Is it real; Is it Authentic? (Matthew 13)

I am sure we have all seen the popular antiques-oriented TV Show called “Pawn Stars” that features a pawn shop / antiques store in Las Vegas. Or perhaps you’ve seen another, less dramatic program called “Antiques Road Show.” On both occasions, ordinary people are bringing antique items for professional evaluation, and hopefully for a big payday. An expert examines the items carefully for genuine authenticity. Within this industry are many fakes and reproductions, things that appear to be genuine but are in fact rather worthless by comparison to the real deal.

We need to understand that there is a great deal of counterfeit around us in the world of faith and religion – involving people, teachings, movements, and energies, etc.  And whereas the counterfeit is not going to be rooted out from amongst us until the very end, we can look, learn, and evaluate what is true and what is fake.

As we have noted about the parable of the wheat and weeds, the story is not complicated.  But what does this teaching mean for us today?  I think the major challenge for us, as it has been throughout this series, is to ask yourself if you are truly rooted in the right soil of God’s Word and truth. And beyond that, how deep are your roots, how well are you being nourished through those roots, and are you seeing an increasing display of fruit (proof of true life in Christ) through your life?

Satan is the master deceiver. The entire problem of sin originated when evil slithered into the garden and fooled one of the original parents of the human race, and we’ve been paying for that ever since – with the ultimate debt of that wrong only being able to be paid by someone else, in whom we trust as the core message of the gospel.

But in terms of the “enemy” in the story – the Devil – let’s think of some of the things that Satan has replicated and counterfeited over the years. What are these tares among the wheat?

Counterfeit Plan and Vision for the World – Satan has had quite a long career, from leading a revolt of one-third of the angels in eternity past against God … to the Garden of Eden … to Pharaoh trying to kill the Jews … to Herod seeking the Christ-child … to the temptations of Jesus … to thousands of other incidents down to our own day. He is the ruler of another kingdom that is doomed in the end, but he fights with an intensity even beyond ISIS.

Counterfeit Religious Workers – Paul wrote about his ministry challenges in 2 Corinthians 11:26, saying … I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  These false believers and teachers were pretty much everywhere he went and in every church – tares among the wheat.

Counterfeit Gospel Message – In Galatians 1:6-8 Paul wrote to the readers about their declension from the truth: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!  This was not another gospel of the same type, but another categorically different gospel message with no authenticity at all. There have been false gospel messages that distort the truth pretty much right from the beginning of the Christian era. And they are rampant in our day.

Counterfeit Righteousness – The entire book of Romans essentially argues for a righteousness in Christ versus a righteousness that is a natural sense of obligation arising from guilt – fed by the Evil One. This promotes the sense that you have to work and earn it on your own, by your goodness and deeds, to make it to God. This is another gospel.

Counterfeit Church – These have existed practically from the beginning, having some marks and symbols and statements that speak of the truth, but that at the end of the day preach a message totally the opposite of the truth. And a worldwide counterfeit church arises in the end times, being under the False Prophet who draws the attention of the world to worship the Beast, the Anti-Christ. And speaking of that fellow …

Counterfeit Christ at the End of Time – We live in scary times. We wonder and speculate how events play into last times narratives – stuff like the European Union / Worldwide financial crises / the rise of terror worldwide / even this past week – events in Nice, France and the political fallout from instability in Turkey… related to that country’s critical place in the world, associations with Russia and their leadership’s affinity toward radical Islam, etc.

So it is frustrating to have to live and grow in the context of so many weeds that choke out the message and advance of God’s Kingdom, even as we seek to be faithful in the clutter and confusion of it all. But it won’t always be this way, and that is the big idea. There is a harvest in the end and a judgment that ensues.

We cannot fix the world around us. God may use us and our testimony and service to convert some of the nearby weeds – God is able to do stuff like that and change their entire DNA from a weed to a wheat, right down to the roots and seeds. It really is new life when that happens. But our main responsibility is not to fix the world, but to remain faithful in the midst of the diversity and competing values systems. Be rooted!

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Is it a Weed or a Wheat? (Matthew 13)

I am sure we have all had experiences with gardens or flower beds where we are uncertain as to what are the weeds that need to be pulled out and what are the flowers or plants we want to keep. I’ve always had this fear that I’m pulling up the wrong stuff and thereby cultivating a full crop of weeds! It all looks alike, especially at the beginning of the season.

The passage for our theme this week is from Matthew 13, commonly known as the parable of the wheat and the tares. Tares are essentially weeds that grew in the wheat.

We tend to divide the world into who’s “good” and who’s “bad” categories, but in our passage today, Jesus tells his followers that the wheat and tares will grow together. This means that around us today we may find many different kinds of worldviews and religious values systems all existing simultaneously, even very different and variant forms of “Christianity.”  It’s tempting to want to see our own culture and faith beliefs system triumph now, but Jesus says that this will not happen until the end.  Until then, we live “cross-culturally,” taking God’s message to a pluralistic world.

Here is the parable from Matthew 13 …

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

This story of weeds in a wheat field would have been a clear and vivid picture to a first-century mind in an agricultural region and economy. In Israel/Palestine, there is a particularly annoying plant called “darnel” that can grow wild in the midst of a wheat field. It is a noxious plant that you really don’t want mixed with the good crop.

Especially to the untrained eye, or to anyone not paying close attention at the beginning of the growing season, the two plants look much alike. Yesterday in church, I showed side-by-side pictures of wheat and darnel in the early stages of development and asked for a show of hands as to which pictured weeds and which was wheat. The larger number of people guessed incorrectly. (Always fearful of inadvertent copy write infringement, I am hesitant to put such photos online.) And then I displayed a picture at the time of harvest of a field with both, and the differences were clearly obvious.

So at the end of the season, the weeds were more clearly visible, more easily separated and used for the only thing they were good for – fuel.

So, that was a great story. And immediately Jesus launches into two other parables: one about the mustard seed and another about the effects of yeast in dough.

And we can just imagine his disciples standing around each other and maybe one of them saying to another, “Is it just me, or did you also not understand exactly what that story about the wheat and tares was all about?”   And I can imagine an answer coming back to the first guy, “Well, I’m not sure I caught it all either… so maybe we should ask him to clearly explain it.”

So we skip down to verses 36-43 …

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

So here are the component elements of the story

  • Farmer/Sower = Christ and the message of truth
  • Field = the people of the world
  • Good Seed = God’s people of the Kingdom
  • Weeds = the Evil One’s people
  • Enemy = the Devil
  • Harvest = judgment at the end of time
  • Harvesters = the angels
  • Results = separation of righteous and the evil

In tomorrow’s post, we will spend most of it on application and what difference this makes in our lives. But for today, let’s just note how applicable such passages are in the crazy world in which we live … in a world now where the news today is filled with the ambush deaths of more policemen, and where there is a new level of palatable fear in our country for the health and wellbeing of our nation.

The story in the text acknowledges that there are two kingdoms: God’s kingdom and an enemy – the Devil. The Wicked One is active and at work, sowing bad among the good. And though justice is not an immediate reality, the promise is that it is coming in a final day of judgment, of harvesting to two very different ends.

Until then, as wheat, as God’s people in his field, we grow and work to stay nourished and flourish onto fruition in a diverse and multifaceted context of worldviews and value systems. We stay rooted.

Lots of Different Fish in the Sea (Matthew 13)

Fishing was never my forte. I did some of it when a child, but it was generally too passive for my tastes. What would have made it more interesting is if there was a way that the fish could fight back — I mean, beyond the passive-aggressive posture of ignoring a worm on a hook or a hunk of stinky squid. For example, if there was a way that the fish could also throw a hook back at me baited with a Philly Cheese Steak … well, that would be more sporting.

It just seemed to me that most of the time fishing was sitting around waiting for something to happen that never really happened frequently enough.

But I think I would likely have found the dragnet style of fishing in the Sea of Galilee to be more interesting. A net measuring about six feet high and up to even 100 yards long would be buoyed by floating devices at the top, with rocks at the bottom to keep it vertical. One end was anchored on shore while the other was stretched out from the land by a boat to the net’s full extent. Then the boat dragged the net, fully extended, in a semi-circular fashion back to the shore down the beach. The fisherman then drew the net in, and everything in its path would have been snared within it.

There are about 25 native species of fish in Galilee, some of them being good for sale and profit, while others were worthless. The fish were in the water together, but the good ones were sorted out and kept, while the worthless fish were thrown away. Here again is the parable …

Matthew 13:47-50 — The Parable of the Net

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What can we take away from these three parables of the past three days? Here are five points …

1 — There is a definite judgment day that involves life and death, inheritance and destruction. There is no denying this — not only because of these three Scriptures, but many others that teach the same. So the answer to the title of the sermon is “Yes, there is final justice.”

The idea of a God of judgment does not fit well with so many peoples’ viewpoint as to what God is really like. They see Him as just an old grandfather in his dotage who can’t help himself from loving everyone everywhere in his worldwide family.

For there to be the reality of justice and a reason for right living within a moral construct that is respectful of others, there have to be standards of right and wrong and a law-giver who will bring everything into account at some point. What would the world be like without laws and law enforcement that brought law-breakers into consequence and accountability for wrong behavior?

2 — This teaching should lead us to a sober introspection of our standing before God about the energies and fruitfulness of our lives. (Not as earning a positive standing, but rather of demonstrating the reality and outworking of such.)

I hated final exams… even just the thought of them. It was always this looming Sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head. But I learned over time that the final was nothing to fear if I was regular in reading occasionally through my cumulative notes over the semester. And so is the final judgment nothing to fear for those who honor God — who know him through Christ and make that a defining and regular part of life.

Let me be fully clear that our salvation and standing with God is not dependent upon what we do or do not do. But the fruit of our lives cannot help but picture what is the reality about where we are planted. If there is no interest in eternal things or of serving others in the body of Christ, it is odd indeed.

What would you think of a person who was on a team, but after picking up their uniform seldom came to team practices or games?  What would you think of a spouse who claimed to love the other person, but seldom spent time with that person or any of the family, often not coming home for stretches of time? Would that not raise questions about the genuine nature of the love that was claimed to be meaningful and real?

3 — There is a long period of time until the events of final judgment occur. Just because we do not see the end does not mean it will not ultimately come.

We might tend to look at the world around us and wonder, where is justice?

I have a couple of friends right now that are going through times of life where they are being unjustly treated by more powerful people, and there does not seem to be a remedy. We see in varied people groups around the world some of the worst characters the world has ever seen — some who even rival the evil of the Axis powers of WW2. And they seem to be growing and getting away with their atrocities.

The Scriptures speak of God as all-powerful with a promise of his beneficial intervention in the world and a return to this earth to provide justice, yet it has not happened. (More on this theme tomorrow)

4 — Some measure of confusion and lack of clarity, along with the frustration of a lack of resolution are a natural part of waiting for a final day.

We cannot know for sure who is exactly on the Lord’s side. We may have a broad sense of it as we serve together in the family of faith, but we swim in waters with all sorts of fish. Over time, it clarifies often in peoples’ lives — progressive sanctification either bears fruit, or people wander away from the hard work of faithfulness and from something that was not real in their lives.

5 — Our duty until the final day is to work faithfully, all in the context of a final hope that truth and righteousness prevails.

Ultimately, we control very little beyond ourselves and our immediate spheres of influence, but we can be faithful there. We can be sure that we ourselves are living for God, growing in his Word, trusting him in the midst of a confusing world, and serving others around us with the same values. We can be sure that our own families are centered around the truth and the big picture hope of eternal perspective and life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  (More on this tomorrow as well)

Wheat and Weeds; and Weeds and Wheat (Matthew 13)

My landscaper / horticulturalist son has over the years planted a whole variety of unique plants around the flower beds of our house. Early in the year I’m never really sure what is growing, as there does not seem to be a whole lot of appearance difference between the flowers and the weeds. So I’m afraid to pull out something without knowing for sure if might not rather be some rare plant he found a way to grow.

This year there have been some tall, bright green plants growing along the back of the house. I did not know what they were and let them grow. After a while I asked Ben if he knew, and he said he did not but that it might be interesting to see what they turned into. Well, we finally determined they were simply tall weeds, and they are now in my substantial burn pile awaiting a fire.

Early in the growing season there can be difficulty in identifying plants, but over time and fruition, they reveal if they are something good or just a worthless weed.

In today’s parable we see a story of a crop of wheat growing, yet intermingled is also a crop of weeds that were sown by the landowner’s enemy. The question is how to get rid of the bad without hurting the good. Here is the story …

Matthew 13:24-30 — The Parable of the Weeds

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

The situation here is that the weeds growing concurrently with the good seed and crop of wheat is a type of grass plant called “darnel” that has a very similar appearance as the wheat. It is only at the end of the harvest cycle that the two are easily distinguishable.

So the landowner tells the workers to wait until the harvest. At that time the plants will be easily separated. The harvest will be preserved without large portions being uprooted, and the weeds can be gathered to have the positive benefit of being used as fuel.

Jesus actually gives the interpretation of the parable a bit later in the chapter in response to the questioning of the disciples …

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

It often seems odd to us that God allows evil to rage on and on without judgment. But he has a timetable for such a judgment, and this mercy he extends allows us to grow in him while also being his agents to reach out to those around.

It is nothing new for God’s people to wonder why God does not intervene more quickly and immediately into the affairs of man. Habakkuk (2:2-4) asked God in frustration, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.” God ultimately did judge the Babylonians, but not as soon as the prophet wanted to see it happen.

Jeremiah (12:1-2) also called out to God with the verbiage of impatient perplexity … “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts.”

It is confusing and frustrating to see godless people thrive. But a certain promise is there in Scripture that a final day of judgment will come and God will bring about justice.

< For discussion: Why is it so difficult to wait for God’s justice to be revealed?  How is your faith challenged by this seemingly endless delay? >

That Just Ain’t Fair! (Matthew 13, Matthew 25)

A sense of fairness or justice rises very early in our lives. I have seen this most recently when watching my grandchildren. They are constantly looking to see that they are being treated with fairness and equity about such pressing matters as to how much orange juice is in their cup as compared to that in their sibling’s glass.

I suppose you could logically argue that the children in the illustration are actually being self-oriented, making sure they are taking care of themselves and not getting short-changed in any way. Call it maybe “the survival of the fittest.” Being motivated from a sense of justice would cause one child to be equally upset if they got “more” than the other and called attention to that. And that does happen with children and with adults as they see the inevitable inequities that exist in a fallen and sinful world.

But in any event, we have some internal wiring that tells us there needs to be fairness and justice. We know in some intrinsic way that wrongdoing should not be tolerated and that action should be taken against those who harm others. And I would argue that this represents our creation in God’s image, and that the existence of the principle within argues for a good and just law-giver and omnipotent judge.

But as the years go by, the injustices about which we grieve have much greater gravity than the ounces of orange juice or the size of the apple pie slice of dessert. We are saddened when the powerful and entrenched people of society take advantage of people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. We boil over internally when we see evil people in a third world country abuse children or murder innocent people for having a different faith or being from a different tribal ethnicity. Human trafficking is a total outrage. Where is justice? How is this allowed to continue? Will these evil people have to pay for their actions in either this world or the next?

We may also feel the injustice of a life taken before its time, of a young life lost to the folly of a drunk driver, a child neglected or beaten by irresponsible bullies in their lives, or an illness that cuts someone down in the prime of life. Where is God when this happens? Why does injustice exist? Is there a time of accounting, and when will it be?

These are the types of questions we will be seeking to address a bit when we look at three different parables this Sunday and in our writings this next week. To be prepared, here are the three parables of interest in this study …

Matthew 25:31-46 — The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 13:24-30 — The Parable of the Weeds

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:47-50 — The Parable of the Net

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Thing of Inestimable Value (Matthew 13)

A USA TODAY story in 2007 tells a story of something of inestimable value. It says:

The old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” took on new meaning — and a sick feeling of regret — for a couple who donated a rolled-up parchment document to a Nashville thrift store last year, only to find out this week that it was a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, likely to be worth six figures.

“I bought it at a yard sale … about 10 years, ago, I think,” said Stan Caffy, a pipe fitter who described himself as “the idiot who donated that Declaration you wrote about.”  He had it hanging in his garage for about a decade

Caffey read later that a man named Michael Sparks bought the Declaration from the thrift store for $2.48 and is ready to auction it off for $250,000 or more.

Caffy and his wife, Linda, married a little over a year ago, and as part of the ritual of combining households, she pushed him to clean out the garage, which had filled up with all sorts of extraneous things.

So the moral of the story is to never throw anything away; you never know what it might be worth. (I’m hoping Diana reads this!)

This story, along with the main ideas of the parables with look at this week, prompted me to open the sermon yesterday with a similar “what would you do it” kind of story …

What would you do it you were at a weekend yard sale on a Saturday morning. And there you saw a very old metal teapot that caught your eye, but you thought the price was really rather high for a yard sale.

Later that day you happened to flip past the “Antiques Roadshow” PBS program, and what do you see but the very same teapot being discussed. And you are amazed to find out that it is extraordinarily rare … that it was handmade by Paul Revere, and he was known to have only made five of them … so this teapot was said to be worth thousands of dollars.

Beyond that, the program’s expert host says that there is a particularly special one of these that has been lost to history … that it was a gift to George and Martha Washington, and that it would be worth an inestimable sum of money if ever found … and that their initials were on the bottom of it. And you recall when you handled the item earlier that there was writing on the bottom, and you’re pretty sure it was “GW and MW.”

What would you do?  Would you not return to that sale prepared to pay whatever they asked for it, just to have possession of something so valuable?

Again, here is the passage and parables from Matthew 13:44-46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

We will get into some deeper interpretive efforts in the next two days, but it does not take a lot of deep digging to see a single main idea that comes from the passage: that the kingdom of heaven is of inestimable value.

Here is a question for you to start off the week: Can you think of anything that comes even close to being of greater inestimable worth than being “all in” in terms of valuing our relationship with God through Christ?  And a follow-up question: What are some things that some people believe to be of inestimable value?

When preaching or writing about a topic like this, I am sometimes struck by how difficult it is to come up with an illustration that even begins to scratch the surface of a topic that is related to the immensity of God or the awesome nature of His eternal plans and heavenly kingdom. Anything we come up with seems silly by comparison. BUT THAT IS THE POINT! There really is only one thing that is truly inestimable. And you can have it for free!

Of Loaves and Resistance (Matthew 13:33)

Some things just don’t “go viral”—not on their own, anyway.  The last time data was collected (which was December of 2014), an estimated 300 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube per minute.  That means that if you spend fifteen minutes reading this post, then by the time you are done there will be an additional 4500 hours of video on Youtube that was never there before.  If you work an 8-hour workday, that means you work roughly 2000 hours per year.  So—get this—if you want to watch all the video that’s been put on Youtube since you read this post, it would take over two years of full-time employment.

What does that mean?  It means that viral videos start as needles in a very large haystack.  But under the right conditions, they emerge and spread like wildfire.  Something similar happens with God’s kingdom:

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

In his analysis of this parable, Robert Farrar Capon writes that sometimes even our resistance to God’s will can ultimately lead to accomplishing God’s will:

“And even your negative responses—even your pointless resistances to the kingdom—interfere only with your own convenience, not with its working…Unless the dough is kneaded thoroughly—unless it resists and fights the baker enough to develop gluten and form effective barriers to the yeast’s working—then the gases produced by the yeast will not be entrapped in cells that can lighten the lump into a loaf.  Who knows, therefore?  Maybe even our foot-dragging and our backsliding—maybe even the gummy, intractable mess of our sins—is just all in a day’s leavening to the Word who is the Yeast who lightens our lumpishness.”(Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 120-2)

Think about this for a second: can you think of circumstances in which resisting God has prevented God’s will from happening? 

For some the answer could be “yes,” though I suspect that resistance to God’s will only lasts for so long.  When Joseph confronted his estranged brothers—the ones who had jealously left him for dead before he became an official in Egypt—he told them “You intended to harm me, but God used it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Many religions stress the power of a god to overcome the will of the disobedient.  We might cite Islam—whose very name means “submission.”  Christianity emphasizes conformity to the will of God—yet never through force or manipulation.  Instead, God works his will through us—like the baker with the dough—so that through the process of life with God our rough spots, our tendency to resist can be tenderly kneaded into God’s kingdom program.

A Fungus Among Us (Matthew 13:33)

We’ve lived so long in the age of supermarkets that we forget what life must have been like for those who baked their own bread.  But for the pre-industrial world, baking bread is a skill necessary to human survival.  What makes bread “rise” is the presence of yeast.  Yeast, as you might know, is a fungus.  Not the most pleasant of words, but, well, that’s what it is.  When the yeast organisms get to work, they break down larger compounds (like sugar) and release carbon dioxide through a process called fermentation.  When this gas is released, the “pockets” of carbon dioxide cause the bread to rise and expand.

So…that’s what causes dough to rise? Fermentation?  Fungus?!?  Well, if you’re going to put it like that, then…yes; yes it is.  Drill down to the core essentials, and life rarely seems all that pretty.  But the process is necessary if you enjoy—I dunno—sandwiches, bagels, or pizza.

Jesus therefore uses this same process to illustrate the growth of the kingdom

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

By now you may be getting a bit sick of reading this one-sentence parable.  But let’s take a closer look.  In his book Thy Kingdom Connected, Dwight Friesen sees the “hiddenness” of the kingdom as “best understood in relational terms:”

“Interpersonal relational connections are rarely flashy events or big programs; rather, they are the relatively mundane stuff of life – connecting with your neighbor and bringing them a casserole when a grandmother passes away, or building a friendship with the older man whose cubicle is next to yours.  Simply connecting while living in the way of Christ is how the kingdom of God transforms the world. (Dwight J. Friesen, Thy Kingdom Connected, p. 39-41)

Stop and think about this one: in what ways might you see the growth of God’s kingdom through relationships and community?

Like the process of fermentation, the details are rarely pretty.  Spend enough time with people, and they grate on your nerves.  We’re all a little broken, you see.  Some of us more than others.  And we’re all loved.  The church has rightly been called the “body of Christ.”  Alone we can do little—if anything.  Together we can represent the hands and feet of the Savior.  Living among one another gets us close to the (ahem) “fungus” of personality quirks and sinful vices.  But it’s also a chance to see grace grow and flourish between human beings.

And that process should cause all of us to rise.

 

Enough (Matthew 13:31-32)

A few years ago Tim Thorpe came to visit Dallas on a business trip.  I had the chance to meet up with him, and we briefly toured the resort at which he’d been staying.  Among the items in the indoor park area stood a large oak tree—or at least a replica of one.  This large, fake tree really did look like the real thing, and it better have, because the plaque said that it cost $250,000 to produce.  Works righteousness can never grow a flourishing tree—only a fake one.

Jesus’ parables of the mustard seed and the leaven illustrate how the insignificant can often surpass our expectations.  Take a moment to read—or re-read—the parable of the mustard seed:

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

Take a moment and see if you can identify the components of the parable.  Jesus tells us that the seed represents the kingdom.  So who is the “man?”  Who are the “birds of the air?”  What is our responsibility to the kingdom, according to this parable?

Like the parable of the sower (Mark 4), this story emphasizes the inevitability of growth through the work of the Sower.  Since God’s kingdom flourishes through God’s will alone, then we might easily see that the “man” is none other than God himself.   The “birds of the air” represent all who might enjoy the benefits of the flourishing kingdom.  Some have speculated that the “birds” most specifically represent the Gentiles—the non-Jews who would come to experience God’s blessing once grafted into the vine of Israel.

So if God does the work and we experience the blessing, this naturally challenges at least two assumptions we might have about the kingdom:

  • First, it challenges our efforts to grow the kingdom on our own. The “seed” comes from God; not us.  If we reduce God’s kingdom to a set of religious projects, then we have confused means for their ends.  Daily devotions, worship services—these are only as valuable as the God to whom they point.  Turn them into the end themselves, and we’re constantly worried about doing   Have I read my Bible enough?  Have I prayed enough?  Have I shared my faith enough?  We fail to rest in God’s kingdom, instead devoted to building our own empire.
  • Second, it challenges our assumption that faith is found in “surrendering our hearts to God.” Such language sounds pleasant and devoted—even the opposite of the works-based faith above.  But what happens?  The same questions rise again: Have I surrendered enough?  Have I really “given my heart to God?

We can say two things: first, none of this will ever be enough.  Second, when we try these approaches, we end up building a big, expensive fake tree rather than allow God to grow his kingdom through us.  The gospel isn’t opposed to human effort, mind you—it’s just opposed to us earning it.

Too often we feel that if we just had a little more faith, could do just a bit better at repenting—then our relationship with God would really take off.  But don’t you see how this parable challenges this?  It’s not the quantity of our faith that matters; it’s the object of our faith.  We can truly rest in God’s grace knowing that the work that he’s accomplished truly is enough.

And still it grows (Matthew 13:31-33)

Jesus was nothing at all what his followers were expecting.  Far from a mighty warrior arriving to conquer the Roman oppressors, the Savior they got was a humble teacher.  His ministry would be one of obscurity—masked from both the public’s eyes and the public’s understanding.

So it’s quite fitting that Jesus would rely on these stories, these parables; they conveyed truth in the simplest of terms, but also the most profound of meanings.   And these parables also revealed just a bit more about the true nature of God’s kingdom.  Though inconspicuous, his kingdom would develop into something larger than anyone could ever imagine.  This was the message of two parables in particular: the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven in the bread.

MUSTARD SEED FAITH

In the midst of several other parables, Jesus told his followers this story:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

If you’re a skeptic, you might be quick to note that no; mustard seeds are not the smallest of seeds.  If Jesus was God, shouldn’t he have known that?  Well, he probably did; it’s just that mustard seeds were frequently used by both Jewish and Greek teachers to emphasize the very small.  Jesus was just building on a tradition his followers would already have been familiar with.

Jesus’ point is much more basic than such details.  He’s seeking to compare the rapid growth of mustard seeds with that of his kingdom.  How rapid, you ask?  A typical mustard seed might be something like a millimeter in diameter.  Small, right?  But when you plant them—in that climate at least—the plant would grow ten feet tall within five days.  And when it did, it would sprout large leaves, large enough for birds and other wildlife to find shelter and nourishment from other seeds.

How is this like God’s kingdom?  God’s kingdom—again, the rule and reign of God on earth—seems small and insignificant in comparison to the Empires of the world.  But let it grow, let it flourish, and it explodes into something vibrant and organic, something that many can enjoy and find nourishment in.  It’s quite possible, in fact, that Jesus used the “birds of the air” to illustrate the way that Gentiles—that is, the non-Jews who did not have any original claim to God’s kingdom—could also find hope in what God’s doing.

VIRAL LEAVEN

Jesus told a second story:

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

Leaven was often used as a symbol in both Jewish and Greek writings—sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.  In this short story, Jesus seems to be using it quite positively.

Leaven is not the same as yeast.  Yeast refers to a specific organism that causes fermentation—the resulting carbon dioxide production causes bread to rise.  In the ancient world, “leaven” was the term given to fermenting dough.  It most likely refers to a small lump of dough saved back and used to make subsequent batches of bread.

How much was a “measure?”  Well, one measure was thought to be about 3 gallons of dry measure.  So “three measures of flour” would be approximately a bushel of flour and would probably be the upper limit of what one woman could handle.  The amount of bread that could be made would feed roughly 100-150 people.  As with the mustard seed, the point of this parable is that something small could have large results.

But it’s that unseen, hidden nature of God’s kingdom that haunts us.  Nothing in our lives bears the mark of God’s rule and reign.  But Jesus tells us that in the background, in the quiet spaces where we often forget to look, God’s kingdom still grows.

ISIS militants persecute and take the lives of Christian missionaries.  One of the relatives thanked—thanked—ISIS for allowing their Christian testimony to be incorporated into the video of their beheadings.  And God’s kingdom grows.  Pornography usage is steadily increasing.  Experts tell us that well over $3,000 is spent on pornography every second.  Every 39 minutes, a new video is created.  And still it grows.  According to Richard Stearns, current president of World Vision United States, 26,500 children die as a result of poverty daily.  Stearns says that in visible terms, this would be the same as if 100 jetliners full of children crashed to the ground every single day.  And still it grows.  In our own country, in our workplaces, in our schools, Christ’s followers are increasingly pushed to the margins of society, labeled as intolerant at best, bigoted at worst.  We are told that we are part of the problem, not the solution, and that our antiquated beliefs have done more to harm than to heal.  And still it grows.

And 2,000 years in our past, on a lonely hillside overshadowed by the clouds of God’s own wrath, hung the body of our Lord, the body of One who tasted death so that he might swallow it up in victory.  A Savior who told—nay, promised his followers that to come after him would mean taking up our own cross, bearing this symbol of murder and shame, and carrying it through a world that recognizes a crown of glory and never a crown of thorns.  A Savior who promised that in the new beginning, when his kingdom is one day made complete, we shall rise from the ashes of the present age to live in a world made wonderfully new.  Until that day we live in the meantime, that interim period between a kingdom announced and a kingdom made real.  And still it grows.  And still it grows.  And still it grows.