[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
There was a Coast Guard station in the community on Lake Michigan where I did my seminary internship. One day, the commander of the station stopped by the church office and we chatted. He was excited because in a matter of weeks, he would be retiring. “Are you staying here or moving elsewhere?” I asked. “I would never live here or anywhere in the North,” he told me. He went on: “If you drew a line across the continental United States, you’d have to say that everything North is a moral cesspool, a mission field where God can’t be found.”
Apparently not interested in being a missionary to we heathen Northerners, he was intent on heading south, where he was convinced, all the Christians lived.
The five parables Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson are a warning to anyone who thinks they’ve figured out who’s right with God and who isn’t, who’s decent and who’s not, where God is and where He can't be found.
To understand these parables, you have to go to the last verse of our lesson, where Jesus says, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
The parables in this lesson are all designed to show us that, whatever people may think—be they opponents of Christianity or, like that Coast Guard captain, snobby, self-righteous Christians--the kingdom of heaven is active and growing in places where many people can’t (or won’t) see it.
In these parables, Jesus, the master of His household—the Church—brings out of His treasure old images, familiar things and places, to show us the new things God is up to…even in the lives of people the world might dismiss or ignore.
Jesus here affirms the power of ordinary lives like yours and mine in which Jesus and His kingdom are present and growing.
In the first parable in our lesson, in verses 31 and 32, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows into “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” in which birds make their nests.
The people of Jesus’ day were familiar with mustard plants. They saw them as useless weeds, as welcome in their fields as crabgrass or poison ivy are in our lawns today.
On top of that, every one of Jesus’ original listeners would have known that a mustard plant can never grow into a tree.
Most people would have scratched their heads at Jesus comparing a weed to the kingdom of heaven. But for believers in Jesus, the image brings inspiration.
In the days after Jesus told this parable, He was arrested and executed. His followers scattered for fear that they would be killed for their allegiance to Jesus. The unbelieving world—Jew and non-Jew alike—believed that in crucifying Jesus, the weed of faith in Him as the Savior of the world had been destroyed, that there was no need to repent and believe in Jesus or to acknowledge Him as God. Life could follow its same old path of sin, death, and dog-eat-dog ethics.
But believers know better!
They know that Jesus changed everything when He conquered death on the first Easter. They know that the kingdom has come to all who believe.
They know—we know—that Jesus is in the process, day by day, of transforming us from weeds, sure to be rounded up, into mighty Redwoods rooted in Christ’s love, grace, and power.
As we pray, worship, receive forgiveness for our sins and the Lord’s Supper, and serve in Jesus’ Name, we grow together in Christ’s family, the Church, in ways we sometimes can’t even see ourselves. God is at work in our lives and we know it, even though we can't always articulate it.
We’re like the backwoods Christian I’ve mentioned before who said, “I ain’t what I wanna be and I ain’t what I’m gonna be. But through Jesus, thank God, I ain’t what I was!”
In verse 33, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast a woman mixed in with three measures of flour until all was leavened.
In those days, leaven was seen as a symbol of moral corruption which like leaven mixed in with flour, could infect families, communities, and nations.
Adding further scandal to Jesus' parable was the fact that the person adding the yeast of God's kingdom was a woman. In the patriarchal societies of Jesus' day, men were seen as pure and women as impure.
Yet, here was Jesus saying that God’s kingdom is like leaven mixed into flour by a woman!
Jesus was saying that even in the midst of what we may think is rotten or small or worthless or inconsequential, His kingdom can be present.
In my life—and I’m not kidding when I say this—I have never been able to see a thing through a microscope. Not in junior or senior high school nor during college nor at any time since. But I take it on faith that there is an almost infinite variety of life in this world too small to be detected by the naked eye (or by a clueless preacher looking through a microscope). The kingdom of heaven is like those tiny life forms: alive even when the world doesn’t see it, or is too incompetent to see it, or doesn’t want to see it!
In 1886, the first Lutheran missionaries went to Papua New Guinea. Over the next thirteen years, numbers of missionaries, each sharing Christ by words and deeds were sent to work in different parts of Papua. But it wasn’t until 1899, thirteen years after the first Lutheran missionaries arrived, that the first two Papua New Guineans were baptized.
Some looking at what seemed thirteen years of futility on the part of those missionaries might conclude that nothing had been going on, that the missionaries were lazy or unpersuasive or ineffective, that God had been absent.
But it would be wrong to sneer, because in those first thirteen years God was at work, mixing the leaven of his kingdom into the flour of Papua New Guinea’s life. And that would be true even if the Lutheran Church there didn’t today include 900,000 believers in Jesus Christ!
The next two verses of our Gospel lesson—44 and 45—underscore just how precious the kingdom of heaven is for those who see it.
It’s like treasure found by someone in a field, Jesus says. He’s so excited to have the treasure that he sells everything he has in order to buy the field.
The kingdom of heaven is also like fine pearls found by a merchant. He too, will sell everything he has to buy the pearl.
You and I know that citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is a free gift from God. It can’t be bought. Jesus died as the perfect sacrifice for our sins so that all who repent and believer in Him will gain a share in what He won when He rose from the dead, eternity with God.
But we can’t grasp Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and new life for those who repent and believe in Him if with the rest of our lives, we’re trusting in other things to see us through.
You know, it's been my observation that most of the things people value in life can be compared to illegal drugs. We might trust in real estate or ice cream, antiques or computers, music or books (my weaknesses), cars or clothes, sex or power, our families or human potential, prestige or money.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. But when we start to depend on them to measure our own worth and value as human beings, we’re in trouble.
We develop needs for them, the way an addict needs heroine.
We give up everything to taste, touch, or keep our obsessions of choice.
They give us a buzz that’s here today and gone tomorrow.
And then these things—none of which can give us life—leave us dead.
Jesus is the only obsession that can give us forgiveness, life, purpose, or joy.
Jesus says that His kingdom is so great that, if we’re wise, we’ll be willing to part with all the temporary pleasures of this dying world in order to grab His offer of eternity.
People will think we’re crazy for putting our whole lives at the disposal of Jesus, to bet our whole eternity on Him.
They’re right! “We are fools for Christ,” the apostle Paul once boasted of his ministry team and himself.
The men in Jesus' parables who gave up everything for the treasures they found would have been seen by Jesus' first listeners as foolish. Financial advisors today tell us how foolish it is to forgo diversified investment portfolios by betting everything on one single investment.
But believers in Christ know it’s foolish to invest one’s whole life in anything but a relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth! At another point in Jesus' ministry when many were beginning to desert Him, Jesus turned to the twelve apostles and asked if they wanted to leave, too. Peter, still figuring things out about Jesus and in the same fog I confess myself to be in many times, said that wasn't an option. "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the holy One of God." If we want a life with God here in the challenges of life and a life with God beyond the grave, investing our lives in Jesus is the only choice that makes sense!
One of the best questions we Christians can ask ourselves from time to time is this: “What really foolish thing have I done for Jesus Christ lately?” “What tangible thing that the world values—that we value—are we willing to lay aside in order to grasp more tightly and dependently on Jesus?”
Ask those questions and you might end up doing something really foolish—and find yourself enveloped by the joy of God’s kingdom!
Drawing from another old familiar scene from daily life, Jesus tells a fifth parable. It reminds me of the parable of the wheat and the tares we looked at last Sunday.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a net thrown into the sea. Fish of every kind were caught. But once on shore, the fishermen sorted the good catch from the bad, putting the good in a basket, throwing out the bad.
Just so, Jesus says, God will one day deputize His angels to separate the righteous, those made clean by Christ and their faith in Christ, from the evil. The latter will be thrown into the furnace of fire--hell, Jesus says, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—eternal regret for having spurned the new life that comes to those who repent and believe in Jesus. You can bet that Jesus’ first listeners would never again look at old fishing nets in the same way.
For all who confess Jesus as God and Savior, the implications of this last parable should be clear. Jesus calls and commands His Church to be “fishers of people” or, "fishers of men." We’re to push out into our daily lives and strive to bring all into the gracious embrace of Jesus, to invite them to be with us in worship to hear the call to repentance and the good news of new life for all who surrender all to follow Jesus.
Jesus has welcomed us into the kingdom of heaven and now sends us out to bring more to Him, one person, one friend, one family member, one classmate, or one co-worker at a time.
It’s not glamorous. It’s not flashy. It won’t grab headlines.
The world may not notice it, may even disdain it.
They won’t see how God’s kingdom is, right now, right here, making old things new in and through people like us.
But this is how the kingdom of heaven comes to us all: through parents and family members and friends who care enough to share the most precious thing anyone could ever own, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
And, long after all the new things we human beings have devised have died and been forgotten, the kingdom of heaven and all who follow Jesus will be ever alive, ever rejoicing, ever new!
In the meantime, allow yourself every day, to live as a citizen of God's kingdom and celebrate the fact that Jesus’ kingdom has come to you, that by His grace, you belong to Him now and forever! Amen