February 7, 2010

Students of the Kingdom

Have you ever known one of those people who seem to be able to relate everything in their life to their relationship with God? And I’m not talking about one of those who has an irritating habit of using Scripture to avoid getting involved in a difficult conversation or really saying anything helpful in a hard situation. I’m talking about the kind who do so in such a way that seems to bring life to any situation they face. It’s like when life throws any challenge their way they seem to be able to pull from God’s wisdom and face whatever it is with faith and grace. These are the kinds of people who simultaneously make us sick and jealous. Those who are mature enough look up to them and those who aren’t deride them as religious radicals. What is it about these people that gives them the ability to do this? What secret have they found in their relationship with God that enables them to rely so faithfully and heavily on Him regardless of the circumstances they are facing? Well, for one thing, I think it’s safe to say that they have figured out and are living out whatever the core of Jesus’ message is. The obvious follow-up question, then, is: What is the core of Jesus’ message? If we could somehow get our minds fully around that it would seem we would be quite a bit better off than we are now. The challenge, of course, is that there are literally dozens upon dozens of books written on the subject of what comprises the core of Jesus’ message. In other words, nobody seems to have a really good idea. As it turns out though, most of these books are focused on a single theme: the kingdom of God. Throughout the Gospels Jesus mentions the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven as Matthew often phrases it to avoid saying God’s name for the sake of his Jewish-Christian audience) numerous times in His teachings and dialogues with various people. In fact, there are not a few biblical scholars who think that proclaiming and teaching about the kingdom of God is the unifying theme of all Scripture. I, for one, happen to agree with those folks. More than anything else during His time on earth Jesus wanted to make sure we understood what the kingdom of God is and what life in it is like. The kingdom of God is coming more surely than anything in this world and is in fact already here in some measure. The Christian life, then, the life lived mimicking Jesus, the Christ, is primarily concerned with letting God the Holy Spirit make us fit for life in the kingdom. Our part of this is to learn everything about the kingdom we can so that our transition from this world to life in the kingdom will be as smooth and easy as it can be. Indeed, the more and better we understand the kingdom of God, the more we will be drawn to it.

Yet how do we attain such an understanding? The whole concept of the kingdom of God is a pretty abstract thing. If we were to search Paul’s letters for help we would only see this abstractness reinforced with their focus on things like living lives of love and joy and peace and patience and the other fruits of the Spirit. Those are good things to learn, but being told to live in the kingdom or to practice the kingdom value of forgiveness and being shown what these actually look like are two different things. Well, we can look to mature believers like we mentioned a minute ago for examples to follow, but in terms of Scripture (our primary source on kingdom life), I don’t know about you, but there aren’t so many pictures in my Bible. As it turns out we have something ever better. All throughout Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, particularly Matthew’s Gospel, are word pictures that are nearly uniformly intended to help us understand what life in the kingdom looks like. These parables are an invaluable tool for believers in terms of gaining an understanding of the incredible treasure we have available to us in kingdom life. To this end, this morning and for the rest of the month we are going to take a look at some of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom in Matthew. This morning in particular we are going to look at the kingdom at a pretty broad angle and talk further about the importance of having a healthy understanding of the kingdom. Next week we’ll look at the kingdom core value of forgiveness. On the 21st we will examine one of the more frustrating aspects of the kingdom: its uniform availability. Finally, on the last Sunday of the month we’ll take a look at the importance of using the gifts God has given us to promote kingdom life. For the rest of this morning, turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 13 and find v. 24. We’ll take a look at Jesus’ parables from v. 24 to v. 52. Through the lens of six different views of the kingdom we are going to see why it is so important to know about it so thoroughly. Indeed: why is understanding the kingdom of God so important? Let’s begin this journey with Jesus by joining the crowd gathered around Him as He tells some of His most familiar parables.

The first parable Jesus tells the crowds that Matthew records in chapter 13 is perhaps one of His most familiar: the parable of the sower. Jesus tells this parable, explains it, and then goes on to tell another. This next one, and the one with which we’ll start this morning, actually begins fairly similarly to the first. The kingdom of heaven is like this: There’s this farmer with a field of wheat. He gets his field all prepared and plants it with some good seed. In fact, this is the best seed he could have used to plant. But when no one was watching this man’s enemy came and spread a bunch of weed seeds in the field. Well, the wheat and the weeds started to grow and they all pretty much looked the same for a good long while. Eventually, though, the wheat started to produce grain and it became clear that there were a bunch of weeds in the field. When the man’s servants saw this they came and asked him what happened. After all, they knew he had planted only good seed. Being a wise man, he acknowledged that an enemy had come and sabotaged his field. Feeling zealous for the man’s honor his servants asked if he wanted them to go out into the field and pull up all the weeds. Knowing the nature of the weeds, though, the man told them to hold off because in the process of pulling up the weeds they might inadvertently uproot some of the wheat. Instead, he told them, they should wait for the harvest time, pull everything up together, gather the weeds together first and destroy them, and finally store the wheat in a safe place in his barn.

The crowd marveled at this parable and wondered what Jesus had meant by it. The disciples were wondering too so when they had Jesus alone later they asked Him about it. He explained all the different parts to them. The man with the field was Jesus, the field is the world, and the good seed is the “sons and daughters of the kingdom,” in other words, the folks living according to God’s ways. On the other hand, the weeds are the sons and daughters of the evil one and the enemy is the Devil, the evil one himself. The harvesting process laid out by the man is how things are going to be at the end of time. The angels, God’s servants, will gather the sons and daughters of the Devil together along with everything that causes sin and throw them out to be burned. That end will be a truly horrible and tragic one for all those who experience it. The sons and daughters of the kingdom, however, will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. In the same vein, Jesus told the disciples another parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a great net thrown into the sea in order to catch fish. The net itself doesn’t discern what it catches. It pulls in all kinds of fish. When the net is drawn up on the shore, however, the workers sort out the fish. The good fish get put in baskets while the bad ones get thrown out as worthless into a blazing furnace. About this place Jesus said that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So what’s Jesus talking about here? He’s giving us a couple of pictures of what the kingdom is like. The kingdom of God is present in the world here and now. In fact, when God created the world, He planted all good seeds. The first and most permanent reality in the world was the kingdom of God. The corruptions in the world that we now refer to simply as “the world” came later. Now whether or not people opposed to God in this world were actively put in place by the Devil is not the point of this parable so let me caution you against trying to draw too much from the enemy’s sowing of weeds. The same goes for the part when the enemy sneaks in at night while everyone (apparently including the owner of the field) is sleeping. Focus on the bigger point here: in this world which was created by and ultimately belongs to God there are both sons and daughters of the kingdom and sons and daughters of the evil one; there are both people loyal to and abjectly opposed to God; there are both God’s goodness and the evil corruptions of this sin broken world. These two realities exist right alongside each other and until we see the fruits of the respective lifestyles it’s hard to tell the two apart. Put more simply: there is evil in this world. We all know that and one of the great questions of the sons and daughters of the kingdom in every age is why. Why doesn’t the owner of the field go through and pull up all the weeds so that the good wheat can grow and flourish absent such painful distractions?

I suspect many of you are looking forward to planting your gardens for the summer as the spring planting season approaches quickly. (Assuming we eventually dig out from the snow.) How many of you buy a bag of wire grass to put in the ground right alongside your butterbeans? No one? Yet when the fragile sprouts start to come up, there comes the wire grass just the same. In those earliest stages of the growth of your vegetables, before their root systems are well-developed and they start to produce fruit in earnest, what happens if you aggressively root out all the wire grass around them? More than likely you’re going to pull up a bunch of the good plants with the weeds. Lisa and I learned that the hard way last spring. The frustration of both of these parables is that there’s a lot of bad right in alongside the good in this world. Yet to destroy the field before the harvest means losing all the good. And the sons and daughters of the kingdom are still growing and developing so to even try pulling up just the weeds with their tangled, complex root systems will mean losing far too much wheat as well. Though the wheat will have a more difficult time growing amid the weeds, the owner of the field will make sure it has all it needs to grow fully to maturity by harvest time. Similarly, to leave holes in the net large enough for the bad fish to slip through is to risk losing some of the good. This, again, is the frustration of these parables but also of life. Yet in spite of the frustration there is also great hope in these two glimpses of the kingdom. The hope comes in the promise of the harvest. Now, there is no hope here for the sons and daughters of the evil one, but for the good wheat we may rest assured that though our present struggles may bear down on us heavily, they will one day be lightened forever. All the evil in this world will be rounded up and destroyed leaving only the gloriously permanent kingdom of God and those who dwell in it. All of this culminates in a partial answer to our question of why understanding the kingdom is so important. Such an understanding gives us hope when confronted by the problem of evil in the world.

These parables offer only two of the six perspectives on the kingdom we are given in this passage. Before we draw any final conclusions, let’s take a look at four more of the kingdom perspectives Jesus gives us. Following in the theme of the growth of the kingdom amid the weeds of the world in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus quickly told the crowd two more short parables. Hear these words directly from vv. 31-33: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all seed, but when grown, it’s taller than the vegetables and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.” He also told them this: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into 50 pounds of flour until it spread through all of it.” Though the connection isn’t obvious at first read, these two parables run on the same theme as the wheat and the weeds. The focus there was on the growth of the kingdom amid the weeds of the world. The thing about the kingdom growing then is that nobody expects it. There are so many weeds in the world that seem primed to choke the life out of the wheat. How could the kingdom possibly grow all the way to the harvest considering all the forces aligned against it? And yet grow it does. Not only does it grow, but it grows far beyond all expectations. Think about the trees growing around the church. They’re enormous. Yet they started out as a single acorn. Make no mistake: the kingdom will grow. Though the odds of such growth seem worse than those of winning the Mega Millions Jackpot, the kingdom of God will beat all the odds. In the end it will look like the game was rigged from the outset (which in a way it has been). So we see further that understanding the nature of the kingdom of God gives us hope that the ways of God will triumph over the ways of the world.

But is it worth it? Is hitching our wagon to the kingdom really worth all the weeds and smelly fish we have to fight through in the meantime? We can talk about hope for the future all we want, but when the realities of the world are pressing in on all sides its hard to lift our eyes to spy a visage of the kingdom over the fray. The disciples may have had a similar thought when Jesus finished explaining the parable of the wheat and the weeds to them. And perhaps it was in response to this attitude on their parts that Jesus told them a couple more parables about the kingdom. Look at vv. 44-46: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.” I hope you hear the resounding “Yes, it is worth it!” as loudly as Jesus intended for it to be. The kingdom of God is so worth it that there is literally no price too great to pay, no sacrifice to bold to make in order to attain it. If you look carefully the character in the first parable stumbles upon the treasure in the field: he wasn’t looking for it. The second character, on the other hand, was actively searching for the pearl. In other words, whether we stumble across the kingdom entirely by accident or find it at the end of a long and arduous search, it is worth every sacrifice to get our hands on it. And as with the first couple of parables, don’t read too much in to either of these. Jesus is not saying that we can buy our way into the kingdom. Neither should we worry about the ethics of the guy re-hiding the treasure in the field after he finds it. The point is the worth, the value of the kingdom, not the details of the story.

Yet here we find ourselves near the end of our passage and without any really clear answer to our question: why is understanding the kingdom of God so important? From the parables of the kingdom we’ve examined so far we’ve gotten two partial answers and one affirmation of its importance. None of these fully tell us what we want to know. Why is this so important? We finally get our answer in the last two verses of the passage. Once He has finished telling all of the different parables of the kingdom in this series Jesus looks at the disciples (and through Matthew’s text, us) and says: “Have you understood all these things?” Whether genuinely or simply to save face they answer Him affirmatively. And I suspect that many of us are tempted to do the same thing. The importance of the kingdom of God is one of those things Christians are just “supposed” to understand and so we feign knowledge and understanding when in fact we’re short on both. Either way, Jesus responds to their affirmation with another parable: “Therefore…every student of Scripture [literally: every scribe] instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.” There you have it. Magically everything is clear. Understanding the kingdom of God is really important because then we can be like a landowner bring old stuff and new stuff out of his pantry. Huh?

A few weeks ago Lisa and I were watching some show on Food Network about personal chefs in Hollywood. One of the segments was about a team of chefs hired to cook for a bachelorette party who were tasked with making, among other things, a chocolate dessert. Their first attempt failed miserably. They were on the verge of having to tell a room fill of borderline intoxicated women that chocolate was not going to be served. With permission from the host they started searching the pantry and discovered an old box of brownie mixed that they used to save the day. They also found some berries in her fridge that made the dessert seem a bit fancier than box brownies. They took their training from culinary school and put it to work using things both old and new from the storehouse and had what they needed to face the challenge ahead of them. The student of the kingdom must naturally be a student of the Scripture. The kingdom is what is proclaimed in the Scriptures from start to finish. Therefore, the student well-versed in the kingdom (and by that, Scripture) will bring out both what is old (the Hebrew Scriptures comprising the Old Testament) and what is new (the teachings of Jesus and their interpretation by the apostles comprising the New Testament), thereby presenting a wholistic picture of God to the world. In other words, such a student will be prepared for whatever challenge life throws her way. Indeed: Knowing the kingdom well prepares us to face any challenge. Pushing this just a bit further, the old here could be viewed as the words of Scripture as a whole and the new is how we are to apply it to our modern situation. The modern application of ancient Scripture is vitally important in terms of our adjusting our lives to its truths, but without knowing what is in our storeroom, how can we possibly make such applications? Knowing the kingdom well prepares us to face any challenge.

When the evils of the world crash against our fragile frameworks of how this world should work, we can turn to Jesus’ explanation that the kingdom is here now, but the weeds are allowed to persist so that none of the wheat is damaged before the harvest. Even if some of the wheat is choked out ahead of the harvest, there is much wheat left to be given a chance to grow. And the wheat that doesn’t make it will be in good hands all the same if it’s really wheat. We can hang tightly to the fact that the bad fish will one day be rounded up and thrown out. When it looks like the world is going to triumph over the ways of God we can rest assured that though the kingdom seems to be starting small, yet it will grow to dwarf the pettiness of the world. These challenges of life are real, but when we have a solid understanding of the kingdom of God—what it is, how it grows, its worth, what life in it is like—we can deftly navigate all such challenges. Knowing the kingdom well prepares us to face any challenge. In the coming weeks we are going to see three more challenges that a vibrant understanding of the kingdom—which comes only and directly from a vibrant understanding of the Scripture that proclaims the kingdom—prepares us to face with elegant faith and grace. Like the person who seems to be able to relate everything in her life, both good and bad, back to her relationship with God, we will also be able to bring kingdom life to every situation we face. Knowing the kingdom well prepares us to face any challenge. This does not mean those challenges won’t be necessarily less challenging. It does not mean we won’t still face all kinds of challenges. It means we will have the tools we need in order to face them with confidence that the God in whose kingdom we are already living will carry us through all of life’s storms to peace and joy on the other side. Knowing the kingdom well prepares us to face any challenge.