July 28, 2002
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

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


"Understanding the Kingdom"
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Every hour in the 24 hours that make up any Sunday on planet earth, the words are heard countless millions of times. Millions pray these words each week in worship and some pray these words every day.

Do you know them?

"Thy kingdom come.."

Of course you do. These words come from the best known prayer in the Christian world... The Lord's prayer. But let me ask you a question.

When you pray, "Thy kingdom come," what exactly do you mean by this "kingdom?" What is it that you want to come?

It would seem to be a pretty straight forward question with an easy answer. The "Thy" in the phrase refers to God, so obviously it is God's kingdom we want to come.

***

The gospel reading for today can go a long way toward understanding what God's kingdom is all about. In order to get a full sense for what Jesus taught, however, we need to understand the context of today's reading and how it fits in with the entire 13th chapter of Matthew's gospel.

There is a very interesting question that Jesus asks in our gospel reading. After Jesus told a series of parables to a large crowd that had gathered, he sent the crowd away and held a private session with his disciples. They wanted some explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares. (Which was last week's gospel reading) After his explanation, Jesus asked, "Have you understood all these things?"  They answer simply, "Yes."

In light of the events that were still to come in the lives of Jesus and his disciples, you have to wonder if they really understood. Understanding the kingdom is no little thing. We know for sure the people of Jesus time did not understand the real meaning of "Messiah."  When Jesus came as a servant instead of a warrior and when he was crucified instead of driving Rome from the Holy Land - he did not look like the Messiah everyone had been expecting.

So also, there was not such a good understanding of the kingdom of heaven. It was Messiah who would be God's agent to bring on the kingdom - but if they do not understand Messiah, they will not understand God's kingdom either.

So let's set the context. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells several parables concerning the kingdom of heaven. Mark, Luke and Paul use the phrase kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of heaven, but the sense is the same. Wherever God reigns, the kingdom is present. Six times in this chapter, Jesus uses the words, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." The entire chapter is intended to instruct the larger crowds and Jesus closest followers what God's kingdom is like. 

***

This is necessarily oversimplified, but Matthew's 13th chapter - the "Parables of the Kingdom" chapter goes something like this:

  • At the beginning of the teaching session, Jesus sits in a boat and teaches a large crowd that had gathered on the Northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  • Jesus begins with the well known parable of the sower. God's word goes out into the world and there are varying responses. Jesus explains to his disciples that some will hear and become a part of God's kingdom while others do not hear and the word will have no effect on them.
  • Then Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and tares (which was last week's gospel lesson) - he will later have to explain the parable to his close followers the disciples. He explains two critical things. [1] God and not we - will separate the wheat from the weeds.  [2] There is a great chasm between those who embrace and are a part of the kingdom of God and those who reject it. There is a great line of demarcation between faith and unfaith - between God's kingdom and the kingdom of "self."
  • The remainder of chapter thirteen is a series of parables which point to the meaning of the kingdom.  This kingdom is like this...

***

  • The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed...

  • The kingdom of heaven is like yeast...

  • The kingdom of heaven is like treasure...

  • The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant...

  • The kingdom of heaven is like a net...

The "like" in "The kingdom of heaven is like" is not about the subject - "mustard seed," "yeast," and "treasure," -- it is like the action that takes place with the objects. The kingdom of heaven can not be contained in one simple analogy. The kingdom of heaven is difficult to get our minds around because it is all encompassing. The kingdom of heaven changes everything about our world, our values and our priorities.

The first two parables point to the fact that the kingdom of heaven may begin small, but its eventual triumph is certain.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed

The first quality of the kingdom of heaven is that it begins with so little and grows to so much. The mustard seed Jesus speaks of is tiny, but the mustard plant can grow anywhere from six to twelve feet. Jesus sends out his small group of followers knowing that they will be tried, tested and rejected by many - yet the kingdom of heaven - or the reign of God will finally reach around the world.

"...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." [Acts 1:8]

No matter how difficult times may be or how distant the hope of God's reign may seen, the kingdom is sure.

"...at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Phil. 2:10-11]

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast

To put it another way... the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman put into some flower. The three measures of flour would amount to a little over a bushel. In other words a little bit of the kingdom of heaven has a tremendous impact.

These first two images of the kingdom tell the followers of Jesus that no matter how small they felt or how hopeless their task seemed in a hostile world - they could have every confidence in what they were doing because God was the guarantee of a good outcome!

Most of us know what it is like to feel small and powerless in the face of forces that loom large over us. What can one person or even a small group of persons do in a world where hunger, poverty and terrorism seem to rule. In his poem "Wanted," Josiah Gilbert Holland wrote, "...lo! Freedom weeps, Wrong rules the land and waiting justice sleeps."   In a broken world where wrong so often reigns, the good news is that even a handful of people who are totally committed to the reign of God can be the means by which God works the wonders of divine justice. And... that kingdom of heaven which we see by faith is based on the promises of God which can never be broken.

For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." [Romans 14:11]

***

The next two qualities of the kingdom of heaven point to the value of the kingdom.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure...

This kingdom where God reigns is worth everything. It is something that is hidden beneath the surface of humanity's search for meaning and significance.

Viktor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning," has reached over 4 million copies in print. it tells of Frankl's desperate search for hope and meaning during three years in a Nazi concentration camp. A Book of the Month Club survey of readers called this one of the ten most influential books in America. Frankl went against the long held psychiatric theory of Freud that human beings are driven by sexual instincts and affirmed instead that our deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that is hidden away beneath the surface of our living, but when we discover the love and care of God and the promise of God's reign in all things, life is forever changed. This is a promise worthy of our total commitment.

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant...

Jesus underlines the value of the kingdom of heaven by saying it is like a merchant who went searching for fine pearls and in the process discovers one pearl that was worth everything he possessed.

God's kingdom, in other words, is worth everything! 

When the merchant encountered the pearl to end all pearls, he was so captured by that pearl that nothing else mattered. This pearl went to the very top of his priority list.

When Jesus called his earliest followers, they left everything to follow him. Boats were left by the seashore and accounting tables were left at the tax collectors office. It is not different today. Giving ourselves fully to the kingdom of heaven - that is - to the reign of God in our lives is worth everything.

When God comes first, all of life is different. Our foundations for living are rock solid, our relationships are cemented with the love of God and our destiny is forever intertwined with that of Jesus Christ!

***

But there is another quality of the kingdom of heaven. A sobering quality. 

The kingdom of heaven is like a net...

The good news of God's love and care is one side of a two sided coin. The flip side of that coin is what happens when God does not reign and the kingdom of heaven is not chosen.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a net which is thrown into the sea and catches every kind of fish. Some of the fish are good for the feeding and nourishment of people. Some of the fish is not edible and is thrown out.  In other words, there is a great divide that the kingdom of heaven brings about. To chose the kingdom of heaven is to choose life with God at the center. The only other choice is the kingdom of "self." The consequences of life without God is dramatically portrayed in this last parable. Listen once again:

"So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." [vv.49-50]

These words grate on our ears a bit, don't they? Maybe they even irritate us. Aren't we past all of this talk about hellfire and damnation? Certainly in "pop" culture, there is a sense in which lines are blurred and responsibilities are vague and unclear. And what about appreciation of diversity and acceptance of every point of view? The kingdom of heaven doesn't sound very democratic.

And indeed it isn't. The kingdom of heaven is where God reigns. God is in charge. That means no one else is reigning or in charge. And if we look seriously at how human beings have done while reigning and being in charge - we may break into worship about this truth!

The parable is not about rejecting other religions or drawing tight circles of exclusion for every group but ours. It is about the huge divide between those who choose God and live in relationship with Christ and are committed to God's love in every area of life --- and those who choose only themselves and reject the reign of God.

The weeping and gnashing of teeth is simply the final realization that our search for meaning and significance are destined for absolute failure. The joy and rejoicing of those who discover the pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in the filed is nothing less than the joy of knowing the love of the One who created us.

May God give us wisdom to understand the kingdom of heaven and grace to embrace it!


                              Wanted

"God, give us Men! A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor;
Men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty and in private thinking;
For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land and waiting justice sleeps."

Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881)


Connections in the Texts

There is one word which emerges when we consider the readings as a whole.  Insight.  More precisely, it is spiritual insight.  In Matthew it is Jesus explaining the parables of the kingdom to his disciples.  "Get it?" Jesus asks his disciples.  That is, "Do you understand how the kingdom works?"  The lesson from first Kings has Solomon asking for wisdom to lead the people of God.  He knows he needs a wisdom he does not have.  There is a subtle play between Matthew and I Kings.  Jesus' parable suggests how the kingdom is worth everything -- the pearl of great price.  I Kings shows the secret behind the fact that Solomon gained everything because he valued "kingdom wisdom" above all things.  The Romans passage provides insight into a spiritual reality not available to the wisdom of the world.  This is a wisdom that sees beyond the surface of trial and tribulation to the substrata of confidence and peace that under girds the Christian's life.  Psalms is a celebration of spiritual insight -- or the light God gives.

Matthew

The reading from Matthew is very connected to last week's reading -- indeed the two selections for the heart of the kingdom parables of Matthew 13.  Three key thoughts emerge from  these parables.  [1]  The Kingdom of heaven ( Matthew uses the phrase "Kingdom of heaven." No other book in the bible uses that phrase. Mark, Luke and the Pauline letters use the phrase, "Kingdom of God.") is spreading,  [2] The spreading of the kingdom will take in bad as well as good, and  [3]  God will separate the good from the bad.

There is a strong eschatalogical theme in the kingdom parables.  The insight Jesus wants for his followers is insight into the fact that the message of the kingdom draws a line in the sand.  Whether it be "weeds" or "bad fish" -- there will come a time of separation.  (Paul says that those who love God and are "called" -- can not be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.)  One can not remove the "judgment warnings" of the gospels without serious tampering with the message of Christ.  The question is -- how do we present this to our people, in our culture?  There are some sobering words here about the fact that we can not have it both ways.  There is no "kind of" righteousness -- no "somewhat" evil.  "Weeping and gnashing of teeth" holds a kind of seriousness many will not want to hear.

One analogy I can think of is the "easy credit" and "hard debt" of our contemporary culture.  One financial planner I heard said, "A large number of people I work with have lived on 110% of their income each year.  They finance the extra 10% and are on course to file for bankruptcy every ten years!"  Life is so good and credit is so easy -- when the "paycheck" comes, it's a shock.  The words of judgment in the kingdom parables address the issue of spiritual bankruptcy.  Life is good and self is sovereign -- when the "paycheck" comes, it's a shock. 

The motivated and insightful disciple will heed Jesus' question, "Have you understood all this?"

1 Kings

A key line in this series of texts on insight:  "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern good and evil..."

This is a wonderful story of young Solomon who finds himself in a position of power -- way before his time.  The relationship between David and God was so visible that it shaped the life of Solomon.   The good news is that though we stand in need of forgiveness -- we are considered "faithful" when we hold ourselves accountable to God and open to God's grace.

As I read these words, I see a meditation shaped by the question, "If you could ask for anything your heart desires -- what would it be?"

Romans

In terms of insight -- this passage points to the spiritual background that lies behind all of the uncertainties of our living.  Even in our weakness the Spirit is helping us -- under girding our prayers.  And in the terrible trials and testing that comes our way, God has a purpose and a plan for our ultimate good.  It may look like we have been forsaken, but it is the love of God in Christ and the final victory of our faith that is the final reality.

Paul speaks of these things in terms of "predestination".  His predestination language is the strong affirmation of God's purpose in spite of the precarious nature of our existence. It is saying God, not circumstances, is in charge.  From the divine perspective, God has predestined, called, justified and glorified.   In other words, God's plan of salvation is certain from beginning to end.  If we think of predestine in the more literal terms of "marking out the limits ahead of time,"  we would say, "Of course God has planned it all out."   If we think of predestine as somehow eliminating choice and personal responsibility for our life of faith, we will miss the point.

From beginning to end, the beauty of this passage is that no matter what the outward circumstances, God's purposes for our lives are sure and the victory is already won for those who love God and follow Jesus.  It is in times of weakness or despair that these words of assurance lift my spirit from the gloom.  What can separate me from God?  Nothing!  NO-THING!   Nada!  Zero! Zilch!  This is the fact that stands behind all evidence to the contrary.

The Psalm

God's word gives light, understanding, and protection in our vulnerability to wrong.  The standout thought in this pericope is, "My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept."  This is what it means to have a heart for God!  When my life is to tuned into and embracing of God's desires for humanity that my heart breaks to see lives separated from God's good intentions -- that's a Christ centered heart.  It is the compassion of Christ for those who are harassed and helpless -- like sheep without a shepherd.  [Mt. 9:36]


 Worship Helps

Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 119: 129-136)

Leader:  Your word, O God, is like a light in the darkness.
People: It gives us a solid foundation for our living.
People:  O Lord, keep us focused in our spiritual journey,
People: And help us know the joy of your love and grace.
People:  We long to know and love you, Lord of life,
People: And rejoice in the gift of your word to us!  Amen.

 

A Prayer of Confession

Almighty God, who destroyed sin and death by the glorious resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned and strayed far from your holy love. We have not loved you with the whole of our being and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In the light of your glorious presence we humbly bow before you and ask for your mercy and forgiveness through the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon

May the Lord have mercy upon us and forgive us all our sins through Jesus Christ our Lord and give us strength for all goodness by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

 

Pastoral Prayer   (With a view to Romans 8)

There are times in our living Lord when things pile up, pressures mount
and we feel overwhelmed.  A sudden grief comes out of the blue, a child
strays, a job is lost or that dreaded phone call from the doctor comes.

Our faith is tested.  Our hearts break.   Hope flees.  And we wonder.
Where are you Lord?  How could this be?  Why did it happened?  Did I
do something wrong?

In our heads we know that your love is forever and ever.  But, sometimes
in our hearts we are so overwhelmed by the pain, we are not able to sense
your presence.

Where can we turn but to the promises you have provided for us through
your servants who saw your heart and wrote the words.  O help us to hear
today, not so much with our ears, but with our souls:

"I love you my child and even in this, I will work for your good."
"I am for you -- not against you -- no matter how it looks right now."
"Nothing -- not even this -- can separate you from my love."

Give us eyes of faith to see beyond the dark horizon of this present
darkness into the light of a new day.  Open our spirits more fully to the
joy that lies beyond the trial, in the courts of your eternal love.

Lift us up, O Lord, for we can not lift ourselves.  Strengthen us for the living
of these days, for we can not strengthen ourselves.  Pray for us, even in those
times when we have not the words to pray.

Amen.

 

Prayer of Dedication

The most wonderful thing in our lives is to know and love you Lord,
Your reign in our lives is like the pearl of great price -- it is a treasure
we could never gain on our own.  We pray that the gifts we offer to
you today will help to spread the light of your word, and the joy of
your presence.  Amen.