Sermon for July 23, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 28:10-19a and Ps. 139:1-12, 23-24
or Isa. 44:6-8 and Ps. 86:11-17
Rom. 8:12-25; Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43

LIVING IN THE ALREADY BUT NOT-YET KINGDOM (Matthew 13:24-30)
By Josh McDonald

Introduction

Perhaps you recall the televangelist couple Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They set out to build heaven-on-earth in a Christian theme park named Heritage USA. It was designed as a refuge from the world, offering the gospel through entertainment. Unfortunately what they built was quite unlike heaven. Grounded in lust for prestige, power and wealth, it came crashing down after only a few years of operation. Jimmy went off to prison and Tammy Faye became the laughingstock of the country.

In our gospel passage today, we find a parable from Jesus about a kingdom quite unlike the one the Bakker’s sought to build. Instead of a kingdom of wealth and prestige designed to stand aloof from the world, Jesus tells us of a kingdom that resides in and among the people of the world, bringing blessing and healing.

Background

The Matthew 13 account occurs at a time when Jesus’ ministry was polarizing people. Some said he was the Messiah. Some Jewish leaders, fearing loss of prestige, power and wealth, said he certainly was not. Others close to Jesus—his disciples and his cousin John the Baptist—were saying to Jesus: “If you truly are the Messiah, why do you look so different than what we thought the Messiah would look like? Are you really the guy?” Everyone had an opinion about Jesus, and those opinions were all over the map.

It was at this critical point that Jesus delivered some of his most well-known parables—ones about the spread of the Word in the world, about people’s reactions and the judgement that results. The overarching theme is the kingdom, which is about God’s rule—his way of doing things—and how that rule invades and so changes the world. In these parables of the kingdom of God (Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven) the kingdom is described as already and not-yet. The kingdom is portrayed as already present (though not-yet visible to most), and as yet to come, in the sense of coming in its fullness when it will be visible to all.

“The Parable of the Weeds” by Fetti
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The parable of the weeds

In the parable we’ll look at today, the emphasis is on living in the already kingdom. It’s often called “the parable of the weeds.” Let’s read it:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?” “An enemy did this,” he replied. The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matt. 13:24-30)

The time between the times

We live in what can be called the time between the times. Christ has come, has died, rose and ascended. Now now await his return to earth from heaven. When he comes again, the kingdom will be visible to all, for it will encompass, and so rule over, all things. At that time, the kingdom won’t be a place you visit then go home—all of heaven and earth will be remade as the kingdom of God.

But right now we are in the period of the kingdom invisible, the kingdom hidden, the “not-yet” kingdom. Throughout Jesus’ parables, he talks about what it means to live in this time. He compares it to yeast in the dough, seed in the ground, being the salt of the earth, being servants of a master who is away (though one day will return). During this time between the times, we, as Jesus’ followers, are citizens of the kingdom already, but not-yet—invisible, but someday visible—hidden, but some day in plain sight. What is it like to live in this already but not-yet kingdom? Today we’ll note three things:

  1. The church’s role
  2. What it means to be the kingdom invisible—wheat among tares
  3. What happens when the kingdom becomes visible to all

Consider the original audience

We need to remember that the original audience hearing this parable was primarily Jews living under the thumb of Rome—not a comfortable place to be (especially if you were a proud, outspoken minority). Jews at that time could not participate fully in the Roman lifestyle because they refused to worship Roman gods. As a result, they typically were ignored by the Roman rulers, though it was not illegal or even frowned upon to mistreat the Jews and other religious minorities. If the local Roman ruler didn’t like your group, he could make life very difficult for you.

As a result of the pressure, some Jews “sold out.” Some sects of Judaism changed their theology to better fit with Rome. Other Jews turned to terrorism and rebellion, seeking to restore the kingdom to Israel through violence. As a result, there was great tension in the air, and people were constantly asking Jesus (who they thought might be the Messiah) is he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel soon. By that they meant a Jewish political kingdom that would kick the Romans out. Jesus constantly corrected them, saying that the kingdom of God is a spiritual, not a political kingdom. According to Jesus, the kingdom is not a group of buildings, nor is it a group of people who separate themselves from the rest of the world.

Because of their situation in life, Jesus’ audience, especially those who had lost family members along with their Jewish identity to the powers of Rome, perk up when Jesus talked about “the end.” And yes, Jesus does mention final judgment in this parable—the time when the accounts will be balanced, the wrongs righted. But, again, he disappoints—he is not discussing when Israel will triumph and Rome will fall, nor is he discussing (in our context) when Hollywood and San Francisco will burn and we’ll have a Christian president and Christian governors and a Christian chicken in every pot. In this parable, Jesus throws all of us off our presuppositions and expectations concerning the kingdom.

Jesus’ parables of judgment and the kingdom

I think we need to look again at the tone of this and other of Jesus’ parables of judgment. The first thing to note is not how fierce the judgment will be, not how many heads will roll, but how wide and gracious the Master (the Judge) is. In the parable of the weeds, we learn of a man sowing his field. Note the generosity—he sows liberally, even indiscriminately. Then note that when the servants want to start weeding, he says to them: “Let it ride.” He is much more concerned about harming the good seed than about getting rid of the bad.

Note also that the context here is Jesus’ kingdom theme. A short-form definition of the kingdom is “what things look like when God is in charge.” The kingdom is made up of God’s people and the church is thus part of the kingdom, but the kingdom is much wider than the church, and only God knows just how wide. One author calls the church “the sacrament of the kingdom,” meaning the vessel where the kingdom is the most visible right now. To be the church, then, does not mean to be all of the kingdom, but to be an integral part of it—a vital expression of God’s kingdom, present in the world, for the sake of the world.

Remember, Jesus was speaking this parable to people who had a strong sense of “us versus them.” They knew who was in and who was out, and they wanted Jesus to help them draw the boundary lines. Instead he tells them a bunch of enigmatic stories and this parable of the weeds is a particularly strange one. As was his practice, Jesus used everyday items to talk about eternal realities. In this parable he describes something that actually happened at times—a primitive form of bioterrorism. You’d sow your field at planting time, then an enemy would come at night and throw in a bunch of weed seeds. When the wheat and weeds grew up, the weeds would crowd out the wheat and the harvest would be ruined.

The word Jesus uses here for weeds is darnel—a weed that looked very much like wheat. Thus, this was a particularly sneaky trick—it would have been difficult to tell what was what, and so they probably would have killed a lot of wheat trying to remove the darnel.

And here we come back to the Bakers and Heritage USA—it’s a rather extreme example of the church trying to build its own kingdom—trying to carve out some land to say, “This is ours, not yours—this is our little piece of earth.” But Jesus says, the kingdom between the times does not operate like that. He promised that wheat and tares would grow together, and he would separate them at harvest time, but not now.

This parable, like some of his others, likely elicited a few snickers from the audience. Jesus was using metaphors from their daily lives, but in highly unusual (even comical) ways. No farmer in his right mind would let weeds grow up with the wheat. He’d have them pulled out before they caused any problems. But Jesus’ concern is not perfect farming. Nor is he worried about having a perfect kingdom here on earth. Jesus is well aware that the best and the brightest, the strongest and the tallest, and the smartest and the squeaky-cleanest aren’t the ones he’s after. And Jesus puts off to the future the “great comeuppance.” Instead of telling a story about the unrighteous being destroyed by the armies of God, he tells of a lowly farmer with questionable agricultural practices.

What does all this mean for us?

So what does it mean to operate in this time period when the weeds and wheat are mixed? Hugh Halter, one of the most insightful commentators on what it means to be church right now, made this comment:

Christianity has lost its place at the center of American life. Christians must learn how to live the gospel as a distinct people who no longer occupy the center of society. We must learn to build relational bridges that win a hearing.

He reminds us that we live in a post-Christian culture where Christianity no longer dominates the conversation; no longer defines the culture. It used to be that you couldn’t shop on a Sunday morning because everyone was in church. You might run across references to Genesis or Moses and definitely to Jesus in the daily news. Prayer in schools was the norm and Billy Graham was as big a star as Elvis. But Christianity no longer occupies that center place on the cultural stage. Christianity isn’t the dominant influence it once was. Recent studies show that only 20% of Americans attend a Bible-believing church with regularity.

We are living in a different world than the one most of us grew up in. We no longer dominate the culture, and let me be the first to say, “Praise God!” Thank God we no longer have the kingdom of this world in which to get fat and comfortable. We were never meant to. Jesus’ words were spoken to comfort and strengthen a small group of believers who didn’t hold political power, didn’t have cultural influence, didn’t occupy anything close to the center of society. Sound familiar?

The church in the early years was small and a bit scared, yet fully ALIVE! Even with persecution on every side, even being ostracized from society—the church grew like crazy. Today, our brothers and sisters in China face constant persecution for their faith, and yet China has one of the fastest-growing, most vibrant churches in the world.

Once again, particularly in North American and in Europe, Christians are becoming a small minority whose only weapon is love. God is cleansing us of our idols of power, prestige and wealth so that we can be his people without spot or wrinkle.

Through this parable, I hear Jesus saying to us today: “Christians, I am not removing you from the world. Don’t be troubled or discouraged, the weeds will grow with the wheat.” Now, someone might ask, “But what if someone is just starting out as a baby Christian? What if they are just learning what it means to live in Christ? You wouldn’t send a newly sober alcoholic to a bar, or a child into battle, would you?”

No, you wouldn’t. There are seasons in our Christian lives, especially at the beginning, when we need to be a little separate from the sin that so easily entangles. God has given us the church as a shelter and way station and such stages. And even when we are mature Christians, we still need some solitude at times away from the world—times to withdraw for prayer. But Jesus is NOT calling us to abadon the world. In that regard, it is signficant that just after Jesus got done telling the parable of the weeds he tells the parables of the mustard seed and of the yeast in the dough.

As followers of Christ in a post-Christian world, we might be tempted to hunker down, to withdraw from the world around us, which grows increasingly secular and even hostile toward Christianity. But if Jesus’ figurative language tells us anything, he means for us to be right in the midst of the world—right where he, by the Spirit, is working among the wheat and the weeds.

I attended a fundamentalist Bible college about 20 years ago—a loving place, but a bit naive. At one point, our chapel speakers got us all excited about bringing the gospel to Washington DC. The wisdom of taking a bunch of soft suburban kids and dumping them on the streets of the murder capital of the world was a bit questionable—we were armed with nothing but tracts and our ideals. We walked the streets trying to talk to people about the gospel. I’m not sure how many times I got cussed and screamed at. We came at the people without relationship, without helping them at all, we came at them as if we could walk straight out of the chapel and into their lives. We were looking at the world from the outside, not the inside. And this is what Jesus warns against. He warns against coming at the world as if we aren’t part of it, trying to conquer it when we should be working within it, sharing his love, all for his glory.

But we fundamentalist kids were on a mission—something like the Bakers building their empire instead of being part of Christ’s kingdom as it breaks into the world as it is. Jim and Tammy Faye sought to build their own kingdom. The result was that they pulled themselves out of the harvest field and thus away from the work Jesus was actually doing.

I remember leaving Washington DC feeling frustrated and confused. I was supposed to see lives changed, to see big things happen. What I saw was a lot of people ignoring me, or screaming at me to leave them alone. A year later I returned to DC, but with a different group. We came with no agenda, just armloads of lunches to give to homeless, hungry people. Our only weapon was love. We came not as the conquering few holding the truth out to the lost masses, but as Christ’s people bringing Christ’s love to fellow human beings. People accepted and appreciated us. We prayed with them, talked with them about their lives, and talked with them about Jesus and his gospel. We met them where they were instead of trying to define ourselves against them. Did we put notches on our evangelistic gun belts by coercing people to say a short prayer? No. Did we show the love of Christ by giving spiritually thirsty people a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name? Yes. Were we in the world, but not of the world. Yes. Did we make a difference for the kingdom that day by meeting people where they were, instead of where we wanted them to be? Absolutely.

Some day the kingdom of God will be visible to all. Some day “the roll will be called up yonder.” If we’ve learned anything, it’s the fact that we can’t know the day or the hour. All our predictions of when Jesus would return were proven wrong. And so we don’t make such predictions any more.

The story is told of Martin Luther, the great theologian and reformer, planting a tree in his garden. Some people came to him asking questions. One asked, “Brother Luther, what would you do if you knew Christ was coming by sunset today?” Luther wiped the dirt from his hands, took a good belt of his German beer and replied, “I’d finish planting this tree.” His point? Live as Christ-followers in the world were he put you. The Master will weed the garden when it’s time. We aren’t to hide away or isolate ourselves waiting for the visible kingdom to arrive in its fulness. Instead, we are to be joyfully engaged in the kingdom as it already is—planting love wherever we go, and thus participating with Jesus in the advance of his kingdom now on earth.

Let us be about our Father’s business. Amen.

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