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.