The Kingdom of Heaven: What it’s like and what it’s worth
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There is a great line from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. It happens right before Jesus and his disciples gather together to share the Passover meal, which we of course so famously know as the Last Supper. This is what we read in Luke 22:15-16 – “He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.”
Imagine Jesus being eager to share a meal with his followers. Longing to share a meal. We’re going to talk about longing this morning. For what do we long? Do we long to share this meal together with one another in the presence of Christ? If Christ is present with us as we gather around this table, even as we do so in our individual homes, does this mean that Christ is somehow eager to share this meal with us too?
What is it that we long for? Do we long for this kingdom of heaven, of which Jesus speaks, the way someone would long for a treasure they came across in a field and would give up everything they had for it? Do we long for it and value it the same way a jeweller would value a pearl of great price and sell everything they had to obtain it?
Or do we not bother? Do we not listen to the invitation, or do we not hear it at all? Do we have better things to do, more important things to do? Do we say, “What’s the use?” If we don’t say “What’s the use?” do we think it? If we don’t say or think “What’s the use?” do we show “What’s the use?” by ignoring it? You could hardly blame us if we did. What is the use of a relatively small number of people watching a screen or gathering together at a Zoom meeting to share some juice or wine and some bread? What’s the use of putting together an hour-long video that will get maybe 100 views when a fight in a fast-food restaurant will get over 1,000,000? It’s not like I couldn’t do that if I were so inclined, go into a place on Yonge St without a mask and start some trouble and film it – watch it go viral, maybe even get on the news. This is what counts right? Numbers. Numbers equals good and why after all do I value so highly that “100 views” number? I fall into the same way of thinking. We fall into the same way of thinking in the church when someone tells us about a house church that has grown into a 2,000 member church and automatically we think that’s good don’t we? It’s gotta be good because numbers are good.
Before you start thinking this is sour grapes on my part (and God bless 2,000 member churches and may they along with us be faithful to the Kingdom), let us look at Jesus’ words about the kingdom of heaven here in Matthew 13. Someone has said that what Jesus is doing is more like preaching here than teaching – which is good because really it lays out the foundation for my material here this morning, and what I’m called to proclaim. In our passage, we have Jesus describing what he’s doing as opening his mouth to speak in parables and proclaiming what has been hidden since the foundation of the world. Jesus is proclaiming and what he’s proclaiming is no longer hidden because Jesus is here – thanks be to God. I’m glad about this. There is an element of proclamation to preaching, at least there should be. If not then something’s going wrong. Some churches have done away with the term “preaching” (maybe because it’s so preachy!) and call this part of the service teaching. This seems a little reductive. There is nothing wrong with teaching and we learn things through preaching of course, but there is something beyond the purely didactic going on when preaching is going on, and there is something beyond teaching in Jesus’ words. Jesus is not simply trying to teach the people r moral lesson or teach about horticulture or baking or how to make money in real estate (buy the field with the treasure in it before anyone knows about it) or jewellery retail.
So let us listen to the proclamation of Jesus, let us pray to receive and perceive it, and let us be encouraged this day my dear friends, as we gather around this table; together and yet not together; as we live in a kingdom that is here and yet not here, as we consider the longings of our heart. That was a long introduction. Let’s ask for God’s help this morning. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you, for I tell you I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” Living in the Kingdom of God means taking the longest view. It means patience. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is grown it becomes a tree (or a big shrub, like a 10-foot shrub) so that the birds of the air come and make nests in the branches. Again with the birds, I love it!
Jesus speaks these words to people which included what might be described as a small, rag-tag group of followers who had left everything they had to follow him, even their jobs. You might forgive them for wondering when this thing was going to take off. Someone has put it like this – “…quite understandably, they are asking: What’s going to come of this? What will be the outcome? The answer seems to be: Nothing. Almost nothing is happening. Sure, a few poor people, a few sick people have been helped… The upper classes, intellectual and political, reject him or, what is worse, simply ignore him. The capital city acts as if he did not exist. The Greek and Roman centers of culture pay no attention to this storm in a Galilean teacup…”
If any of this resonates then let us be encouraged by Jesus this morning. If we ever wonder why all of this seems largely ignored, sometimes even by those we love the most, let us hear the words of Jesus and understand. He’s not simply trying to teach us a moral like “Big things come from small beginnings!” the same way we might say “Good things come in small packages!” He’s talking about what the kingdom of heaven is like and he’s preaching apocalyptically. Not in a way we’ve come to use the word apocalypse as in zombie apocalypse or as a description of global thermonuclear war or a humanity-ending disaster generally speaking, but in the truest sense of the word which is revealing, unveiling, pulling back the curtain. Jesus is drawing back the curtain and speaking of the coming fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven which is growing right now in our midst - hidden - yet working the same way that a little bit of yeast works in a large amount of dough. Working. Growing unobtrusively and inexorably. Three measures of flour would make about 50 pounds of dough. This is a lot of bread. Enough to feed a hundred people. I remember in the early days of the pandemic when flour wasn’t available in the usual household-sized bags in which flour is normally available due to all the baking that people had started to do. I remember buying a 20 lb bag of flour and carrying it into the house from the car and it seemed like an awful lot of flour. A little yeast going into a lot of flour and making a lot of bread. A little seed turning into a tree that the birds of the air make their nests in and rest and if you’re living in the kingdom of God you know rest, and if you don’t we say come and know rest.
Of course, we also know restlessness. I think of that line from Augustine which is a great line, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In the meantime though, our hearts are restless as we make our pilgrim way together. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. We should have restless hearts, hearts that long for something else. May we be a people with restless hearts. May we long for something more. May the Holy Spirit inspire us to long for something more. May we be reminded of what we long for when we come to this table because there’s a kind of pulling back of the curtain that goes on here too. It is not for nothing that the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven to which we look forward and for which we long is compared to a wedding feast and there’s a lot of bread involved in such an affair – like three measures worth. Remember when I told you I like big symbols. Big bread at the Table of the Lord to which we eagerly come to be reminded of what is coming.
We need this kind of unveiling because we can get discouraged. It was like this from those first followers of Jesus on down through the years. It can be like that for us today. We can get discouraged. I know it’s not only me. One of my favourite preacher/theologians is Helmut Thielecke. In his sermon on the parable of the mustard seed and yeast, he remembers first becoming a pastor living under the Nazi regime and conducting his first Bible study hour as he puts it “with the determination to trust in Jesus’ saying: ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.’” He puts it like this, “… in this Bible-study hour, I was faced by two very old ladies and a still older organist. He was a very worthy man, but his fingers were palsied (meaning prone to paralysis and involuntary tremors)s and this was embarrassingly apparent in his playing. So this was the extent of the accomplishment of this Lord, to whom all power in heaven and earth had been given, supposedly given. And outside marched the battalions of youth who were subject to altogether different lords. This was all he had to set before me on that evening. What did he have to offer anyway? And if it really were nothing more than this – then isn’t he refuted by this utterly miserable response?”
In the face of this Jesus proclaims and let us listen “Look at the mustard seed!” “Consider the yeast!” The yeast is not governed by the dough any more than light is governed by the darkness, and we know what effect even a little bit of light has on the darkness. We remember those words about our Light shining in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. We remember the call to “Light a candle against the darkness in holy defiance.” We remember these things and they’re not just for December 24th, they’re for every day.
Though we may cry out “How great the darkness Lord.”
The same way we may cry out “How long O Lord?” and there’s not a thing wrong with any of those cries. God grant that we’re longing for that day when the kingdom is fully and finally fulfilled, and in the meantime knowing that the kingdom of heaven is among us. Christ is issuing a call for patience here. If there is one thing we’ve learned over the last year, I hope, it’s the need for patience. The kingdom of heaven is growing like a seed often in imperceptible and seemingly inconsequential ways. Someone has said there’s a kind of madness in being a disciple of Jesus, in being a people who refuse to be hurried. A kind of madness to endure, and our call is to endure as disciples of Jesus “…in a world that largely refuses to acknowledge its true nature.” Someone has said “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or yeast because to be drawn into the kingdom of heaven is to participate in God’s patience toward his creation. Jesus is teaching us to see the significance of the insignificant.” May God help us to see the significance of the insignificant. We know about the meaning of a seemingly insignificant act or word of grace, encouragement, kindness, love. We know from our Bible study hours together, the work of God in and through us. We know the actions we have been spurred to by such seemingly insignificant hours; as we sit in physical rooms or online rooms and there aren’t hundreds of us or even tens of us; we remember those words that we keep close to our hearts “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” as we seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness together. We know what God has done in our hearts and we trust in what God will do in our hearts. We know the actions to which we have been spurred and we trust the actions to which we will be spurred when we do this together - no matter our age or the quality of the music. If you don’t know what I’m talking about at this point then take the time to meet with us for an hour each week. We have lots of options here at Blythwood and you’d be very welcome. If you’re doing this with another faith family then God bless you in those meetings.
Jesus is using everyday symbols and I doubt there will ever be a time when bread is not a meaningful symbol, the popularity of low-carb diets notwithstanding. The staff of life. The bread of life. A symbol. The yeast that makes the whole thing take shape. The kingdom of heaven. Hidden. At work. Pointing to our longing to gather around this table and our longing to eat it with Jesus in the fulfillment of his kingdom. Let us never ask “What’s the use?” when it comes to such symbols. German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem called “Symbols” which begins “From infinite longings, finite deeds arise.” Let us not forsake this finite deed which arises from infinite longings. Let’s not reduce this preaching of Jesus to talk of the inexorable spread of Christianity or Christendom throughout the world or point to the success of Judeo-Christian values in our world as evidence that Jesus was right about large things coming from small beginnings. We can debate the results of Judeo-Christian values in our world, but I’ll say this now – Jesus’ invitation was never to follow a set of values (as if that’s something we could ever “successfully” do). There are kingdom values, we’ll talk about some next week, and there is a kingdom ethic, but before that there is a kingdom and the invitation to this kingdom is to follow Christ and in so doing to die to ourselves daily (and I wonder why we don’t get more than 100 views?!).
And yet… Remember those beautiful words from Good Friday – “Yet you are holy… In you our ancestor trusted and they were not put to shame…” Remember. Do this to remember me. “Yet it was you who took me from the womb…On you, I was cast from my birth and since my mother bore me you have been my God.” If we cry out along with the Psalmist “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help,” then Jesus says “Come to my table.” Jesus’ invitation is to die to ourselves and in so doing find life. Let us never forget that in so doing we find joy. We don’t come around this table only to be sombre. To live in this kingdom is to have joy the same way someone who finds a treasure in a field finds joy (this is not to say we’ll literally find treasure and we’ve been over this a couple of weeks ago – you can’t take these parables too far allegorically speaking – well you can but it’s wrong). We love stories of buried treasure. We love stories of being surprised by joy. This is the kingdom of God. It reminds me of a recurring dream I’ve had ever since I moved out on my own. I have it about every 3 or 4 years. I started out in a bachelor apartment and I dreamt of a new door that appeared in one of the walls which led to a whole other apartment – all these rooms! I just had the dream recently and it’s a house now and again I find a whole new wing of the house I didn’t even know about. Again we don’t want to analyze too much (at least not right now) but I’m talking about being surprised by a discovery that makes us joyful. If we were to discover such a thing, whether it be by diligent searching like the pearl merchant or completely by accident like the one in the field, wouldn’t we stake everything on it?
Wouldn’t we stake the entirety of our life on it?
This is Jesus’ call. This is Jesus’ kingdom. Let us give our “Yes” to Jesus’ call, to Jesus’ claim that this kingdom he’s proclaiming and inaugurating and tending and whose baking he is overseeing – this kingdom is the thing that is worth more than all the treasure or pearls in the world. To have found it, to be found in it, is to know joy. May the Holy Spirit grant that we know this joy this day as we come around this table, and every day. May this be true for each and every one of us dear friends.