“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.” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘royalty’? Or how about the word ‘king’? Do these words conjure up childhood stories that end ‘…and they lived happily ever after’?
Or maybe we remember waking up at five in the morning to watch a royal wedding on TV? If you’re my age it would be Charles and Diana’s wedding, if you’re a bit younger, William and Kate’s wedding. We remember the horses and carriages and handsome young men in uniform and beautiful women in long dresses and hats (love the hats!)
Here’s why I ask. In today’s scripture reading, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven. And it occurs to me that we, living as we do in 21st century America where democracy has been the law of the land for over 200 years, we really don’t have much experience with kings or kingdoms. We have a president, and a president has power, but not absolute power. We can vote for a new president every four years if we want to. But you don’t get to vote for a king.
A friend and I were talking about this the other day, and we were asking each other “if Jesus was alive today, would he still be preaching the ‘kingdom of God’ or would he use a different word?” Would Jesus use some other word to describe God’s leadership and power?
For now, ‘kingdom’ is the word we have, so I’m going to go with it.
Is the word important? Yes I believe it is, and here’s why. I ran a word search the other day on some of the words Jesus used when he preached. In the four gospels Jesus mentions the word “peace” 21 times; he mentions the word “mercy” 21 times; he mentions the word “love” 51 times; and he mentions the word “kingdom” 114 times!
The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, is one of the major themes of Jesus’ teaching, if not THE major theme. When Jesus begins his public ministry, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the very first thing he preaches is kingdom of heaven. In Mark 1:15 he preaches: “The time has come! The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (‘Repent’ being an old-fashioned word meaning to ‘change course’ or ‘to come to a new mind’.)
The kingdom of heaven is also one of the main themes of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) And again, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10)
The kingdom of heaven is the first request we ask of God in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
God’s kingdom is the core of Jesus’ message. Having said that, let’s take a look at today’s scripture reading, where he talks about the kingdom. Three things I’d like to point out from today’s reading: (1) God’s kingdom comes in unexpected ways; (2) The kingdom of heaven is valuable and costly; and (3) God’s kingdom is good news.
In the first parable, Jesus says that God’s kingdom comes in unexpected ways. “Like a mustard seed” he says: small, humble, and hidden. A mustard seed is a little smaller than those black poppy-seeds you get on bagels sometimes. It’s tiny. And this tiny seed is taken and hidden in the ground. But when it grows up it becomes a huge plant – big enough for birds to nest in.
The kingdom of heaven is like that. It starts small. It breaks into our world quietly. When Jesus was born, his birth was announced to shepherds and foreigners, not to kings in palaces. The kingdom of heaven enters our world so quietly you might miss it if you weren’t looking. But when all is said and done it will be large enough for all of God’s family to find a home. As Jesus said, “in my father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2)
Contrast this with the kingdoms of earth. Human kingdoms want to be big. Always growing, always expanding. Small is of no use to them. Governments, CEOs, sports teams, celebrities, are all about BIG. Even clergy sometimes fall into the trap of measuring a church’s success by its size. But that’s not how God sees things. In God’s kingdom small is beautiful. Small is blessed. Small grows into the biggest of all… big enough to become a forever-home for all of God’s people. And that’s good news.
In the second parable Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast” being worked into dough. Yeast is like the mustard seed in that it is hidden and unseen, but it has one other quality: it is active. Yeast is alive. Yeast changes whatever it is put in. The kingdom of heaven is like that – in people and in society. In a person, the kingdom effects inner changes… in a society, the kingdom spreads quietly… from person to person… over backyard fences, in text messages, in tweets.
Have you ever wondered how the Christian faith stays alive in the countries we hear about in the news, where people are trying to put an end to Christianity? Because the kingdom of heaven, like yeast, spreads quietly, hidden, active. That’s how Jesus came into the world in the first place. As it says in the old Christmas carol: “how silently, how silently the wonderous gift is given / Yet God imparts to humans hearts the blessings of his heaven.”
The world – when it notices God’s kingdom at all – tends to mistake its smallness and humility for weakness. But God’s ways are not humanity’s ways, and the values of the kingdom turn earth’s values upside down. And this is good news.
In the third parable Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.” Now the focus shifts and Jesus talks about how good and desirable the kingdom of heaven is. Just in case we had any doubts – we who may have been burned by earthly kings or kingdoms in the past. We may need reassuring that God’s kingdom is good.
So that’s the message of the parable of the treasure. When a man finds this treasure in a field, his heart leaps with joy and he hides it and goes and sells everything he has and buys the field so the treasure will be his.
I used to think, when I read this parable, that the man was being kind of selfish hiding the treasure and keeping it all to himself. But then I realized he couldn’t share what doesn’t belong to him. He doesn’t want to risk losing it, but once it’s his, he can share it with anyone. The kingdom of heaven is like that too. It’s a treasure we don’t want to miss out on, but once it’s ours we can share it with anyone.
Jesus continues along the same lines saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who finds one of great value…”. In this parable, unlike the man with the field, the merchant is actively searching for what he wants. The man with the field just kind of stumbles over his treasure. But the man with the pearls is a collector, and he desires the very best.
This parable reminds me of something I saw on TV recently. It was a show for people who love cars, and somebody had found THE car that once belonged to the son of Henry Ford, custom-made to his specifications. It was perfectly restored, and there was no other car like it in the whole world. If I were a car collector, this would be the holy grail of cars. And the owner of the car was putting it up for auction.
The car sold for $900,000. Somebody spent more than most of us will ever earn in a lifetime – for something that will someday be a pile of rust. How much more will we give for the kingdom of heaven and a joy that will last forever? That’s the question our merchant of pearls puts to us. When you find the one, will you go for it? No questions asked, no holds barred, with your whole heart, with everything you’ve got?
These two stories tell us that the kingdom of heaven will cost all we have to enter. But it also cost Jesus all he had to open the doors of the kingdom so we could go in. He gave up heaven to become human, and live and die like one of us. When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we are – in a very real way – making Jesus our king, and he gets to command us from now on.
That can be a scary thought. We’re not used to rulers who put our best interests above their own. But in God’s kingdom the values of this world are turned upside down. Valleys are exalted, mountains are made low, and the greatest in the kingdom are the servants of all. And this is good news.
The final parable in our reading comes with a warning. It leads off with good news: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, catching fish of every kind…” The good news is that God’s kingdom includes all kinds of fish. God does not discriminate the way people do on the basis of nationality, race, gender, whatever… his net catches every kind.
The warning is not all fish are good. Once the net is in, we see the angels sitting on the beach sorting the fish into piles, good and bad. Some fish got caught up in the kingdom net because that’s where they want to be. They want to belong to God. They want to live in God’s kingdom. Those are the good fish. But other fish got caught up in the kingdom net for less honorable reasons. They think they can use God’s kingdom for their own purposes – wealth… power… prestige. They don’t really believe Jesus’ words, and they don’t really care about his kingdom. They’re rotten fish ( ‘rotten’ is the correct translation from the Greek). Jesus says in the last days the angels will separate the good fish from the bad, throwing away the bad and keeping the good.
Which, in my mind, begs the question: why do the angels wait till the end times to do the sorting? I mean, if they did it now, got rid of all the bad fish now, what a wonderful world this would be! Which takes us back to last week’s scripture reading about the weeds and the wheat. The weeds and wheat grow up together until the harvest, because if the angels pulled up the weeds now, some of the wheat would get pulled up with it. And God is not willing to risk one single good grain, not one. God in his mercy says, ‘wait until the harvest’.
There will come a time when justice wins and the people of God will be free from the evils of this world. There will come a time when God’s righteousness will be the order of the day, when captives will be set free and those who oppress and bring evil into the world will be no more. There will come a time when in the words of the prophet Amos, ‘”justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24). For good fish this is good news.
Jesus ends his teaching by saying that any disciple who understands these things is wealthy in the kingdom – able to pull treasures old and new out of the storehouse. He is speaking here of God’s word – in Scripture and in the Spirit. This is a kingdom wealth passed down through history, from generation to generation – from century to century – and yet at the same time is ‘new every morning’. We are children of the king, and already God’s treasures are becoming available to us as his heirs.
The kingdom of heaven is like nothing this world has to offer. Starting small, humble, hidden… but in time filling the whole earth with God’s glory. Be encouraged, brothers and sisters, children of the king. Jesus says: the kingdom of God is at hand. Believe the good news. AMEN.
Preached Sunday July 27 2014 at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church.