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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“What is a secret?” That is the question I once asked a group of children. A little girl raised up her hand, and said softly, “A secret is something very special that you tell only one person- at a time. Like my mommy.” Interesting perspective- though a bit embarrassing for her mother. On another occasion, I asked, “What is lying?” This time a little boy answered, “Lying and telling the truth are the same thing,” he said. “But when you tell a lie, you cross your fingers.” From that point on, I made the boy hold his hands in front of me whenever he was speaking.
The Bible is filled with different examples of secrecy and secrets. Jesus himself constantly speaks of secrets and hidden meanings, and nowhere is this more evident than in the five parables which we have read today. Surprisingly, God’s very kingdom, the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim, seems to be a secret- hidden for only a few to see. In contrast, in his letters to the early church, St. Paul speaks of the secret of faith. For the apostle, the secret to the Christian faith is to embrace a truth which in the face of troubled world places all things into order. For Paul, it is the secret to living and dying. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
My friends, this morning let us explore these five parables. For I believe that when you can see God in the hiddenness of his kingdom, you can learn to know that in spite of the pain and suffering in the world that all things work for good.
Let us begin with the parable of the mustard seed. There are those for whom the Christian faith 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. As a missionary pastor, I could identify with the image of the mustard seed. During my first year in Latvia, our church was very small. It was so small that when my wife Janna was ill, attendance dipped by 20 percent. During the early years, my favorite Bible verse was simply, “Where two or three are gathered together.” Oh, how proud we were, when the Church attendance matched the temperature outdoors in January. We were a mustard seed in a great city of potential. That’s how I have always interpreted the parable.
But to the crowds in Jesus’ day they would have recognized something unusual in the parable. The mustard seed certainly was a small seed – about the size of the head of a pin. However, it didn’t grow to be the “greatest of shrubs,” nor did grow to the size of a tree, or tall enough to support birds and their nests. Minnesota farmers, and even the good- old Norwegian bachelor farmers, might question why you would plant mustard seed at all. Mustard plants, after all, have the pesky power to take over your field. That’s how the kingdom of God works. It enters in, in places where you least expect it and it grows. That’s God’s assurance for you and the secret to his kingdom. God’s kingdom cannot stop growing. It is why you can trust that “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
In the second parable, Jesus’ likens the kingdom of heaven to a woman who hides yeast and mixes it in with three measures of flour until all of it is leavened. Yeast can only do one thing. It ferments and rises. It grows and changes the flour into life giving bread. But there is also one other amazing quality. It is renewable. You don’t have to go out and buy Fleischman’s Yeast every time you need to bake bread. In The Little House Cookbook, Ma Ingalls explains how she ferments her bread dough using what she has on hand, ”You start it by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours…”Then you use it, always a little. And put in the scraps of biscuit dough…and add warm water, and cover it and just set it in a warm place.” And whenever it mixes with flour it changes into something. That’s how the kingdom of God works. It is not the decree of the emperor or the king. The change in the world begins in little ways, with women in their kitchens kneading in a little yeast- and that’s how flour changes.
That is also the secret to Christian faith. Not only does the kingdom grow, but it changes everything it touches. The change may be hidden, and you may not see the hand of God, but you can be certain that change is happening. It’s why St. Paul could write, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
There are those for whom the kingdom of heaven is like a 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. In both parables, someone happens on something very precious and valuable: one discovers the treasure by accident, and the other is a discerning seeker, and for this treasure they are willing to abandon everything else.
So what do these two characters tell us about the kingdom of God? It may surprise you, but these two parables tell us how the kingdom comes to us. For some the good news of God’s love and mercy, and his power to make all things new, comes as a complete surprise as they are doing their daily work. For others it may even come, by complete accident. But when they discover this treasure they cannot imagine living another day- without having it as their own. For others, the good news comes at the end a lifetime journey. They have studied and searched; they have traded up and discarded in that pursuit of one true, lasting treasure. That is the power and confidence and joy the kingdom of God offers.
There are many today, however, who wonder whether the Christian faith has any role to play in the modern world. They wrestle with the age old question, why is there suffering in the world. A few weeks ago, I was walking with Janna along Lake Calhoun, when we were stopped by two young men with clipboards. They wanted to visit with us. I answered, “Yes, as long as I don’t have to sign a petition.” His first question was, “If you could meet God today, what would you ask him?” It didn’t take long for me to respond, “Why is the suffering in this world?” Janna must have been looking very “divine” and God-like because they then turned to here and said, “And how would you answer?” The parable reminds us that discerning and seeking eyes will know the beauty and the power of God’s kingdom when they see it. It is the intrinsic power of the gospel, that invites us to come to him. Even we haven’t found it, we need to keep searching. It provides the assurance in the midst of things they cannot understand or grasp. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”
Finally, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. Of course, it was the most natural thing that Jesus would use an illustration from fishing as he stood speaking to the crowds along the Sea of Galilee. The parable speaks a poignant truth of God’s kingdom upon the earth. If the church is to grow it cannot discriminate, for it is always bound to be a mixture of all kinds of people, good and bad, useful and useless.
How many people are Christian around the world today? 2.18 billion. A third of the world’s population. Who would have guessed that two thousand years ago, when Jesus’ body was planted into the ground, his body would rise up from the dead three days later and that his resurrected body would grow to 2.18 billion people tall? Who would have guessed that two thousand years ago when God planted that little seed in the ground that it would grow into the church that has become a home for so many nations. It is this amazing growth that allows to be say, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
My friends, which parable tells your story best, which is the secret to the Christian faith for you: the mustard the seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, the pearl, the fishing net? Everyone of us comes to Jesus Christ with a story and a passion. Todd Weir wrote, “To what would you compare the Kingdom of Heaven? It is like finding the technology stock you bought in the 1980s for $50 and suddenly realizing you are a millionaire. It is like the owner of DeBeers finally finding the perfect diamond and selling a billion dollar empire to have it. It is like the harassed physician tired of the HMOs, selling home and BMW and finding bliss in a mission in Congo. It is like the crack addict waking up with a clear head and is free to choose a new life.”
But why are these parables so important you may ask? Why are they here in scripture? To teach, to entertain or perhaps to enlighten? No. I think we have the parables to help train our eyes to see and focus in on God’ kingdom. When you have seen God’s kingdom growing and changing and transforming into a broken world, that you can learn to trust that in those hours when pain and sorrow become your daily companions, when despair seems to be crowding out your hope, that you can rest assured in the promise, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
I need that assurance. In a world that seems to be verging each day on the brink of war, where the death toll of civilians in Gaza continues to escalate, where brothers fight against brother on Russian/ Ukrainian borders, where the feared ebola virus breaks out among the poor, where 10,000 refugees cross over from the Central African Republic to the Cameroon weekly seeking water and security, and where innocent children cross our own borders seeking a hopeful life, I need the assurance that even in my own dark valleys, when I am walking in the shadow of death, that God’s holy kingdom is still breaking in. In those painful moments, I know and trust that I can find the assurance in Jesus’ own presence. He may seem hidden and unknown, but having glimpsed his kingdom in the little places of life, I can trust that God is there.
That is your assurance as well. Jesus did not come to empty your life, but to fulfill it. He did not come to impoverish life, but to enrich it. He did not come to abandon you, but to walk with you- even in your darkest hour. That is the true secret to living and dying that St. Paul longed to share- it is the secret worth sharing with others, one soul at a time, one heart at a time. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My friends, “To what would you compare the Kingdom of Heaven?” Be assured, all things for good for those who love him. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.