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.

No comments: