Archive for July 2011

John Wesley goes to Savannah

July 25, 2011
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Thy Kingdom Come: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

July 24, 2011

Every Sunday at Wesley Memorial we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We pray together, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Millions around the world will probably pray that prayer Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 6 today. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. That is about 33 percent of the world’s population who probably knows and prays these words of the Lord’s Prayer.  But do we really know what we are praying for when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” When we pray “thy kingdom come” what do we mean by kingdom? What do we want to come?[1]

I think the first place to start before we dive into our scripture text today is with the simple word, “thy.” We are not praying for our kingdom or any other kingdom of any other person, power or place to come, but we are praying for God’s kingdom to come. The kingdom of heaven is God’s kingdom that we pray will be on earth as it is in heaven. There is a present reality to this kingdom we pray will come; there is a here-and-now implication of this prayer that many of us pray so often. British theologian and author N.T. Wright puts it this way: “‘Thy Kingdom Come’ rules out any idea that the kingdom of God is a purely heavenly reality—[that is the kingdom of God is not ‘otherworldly].’”[2] Remember what John the Baptist said as he prepared the way for Jesus? He says, “The kingdom of God has come near,” or “the kingdom of God is at hand.”[3] And then just a chapter later Jesus begins his ministry in the world with the same words. He says, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”[4]

So, Jesus’ parables from today’s scripture in Matthew 13 were not to teach about a faraway place or future reality for those of us who believe, but a presence of God’s kingdom that is all around us. Jesus says the kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl and net. These 5 short, rapid-fire parable teachings are our little window into the kingdom of God.[5]

I think the first two parables of the mustard seed and the yeast speak to God’s action in our world. Jesus uses two natural phenomena to teach us about the mysterious ways God is present and works in our world. In the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast there is a “sharp contrast between the initial and final stages of growth. The emphasis is on God’s action in the world which is almost imperceptible,” hard to sense, invisible and seemingly small, but “which yields results that [contradicts] its unimpressive appearance.” The mustard seed, though it is the tiniest of seeds we are told, grows to host the birds of the air so that they find a home in its branches, and the yeast though it is also tiny and hidden in the dough, is capable of making the dough rise to become bread that feeds so many.[6]

These two parables are meant to remind us that God is Emmanuel. They are meant to remind us of John’s words in Matthew 3 and Jesus’ words in Matthew 4 that the kingdom of heaven is near. These parables are meant to inspire faith that God is active in our world today, that God is real and God’s kingdom is a reality in this present world.[7]  As a child of the 80s I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to Belinda Carlisle’s song, “Heaven is a place on earth.” Maybe you have heard it, but the chorus goes like this: “Heaven is a place on earth; they say in heaven love comes first; we’ll make heaven a place on earth; heaven is a place on earth.” And one of the verses says, “When I feel alone, I reach for you to bring me home. When I’m lost at sea I hear your voice and it carries me. In this world we’re just beginning to understand the miracle of living. I was afraid before, but I’m not afraid anymore.”  If you don’t think about that as a love relationship between two people, you can easily imagine singing this song to God. And I think this song gets at what these 5 parables in Matthew 13 are about.

These parables draw us out from our customs, habits, culture, and all the busyness that fills our daily lives to remind us that God is with us, within us, all around us, between us and spread out before us. Sometimes we get lost, disheartened, discouraged, weary and apathetic looking for God too high up and too far away.[8] The Gospel of Thomas is obviously not part of our canonical Biblical books, but there is an ancient manuscript called the Gospel of Thomas that is made up Jesus’ sayings. In it Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but you do not see it.”[9] The parables in Matthew 13 are windows into this truth; they teach us that God is everywhere, and where God is there is also God’s kingdom.

The parable of the mustard seed seems like a pretty unimpressive way to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. That is probably what Jesus’ first listeners thought any way. Pliny the Elder who was a naval commander of the Early Roman Empire and later he was an author and naturalist who was living when Jesus walked this earth. Pliny wrote about mustard seeds and plants. He wrote, “Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted; but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” Essentially the mustard plant is a weed that easily germinates and tends to take over where it is not wanted and where other plants cannot and will not grow.[10] This is God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is without boundaries, a kingdom that is present and grows in the midst of the unlikeliest of places, situations and people.

In the ancient world kingdoms were often described as trees. Just look through the Old Testament and you will see several kingdoms compared to trees. For example, Israel and Assyria are depicted as a cedar in Ezekiel 17 and 31, and Babylonia is also likened to a cedar in Daniel 4, but cedars were noble, lofty and proud trees.[11] They were not like the mustard weed that went where it was not wanted, and grew and attracted birds where birds were not wanted. And yet Jesus does not compare the Kingdom of Heaven to a grand and noble cedar; he compares it to the tiny mustard seed that is only the size of a speck of pepper, but that grows to be 7 to 12 feet tall. Again this was exactly Jesus’ point. God’s kingdom is everywhere. Even in those places where we do not feel, hear or sense God; God is there. Even in those places and people that are resistant and hostile to God and God’s kingdom; God is there. Even when we doubt, question, don’t understand and are full of confusion God is with us. It might only seem like a tiny speck of a seed of God’s presence, but that tiny seed can grow into huge trees.

I think I like Jesus’ parable of the yeast better. I get the mustard seed parable, but the image of yeast and bread rising is more inviting, warm and homey. It makes me think of Jesus sharing bread with his disciples, the 5,000 and Communion today. It makes me think of walking into my house as a child and being met by the smell of warm, freshly baked bread. My mom passed on her love of making bread to me. Making bread is a very involved process. It takes a long time. There is a lot of waiting time because you have to let the yeast do its work. I’ve been making bread for several years and it still always surprises me how high just a tiny bit of yeast can make flour rise.

In our parable today 3 measures of flour is about 50 pounds of flour which is enough flour to feed bread to 100 or more people. [12] That is a lot of flour and that is a lot of bread. My arms and patience barely last the time it takes to make three loaves of bread to feed maybe 12 people; I can’t imagine having the patience and stamina to use 50 pounds of flour to make bread for more than 100 people. No, I can imagine and it makes me exhausted and not up to even starting the task. But Jesus says the kingdom of God is like the yeast. It is really the yeast that does all the work in making bread. Sure, I have to use my arms to knead in the yeast, but making bread is about waiting for the yeast to do what yeast does best. When you watch bread rise; it moves very slowly; it almost escapes the eye. You can’t see the yeast working, but you know it is working because in an hour or so usually the dough has doubled. This is the Kingdom of Heaven Matthew 13 speaks of. The kingdom of God is about God in action; God moving and working in our world even when God’s movements and presence isn’t obvious. Just as the yeast seems to bring the dough to life; God is working in our world and our lives to bring us to life, to grow us, to nurture us even when we do not feel God’s presence. God does not abandon us—that is the Good News of the kingdom of heaven Jesus ushered in with his life, death and resurrection.

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast teach and remind us that God is present and at work in places, people, events and situations that we regard as insignificant, dark and far away from any presence of God. God is moving, working and present even when it is not obvious or apparent, and God’s actions have results beyond our wildest expectations.[13]  Too often everyday life is ruled by custom, habit, routine, busyness and rushing here and there, and such a life lived in the fast lane can all-too-readily cultivate a God-obscuring balance or way of living. Unless we realize that things are not what they seem to be and that they will not be as they are forever, as the mustard seed and yeast reveal to us, we will miss what and where and how God is working and moving; we will miss what matters most—the treasure and the pearl of Matthew 13.[14]

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field which someone then finds, and the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great value that a merchant sold everything he owned in order to buy that pearl. These next two parables and the last parable of the net are about our human response to God’s presence and work in our world. As Methodists we believe in responsible and response-able grace. Yes, God is always working and with us no matter if we acknowledge God’s presence or not, and yes, God offers his unconditional love and grace as a gift, but since it is a gift we must respond; we must choose to accept God’s invitation to live in the kingdom of heaven not only in eternity, but in the here and now. The parable of the treasure, the pearl and the net inspire and encourage us to make God’s kingdom our kingdom, to make God our first priority, to make God the pattern for how we move, work and live in our world.

Understanding the immanent presence of the kingdom of heaven “changes everything about our world, our values, and our priorities.”[15] The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell of how God seeks us in all places, in all circumstances, and with all the burdens we carry; and the parables of the treasure, pearl and net is about our seeking God, and about finding God and knowing that God is our all in all. “If we sell everything we have for this kingdom of heaven, what do we have except it? Then again, what do we need besides it?”[16] We are called as disciples of Christ and people of God to participate in God’s reign in the here and now—that is what these last parables are about. Our lives are changed when we truly understand the nearness and presence of the kingdom of heaven, and when we are changed and start to live into the reality of God’s kingdom on earth then our world begins to change and be transformed.

N.T. Wright the British theologian and author I referenced earlier wrote about this participation in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. He writes, “Jesus’ first followers didn’t think, for a moment, that the kingdom meant simply some new religious advice—an improved spirituality, a better code of morals, or a freshly crafted theology. They held to a stronger, more dangerous claim. They believed that in the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus the whole had turned the corner from darkness to light…Of course they faced the question: If the kingdom is here, why is there still injustice? Why is there still hunger? Why is there still guilt? Why is there still evil? They didn’t dodge this question. They didn’t escape into saying: Oh, we didn’t mean that; we’re talking about a new individual spiritual experience, leading to our sharing God’s kingdom in heaven, not on earth. No. They went on praying and living the Lord’s Prayer. And they would tell us to do the same.”[17]

These last three parables are about living and embodying the words: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t merely utter empty words, and we don’t even just ask God to make his kingdom here on earth. God’s kingdom is already here. Our prayer each week is that we may live into the reality that the kingdom of heaven is near. Yes, as N.T. Wright says, it is certainly hard to believe that with so much destruction, violence, chaos and uncertainty in our world, but when we pray those words of the Lord’s Prayer we are saying we believe the power of God is greater than the ways of this world, and we are praying for God to strengthen us to give ourselves wholly to living the reality of the presence and power of God. These parables of Matthew 13 remind us that if we dare to pray these words of the Lord’s Prayer we must be prepared to live this way; we must be prepared to look out into the world and see the world as God sees it. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a prayer for the world, for the church and for us. The world will only begin to see the kingdom of heaven on earth if we who call ourselves Christians begin to truly and authentically and wholly live into this reality. “They say in heaven love comes first. Let’s make heaven a place on earth.” Amen.

 


[1] “Understanding the Kingdom,” http://www.lectionarysermons.com/july_28.02.htm.

[2] N.T. Wright, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer,” Christian Century, March 12, 1997.

[3] Matthew 3:2

[4] Matthew 4:17

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] William L. Dols, “Looking for the Kingdom of God Too High Up and Too Far Away,” July 28, 2002, http://day1.org/559-looking_for_the_kingdom_of_god_too_high_up_and_too_far_away.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] McKenzie.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dale Allison, “Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52,” July 27, 2008, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/27/2008&tab=4

[15] “Understanding the Kingdom.”

[16] McKenzie.

[17] N.T. Wright, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer.”