He was willing to give up his own Son to purchase you. He sold everything, in order to have you.

Now, when you admit and confess your sins, and think about the ways in which you have shamed yourself and offended God, you no doubt will, in that moment, begin to think that this wonderful gospel parable might not really apply to you. Your conscience will accuse you, and you will question whether God really does have a compelling desire to possess you.

But then you will be reminded, by the Lord’s absolution, that God really did claim you as his cherished pearl in your baptism, and that he still wants you.

And you will be reminded as well, by the Lord’s Supper, that you are indeed a part of the church - the body of Christ - for which God was willing to pay the price of his Son’s body given into death, and his Son’s shed blood: so that this church could be his treasured possession, in time and in eternity.

He purchased you. He claims you. He values you.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Amen.