A message from the Superintendent
OUR PLACE IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Sunday 26 July 2020
Romans 8:26 – 39 (ESVUK)
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure 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.
Matthew 13:31 – 33, 44 – 52 (ESVUK)
[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants 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 leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” … “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. 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, who, on finding one pearl of great value, 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 gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
O for a heart to praise my God
(Hymns & Psalms 536, Singing the Faith 507)
O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free,
A heart that always feels thy blood
So freely spilt for me;
A heart resigned, submissive, meek,
My great Redeemer's throne,
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone;
A humble, lowly, contrite, heart,
Believing, true and clean;
Which neither life nor death can part
From him that dwells within;
A heart in every thought renewed,
And full of love divine;
Perfect and right, and pure, and good,
A copy, Lord, of thine!
Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart;
Come quickly from above,
Write thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new, best name of love.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Greetings and peace to you in the beautiful name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus had been teaching the crowds and His disciples through the use of parables. In previous weeks we have considered soil conditions to receive the good seed; and the competition or struggle that exists between wheat and weeds. In both of the stories Jesus gives a full and detailed description and then, following on from this, He provides an explanation to just His disciples.
Today we get not one, but five parables concerning the kingdom of heaven, with no explanation from Jesus, only a closing question to the disciples and what could be described as a further parable. This time the parable is not about the kingdom of heaven, but rather the actions of every trained scribe within the kingdom of heaven.
These parables come in quick succession, one after the other. It gives a sense of urgency and excitement. Was Jesus on a roll and just kept the parables coming thick and fast? Or was it a case of Jesus earnestly wanting to stress the importance of what He was teaching in order to drive home His point with repeating emphasis: this is what the kingdom of heaven is like!
Several themes are on the go here regarding the kingdom of heaven and can be summarised as:
Dramatic contrast (the mustard seed and leaven)
Hidden but precious (the treasure and the pearl)
Still to come but getting closer (the dragnet haul of fish)
There was and is so much about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven that is unexpected. We can see this in how Jesus reacted to and interacted with others, much to the surprise of His disciples, to the shock of the people around Him and to the abhorrence and anger of some of those in authority. Even as Jesus would later enter Jerusalem, it wasn’t the expected entry of an arriving ruler, a triumphant warlord on a battle charger, rather it was in humility riding on a donkey:
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Matthew 21:5)
As for the kingdom of heaven, whilst it was at hand in Jesus’ presence (Matthew 4:17), it wasn’t crashing in as a sudden, overwhelming wave, washing away the Roman occupation. Jesus tells us in these parables that this isn’t the way the kingdom of heaven will come. It will come in like the mustard seed, so small to begin with that you won’t even see it. You will not know it is there or feel its effect. Such a tiny seed and yet it has the potential to grow into a huge plant, big enough for birds to nest in. Jesus is using the growth of this tiny seed to show the exponential growth of the kingdom of heaven.
In the same way ‘the kingdom of heaven is like leaven or yeast’ (Matthew 13:33). Here we see how through the action of the woman mixing the flour and yeast that over time the entire batch can rise. We’ve one of those electric bread makers and even in the weighing out of the dried yeast and flour you can see the illustration Jesus is describing. There is 200 times as much flour as compared to the yeast. Only a teaspoon of yeast and it is completely hidden and smothered by the flour, but just wait and see what an amazing effect it can have!
What we see is the dramatic contrast from small beginnings to big results. Isn’t this how the Christian Church has grown worldwide? Against the backdrop of the might and power of the ruling Roman Empire, one man, Jesus, begins His ministry; He chooses 12 disciples; later Jesus sends out a further 72 disciples; after His ascension back into the glory of heaven we read of 120 being gathered to choose a replacement for Judas Iscariot; and on the Day of Pentecost another 3000 disciples joined the germinating, emerging and growing Church of Christ.
All too often we think of ourselves as a small church or a few in number, yet worldwide the Church of Christ is growing, all 2.4 billion of us! And nothing can prevail against it. This is the emphasis in the parables Jesus gives here. It may begin small, but just watch how under God’s grace and care the kingdom of heaven is growing even when we cannot see it!
In terms of passing on the good news of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ, it would seem that the Christian discipleship ‘R rate’ or ‘R number’ must at times have been and is less than one. To our shame many have yet to make a commitment to God as Creator, Christ as Saviour and Holy Spirit as Comforter and Guide. But when we do share the good news by word and deed; when the infectious joy that is ours of knowing we are loved by God and held by God eternally is expressed, then what growth can happen in the kingdom of heaven! Then we will be like the grain of mustard seed sown and the leaven mixed with flour.
The theme of the next two parables is one of surprising contrast, the field of fortune and the pearl of perfection. These are stories about the delight on finding something unseen and hidden that turns out to be utterly precious. The buried treasure and the pearl within the oyster are unseen to begin with, but once discovered or found suddenly their value is realised and an immediate response follows. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, like a pearl of great value (Matthew 13:44-46). These are the ultimate finds or discoveries and all of the man’s or merchant’s resources are eagerly given or sold in order to acquire them.
The kingdom of heaven is so valuable that in comparison nothing else is worth as much as knowing God and Jesus. Is there a danger that we can sometimes lose sight of this and we find ourselves careless or even dismissive of the delight of finding a relationship with God? Instead we go on our own sweet, self-sufficient way. This is what is called losing our first love. But there is still a way back and thankfully God is still allowing us time to respond.
This brings us to the final parable of the fishermen gathering in a net containing different kinds of fish, but it is not yet full. Once again Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is not perfect at present. There is good and bad, but one day ‘at the close of the age’ God will send His angels to separate the evil from the righteous. Once again it is Jesus himself who speaks to us of the judgment that is to come:
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.’ (Matthew 13:47-48)
As Jesus taught in the synagogue in Nazareth and even now in our time, we are still in the year the Lord’s favour. God patiently and graciously allows us more time to respond, repent and return to Him. The judgment is still to come, but we must take the warning seriously, it is getting closer.
When Jesus had finished telling His parables He asked the disciples whether they had understood all the things He had been teaching them. He had told them of how the kingdom of heaven is surprising as it begins unseen and unnoticed, but amazing growth will come. The kingdom of heaven is so precious than once found you will hold on to it with all that you have. The kingdom of heaven is inclusive and it is by our actions, the fruit we bear, or the harvest we yield that will govern our final and eternal destiny. Have you ever heard the saying? – ‘God votes for you; the devil votes against you; but you have got to vote for yourself and choose.’ The net is drawing in and the Lord alone knows when it will be full.
May we accept now, God’s free offer of new life in Christ and be trained up as the righteous scribes of our day. Righteous scribes who share the wonderful, continuous good news of God’s love from first word: ‘And God said, “Let there be light”,’ (Genesis 1:3) to final word: ‘Surely I am coming soon’ (Revelation 22:20).
As Jesus describes it (Matthew 13:52), we have precious treasure to share in both old and new testaments, expressing the love and grace of God’s salvation history for all creation. Let us celebrate together as we learn more and more of the good news of the kingdom of heaven.
Now I don’t know if we would ever consider ourselves to be a fish flapping around in a net or one striving to swim against the strong ocean currents of life’s treacherous seas. Perhaps I have more vivid dreams than you! Yet even amid the difficulties of life, and the last number of months are a case in point, we are never truly alone. Equally we need not struggle on in our own strength because God has spoken and acted on our behalf already. This is what Paul summarises for us in the verses we read from Romans chapter 8. Here are some more surprising things to our eternal comfort and, at the very least, should enable us to tread water, catch our breath and wait on God’s leading.
‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28)
I think the consternation that can happen over this verse is the problem of taking a segment of words in isolation from the rest of the verse: ‘all things work together for good’. Reading beyond verse 28 we see that we are predestined, called, justified and glorified to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. What else would Christians want? This is the ‘good’ we are working towards throughout our earthly lives; to be more like Jesus as sisters and brothers in Christ and with Christ, co-heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Through this we experience closer fellowship with God as we seek to be fruitful branches of the One True Vine, Jesus Christ. We touched on this last week when we considered Psalm 139 and God’s complete knowledge of us:
‘Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.’ (Psalm 139:16)
The foundation for all of this ‘work together for good’ as we are chosen by God, loved by God and redeemed by God. On account of God’s actions and saving grace we have the inherent potential, just like the tiny mustard seed, to become like Christ in our lives. If we love God then we realise we are called by God and we are created to be in relationship with Him through Christ’s sacrifice. This then qualifies us for our ultimate destiny of being glorified to be with Christ. How’s this for a list of surprising and comforting things:
The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness
The Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God.
God is for us, so the scales or balances are forever in our favour.
God justifies us and therefore we cannot be condemned.
God gave Jesus to die in our place, but is now raised to sit at God’s right hand.
Jesus, as well as the Holy Spirit, prays and intercedes for us.
Paul asks a question at the start of verse 35: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’
He then goes on to provide quite a comprehensive list before concluding that no one and nothing ‘will be able to separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We are more than conquerors; we have won because God loves us. The kingdom of heaven is coming, it is at hand and by faith we will witness its completion in the realm of heaven itself on that great and final day when we are glorified to be with God in Christ.
Surprising, hidden, precious, growing and drawing nearer the kingdom of heaven is given to us by God and on this we stand secure. Regardless of what we have to face; what we have to go through; of who or what is against us; even if we die, on account of God’s saving grace to us in Jesus we can never be separated from God’s love. So let us take heart now and always for God is for us and our place in the kingdom of heaven is assured.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.