Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Jesus, Give It To Me Straight

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, July 30, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS.

Read Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 here.
Read 1 Kings 3:5-12 here.

Listen to sermon audio here.
Listen to the offertory here.

The kingdom of heaven is like . . . swiss cheese. . . It’s very holy.[1]

In our gospel reading today from Matthew 13, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like….a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, a fishing net. Five different analogies, and these after Jesus has already told about the four soils that we talked about two weeks ago, and the weeds that we talked about last week.  These analogies or similes give us different ways to understand the kingdom of God, the same kingdom we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That word “kingdom” is common in the gospel stories.  Matthew tells us in several places that Jesus was preaching the good news of the kingdom (4:23), and that Jesus sent the disciples out telling them to go preach the good news of the kingdom (Luke 9:2).  The idea of God’s kingdom would have been familiar to people in that time who had heard the words of prophets like Isaiah saying it would come.  Daniel had said that God’s kingdom would bring earthly kingdoms to an end and establish God’s reign forever (2:44). 

The prophets had also made it clear that it is God who establishes kings and kingdoms.  God had promised King David that his house, his line would have someone on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7).  That promise referred to Jesus, but back then people thought it meant there would be another king like David, an earthly king.  They expected to be rescued from the Romans by someone with great power using dramatic action. 

Jesus was trying to help them see that the kingdom of God is not like earthly kingdoms.  So Jesus tells these parables.

1.     The kingdom of God is like a Mustard Seed
a.     I’ve been joking lately about how the Bible talks about fruits of the spirit but there’s never anything about vegetables.  I was wrong.  Mustard is a vegetable.[2]
b.     There are over 40 different types of mustard.[3]  The kind we planted two weeks ago with the kids is a very tiny seed that will become leaves for a good salad. Jesus refers to a different variety that will become a large bush or tree.
c.      The idea of birds nesting in its branches is likely a reference to Daniel 4:20-21 where Nebuchadnezer’s kingdom is likened to a great tree in which birds roost. Nebuchadnezer’s kingdom came to an end, but God’s kingdom will only increase.[4]. . and be a benefit to those who find rest in it.
d.     Basically, the idea is that where God’s at work, tiny things can have big impact.
2.     Yeast is also a tiny thing that has big impact.
a.     Something super fun about yeast – it’s a fun guy.  (A fungi)  I thought that might get a rise out of you.
b.     Before there was written language, people were already using yeast to make alcohol and bread.  It’s shown in Egyptian hieroglyphics.  But we didn’t really understand what it was until the 1860’s when Louis Pasteur used a microscope to see that it is a living organism.[5]
c.      The way yeast works is it makes gas and that’s what makes the bread rise.  So if anyone has ever told you that you’re full of hot air, you can tell them that so is the kingdom of God, and that’s a good thing.
Both of these parables encourage us to hang on to hope, and to keep on trusting that God is at work in our world and in us, even when we can’t see it.  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives us this same idea in another way.  He says, God “is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 2:20).

These two analogies, the mustard seed and the yeast, and the idea of the big and unexpected impact of even small faith, remind me of my favorite picture of Jesus. It’s in Revelation 1.  It’s not the nice, friendly Jesus with children on his lap.  In Revelation 1 Jesus is blindingly bright, his eyes are like fire, his tongue is a sword, and his feet are bronze.  This is John’s vision of the mighty resurrected Jesus.  For some people that’s a scary picture, but I find it comforting because when I’m afraid or worried about big things, I want to know that Jesus is bigger and stronger than my fears and worries.  My hope in the face of trouble is in this Jesus.  Strong Jesus.

3.     The kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field.
a.     In Jesus’ time there were no banks, so burying stuff in the ground was a good way to hide it.
b.     This parable sounds like a pirate hunting for gold with a treasure map, except that the parable says that the treasure was found unexpectedly, not that anyone was hunting for it.
4.     The Pearl, unlike the treasure, was found after searching.
a.     God tells us we will find him when we seek him if we seek with all our hearts (Jer. 29:13). “Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (Msg version)
b.     We may not always know what we’re searching for, but when we do find God, in all the various ways that we find him, there is joy unlike any other joy.
These two parables probably made good sense to those who had given up everything to follow Jesus, like Paul who says in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss compared with knowing Jesus Christ.”  Our relationship with Jesus is our treasure in a field, our pearl of great price. 

Jesus says in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you,” a verse that characterizes well what we see happening in the passage that Christian read for us from 1 Kings 3.  In that passage, Solomon, who has just inherited the kingdom from his father David, has a dream in which God tells him to ask for anything (v5).  Solomon asks for pearls – pearls of wisdom.  The NRSV says he asks for an “understanding mind” (v9).  What the Hebrew words literally say is that he asks for a listening heart. What a great treasure!  It’s not surprising that God granted that request.

5.     The kingdom of heaven is like a net (funnicello. . . no, just kidding, a fishing net)
a.     The net gathers fish of every kind, but the kingdom gathers people.  All are welcome in the kingdom of heaven.  The Bible tells us in  Isaiah and Revelation[6] that at the end of time God will establish his kingdom forever here on earth, and everyone will stand before God.
b.     One commentator says that this parable is reminding us that “Jesus, unlike the Pharisees of his time, had no interest in forming a pure church composed only of the perfect.  God, in his good time, will judge” us all.  In the meantime, it is our job to tell everyone about Jesus’ offer of salvation and forgiveness.[7]
c.      The book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of what this future kingdom looks like.  In Revelation 4 it says there are people of every tribe and nation, every kind there is.  The more we are welcoming diversity, the more we are helping to build that future kingdom now.

After Jesus has told all these parables about the kingdom, he asks a question to check whether the disciples are understanding. “Are you getting this?” he asks.  And they say, “Yes.”

But I don’t think they really did.  Because later, after Jesus had died on the cross and been resurrected, just before he ascended into heaven, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  So I wonder what they were thinking about when they heard Jesus explaining with all these different analogies.  They didn’t quite get it.

What about us?  Do we get it?

Maybe we do and maybe we don’t.   The simplest, most straightforward explanation of the kingdom of God is that it’s here and now, and visible whenever we do the will of God.  God’s kingdom is in us, because the Holy Spirit lives in us, and the kingdom comes through us whenever we bring peace, joy, love, hope. 

But putting that into practice isn’t always simple and straightforward.  Knowing God’s will isn’t always easy.  And the kingdom comes even in spite of us.  It’s the work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of Melissa or any one of us.

We’re all a part of the work of the kingdom, and so Jesus illustrates this with one last parable.

6.     Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household
a.     This is the description of a disciple, a priest in what we refer to as the priesthood of all believers, which includes all of us. Because the Holy Spirit lives in us, we have a priceless treasure, a bottomless resource, continual access to God whose amazing power raised Jesus from the dead. 
                                                              i.      The power of love,
                                                            ii.      the brightness of joy,
                                                          iii.      the anchor of hope,
                                                          iv.      unexplainable peace,
                                                            v.      the strength of a kernel of faith. 
b.     When we think we don’t have any of these, all we have to do is say to God, “help me,” “guide me,” and we will find that we have what we need to take the next breath, the next step, and the next.

Why does Jesus tell so many different parables and what does this tell us about God?  It tells us that God wants us to know him, wants us all to be a part of his kingdom.  Jesus keeps on telling us about God’s love in different ways, and showing us in different ways,
·      so that we’ll get it and share it,
·      so we’ll grow in our understanding,
·      and grow in our relationship with him,
·      and tell others so that more and more people will come to know him.

I think Jesus tells so many different parables and gives us so many different analogies because he knows that we all think and understand in different ways.  We all have different personalities, different learning styles, different life experiences and backgrounds.  Some of us may grasp one analogy better than another. 

This is one of the challenges of being the church together.  We are all different.  Some of us do well listening to sermons. Some will need to be doing something else while they listen to stay on track – taking notes, drawing pictures, knitting. Some of us connect with God more through the singing or the prayer times.  Others of us get more out of the time before and after the service when we get to interact with people, or in the discussions in Sunday school or small groups or Bible studies.

One of our challenges is to keep trying to connect with God in different ways so that we keep connecting with God.  Figure out what works for you so that you are connecting with God daily.

In seminary, I had the opportunity to figure out my learning style.  There are lots of different models for this. I’m using VAK – visual, audio, kinesthetic.  I learned that I use all three, but that I am dominantly a kinesthetic or tactile learner, which means I need to touch things and interact with information.  Discovering this was a big AHA moment for me, so I was anxious to talk about it.  As I was telling one of the ladies at our church at that time, a retired educator, she said, “Yes, I already knew that.”

There are three things her response taught me: 

1.     One is that it’s fun to talk to people because you’ll find out they know lots of interesting stuff.

2.     Two is that knowing and being who we are rather than trying to be like other people is freeing and lots of fun and allows us to be better at doing what God made us to do – each of use uniquely created for our particular life.

3.     Three is that even if we think who we are is a big secret, it’s not.  It shows in our lives in big and small ways.  That lady knew I was a tactile learner because she knew what to look for, but also because there was evidence to see.  What seemed subtle or invisible to me was obvious to her.  It’s the same with our lives as Christians.  The more we let the Holy Spirit work in us, they more we are the unique individuals God made us to be, and the more we bring the kingdom of God with us wherever we go….in what we do and what we say, and don’t do and don’t say.  In what we talk about or post on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and in email.

The more the Holy Spirit works in us the more we bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self control with us wherever we go.

God is at work in our world building his kingdom.  I saw it at work this week on Facebook, when Debby Oller posted the obituary of her husband who died on Thursday.  Many of you know her because she used to attend here. I know her because she was the real estate agent that sold us our house.  Within minutes of posting the obituary, there was a long string of prayerful and comforting comments from people helping to bear the burden of her sorrow.

So the kingdom of God is like friends struggling through life together, helping each other get through the rough spots.

There are a lot of stories we could tell – analogies of how we understand what the kingdom of God is like, stories of how we’ve seen God’s Kingdom at work – in our own lives or in the world around us. 

What stories would you tell? 
How is the kingdom of heaven growing in you? 
Who can you tell your stories to? 

Who do you know who might need to know that there is love? 
            That there is hope?  That there is joy?  That they’re included?

Stories help us understand.  
But sometimes we just want to say,
“Hey, Jesus, give it to me straight.”

Maybe in response to that he’d simply point to the cross and say,
            “God loves you all so much that he sent me to show you.”

The more we say yes to him, the more we’re saying 
“thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” 

The more we say to God,
“build your kingdom here in our hearts, in our lives and in our world,”
…the more we find those moments of clarity,
 when we can see straight into the eyes of love.

Listen to the song by Rob Krabbe written in response to the sermon:

[1] http://www.funny.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Funny.woa/wa/funny?fn=CDOJC&Funny_Jokes=Kingdom_Of_Heaven and of course I had to use this one because it’s very much like a pun my dad makes. 
[4] The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol.7, p416 (Abingdon Press, 1952)
[6] Romans 14:12, 2 Cor. 5:12, 1 Peter 4:5 All of us will give account.  Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65, according to Richard Mouw in “When the Kings Come Marching In” proposes that all will be brought into the kingdom to be judged, and God will make all things new.
[7] The Interpreter’s Bible, p421

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