"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for July 2014

The kingdom is like…

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July 27, 2014, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

We have before us today a series of short parables that concern the nature of the kingdom of God. You heard Tim preach last week on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and the coming time of judgement and sorting. What we’ll talk about today is about the question, “what is the kingdom of God?”

We’ll begin with the parable of the mustard seed – described in the Scripture as the smallest of all seeds, but when grown becomes larger than all the other garden plants, becoming a tree within which birds will come and nest. Mustard does not technically grow into a tree, but can grow into a large bush, that is taller than a person. It is thought Jesus was speaking of black mustard, which can grow to a height of 2.7 metres, or about 9 feet. Not a small bush, but certainly less than most trees, and particularly the grandest tree of Scripture – the great cedars of Lebanon. Why didn’t Jesus use a cedar tree? That’s not the kingdom, which is not measured by the yardstick of power and accomplishment used by this world.

Jesus compares the height of the mustard plant to other garden plants. Jews were prohibited from planting mustard in a garden, as the ritual purity laws prohibited the mixing of plants such as mustard with vegetables. This purity law saw the world as a dangerous place that could only be kept safe if things were restricted to their proper places. Live people did not touch dead people, and if they did there was an extensive ritual required to regain purity. You did not mix fibres in clothing, and a kosher garden was one that had only the proper types of plants. To a Jewish listener, the idea of a mustard bush growing in their garden would be threatening. Jesus comes to remove those artificial boundaries, because all is the kingdom of God.

Mustard is a highly invasive species – meaning it spreads rapidly and chokes out other plants. We have one variety here in Edmonton that is on the prohibited noxious weeds list, garlic mustard (Alliaria Petiolata), not only because it is an introduced species, but because it is so invasive. Mustard is one thing you don’t want freely seeding in your garden (and if you do plant it, you’ll be cutting the heads off before the seeds spread in the fall). The parables are telling us about the kingdom, and the mustard seed introduces a radically different view of the coming kingdom, radically different from what the Jewish nation believed would come. You can hear echoes of this throughout the Gospels, when the disciples ask questions about an earthly kingdom. Can two of them sit at Jesus’ left and right, when he comes into his kingdom? They all thought that Jesus had come to assume the throne of David, to repulse the occupier Romans from their land, and to again place Israel as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle-East. It’s a hope that still sits close to the policies of today’s nation of Israel. In spite of all the teaching to the contrary, the disciples didn’t realize this until well after Jesus had been killed and resurrected.

The mustard seed, a tiny seed, seemingly insignificant in a large world full of more glamourous things – this seed is like Jesus, the no-account son of a carpenter from a rural backwater of Israel. We sometimes forget today, with some 2 billion people that call themselves Christians, that this Jesus way began in a very small and really insignificant way. The Romans didn’t notice him until the Jewish aristocracy noticed him, which didn’t happen until his ministry involved a personal attack on the temple system. What Jesus was remained hidden. Like a mustard seed.

The mustard seed must be planted in the earth before its potential can be realized. It is only by disappearing into the earth that the seed can become what it was intended to be. It is only by dying to its nature as a seed, that the seed can rise again as a mustard bush. You can clearly see Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the mustard seed. What springs from that seed is a bush that forms a refuge and a home for birds, and in turn produces hundreds of more seeds which likewise die and rise again. Invasive species choke out other plants, and this is what the kingdom of God does as it fills every corner of the creation. Even where you think it is not, there it is, growing and providing a place of refuge. Especially where you think it is not, God’s kingdom is there.

The parable of the yeast is likewise a reversal of this world’s understanding of power. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven hidden inside three measures of flour. The leaven works until all the flour has been leavened. In place of a mighty thunderclap, we instead have another humble plant, yeast, used to illustrate the kingdom of heaven. That plant works in secret, and when its work is done the entirety of creation has been filled with its presence. The amount of flour in this parable is quite large, about 50 pounds, so the listeners would have understood this to be a lot of flour. The leaven works until all that flour is converted.

The next two parables have a similar structure, and these are the two that speak directly to us about what our reaction to the coming of the kingdom should be. These are parables of seeking and finding. In the first case, we have a man who finds hidden treasure in a field. Because of the treasure he sells everything he owns and buys the field, so the treasure there may be his. In the second case it is a merchant of fine pearls, who finds one particularly outstanding pearl, and again sells all that he has to go and purchase it.

In both cases we have someone seeking, who finds and recognizes a great treasure and finally gives up everything in order to have it. This brings to my mind Jesus’ three-fold question to Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ After Peter, feelings hurt, answers three times in the affirmative, Jesus goes on to tell him (John 21) what kind of a life he will now lead – “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”” These two parables of seeking, or perhaps of finding, lead us to consider what our own personal quest for the kingdom of heaven looks like. When we find it, how do we react? Are we willing to, as Jesus told the rich young man, ‘sell everything you own and give it to the poor, and come and follow me’, or do we seek the path that keeps us in control of our lives. When Jesus asks us, ‘Do you love me?’ how do we answer?

The parables also tell us the cost of the choice to follow Jesus. As we heard a few weeks ago, Jesus said he came to bring a sword, and the impact of his coming would be to set family members against each other. These parables reflect that cost, if you’re willing to follow God, there will be conflict. Peter’s answer after confirming he was prepared to follow Jesus was that the rest of his life would be lived under other’s compulsion, and that too would be the manner of his death.

The last parable in this sequence is the parable of the net. This one is more troubling. The kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea so that it might gather fish of every kind. Once full, the kingdom is drawn ashore and the fish sorted, good ones are kept, while the bad fish are thrown away.

There is at least a partial answer to the question of evil existing in the world in this parable. The answer is that both good and bad fish are allowed to live and thrive in the sea. This presumably includes the good and bad fish doing whatever they do, the bad fish presumably causing some problems for the good fish. So we’re told in this parable, and in several others, that until the coming sorting we should expect to be mixed in with each other. So it shouldn’t surprise us when we encounter evil in the world, and it especially shouldn’t confuse us when we encounter evil within the Body of Christ, that is, the church. We’ve been told that this is the reality of the creation.

To underline the point of the sorting, Jesus leaves parable mode for a moment to speak prophetically. This is the way it will be at the end of the age – that is, at the end of the present age in which we’re living. The angels will come and separate the sheep from the goats, the good fish from the bad fish, the evil from the righteous. The evil will end up ‘in the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ That image draws us back to a number of other parables about sorting: the wedding feast, when one man shows up not dressed for the feast and is thrown into the outer darkness.

The parables end with a question from Jesus: have you understood? When they answer yes, he provides a further illustration about the impact of the kingdom on the individual. A learned person or scribe, who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who brings forth out of his treasure both the old and the new: the old news of Torah, the new news of Jesus.

The parables give us a window into the nature of God’s kingdom, a reality that is here present, and yet always becoming. We see that kingdom around us, not in the power that impresses this world: force of arms, mighty engineering feats, Ironman, a skyscraper, a new smartphone, but rather in the small and the hidden: a tiny seed, a particular pearl, an unexpected yet hidden treasure found by chance in a field. Those small and hidden things have a highly disproportionate impact on the world.

What is the kingdom like? It’s catholic – not limited to a few chosen. In fact the kingdom will gather in all to be sorted. It’s hidden, paradoxically and vexingly, not immediately manifest as we who are so used to quick gratification would prefer. The kingdom is at work now, not in a holding pattern waiting for some future date. The kingdom operates in the midst of hostility, and is not welcome in the halls of power. The kingdom asks of us a response, a response that is contrary to the way of the world, a response that will mark us as different. As Tim pointed out last week, these parables also tell us that the kingdom is about waiting for the coming together of all of God’s great works, in God’s good time, not ours. Oh, we would prefer to have the world fixed much more quickly, in the manner which we would choose. That is not the way of this kingdom.

In a song sung by Steve Bell, Embrace the Mystery, he sings a chorus that begins with St Augustine’s words about holy communion: Behold what you are; Become what you receive. The whole purpose of the coming of the Word into the world is to produce people in whom the power of the kingdom will bear fruit. To become those people requires that we take up that mystery, and turn to Christ, so that he might open our eyes and ears so that we can begin to seek and see the Kingdom. Some of it, like the mustard seed, like the leaven, we may only see dimly. God is found in the seeking, not in the arrival. So, like the disciples, let us seek Christ with all of our heart, soul and mind so that He might lead us more deeply into the kingdom of God. Amen.

Written by sameo416

July 26, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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