Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13.31-33 and 44-52. Mustard, yeast, treasure, pearls and fishing nets.

Matthew 13.31-33 and 44-52

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

So, we’re back after a week, hopefully well rested and refreshed but spare a thought for our disciples as we join them for a third time as they listen to Jesus’ parables. Jesus was on a roll: these are, what, his third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh parables in one sitting? If I was one of the disciples I’d have lost the power of rational thought by now!

We start with the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.  Unlike the two parables of the sower we’ve already looked at these are (mercifully) short: perhaps, like any good teacher, Jesus recognised that his listeners had limited concentration spans. There are no long narratives and no deeply hidden meanings here. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “We’ve done the hard stuff. This is by way of consolidation.”

Yes, they are simple stories but they’re not just about how little things turn in to big things.  They’re more about how the Kingdom of God takes over everything around it.  So, yes, more of, “The Kingdom of God is like this” stories.

The mustard takes over the field.  The yeast takes over the bread.  They’re small and seem insignificant, but they change everything around them.  That's how the Kingdom of God works. It’s good to be reminded about that because sometimes we simply fail to see that sort of change. Perhaps we aren’t looking for it. Perhaps we don’t recognise it when it happens. Perhaps it takes us by surprise when it does happen.

I’ll give you a simple example: I started to work in Armley prison about eighteen months ago and it’s busy. It’s don’t-have-time-to-think busy and that means that it’s really easy to miss signs of the Kingdom on a daily basis.

Just before Easter I ran a Lent group on one wing. Twenty-two men opted to attend and they took part with great enthusiasm and showed some real perception and evidence of spiritual depth. A couple of weeks ago we confirmed eight of them. Now it’s not easy being a man of faith in a prison: but these men, regardless of their crimes, had come to a point in their faith journeys where they wished to make a public declaration of that faith; to show true penitence and to strive to live a changed life for the remainder of their sentences and to seek to live as better role models to those around them - and many have noticed the change in these men’s lives, other men who are not generally easily impressed.

There’s a strong belief amongst the regular chapel-goers in the prison that you can move on from the shame that lead so many into mental health problems and a downward spiral of self-loathing; that you can be released from all of that to start afresh even if you know you’ll never leave prison. For these men, coming to a deeper understanding of God was also, inevitably, to come to a deeper understanding of themselves. At some time in the past – and I take no personal credit for this – something started to work in the lives of these men: something initially as tiny as a mustard seed or a flake of yeast set in motion something that would grow and flourish and, to borrow from the parable of the sower, to “bear fruit thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold.”

I think the point is that often we don’t see the wood for the trees and because things don’t always work out in church life in the ways we expect, we lose heart and fail to recognise that something is happening but it’s something different, or it’s happening to someone we don’t see any more because of something that we said or did some time ago which set in motion a chain of events which has taken time to come to fruition. We may never know, but because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

The Kingdom of God is like this.

And we move on to the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl.

In ancient times, and in an unsettled country like Palestine, where there were no banks in the modern sense, it was a common practice to conceal valuables in the ground. The Middle East are keenly alive to the chance of finding such stashes: the whole region is a potential archaeological treasure-trove.

I can’t help wondering what the first man was doing in someone else’s field. Maybe he was a hired helper for the man who owned the field, or maybe he was just passing through. Or maybe the field was for sale and the man was looking it over before deciding whether to buy it. Jesus doesn’t tell us but whatever the reason he was there, he found an amazing treasure, maybe coins or jewellery, who knows? This was a great surprise! He didn’t expect to find it, because he wasn’t looking for it but instantly the man knew that the treasure was incredibly valuable and was inevitably full of joy over this discovery. I have to say this never happens when I am gardening but I have been watching that BBC series with Fiona Bruce where people have found an art-work and are desperate to find whether or not it is genuine. If it is genuine, of course, it is usually incredibly valuable. It’s the same with her other programme, The Antiques Roadshow.

So this man went home and sold everything he owned: his house, his furniture, his jewellery and his livestock. Then he took all the proceeds and he bought the field. Clearly, the treasure in that field was worth more than everything else he had. Remember, we’re talking about The Kingdom again here and so Jesus is telling a story about a man who happens upon the kingdom quite by chance.

Then we have the story of a merchant of pearls: another story about the Kingdom. His profession was to look for pearls. This is the only thing that he did in his life: to look for and to find pearls and in doing so he finds a pearl of huge value. This time, though, the discovery of the Kingdom is not just by chance, but it is the fruit of a long search. The merchant of pearls knows their value because many people would like to sell him the ones they find. He knows the value of his merchandise and when he finds a pearl of great value, he goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.

Now why does Jesus tell these two stories, and what is he telling his hearers and us through them? Remember how he starts each of the stories: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like...‘ These stories are a picture of the kingdom; they point us to what it’s like being part of God’s people. So what is the treasure? What is the pearl of great price? These two parables point us to the greatest treasure we can know, an experience of God through knowing and trusting in Jesus.

In these parables we have two people: the accidental finder of truth and the searcher after truth. What we have is one man who, not having started in the pursuit of truth, is brought by the apparent randomness of life—a chance meeting, a word spoken at the right time, an example of a Christlike life—to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, to God Himself, and who, finding in Him a peace and joy above all earthly treasure, is ready to sacrifice everything in order to gain it. We then have another man who has been in pursuit of truth. We know people who have no interest in personal faith and we probably also know people who have been looking at spirituality and religious philosophies in their search for an answer to their own sense that there must be more to this life than …. well …. this life.

Well, either way we know the answer, but one of the common elements of these stories is that there was a cost involved and there’s a hint in both stories that might be easy to gloss over, that gaining the Kingdom might require some sacrifice on our part.  We’re fortunate, perhaps, that here in the UK the cost of discipleship has been low. Certainly we may have changed attitudes or behaviours, but for most of us that’s been it. Let’s just remember for a moment, though, that for Christians living in other parts of the world, the cost of discipleship can be very high indeed.

Paul says that nothing else matters, compared to knowing Christ - Jesus is the great treasure, the pearl of great price, and we can experience a relationship him. More than that, we’ll want to share this experience and should want to help others find him too, surely?

Our goal is not just to concentrate on our own personal journey of faith, important as that is, but to make sure that as many as possible, inside and outside these church walls, will also come to find the only treasure that really matters, and come to know God through Jesus.

And then Jesus concludes this round of teaching with a warning: he tells a final parable, this time about a fisherman whose catch includes a wide variety of fish species. The net doesn’t discriminate. We know today that our fishing industry doesn’t bring all its catch to the market: some fish aren’t to our taste. There’s a selection process that takes place before anything ends up on our supermarket shelves and some of the strange or ugly species don’t get there.

On our recent family holiday to Madeira we ate a lot of fish and much of it was new to us. The restaurants there have a tradition: the uncooked fish-tray which they bring round fresh from the market and probably caught that morning and you see all these new and sometimes weird and odd looking creatures that you can pick to have cooked for your meal. “I’ll stick with cod please.” Really won’t cut it.

The parable of the net of fish means that God’s kingdom is available to everyone. It catches all kinds, and our job as Christians is to pull that net through the water of our communities and grab whatever we can. This is God’s way and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable because the Kingdom can catch some unlikely people. I said last week that we need to be careful about making judgements about who’s in and who’s out and we talked about the danger of people setting limits on the grace of God. Some of the most unlikely people will grow into genuine Kingdom people, and some who seemed promising in the beginning won’t last the course. This parable teaches us again, as did last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds, that judgement is ultimately God’s and our responsibility is simply to work with the people the Kingdom of God throws our way, whoever they are because were we not given the responsibility to be fishers of men? Not of some men, the ones like us, or the easy ones to be around, but ALL men. The net of God’s love doesn’t discriminate.
We have to make room for the Kingdom in our lives. We must allow it to take over our lives in a big way. When we allow God to be significant in our lives, we create a path for him to be significant in the lives of other people too.

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