HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
July 30, 2017
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52 (CEB)
He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”
33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”
44“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.
47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. 48When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. 49That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, 50and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.
51“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
They said to him, “Yes.”
52Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.”
Imagine for just a moment that a close friend has just made a new discovery of an amazing and exotic wildflower. Now, it just so happens that at the moment of discovery, your friend didn’t have any sort of camera to capture an image of this beautiful new flower. So the best she can do is describe it to you. It’s hard for us to imagine such a scenario because with cameras now built into our phones, we can get pictures of almost anything, but just think for a minute about how you would get an idea of what this newly discovered exotic wildflower was like without a picture. Your friend would need to give you a detailed description, right? And in order to help you understand exactly what you might see in this new flower, she would have to compare to things you already know and understand. So she might say something like, “The stem is long and smooth as silk. It is a bright green, like a traffic light. The blossom is a radiant white, like a wedding dress, and the petals are as soft a baby’s blanket.”
Of course, it would take a lot more description than that to really get a full understanding of the look of this flower, but you get the idea. When we are trying to learn about something that we’ve never seen or experienced before, the best way to understand it is to know how it relates to things that are already familiar to us. Now, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, the simple fact is that we have not experienced it in its fullness. So we come to this passage this morning from Matthew’s gospel. And we hear Jesus seeking to describe the Kingdom of God to people in such a way that they will begin to get a more complete picture of exactly what this Kingdom is like. The problem, though, is that all these metaphors don’t relate easily to one another.
There is a lot going on in this passage. First, there are these parables about these two seemingly small and insignificant things, a tiny mustard seed and some yeast, that grow or spread to have this enormous impact. Then, there are two parables about miraculous finds of treasure so valuable that the fortunate finder is prompted to sell all his possessions in the hope of obtaining this more valuable treasure. Next, there is a story of a catch of fish so immense that there is some waste, and the bad fish are thrown out. And finally, there is a sort of parable about parables, an account of how Jesus is giving new meaning to old ways and old understandings.
As different as these many parables are, this is all about coming to a greater understanding of God’s Kingdom. So, unlike some sermons, where I work to bring a single message from God’s Word, I’m not going to try and synthesize all this information here this morning. Instead, I simply want to consider all that we can learn about God’s Kingdom through these parables. So let me begin with a story.
“Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. It all started with the leavening agent of moral outrage. In her native country of Liberia, young boys were trained to be killers. Women and children were raped and beaten. Gbowee was overcome with the horror that was happening in the civil war in her homeland. She found other women who were equally outraged, but who also felt powerless in the face of so much violence.
“The Women’s Peacemaking Movement was formed with hundreds and hundreds of Christian and Muslim women. The women sat together in a soccer field in the heart of the capital city of Monrovia. Each and every day the women gathered to pray. They prayed for an end to the killings and the cruelty. They prayed for a safe land for their children.
“For two years the women met together. Their seemingly small efforts worked the leaven of hope into their lives. With the leadership of Gbowee the women mobilized their strength. They had no power granted to them through position or money, but they had something else. They had a holy and divine spirit of justice and mercy. It pervaded their lives, enabling them to rise up with courage. It was a spirit that was alive and active in their gatherings. Their presence day after day eventually contributed to an end to the war and the beginning of healing for their nation.”
That is the Kingdom of God. It is this amazing force for good, for justice, for mercy, for love, that grows from the smallest and most seemingly insignificant of places to touch and encompass more and more people until its power can no longer be ignored and the world is changed because of it. And as if that’s not enough, let’s think about the mustard plant for a minute. In the ancient world, the mustard bush was considered to be a terribly invasive weed; kind of like kudzu is around here. Yet, Jesus tells of a farmer who sowed a tiny little mustard seed in his field, and it grew to such great proportions that it was a place a rest and protection for the birds of the sky. Again, there is this idea that something small, something insignificant, even something that might be considered a nuisance, can yet be used by God to achieve God’s Kingdom purposes here on earth.
And when you begin to see what an amazing force the Kingdom of God is, it’s no wonder that Jesus goes on to describe it like a treasure in a field, or a precious pearl. Can you imagine something so amazing that you would give up everything for it? Can you imagine a treasure so grand, or a jewel so rare that you would sell all of your worldly possessions in order to claim this one great prize. That, says Christ, is the Kingdom of God. And yet, how many of us are so willing to set aside all of our worldly comforts and throw ourselves entirely into God’s care, God’s Kingdom? There is so much that holds us back from fully devoting ourselves to God in Christ Jesus, and yet each thing, no matter how great or how small is something that keeps us from experiencing fully what it is to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.
So ultimately, we have this choice. And that’s what the final parable of the fishing net is about. Jesus tells of a net that is lowered into the sea and is pulled out full of fish of every kind. So the fishermen pulled the net ashore. They put the good fish in baskets, and the bad fish were thrown out. “So it will be at the end of the age,” says Jesus. If we choose to stubbornly cling to worldly possessions and worldly ways, it will rot our lives, we will be those “bad fish.” But if, instead, we choose to let go of “everything that hinders us, and the sin that clings so close” as the writer of Hebrews says; if we can put aside the temptations of this world that are always telling us we need more wealth and more power, then our lives will truly be “good” as we are incorporated into God’s growing kingdom and experience the abundant life God promises us in Jesus Christ.
You know, for centuries, God’s chosen race, the Israelites, had imagined that God would establish his promised Kingdom once and for all through a conquering King that would vanquish every earthly oppressor who had ever thought to rule over God’s people. It was an old idea. But what we hear this morning is Jesus giving a new vision to an old understanding. God’s kingdom will not come through some violent show of force, but through a tiny, pesky seed, and a baker kneading dough. And once people see and understand what is happening, they will give up everything to be a part of it, and more and more people, all sorts of different people from all different walks of life, will find shelter and rest in God’s Kingdom. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine because God’s Kingdom is so different from this world we know, but through these parables, Jesus is helping us come to a greater understanding of God’s ways. And if we can follow what he is saying, we will quickly find that worldly pursuits are meaningless, vanity, chasing after the wind.
Back in the early 1980s, at the height of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave an incredible interview that aired on public television. In the midst of the still extreme racial segregation and discrimination that pervaded South Africa at that time, Tutu said a very curious thing. He said, “When the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.”
That’s the way of the Kingdom of God. It’s not based in wealth, or power, but it is the better way. And if we are willing to surrender all of ourselves, then God’s Spirit will move through us, and through the whole world, growing God’s Kingdom to a place of protection and rest for all. Whenever we long for God to act and to make things right, we must remind ourselves that he has already done so, and what we are waiting for is the fulfillment of all that God has already started. It is the greatest treasure we could ever imagine, and thanks be to God, it is already spreading through the world!