Sunday, July 24, 2011

Value Judgment

 Texts:  Philippians 3:2-11; Matthew 13:44-52

  AROUND TWENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, A father, two grown sons, and a couple of their friends out in Kansas City shared an interest in treasure hunting.  They heard tell of a riverboat called the Arabia that'd gone down in the Missouri River near there in 1856, that she'd carried a cargo of gold and barrel upon barrel of excellent whiskey.  She was said to lie under a certain cornfield-- the Missouri has shifted considerably since the mid-1800s-- and they got permission from the farmer to find her and dig her up if they could.  So the men pooled thousands of dollars of their own money for the necessary equipment and set to work.  For weeks they dug and dug until at last, the wreck of the Arabia emerged from the silt 45 feet down.  And all the time the men were thinking of that valuable whiskey and gold, how they were going to sell it and make their fortunes.

    But a funny thing happened when the steamboat started yielding up its treasures . . . and I'll tell you what it was as I conclude this sermon.  But it's human nature to want to strike it rich.  There's something in us that feels that finding hidden treasure would be the most wonderful thing that could happen to us, and it'd be worth giving up a lot to get at it.  And our Lord Jesus, does He wag His finger at us pathetic human beings and say, "Naughty, naughty!  Stop being so greedy!"?  Not at all.  He totally agrees that nothing would be more joy-inspiring than finding something of infinite value where and when we least expect it.  In fact, our reading from St. Matthew this morning has to do with that very subject.  But what Jesus wants us to understand is that there is a more valuable treasure to be found than gold or silver or jewels.  And when we find it, it's worth giving up everything to gain.

    Matthew 13:44 begins, "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field."  No use looking for mysterious meanings, there it is: the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure.  But one day a man comes along and finds it.  Unlike the Arabia's salvagers, he isn't looking for it.  Good chance he's a hired man, digging the field for the landowner.  Now, it's not part of Jesus' meaning for us to get tangled up in who buried the treasure and the legal ramifications of the ancient Jewish finders-keepers laws, if they had any.  The point is, that there's a marvellous treasure, the man finds it, and he is struck by its value.  So he hides it again, sells everything he has, and buys that field.  He judged that it was worth the price, so valuable was the treasure he found.

    Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like that.  Suddenly in the midst of the ordinary pressures and desires and attractions of this earthly life we see our Lord and His kingdom presented to us in all its wonder, and we accept that it's worth giving up everything we have, if only it-- if only He-- might be ours.

    Jesus' disciples would identify with the man in this parable.  From verse 11 of this chapter of Matthew, Jesus has made a distinction between the crowds, who follow Him for what they can get out of Him in the way of healings and food and excitement, and true disciples, who truly want to know Jesus and submit to Him as their Master and Lord.  The disciples were the ones to whom it was given, as Jesus said in that same verse 11, to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.  So Jesus did not entrust this parable of the treasure hidden in the field to the crowds, but He spoke it in "the house" (probably Simon Peter's home in Capernaum), in private, to the disciples only.  They would hear it and think, "Yes, I was living my everyday life, doing my ordinary work, and all of a sudden this very ordinary-looking Man from Nazareth came along preaching the kingdom of heaven, and somehow in His presence it was like an amazing treasure was revealed to me.   Suddenly I saw that the kingdom of heaven was somehow wrapped up in Him.  And I knew I had to leave everything and follow Him, no matter what it would cost."

    Are you a true disciple of Jesus Christ?  When you look at Him in the pages of Scripture, do you recognize and confess that He, Himself, is the very embodiment of the kingdom of God?  And that He's worth following no matter what? 

    Be sure it is the real Jesus you're following after.  Beware that you don't squander everything you have on treasure that is false.  Some will tell you that the kingdom of heaven is a state of personal fulfilment where believers are continually satisfied with themselves and their lives.  Others say it will be a social utopia where everyone is equal and there are no more wars or thefts or social injustice.  Either way, they'll say it's up to us to bring the kingdom in.  Yes, the kingdom of heaven will include all those good things, but if we wear ourselves out trying to achieve good ends by us making the kingdom come, we've wasted our substance on fool's gold.  The kingdom is something only God can bring in.  It truly comes only when men and women, boys and girls, joyfully submit to Jesus Christ as their Saviour and King.  That's what the kingdom of heaven is: that state of affairs where God is King, beginning in your heart and mine.  And as our King, He's the Source and due Recipient of everything we've got and everything we are.

    And, Jesus begins in verse 45, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  Now, this is different. You'd think that He would say, "The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great value."  But now the merchant himself and his quest for perfect pearls are an image of God's rulership in the world. 

    A pearl is an interesting gem.  It isn't like other jewel.  Every gemstone has been there since the beginning of the world and you dig them out of the earth.  But pearls represent something new.  They have to be made, by an oyster, and they start with a little piece of dirt that irritates the oyster, and the mollusc coats and coats and coats that piece of grit with mother-of-pearl until it produces the beautiful lustrous orb we see in the jewelry store.  In the ancient world, fine pearls were valued more than diamonds, and the merchant Jesus speaks of is willing to sell everything he has to acquire it.

    And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant, who comes deliberately seeking this pearl.  Brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ came into this world seeking us, His Church, and it cost Him everything He had, His very life's blood, to win us.  But wait a minute, you might say.  Before we were saved we were anything but pure and lustrous.  True. But the Lord not only sees from the beginning how things will turn out in the end, He also makes sure that things end up the way He's planned them.  In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, we're told that Christ gave Himself up for the Church, and that one day He will present her-- that is, us as a body-- to Himself as a radiant Church, without spot or wrinkle or any sort of blemish.  And in the book of the prophet Malachi the Lord indicates that a day will come when He will "make up His treasured possession," and we will be His, we who fear the Lord and honor His name.  We are His pearl of great price, and when it came time for Him to gain us, He held nothing back.  He paid the price for our sin and won us to Himself to be His holy people, precious in His sight.  It's significant, I think, that a pearl is essentially a bit of dirt covered over by radiant purity.  For in just that way Jesus Christ in His sacrificial love has covered our sins, so they are forgotten and never seen or thought of anymore; all that is seen is the loveliness we have become in Him.

    But there's a problem here.  Have you spotted it?  I'm preaching as if I assumed that all of us in this room have true faith in Jesus Christ.  That all of us have joyfully bowed the knee to Him as our King and our God.  I'm talking as if all of us have had our sins washed away in His blood and are willing, like Paul, to consider everything a loss for the sake of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection.  I hope and pray that is so.  But it may not be.  Some of you may be like the crowds, only interested in Jesus for what He can do for you in this world.  You may think your kind of sinfulness is no big deal, that if God is offended at it that's His problem.  You may have no interest in the treasure that is the kingdom of heaven, and no desire that Christ should seek long and hard to find and purchase you for His own.

    If this is in your heart, beware.  For Jesus taught His disciples another parable about the kingdom of heaven.  He says that the it's like a great dragnet that is let down into the lake and catches all kinds of fish, both good and bad.  Do the fishermen keep all of them?  No, the bad fish are thrown away. They perish.  This, Jesus says, is how it will be at the end of the age, when He returns to judge the living and the dead.  There are many people who in this world seem to be children of the kingdom; they're all in the net.  But the time will come when mankind will be separated out and judged, the wicked from the righteous, and the wicked will be thrown into the fiery furnace.  There, Jesus says,  there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  There, people who refused to worship Him as King, who thought they could use Him as a source of good advice, will spend eternity in burning despair and frustration, weeping with rage because they know God is righteous and their sentence was just.

    Please, don't let this happen to you.  Hear the Holy Spirit today as He speaks of Christ's love for you.  There is a remedy for your sin.  He has paid the price already, that you might be His own.  All you have to do is say, "Yes, Lord, You did for me what I could never do for myself.  Please bring me into your heavenly kingdom, for I trust you as my Saviour and Lord."

    After Jesus had finished teaching these parables, Matthew tells us, He asked His disciples, "Have you understood all these things?"  He puts the same question to you. Have you understood the unsurpassable value of the kingdom of heaven, that to gain it, it's worth everything you have and are?  Do you understand that Jesus Himself gave up everything to purchase us for His kingdom?  Do you understand that there will be a time of final judgement, when God will set the true value of every human creature, according to the value they set on the blood of Christ, shed on Calvary's cross?

    The disciples said yes, they understood. Jesus accepted their answer and told another short parable, which applies both to them and to us.  They, and we, are those who have been instructed about the kingdom of heaven.  Under the training of His word, we become teachers of the New Covenant law.  And so we are like householders who possess the old treasures of what God did for His people Israel and the new treasure of His grace to us in Jesus Christ.  And we don't keep these valuable things hidden; we bring them out and put them on display in our behavior and in our words, so that an impoverished and cursed world might be enriched and blessed.

    Which brings us back to the men who spent all that money and did all that work to salvage the steamboat Arabia.  They didn't find any gold or whiskey.  What they discovered was barrel upon barrel, crate upon crate, box upon box of every kind of household good and luxury that a frontier family could desire.  To quote the Arabia website, there was "castor oil and cognac, needles and nutmegs, windowpanes and wedding bands, eyeglasses and earrings"; think of anything you might want in your home, it was there in abundance. For a moment-- just a moment-- the men considered how much money they could get for all this.  But right away, they realized they couldn't sell the Arabia's cargo.  Immediately they began to conserve it, and the work goes on, twenty-two years later.  They raised the money to build a museum.  They put their discoveries on display, so people from all over America and around the world can see and appreciate the amazing treasure they found.

    That is what our Lord wants you and me to do with the treasure that is the kingdom of heaven.  He died and rose again to purchase your eternal membership in His kingdom, that in Him you will find everlasting joy that can never diminish or fade.  Let us not keep the treasure hidden.  Let us bring out the wonders of His grace from our storeroom and put them on display.  In the short time He has given us, let us reveal His glory daily, and shine like the most precious pearl He has purchased us to be.

    In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Let It Grow

Text:  Matthew 13:24-43

HOW IS THE LITTLE CONCERT WE had from the Bible School children this morning like the parables of Jesus?

    Think about it.  The children came up front and sang a couple of the songs they learned in Bible School this past week.  They looked cute, the songs were fun, and when they finished everyone smiled and clapped and the kids went back and sat down.  But is that all there was to it?  Did you have ears to hear the message as the children sang?  What did they tell us about the wonderful works of God and His mercy to His people? Were you moved to praise God's holy name?  Or did you see and hear only how cute the children were?

    Jesus' parables are like the children in their presentation this morning, and as we examine our passage from Matthew we can be like the crowds that flocked to Him from all around Galilee or like the disciples who truly longed to understand His teaching.      When the crowds heard Jesus say, "The kingdom of heaven is like" planting a field or making bread or whatever, they'd smile and nod and say, "Oh, the kingdom of heaven is like our everyday lives, but better."  They only received what was on the surface.  But as Jesus says back in verse 11 of this chapter, to the disciples it was given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.  True disciples wouldn't stop with listening to the homespun story, they'd go on really to hear the parables' message.  If a disciple didn't fully understand, he'd go to Jesus and ask Him to explain.  Disciples would hear what God was doing to bring in His heavenly kingdom and be moved to praise His holy name.  They'd recognize more and more that Jesus is the King of the kingdom and yield to His claim and authority over their own lives.  They'd have ears to hear.

    So as we examine these parables of Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will be true disciples and not mere members of the crowd.  Let's see beyond the surface attraction of the stories and dig into the deeper meaning that Jesus wants us to hear.

    The parables of the wheat and the weeds, of the mustard seed, and of the leaven all have to do with things growing.  Now I don't know about you, but I get impatient waiting for things to grow.  I keep checking my tomato plants and wondering, "Why does it take so long?  I'm tired of these little green blobs!  I want big juicy red tomatoes now!"  But ripe tomatoes take time.

    It's the same way with the kingdom of heaven.  We have to wait to see its ultimate fruit.  It's not big and obvious and overwhelming all at once.  The kingdom has to grow.  And it grows along with trouble and opposition and counterfeits.

    We'll take the two shorter parables first.  Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed."  The seed in question isn't the round yellow mustard seed we're familiar with, but a tiny, practically weightless variety that can grow fifteen feet tall given half a chance.  It gets so big, the birds can take shelter in its branches.

    And, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast-- or actually, leaven, that a woman mixed in with a batch of dough.  It worked all through, and you know what happens when the dough gets baked-- it keeps rising and grows into the large finished loaf.

    So what do these parables tell us about the kingdom of heaven? 

    Maybe first we should look at what they do not tell us.  I hesitate about bringing up other preachers' bad Biblical interpretation in my sermons. Better just to preach sound doctrine and let the bad ideas die away by themselves.  But I want you to be convinced on this one thing: The things of everyday life that Jesus uses in His parables are just that: Everyday things.  They're neutral.  They can be used to stand for people and ideas and forces that are good and those that are evil.  I mention this because I once heard a preacher say that these two parables taught us that the kingdom of heaven was really a wicked thing.  He argued that in the Bible "the birds of the air" always stood for the Devil and his demons, and if the kingdom of heaven was like a tree giving shelter to the birds, then it was as evil as they were.  And, he said, leaven or yeast was always a symbol of sin in the Scripture.  So if the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, it must be an evil influence in world.

    I don't remember what that preacher's final point was.  I think it was that all churches are corrupt and we should get out of them.  But we can rely on Scripture itself to show us that he was wrong about the kingdom of heaven, and wrong about the way Jesus used the figure of the birds and the yeast in these little parables.

    For what is the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God, as Mark, Luke, and John put it)?  From the very beginning of His ministry, when Jesus comes preaching the kingdom, it's clear that the kingdom of heaven is that state of affairs where God Almighty is Lord and King, where people obey Him and do His will and are blessed because of it.  And it starts in each of our hearts as we are called to repent and follow Him. 

    So the kingdom of heaven starts small, like a mustard seed, and it grows.  The Jews of Jesus' day were expecting the kingdom of God to be the ultimate cosmic force that'd erupt into this world and basically wipe it out and replace it with heaven in a instant.  Jesus' parables teach us that the kingdom is indeed cosmic; more than that, it's divine.  But God begins it in this world, not outside of it, and He brings it in slowly, bit by bit, causing it to grow bigger and stronger and more influential from impossibly small beginnings, until we look up and behold! Everything has changed!

    The parable of the mustard seed shows that one thing that would change was the benefits and scope of the kingdom.  The Jews were used to thinking of it as something that just included them, and maybe those Gentiles who agreed to be circumcised and become Jews.  But all of Jesus' audience would recognize the image of the tree with the birds of the air taking shelter in its branches.  It's a repeated Old Testament metaphor for the great king or emperor who provides nurture and protection for all the peoples and nations under his authority.  The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.  It begins in great insignificance, but when it is full-grown the peoples of this world, not just the Jews, will come and find refuge under God's gracious rule.

    It's the same with the parable of the leaven.  The substance referred to would be sourdough starter, not the active dry yeast we use today.  Yes, the Bible does often use leaven as a figure of sin, because the influence of both leaven and sin are pervasive.  But the effect of the kingdom of heaven in the world is also pervasive, in a good way.  The Greek text tells us exactly how much flour the woman was handling, three satas, around a half-bushel.  Depending on which commentator you read, that would make thirty-six to forty full-sized loaves of bread.  And she only uses a little leaven, and she hides it-- a better translation of the Greek than merely  "mixed"-- in all that flour. Then she left it to rise.  I've never made sourdough bread, but I understand you have to let it work for several hours, even overnight.  So, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like something of very small quantity, concealed in something very large, that works over time, without anyone doing anything about it, until that larger thing is totally lightened, uplifted, and changed. 

    This is how it turned out to be as the kingdom of heaven became apparent in this world.  Think how few people still believed in Jesus after He died.  Think how few in number they were who were gathered in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost-- only 120.  Think how obscure and insignificant those people were-- fishermen and petty officials and peasants.  But they were children of the kingdom of heaven.  Peter and John and Matthew and the rest were planted and hidden in the unbelieving world by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in time, by God's working, the whole world was changed.  Before long, Gentiles were coming and finding refuge in the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Even today, even those who don't believe in Christ, even those who would never admit to there being any good in what they dismiss as religion, even they benefit from the influence of Christianity in the world.  That's what happens when God's rulership has its natural effect.  It must and will grow.

    But the kingdom of God does not grow without trouble and opposition and counterfeits.  Jesus also tells the parable of a man who sowed good seed in his field, but during the night some enemies sowed weed seeds in among it.  Verse 26 tells us that the weeds didn't become apparent until the wheat had formed heads.  When Jesus told this parable, the farmers in the crowd would recognize the weeds as a species of grass called darnel.  Darnel is a nasty little plant with poisonous seeds.  It looks identical to wheat till the heads form, and it twines its roots in around the roots of the wheat so you can't pull it out without uprooting the wheat as well. 

    So in the parable, the master of the field tells his servants to leave it be until the harvest.  Fortunately, ripe darnel stands tall while the wheat stalks droop, so it's easy to collect it first, as the master orders, and bundled it up to be burnt.  Then the good wheat can be harvested and threshed and stored safely in the barn.

    This is how the kingdom of heaven is, says Jesus.  The sower is the Son of Man; that is, Jesus Christ Himself.  The field is not the Church, but the whole world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom.

    Do you have ears to hear this?  The good seed are all those whom Jesus Christ has called to accept Him as King, those who have responded to Him in faith and accepted His death on the cross to atone for their sins.

    But along with the good seed, weed seed is also sown.  These are the sons of the evil one.  Both grow up together.  Both look a lot alike.  But a time will come when God will make a final distinction.  At Last Judgement, Jesus will send His angels and give them the command to uproot out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.   For in that day the kingdom of this world will fully become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ.  The wicked will be cast into the fiery furnace-- into Hell, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God their Father.

    Yes, we should rejoice in that hope.  But right now I hope this parable causes you some alarm, for your sake and the sake of others.  How do we know who is a son of the kingdom?  By their fruit.  By hearts truly yielded to Christ as King, trusting in Him alone for salvation and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. 

    Now, here's the alarming thing: in this world, the exterior behavior of the children of the evil one can look a lot like that of the children of the kingdom, just like darnel mimics wheat. They reject Jesus Christ, but are kind and funny and nice, and maybe they're people we care about and love.  And we can convince ourselves that that's enough, that their niceness is enough to earn them the benefits of God's kingdom, and we don't have to invite them to church or tell them about Christ, because they're good enough the way they are.

    Brothers and sisters, being a son or daughter of God's kingdom is not about being nice and kind and loving according to the standards of this world!  It's about being submitted to Jesus Christ as your only Saviour and Lord.  And that not because of any volition of your own, but because of the will and calling of Almighty God!  If you and I are wheat in God's field, it's because He planted us there.  And it is His will that through our witness He will plant many others as well, even people we'd never imagine as sons of His righteousness, and like us He can make them grow and bear fruit to His glory.

    The kingdom of heaven is not an event, it is a process.  It is something that grows little by little, until there it is and everything has changed.  The day will come when Christ will give the command and the kingdom of heaven will come in all its fullness.  But until then, however small it may seem, however it may seem to struggle, God's kingdom will grow.  It will grow, people yet unborn will find shelter in its branches, multitudes will be fed on its bounty, and the Son of Man will have His glorious harvest home.  Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Do You See? What Do You Hear?

Text:  Matthew 13:1-23

    WHY DID JESUS TEACH IN parables?  The answer may surprise you.

    I'd say we're all familiar with what's called "The Parable of the Sower."  It begins with Jesus saying, "A sower went out to sow . . . ," or, as the NIV puts it, "A farmer went out to sow his seed."  We know all about the four kinds of soil and what happened to the seed when it fell on them.  We've heard various interpretations on what the seed is, and we've been taught to examine ourselves to determine what kind of soil we might be.

    But if we only look there, even with the parable's interpretation Jesus gives in verses 18 through 23, we'll cut ourselves off from true spiritual understanding.  Even worse, we'll get ourselves into real spiritual trouble.  The parables of Jesus aren't like Aesop's fables: they're not little moral tales that stand on their own to teach us how to live.  No, they have a greater purpose than that and they're part of a bigger story which is part of a bigger story still.  We-- you and I-- are all part of that biggest story of all, and we need to keep our eyes and ears open if we want it to finish up in joy and blessing for us, instead of taking us down to judgement and woe.

    The parables of our Lord Jesus Christ fit into the larger story of Jesus' earthly ministry.  And the story-- or, I should say, the history-- of Jesus' ministry is crucial to the cosmic story of God the Father's mighty act of rescuing lost humanity from our sins.  Our salvation is tied up with the establishment of God's kingdom on earth and the parables of Jesus are crucial to its coming.  They serve to include us in the great story of salvation-- at least, they do if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

    Did Jesus always teach in parables?  Actually, no.  This parable of the sower is the first Matthew records, and the second one reported by St. Mark.  Interestingly, both Matthew and Mark record Jesus first teaching in parables on one particular day.  Luke has one or two parables from Jesus before this, but the vast majority of them come after.  When you look at the timeline of Jesus' ministry, He doesn't start teaching in parables till nearly two years after His baptism by John.  So for nearly two years Jesus has mostly been doing straightforward, ordinary teaching.  He's used figures of speech, sure, but not parables.  So what changed?

    From the very beginning, Our Lord's purpose in ministry was to inaugurate the kingdom of God.  More than that, He was making it clear that He was the Lord and King of the kingdom.  It was all about Him.  The Pharisees recognized what He was doing and hated Him for it.  How dared He?  How dared He claim the authority of God and pass judgment on their rules and practices?  The crowds, on the other hand, loved what Jesus was doing.  They loved the miracles, especially the healings.   They loved the way His teaching stuck in the craw of the pompous, self-righteous religious authorities.  But did they see Jesus?  Did they truly hear what He was telling them about the kingdom of heaven and His kingship over it?  For the most part, the answer was no.

    The defining moment came one day when Jesus was talking in the house, most likely the home of Peter and his family in Capernaum.  People are crowding inside and trampling all over the yard, eager to hear what this wonderful Rabbi has to say.  As Matthew records at the end of the twelfth chapter, Jesus' mother Mary and His brothers pick that time to show up from Nazareth and insist on talking to Him.  St. Mark reports that they'd decided to take charge of Him.  They'd decided He was out of His mind and needed to be brought home for His own good.  Jesus refuses to go out to them, and in Matthew 12:48-50 He lays down His rules for who can be a citizen of the kingdom of God and a member of the royal household.  He says,

    "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"  Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

    Jesus points to His disciples.  Not to the crowd in general, but to those He'd called and who followed Him. Then, Matthew records, that same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the Lake of Galilee.  Due to the press of the crowds, He got into a boat to teach, and began to tell them many things-- in parables.   He spoke of a farmer who went out to sow, and what happened to the seed on each of the types of soil it fell upon.  And He concluded the parable with these words, "He who has ears, let him hear."

    That struck the disciples as unusual.  They came to Him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"  You can visualize them standing in the shallows next to the boat, bringing Him a drink of water maybe, and taking the opportunity to have a private word with their Teacher.  Master, what's going on here?
    What Jesus replied may shock you.  We've often heard it said that Jesus taught in parables so the people could better understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God.  Not at all.  Just the opposite. 

    He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
        "Though seeing, they do not see;
                   though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

What, Lord?  You mean You tell parables to reveal who's ready and willing to enter the kingdom of God and who's not?

    That's exactly what He's saying.  It was two years into His ministry.  The religious leaders claimed to be champions of God's kingdom but they rejected God's King.  The crowds wanted the King and the kingdom only for what they could get out of them on this earth.  Only to a few, to the called and dedicated disciples, was it given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. 

    Nobody can know the mysteries of the kingdom of God naturally.  Not you, not I, not the first disciples.  They have to be given to us by divine revelation.  None of us deserve to know these secrets: it's by the sovereign will and grace of God that we come to understand them.  God chose to open those secrets to Jesus' chosen disciples, and now, to us whom He has called to faith in His name.

    Jesus said, "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."  That doesn't sound fair!  But that's the way it works in economics and how it works in gaining wisdom and understanding.  The disciples had some idea of who Jesus was and what His message was about.  They knew enough to know they wanted to know more what this parable was about.  They brought the little bit of spiritual insight they had and came to Jesus and asked Him to add to it.  But the Pharisees would hear a parable like this and scoff, "This Jesus is a babbler and a fool.  We'll keep on pleasing God the way we see fit."  The crowds would think they knew what the parable meant, but they didn't understand what Jesus was saying about the kingdom of heaven at all.  They thought they understood, but unless they truly had ears to hear, all their understanding would turn out to be nothing.  It'd be hauled away like garbage. 

    Jesus had been declaring the secrets of the kingdom of heaven since He first began His ministry, but only a few gained intimate knowledge of them.  He claimed to be the divine Bridegroom that Israel has been waiting for.  He said He was Lord of the Sabbath.  Jesus centered the hope of salvation and favor with God in His own Person, and He taught that He would rise from the grave after three days.  He said that those who wouldn't repent in response to His preaching will be condemned in the last judgement.  All this He spoke openly, without using parables or figures of speech, but only a few responded in faith.  So from now on He will use parables, to make a distinction between those who truly long to see, and those who think they see enough already or who have blinded themselves and just don't care.

    This includes us.  What do we see?  What do we hear?  Jesus says in John 12, "I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.  There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him on the last day."  The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the word of God as being "Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."  The parables of Jesus reveal our attitudes towards Him and towards the kingdom He establishes in this world and the world to come.

    The Parable of the Sower itself is a parable about the dividing and revealing effect of the Word of God.  Jesus tells us that the seed that is sown is the message about the kingdom.  It's not the message of our own good works, or our love for others, or anything to do with sinful humans at all.  It's the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified for our sins, risen for our eternal life, ascended to the right hand of the Father, coming again to judge the living and the dead, and reigning forever in glory.  It's about that state of affairs where God Almighty is Lord and King, starting in each of our hearts, here and now.  This message of the kingdom was proclaimed by Jesus Himself and it has been proclaimed by faithful ministers of His church down through the centuries.  It is declared to all, whether they have ears to hear or not.

    So hear what the parable of the sower means.  You can sit in your pew Lord's Day after Lord's Day, and hear Christ faithfully  preached as died and risen again for you-- for you!-- and you can think, "That means nothing to me.  I'm good enough without Jesus on the cross.  What do I need a bloody sacrifice for?  That's so barbarian and out of date!"  You have no understanding, and the evil one is right there, snatching away what was sown in your heart. 

    Or you might hear and think, "Oh, this is so wonderful!  Jesus died to redeem me and all sinners!  He's the only way to salvation!"  But then your daughter moves in with her boyfriend and you tell her Jesus accepts it because you don't want her to hate you. Or you find yourself saying to unbelieving friends, "Well, there's lots of different ways to get to God, I just happen to believe in Jesus, I guess . . . " Beware!  You have no understanding, no root.  Persecution has come and your faith is getting scorched and withered.

    Or maybe you receive the good news of the kingdom, and you believe, you really believe you do.  But then you lose your job.  Your son gets arrested for possession of illegal drugs.  Your beloved spouse is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  And you start wondering, "What's this Christianity thing good for, anyway?  I thought Jesus was going to give me the abundant life.  I guess He hates me.  Or God just doesn't care."  Or maybe it's the opposite of that.  Maybe you get a big fat raise and now you can afford a cabin up on Lake Erie.  Or season tickets to all the Steelers' games.  You get attracted and distracted and Jesus and His kingdom seem to pale in comparison.  What do you need church and Jesus for, you might wonder.  Things are going just fine!  You have no understanding of the message of Christ's kingdom, the worries and desires of this life are choking out the good seed, and it ends up unfruitful.

    But suppose you hear Christ faithfully proclaimed as crucified for your sins; yes, yours.  Suppose your spiritual eyes are opened to see Him gloriously risen to give you new life; suppose you joyfully receive God's gracious gift of Christ in you and for you.  God has made you good soil, He has granted you true understanding, and by His grace you will be fruitful as a child of His kingdom.  Even if you feel you don't quite understand, still you desire to hear more about Jesus Christ and what He has done to save you.  That is a sign of good soil, which His Holy Spirit will cultivate in you day by day.

    Jesus spoke in parables to reveal the difference between those who truly desired the kingdom of God and its King, and those who wanted the kingdom to serve their own purposes or who rejected Him altogether.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  Will you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour and King and joyfully submit to His loving rule?  If so, "Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear."  Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Unalienable Rights

Texts:  Psalm 21; Galatians 3:26-4:7

WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    We all recognize those stirring words.  They begin the second paragraph of our American Declaration of Independence, adopted by Congress 235 years ago tomorrow, on July 4th, 1776.  These words still resonate in us today, because our basic human rights are important to us.  They define our identity as free human beings.  We understand-- or I hope we do-- that these rights are not given to us by the government of our country; rather, they are the gift or endowment of our Creator God.  Our human rights under God are unalienable-- that is, they cannot be sold or given away, even by the one who possesses them.  The human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are given to all people everywhere, and as the Declaration goes on to say, "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

    Our nation was founded especially to affirm and defend these rights, and as American citizens we have to be ready to do whatever we can and must to defend them, whether the danger comes from a foreign enemy or from forces of oppression within our shores.

    But essential and important as these human rights are, as much as they are given to us by Almighty God, they pertain only to the kingdom of this world.  They belong to the order of Creation, to this present age which is passing away.  We enjoy these rights only as long as our mortal bodies stay alive.  When the children of earth die, they have no life, no liberty, they can pursue no happiness.

    But there is another kingdom with greater and better rights, a kingdom of Heaven whose citizens never die and whose dominion will never pass away.  There is a household of God, whose children enjoy their rights forever, a family from which no member ever has to depart.  And we who bear the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are citizens of that everlasting kingdom and enjoy its rights, even while we are citizens of the United States of America or of any other country under the sun. 

    Our reading from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians speaks of our rights as citizens of God's kingdom and members of His household.  We began with verse 26 of chapter 3, where it says, "You all are sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ."  We gain our rights as humans by being born of our mothers into this world; we become sons and daughters of God by the new birth that comes through trust in Jesus Christ and His atoning death for our sins. 

    Our first right in Christ is our becoming a son of God.  As it says in the Gospel according to St. John,  chapter 1, verse 12, "To all who received him"-- that is, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh-- "to those who believed in his name, he"-- that is, God-- "gave the right to become children of God." In the kingdom of God we are more than subjects, more than servants, even more than citizens-- God has given us the right to be called His children!  And as John says in his First Letter, that is what we are!

    Our baptism was our rite of citizenship and adoption, for as Paul says in Galatians 3:27, "all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" Again, it doesn't matter what country we were born in, it doesn't matter what race or sex we are: in Christ, God gave us the right to become His sons.  And so, as it is written, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."  Not just sons, but heirs, heirs according to the promise to Abraham!

    God promised Abraham he would inherit, many blessings, among which was the promise that all nations should be blessed through him, through the miraculous offspring God would give him.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of that promise; as Paul says in Galatians 3:14, "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit."

    In verses 4:1-3, Paul illustrates how formerly we were like  underage children or slaves in the eyes of God, under the control of the Law and of the basic principles of this world, without rights and without privileges in God's household.  If we had time, we would examine more carefully what those verses mean.  But this morning I'd like to skip straight to verses 4-6, where it says, 

    But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.

    "The full rights of sons."  Now that Jesus Christ has come, we have been freed, redeemed, declared independent of the law.  Jesus the Son of God and Son of Mary perfectly kept the Law in our behalf.  He fulfilled all its righteous requirements and now, in Him, we have received the full rights of sons. 

    But I ask you, what are our full rights as full-grown, inheritance-worthy sons of God?  We can't answer that question without first asking, "What are the full rights of the Son of God?"  For it is only in and through and because of Jesus Christ that we are children of God at all.  Only in Him do we enjoy and exercise our unalienable rights in the kingdom of Heaven.

    Psalm 21 goes a long way towards answering that question.  It petitions the Lord in behalf of an unidentified Israelite king, probably King David.  It might seem strange for us to deal with a royal psalm on the weekend when we celebrate our independence from all human kings.  But our forefathers knew that although no one man or woman was worthy to rule over a free people, God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe is still and always will be this earth's true Sovereign and Lord. 

    As we read through Psalm 21, we see that no human king could ever come up to this standard, claim all these rights, or inherit all these blessings.  Christ and His apostles all testify that David wrote as a prophet, and looked forward to the promised eternal King, great David's greater Son. In Jesus and only in Jesus, the Son of David, Son of Mary and Son of God, is this psalm fulfilled. 

    What are the rights of our Messiah and King?  Verse 1 begins:

    O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength.
               How great is his joy in the victories you give!

    Jesus has the right to victory.  Victory over sin, death, and the devil, victory over every evil force that stands opposed to God and to God's chosen people.  This right is unalienable: Jesus who died once can never die again; death has no more mastery over Him, and one day will once and for all put death under His feet.

    The right to victory is ours as sons of God in Jesus Christ.  On the cross He defeated death for us, and we, too, rejoice in the strength of God demonstrated for us.

    Verse 2 says,

    You have granted him the desire of his heart
               and have not withheld the request of his lips.

    Jesus has the right to the desires of His heart, and the granting of the request of His lips.  In the letter to the Hebrews we see that His earnest desire was that through His obedience many sons might be brought to the glory of God, so that He might be the firstborn of many brothers.

    And Jesus has granted us the right to have our prayers and petitions heard at the throne of God, as we pray them in His name and according to His will.

    In verse 3 it is written,

    You welcomed him with rich blessings
               and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.

    Jesus had the right to be welcomed into the very presence of God when He ascended into heaven, and even now He has the right to wear the crown as the Lord before whom every knee will bow and to whom every tongue will confess His sovereign worth.

    In Him we will have the right to wear crowns as rulers under Him, crowns that we will cast down before Him as we bow down in worship and love.  

    Verse 4 states,

    He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
           length of days, for ever and ever.

    By His perfect life and sacrificial death, our Lord Jesus has the right to eternal life, length of days, for ever and ever.  He rose triumphant from the tomb on the third day, gloried, transformed, immortal.

    And now He endows us who believe in Him with His own everlasting life, so that our mortal bodies will be transformed to be like His immortal body.  In Christ we have inherited the right to the life of God that can never, never die.

    Verse 5 says,

    Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
                  you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.

    Jesus has indeed won the victory through the might of God the Father, and now He has the right to glory, splendor, and majesty.  This is not the transitory glory of this world; the splendor of Christ will last into all eternity.

    And so in Him we, too, will inherit glory, honor, and immortality, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, for we share in the inheritance of Jesus, the firstborn Son of God.

    Verse 6 affirms,

        Surely you have granted him eternal blessings
               and made him glad with the joy of your presence.

    Jesus as God's firstborn Son has the right to eternal blessing.  His store of riches is gladness in the presence of God.

    We in our sin deserved only the curse of God.  To stand in His presence with our wickedness on us would mean not joy, but misery and condemnation.  But through faith in Him Jesus has shared with us His right to take eternal pleasure in the presence of God Most High.  He has invited us even now to participate with Him in the blessings of that kingdom, where eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.
    Verse 7 assures us,

    For the king trusts in the LORD;
                   through the unfailing love of the Most High
           he will not be shaken.

    Jesus our King has the right to trust utterly in the love of God Most High.  He has the right and assurance that His trust in His Father will never be shaken. 

    And so in Him we have the right to trust God to save us totally and completely.  Jesus has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us.  Our adoption as sons in His name will never be undone, or repudiated.  God's love to us is unfailing.  In ourselves we have no right to it, but in Christ our right to God's love is everlasting and unshakeable. 

    In verses 8 through 12 we see that Jesus our King has the right to triumph and vengeance upon His enemies.  His enemies are sin, death, and the rebellious angels, but they also include the wicked among mankind as well.  The cowardly and those who are soft on sin will say that it's mean and intolerant to want to see God's human enemies destroyed.  After all, isn't He the God of love?  But what else is God to do with those who ally themselves to the end with the devil and his demons?  What else can be the fate of those men and women who keep on plotting evil against the Lord and His anointed?  At the time of Christ's appearing in glory He will have the right to make them like a fiery furnace, with the wrath of the Lord swallowing them up.

    Until that time we hope and pray that all sinners will come to enjoy the rights of the sons of God that we inherit now in Jesus Christ our Lord.  But in the day of His appearing we will have the right to see God's vengeance on our foes, and we will know that His judgement is righteous and just.

    These are only a few of the rights we enjoy as sons of God and heirs through faith in Christ Jesus.  These rights are unalienable.  No one can take them away from us, because they are His rights first and no one can take the rights of Jesus Christ from Him. 

    Yes, but what if we fall away from Jesus Christ?  Brothers and sisters, does the Bible not teach that the rights of Christ are unalienable?  Do you not know that one of the foremost of His rights is His right to you?  He has bought you with His blood, He has claimed you through faith (which is the gift of God and not your doing at all), and no one and nothing can snatch you out of His hand or alienate Him from you-- not even you yourself.

    Brothers and sister, as we celebrate our unalienable rights in this free land, remember that we possess rights that are  greater and even more unalienable in a land that is greater and freer still.  We are citizens and children of that land even now, even we are free to exercise our rights as its sons, through our Sovereign and only King, Jesus Christ: to whom be all glory, honor, and power in God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.