August 4, 2019

The *Kindom of Heaven

Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

 

In today’s passage, Jesus gives us a number of parables about the kindom of Heaven- These parables aren’t meant to fully clarify eternity, the kindom or its boundaries, but they do point us to the mystery of heaven, and at least draw some fuzzy lines for us. What we can say is this: With the birth, ministry, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the kindom of heaven has been mysteriously inaugurated. The rest is tough to figure.

 

Defining this kindom is difficult, but we can say the following things about it: The kindom of heaven is both a now and the not yet, both present reality and future hope. We pray “Thy kingdom come” as something that is both happening now and something that will happen at a later day and time. Theologian Nadia Bolz-Webber said, “The kingdom of heaven, which Jesus talked about all the time is, he said here at hand. It’s now, wherever you are, in ways you’d never expect.” Yet life is not yet as God intended. There are glimpses of the fullness of heaven for us here at hand, as well as the knowledge of hope of what will one day be.

 

What can we learn about the mysterious kindom of heaven from this collection of parables? Jesus begins by using the example of a mustard seed. This is a comparison parable- something small becomes something big. Now from a scientific point of view, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. But it was the smallest in the personal experience of 1st century Jews. From this small seed, a large bush was grown, one of the largest in the holy land. Nowadays, we understand more clearly how God helps this growth from small to big occur: the amazing power of DNA, something much much smaller than the mustard seed itself, which composes the building blocks of all cells, including both plants and animals. It is the tiny DNA in the mustard seed that carries the unique characteristics which give mustard its identity and growth potential. Therefore a small seed becomes a very large bush. This is also true about the kindom of heaven. A small beginning kindom has grown phenomenally, which we’ll explore in just a moment.

 

Jesus’ second parable is a parallel to the first- a small amount of yeast that in the original Greek was “hidden” in 3 measures of flour, which equals 50 pounds of flour, ends up making a lot of bread, more than 100 loaves in fact. Again, from something quite small and almost imperceptible, something big comes. Some theologians have also suggested that the yeast in this parable stands for Christ’s death and resurrection- that is, the yeast expands the kindom of heaven, and Jesus’ death and resurrection have opened the gates of heaven. Our office manager Susan gave me the following cartoon which illustrates this point, which you who bake will appreciate… “I’ve heard people say that the yeast in this story is the crucifixion of Jesus.” “I think that’s a reasonable interpretation.” “Alleluia. He is risen?” “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

Were Jesus teaching parables today, rather than a mustard seed, he might look to the internet as a possible example. Growth of the Internet has been phenomenal. Some web sites have grown in huge ways in very short amounts of time. Facebook is one example of phenomenal growth of something that was once quite small. Only a few years ago, this site didn’t even exist. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout, initially started the Facebook site as a way for Harvard college students to connect with others. Now, the site has an estimated 2.41 BILLION users, (almost a 1/3 of the world’s population), is the main format of connecting with friends in over 190 countries, and has been credited with helping with all sorts of mass movements, from the beginnings of the “Arab Spring” in the Middle east in 2011 to the #ME Too movement, and the organizing of the current street protests in Hong Kong. Zuckerman was a billionaire at the age of only 26. By a show of hands, how many of you have or have had Facebook accounts?

 

 

By similar comparison, the kindom of heaven has grown from a small group of male and female followers to an estimation by many places on the internet to include 2.1 billion Christians worldwide, also approximately 1/3 of the world’s total population! And those who have died in past millennia total in the billions, which means the kindom of heaven is a large enough place to accommodate all of those souls. From small beginnings comes phenomenal growth indeed.

 

That same phenomenal growth comes to us inside as well. Once we have knowledge of God’s presence in our lives, the kindom of heaven, that is to say, the divine presence of God resides in us and grows within us, helping us to be more and more as we were created to be.

 

 

Next, Jesus uses two stories about treasure to explain a bit more about heaven. First, we hear of someone who has found a treasure that was hidden in an unknown, apparently vacant field. He then re hides it and sells all he has to buy it- quite the valuable treasure.

 

I heard a story recently about a guy who wanted to sell everything he owned on eBay: his salt and pepper shakers, his toaster, the pictures on his walls, his bedding, and so on. The only stipulation was that he had the right to visit his former things whenever he wanted. He might go to Maine to visit his salt and pepper shakers, or California to see his toaster, or Texas to visit his former bed linens. Needless to say, I don’t think he had any buyers. But can you imagine putting up everything you own for sale, all that you treasure in this life? This hidden heavenly treasure must be valuable, beyond all other earthly things if he did so.

 

 

The second parable on treasure is a bit like the first, but it suggests that the seeker of heaven has some work to do- The merchant must go through a lot of pearls to find one of great value, and when he finally did so, just as the man who found the hidden treasure, he sold everything he had so that he could own the pearl.

 

An awful lot of people in this world try to find those pearls of great value, those big homes up on the hill, expensive cars, fame and fortune, financial security. They chase those financial dreams, all in the hope of having it all, but finding in the end, they have nothing of lasting value. Earthly pearls look great and may seem as if they offer us something, but in the end, they are hollow and meaningless. Theologian Henrik Ibsen said, “Money can buy the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It buys you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants but not faithfulness; days of joy, but not peace and happiness.”

 

There also are many pearls of wisdom for living these days- talk shows on the radio tell us what we should be angry about and how to vote. Television shows like Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz are offering pearls of wisdom on how to solve personal or medical problems. Self-help books, like Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown or Make Your Bed, by William McRaven offer us pearls of wisdom on how to be a better people. Other books in this category tell us how to be a financial success, how to attract a mate, how to lose weight, etc.

 

You have to sort through a lot of pearls to find the one of great value in today’s world. The pearl of faith of believing in heaven is the most valuable item we can ever own. When we have the hope of heaven, it is a pearl better than any earthly wisdom or any financial windfall. Protestant reformer Martin Luther said, “I would not give up one moment of heaven for all the joys and riches of the world, even if it lasted for thousands and thousands of years.” That pearl of hope is what I used when I prayed over Marian Flood as she began her transition from this life to her one in heaven. I was able to look in her eyes and remind her that Jesus, when he was about to leave the disciples said, “So now, you are sad. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and your joy, no one will take from you,” (John 16:22) reminding her that there will be a great reunion one day for her and her loved ones in heaven.

Yet this parable suggests something else about heaven as well.

 

 

Pearls are the result of irritation. The oyster forms a protective coating around a foreign object, layer by layer. Apart from their beautiful colors, pearls are valuable simply because of how long a process of deposition they represent. They are the oyster’s persistent resistance to invasion and threat. Interesting how something beautiful and highly valued could result from what started as an irritation! The kindom of heaven is like that: an irritation to the world-Love stands in opposition to hate. Mercy stands in opposition to cruelty, everlasting life in opposition to death and separation. Each glimpse of the heavenly realm upon earth becomes a pearl of great value, a treasure worth everything we have which stands in opposition to evil.

 

What do you treasure? Is there anything in life so valuable that you would give up everything else to obtain it? For many, their family would fill that bill. For many of us, if a family member needed a kidney, and we were the only match, we would give up a kidney to give life to our loved one because they are of value beyond measure. The kindom of heaven is like that-of value beyond measure. We who have faith and belief in heaven believe in something other than ourselves. We who know of the eternal treasure of heaven can see the value of human beings, the beauty of creation. We understand our place in creation as children of the Creator, our role as extensions of the kindom to bring about justice, mercy, love, peace, and grace to the rest of this world. And one day, upon the end of this earthly life, we will be reunited with the faithful who have gone before us. That is a treasure beyond measure.

 

Jesus ends his teaching on heaven with the parable of the net-a fisherman catches a whole variety of fish, which are sorted out between good and bad. This is a parable that speaks more of the not yet of the kindom-the day of judgement when Christ our sovereign returns and the population of the world is separated between good fish and bad ones. Regarding the idea of hell-some Biblical scholars are now challenging the notion of hell as a latter concept instituted by the early church. I think scripture is clear on the concept of heaven and hell. Certainly, it seems that Jesus was. Both this parable, as well as the parable of the weeds earlier in Matthew (Matthew 13:24-30) and Matthew 25:31-46 speak of separating good from bad on the final day. We must be careful, however, we see the idea of heaven and hell, to think that we ourselves know the color of the clouds in heaven or the temperature in hell- that is NOT to have smug certainty and judge others as to where they may be going based upon our impression of them. Our job is to show the love of God to all, and express our hope of heaven to others. Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you yourself be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)

There is a poem I found that speaks well to this understanding, called, “Hush.”

 

I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven’s door,

Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its décor.

But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp-the thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics, the trash…

There stood a kid from 7th grade who swiped my lunch money twice!

Next to him was my old neighbor, who never said anything nice.

Herb, whom I always thought was rotting away in hell,

Was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, “What’s the deal? I would love to hear your take. How’d all these sinners get up here? God must’ve made a mistake.

And why’s everyone so quiet, so somber? Give me a clue!”

“Hush child,” said He. “They’re all in shock. No one thought they’d be seeing YOU!” (By Rod Hemphill)

 

Lastly, Jesus tells the disciples that those who understand these parables about heaven are like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom both new and old treasures- this is a reminder to us that we have two treasures in scripture- the old and new testaments, which speak to us of the kindom and its sovereign. Understanding the relationship of all these readings and their message of God’s faithfulness is a great treasure, the very essence of heaven, which leads to wisdom, and helps us prize the old and the new- the story of God’s people and the first covenant the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

 

So, do we have a clearer understanding of heaven? Probably not. There is a vagueness about Jesus’ parables which tell us some, but do not reveal all. What lies ahead? Hard to say. But it is a place of hope, new life, and wonder. Theologian Anne Lamott, in pondering heaven wrote, “Grace will be sufficient for whatever lies ahead.” In the meantime, we wait, wonder and work for the kindom here and now.

 

 

 

Devotional writer Vance Havner wrote, “If you are a Christian, you are not a citizen of this world trying to get into heaven; you are a citizen of heaven making your way through this world.” Thanks be to God for the knowledge of heaven, and for our citizenship there, which gives us the courage to stand, live, share God’s justice and hope in this world, and gives us a sustaining future hope of life eternal in the world to come. Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

* Regarding the word, ‘kindom’, Rev. Ginger Gaines Corelli writes, “At our church, we often use the word ‘kindom’ in place of ‘kingdom’ to reflect gender-neutral view of God’s community, the kinship we share with all of humanity, and the belief that God’s vision for creation is about loving, mutual relationship.”

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