Saturday, July 26, 2008

A, Pentecost 11 Proper 12 - Matthew 13:31-33,44-52 "The Kingdom of Heaven"

The kingdom of heaven is a phrase only read in the Gospel of Matthew. In the other Gospels, in parallel accounts, the reader would hear the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of heaven. Matthew records his Gospel for the sensitivity of his Jewish audience. In fact his Gospel was primarily written as a catechism for the Jews; as a teaching instrument for converts of Judaism to Christianity.

In the Old Covenant the Jews never spoke the name of God, Yahweh, for fear of using it in vane. And so Matthew in his proclamation of the Good News of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, he respects the sensitivity of this Jewish practise.

In the reading today Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven over and over again. It’s a phrase that becomes very familiar in our hearing. In fact, when we take a look at the entire text of Matthew’s Gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” phrase appears over thirty times, and many of the occurrences appear when Jesus teaches the disciples, the crowds, and the Jewish leaders.

We hear, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And when we hear these words we’re bound to ask: What is the kingdom like? Who is worthy of the kingdom? How does one receive the kingdom of heaven?

These are all relevant questions for us and our world today! You and I are called to stop and hear the secrets of the kingdom, putting aside our efforts and understanding, letting the Spirit of God mould us in the word of God so we might remain at the door of heaven in this life and receive the reality of our heavenly inheritance in the next.

In Matthew’s Gospel the doors of the Kingdom are flung open at Jesus’ baptism. God calls all ears to be opened when Jesus rises up out of the water of the Jordan and the Spirit of God descends on him in the form of a dove. For Jews and for us, we’re called to hear the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has now sent his Son. As a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) The God of the Israelites, who had said nothing for four hundred years, was now speaking through his Son.

After this time Jesus begins to preach, and it’s here in Matthew’s Gospel we hear the first occurrence of the phrase “kingdom of heaven”. His sermon is a short one, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17) And again we hear, Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

As Jesus preached his message the numbers grew, and he goes up on a mountainside to preach in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The kingdom of heaven is a central theme running right the way through his discourse, which spans three chapters of Mathew’s Gospel. First in chapter five we hear the Beatitudes are bracketed by “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” in verse three. And in verse ten, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3,10)

Jesus warns the assembled crowd that he has not come to abolish the law but to uphold it. Not only does he uphold it, but he raises the bar to a height no one can master, saying, Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19,20)

The sermon continues and Jesus teaches how to pray giving the crowd on the mountain the Lord’s Prayer. In it we’re called to pray for the “kingdom to come” and to be led away from the temptation to think it is not coming to us, or, by not seeking his forgiveness and thereby holding his kingdom back from ourselves. He calls us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy. (Matthew 6:20) To seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a solemn warning regarding the kingdom of heaven, saying, not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

Later the disciples are commissioned as apostles and sent to do what he was doing; to preach the good news of the kingdom and heal every disease and sickness. (Matthew 9:35) And what they freely receive from Jesus they passed onto those to whom they preached, that, the kingdom of heaven is near. God was now present in Christ, and Christ was present in the apostles as they spoke the word of God.

Yet, although God has given the apostles authority to do these things, shortly after he tells the crowd that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist even though John was one of the greatest prophets to be born. (Matthew 11:11)

But the disciples didn’t yet understand and ask Jesus who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. To which he replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3,4) And again he says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

To the chief priests and elders of the people Jesus was even harsher concerning the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31) …I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.(Matthew 21:43)

And again, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:13,15)

As we can see, entering the kingdom of heaven calls us to be more righteous that the Jewish leaders, and at the same time, trusting like little children. In fact, hearing all this might make one think that entry into the kingdom of heaven a complete mystery and unachievable.

The Jews of the day were waiting for a messiah to come; they were waiting for something big to happen. Yet Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of heaven was near, referring to himself as the means to God the Father in heaven. But this was not what they were expecting, and as we know crucified him on the cross. Ironically they were waiting for something big to happen, and it happened by their very own hand, to the one they dismissed as the Messiah. The enormity of the crucifixion and resurrection is what we hold at the centre of the church, but unfortunately was lost on God’s chosen people, the Jews.

So we hear the parables concerning the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel. The parable of the mustard seed and the yeast both are insignificant objects. However, where would the bush be without the seed; where would the birds perch? And where would a loaf of bread be without a rising agent like yeast? The kingdom of heaven is hidden in Christ. It’s hidden in his word, a seemingly insignificant seed in amongst all the other words we have around us. His word grows his kingdom, with Holy Spirited yeast. These things are hidden and can be overlooked yet they are the essentials ingredients of the kingdom.

And they are valuable too. Some of those entering the kingdom stumble upon it almost by accident like one who finds treasure hidden in a field. Then again some go looking for more in their lives; they know something is out there. They know there are aspects to their spirituality missing, but when they discover Christ, they realise this one person is worth more to them than anything they have ever discovered before. Just like the merchant dealing in hundreds of fine pearls who finds that one greatest pearl, Jesus Christ is the greatest pearl, worth eternally more than all the rest put together.

And the kingdom of heaven is like the net let down to gather all up in the last days. God will send out his angels and separate the believers from the non-believers, inside and outside the congregations on earth.

However in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

We are all on a journey from the font to the funeral. We are saved, we are being saved, and yet one day we will be saved. Hold onto the kingdom of heaven opened in your heart by the word of God at baptism. Remain in the kingdom of heaven by humbly allowing yourselves to be brought back time and time again into God’s house to be forgiven and fed in his word. Receive forgiveness and celebrate the power of God by eating Christ's body and drinking his blood in the bread and wine of the holy heavenly meal.

The kingdom of heaven is a mystery; it is received mysteriously through the preaching of the Good News and the reception of the sacraments where we receive the forgiveness of sins. We are called not to explain this mystery but rather believe it like little children. When we do this we cloth ourselves with the righteous robes of Christ, allowing God’s Son to dress us with faith in his word and cover our sinful nature.

God is the owner of the house, on the last day it is his desire that you will be one of the treasures, old and new, he brings out of the storeroom into the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A, Pentecost 9 Proper 10 - Matthew 13:1-23 "Good Soil"

It must have been a spectacular sight to see Jesus teaching such large crowds. Picture Jesus there in the boat telling parables, and the people spread along the bank of the lake, sitting in a natural amphitheatre, right down to the water’s edge, all with a view of Jesus, as they sat and listened to his teaching.

However, since Jesus taught in parables it made it difficult to know what he was really saying hidden within the contents of the simple story about a farmer casting seed for planting.

Some would not have understood what Jesus was saying. I imagine some having heard the parable would have immediately misheard what he said. Perhaps their minds were so preoccupied with their own busyness; anything Jesus said was quickly enveloped by their own thoughts. So while they thought they were hearing what Jesus said, and were agreeing with him, they really only heard the thoughts of their own hearts. They had turned Jesus’ word into a justification for their own ideas; forgetting what he really said, they were led away on a trail of their own misunderstanding. These are they in the parable who are the seed sown along the path.

Then some would have heard what Jesus was saying, and would have become very excited by what was heard. They would have been empowered and filled with passion; convinced that they were going to leave that place as disciples for Jesus. Nothing was going to hinder their new life, now that they had heard his powerful word. Although they left the lake having never felt better, their joy and passion is short-lived.

The very word they heard and believed would make everything “all good”, brought them opposition and persecution from others. Then they began to doubt their feelings, that perhaps this word was not the cure-all they expected. They had no answers for the difficult questions of life; the questions of suffering, the questions of hardship, the questions of pain, and the other things that didn’t quite add up as they lived their new lives in the word.

So rather than enduring the persecution and opposition, from within their own hearts and from outside, their emotions led them away from the powerful word of Christ. One day they were doing it for Jesus, the next they were doing it tough. They climbed to a religious high but fell into a religious depression. These are they in the parable who received the seed that fell along rocky places.

Others who heard Jesus’ word didn’t give it any thought because they were too concerned with other things. Their minds suffocating in a sea of churning worries; will it rain, what will I eat, what will I wear, will someone take my possessions, how do I make more money and become successful?

Or even if it is not the worries of material things, they got so churned up on how they might do the right thing to be accepted by the preacher who sat out in the boat, that they just gave up. So overwhelmed by the mountain of work they expect of themselves they just give up and are swallowed by their own existence. These are they in the parable who received the seed that fell among the thorns.

The seed also fell on good soil and yielded a crop one hundred, sixty, and thirty times what was planted. Those who heard his word veiled in the parable, and understood it are these people. These people are the stalks of grain that stand up in the seed, firmly rooted in the word of God. There is no doubt that we all want to be the good seed planted in good soil, none of us want to die like the seed that fell on the path, the rocky ground, or amongst the thorns.

So which seed and soil combination are you? Are you the seed on the hard path? Does the word of God have trouble penetrating you hard exterior? Do you have trouble hearing and understanding it?

Are you the seed on rocky ground? Are you passionate for Jesus when your emotions are whipped up, but floundering in the everyday hardships of life? Do you only want to hear the feel good things and not the stuff that stirs and confronts the truth of your sinful inner being?

Or are you the seed amongst the thorns? Is your hearing of God’s word constantly choked out by your necessity to be successful, wealthy, and healthy? What is more important to you: God or your job or your income? God or your car? God or your family? God or your property? Is it easier to miss church, to overlook God, than to miss something else?

Then again some of you might find that you are a combination of seed on hard, rocky, and thorny places. You see you struggle with a mixture or all of these things.

Regardless of whatever the combination, we all yearn to be the seed and the soil that produces more. We all want to be healthier soil, to have better understanding, endurance, and persistence in God’s word. Just like the crowds that sat and listen to Jesus by the lake, we too sit and hear his word here today.

People of God, who struggle with the hardness, rockiness, and thorniness of heart, the secret of this parable is simple. We are called by Jesus with one phrase, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:9)

This verse ends the first part of the Gospel we heard today, but then a piece was skipped to hear the explanation of the parable. It’s in this middle section we find some answers that flow into Jesus’ explanation of the parable.

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” 11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 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.

13 This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ”‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:10-17NIV)

It is important for us to know that the disciples came and questioned Jesus about speaking in parables. Jesus says that the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to them but he also goes on to explain the parable. This tells us that Jesus knew that much of what he had said had even gone over the disciples’ heads. They too were hard ground, rocky ground, and thorny ground.

So if we and the disciples are hard or rocky or thorny ground, and we desire to be the good soil on which the seed falls, we can ask ourselves how a farmer might prepare unsuitable soil for a bountiful harvest. And we are returned to Jesus’ words, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.

A farmer ploughs his paddock, he works the good soil, and he receives a good harvest. This soil if left uncultivated will become thorny and hard over time. And stony ground cleared of its rocks can leave rich organic soil. And similarly with us we too need to be cultivated and worked by God into the soil he desires for a rich harvest. God does this with his word, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the mystery of the Gospel spoken and proclaimed, entering the ear, and working the heart of the hearer.

The disciples returned and received an explanation of the parable, and therefore allowed themselves to be cultivated by God over and over again, removing their hardness, their rocks, and their thorns, so that through them God continues to gather his harvest even today.

Because you want to endure in Christ, because you want peace in the presence of God, and because you value your salvation more than your earthly life, hear the word of the Lord! Return, repent, receive! Let the word of the Lord enter your ear and cultivate your heart. God desires to make you a part of his bountiful harvest.

Jesus says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear. Amen.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A, Pentecost 8 Proper 9 - Matthew 11:25-30, Romans 7:15-25a "Do Rest"

There is always plenty to do. No doubt we would all have done many things this last week, month, and year. Lifetimes full of doing things, both good and bad!

With all this doing, perhaps there are things you should have done but haven’t yet got to them. Or you’re trying to forget, and hoping that they will just go away! Maybe you are not capable of doing what you want to do because you’re too young, too old, not confident enough, or too ill!

These days seem to be more and more rushed. The more we do, the more we have left to do. It seems to be a trail of never-ending busyness. When God looks upon us, we must appear as ants scurrying to and fro. Perhaps when God makes his presence known amongst us, we like ants, try to bite him and get him out of our busy way.

We have to ask ourselves, with all this busyness, where does it end? Are we so concerned with what we think is important that we are letting go of what is really important? And because we are so overactive do we then treat God with frustration and contempt, treating him as just another task to fit into our busy schedules? Perhaps you blame God or others for what have to do?

Even our rest and recreation times have become so busy; they no longer seem to be effective. The more we do the more we have left to do. We work for more rest and recreation and once we get to these days, they’re gone, they fizz into thin air.

What does you doing do? To where does the busyness lead? Does your doing deceive you, or does it deliver from deception? Do the things you do bring glory to God, or are you just working and entertaining yourself to death? Being so busy on doing what we deem necessary, do you consider what these deeds might be doing to others around you? Not to mention the things we keep hidden; the things we do that make us ashamed before others and before God. Even the best, most wholesome and righteous things we do are tainted by our own self interest!

Saint Paul, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, the Apostle to the Gentiles, called by Christ on the Road to Damascus, testifies to his struggle with what he does as he looks at his ego and the things that come out of it…

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15-25a)

If we are honest with ourselves, when we look seriously at what we do, we know that we too are wretched, just like Saint Paul. You can hear Paul’s frustration as he rants about his inability to do the right thing, even though he knows exactly what he should be doing.

In fact it is human nature to beat ourselves up when we fail doing the right thing. We might even think that we have to verbally churn out our disgust, as a way of trying to work off our guilt due to what we do or what we should have done. But the end result is that we cannot work off our guilt, no matter how much we beat ourselves up; it will only remain with us and make us implode.

Our society today is hell-bent on doing all sorts of things to appease its conscience; some of the deeds good, others not so good. But at the end of the day nothing removes the darkness from a conscience busied by the sinful nature. We can and should seek to do humane and kind things to each other and to the creation God has given us; but even so, doing them won’t give us peace, hope, and joy that last.

It’s at this point in time we realise that it’s not about being the doers and the shakers of the world, the wise and the learned, or the strong and the healthy. We have learnt of our wretchedness in God’s word, and in our weakness we need to be delivered from our bodies of death. So we’re led to hear Jesus commends the ones who cannot do, but rather the ones who can simply believe, the little children.

25 Jesus said to the crowds, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

The good thing for us who are burdened with doing, having to do, and not doing what we should have done, is that Jesus Christ has done it for you. Like Paul when you get to the frustrating realisation that your plight is wretched, there stands Jesus offering you the same gracious hand revealed to the little children.

The reality for us who live in today’s world is this: regardless of how much we do or how little we do, none of it has any real meaning unless the burden of doing it, is placed on Christ, and we carry his yoke of resting and remaining in him, and hearing and believing his written word.

The recreation and rest the world leads us to believe doesn’t give us satisfactory rest at all. We’re tempted to work so hard gathering objects of entertainment around us, and once we do they don’t give rest, but rather more noise and restlessness. However, the recreation and rest you and all humanity needs is re-creation and Sabbath rest in Jesus Christ and his forgiveness of sin. Who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.