Matthew 13:44-52 / Proper 12A / 24 July 2011 / Holy Trinity Lutheran Church – Hacienda Heights, CA
I love a good fireworks show. On the fourth of July, a bunch of us were wandering around the Las Vegas strip on the rumor that one of the big hotels was going to have a fireworks display from its roof. Unfortunately, the only shows were on the street or inside the hotels, but no fireworks. I was greatly disappointed. A fourth of July without fireworks is like breakfast without bacon or a non-communion Sunday.
The things I like most about a fireworks show is the timing. It starts off with a bang, then proceeds to the main show in which the rockets go off one or two at a time. These are the big complicated ones that often have secondary or even tertiary explosions. And then comes the grand finale where boom! boom! boom! everything goes off at once and the whole sky is full of light, color, and smoke. When I was the kid, I loved the grand finale. I still judge a fireworks show by its ending.
Our Gospel reading this morning is something of a grand finale in a display of parable fireworks from Jesus. The entire show is chapter 13. The parables are all parables of the kingdom of God on the earth, how the reign of God works in, with, and under the history and things of this world to bring everything to their final consummation in the resurrection and judgment.
The show consists of two big parables complete with Jesus’ authorized interpretation and five little parables without interpretation. We’re on our own with these. Two plus five makes for a nice 7, God’s number, a good number for a collection of parables of the kingdom. Matthew never misses when it comes to numbers.
Here’s a quick recap of the show. Jesus begins with a big, flashy bang and the parable of the four kinds of soil, which deals with the various outcomes of the preaching of the kingdom and why the Word isn’t always fruitful. We heard about it two weeks ago. It turns out that the Word of the kingdom is only fruitful in soil that has been plowed under, so don’t complain when God grinds you into dust. He’s making good, fruitful soil out of you. And if the Word is not fruitful, don’t blame God.
Jesus follows that one with another big boom, the parable of the weedy wheat field. That was last week. A man sowed wheat, his enemy sowed weeds, and it all grew together until the harvest with no prior weeding. This one too comes complete with Jesus’ authorized interpretation lest His disciples miss the point. The kingdom of God in this world appears rather weedy, shot full of the devil’s work, and God isn’t terribly interested in cleaning it up. So much for God the Interventionist. Leave it all alone until judgment day when things get sorted out. Justified wheat goes into the barn, the unbelieving chaff into unquenchable fire.
Then follows two quick parables dealing with the kingdom’s apparent smallness in this world, how the kingdom is like the tiny mustard seed that turns into a big shrub in the end, or like a handful yeast that leavens a huge lump of dough. And so from the one, tiny death of Jesus on a good Friday comes a kingdom that universally covers the whole world. So don’t be deceived by the kingdom’s smallness, insignificance, or hiddenness in this world. Now it must be heard and believed, not seen. Now it comes to you as the hidden, leavening Word in your Baptism, in the Supper, and in the word of forgiveness.
Then follows Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the weeds as a kind of afterblast, and then a rapid fire final volley of today’s three parables in rapid succession with no interpretation – the hidden treasure, the priceless pearl and the dragnet full of fish. We are on our own with these, but by now, you should have the knack.
The kingdom of heaven, that is, the reign of God in this world that works like seed buried in soil and yeast buried in dough is like a treasure box buried in a field. You can’t see it. You have no way of knowing it’s there. Nothing in the field suggests its presence. For all intents and purposes it looks like a weedy, vacant lot until the hidden treasure is revealed and then all of a sudden the entire piece of real estate becomes worth owning.
The treasure box, I believe, stands for Jesus. He is the treasure buried in, with, and under this world and its history. He’s always been with the world, since Day One. But only for 33 short, and only three of those years in public, was He visible to the world. And to bring it into even more focus, the hidden treasure is the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection that works the world’s salvation. That’s the ultimate proof Jesus offers to the world – HIs own bodily resurrection.
The Easter open tomb and Jesus’ post-Easter appearances are the treasure unearthed for the world to see. It is Jesus, the mystery of salvation, the Word made flesh, that makes this world salvageable. This is what the kingdom of heaven is about – rising from the dead to live forever. Defeating the corruption of death that Adam’s sin brought to the world. To own it, you must die to your self, to your whole life, everything you are and everything you have. “Whoever would save his life must lose it,” Jesus said. You must buy the farm, in the terms of our parable.
This is not some “leap of faith” or some blind real estate speculation. The kingdom of God is a sure bet.. Jesus is risen from the dead. Five hundred plus people saw him. They ate with him. They touched him. They spoke with him. They saw his wounds clear as day. It would be one thing if Jesus had said, “Trust me, and you’ll live forever,” but never died and rose. What would be the point? How would be know? Would we wait for a feeling, a burning in the bosom, a religious experience? God doesn’t operate that way. He gives us salvation in Jesus’ death and resurrection, a glimpse of hidden eternal treasure, and He says, “You want this. It’s to die for.” And that it is.
Dying is the only way to own it. Not simply dropping dead but dying to self and Sin and all the ways we have to justify our own existence. It means baptismal dying and rising. Being declared dead to Sin and alive to God by God Himself. And it’s this same death of Jesus, hidden in this world and revealed by Word and Sacrament that brings value to this dead and dying world. This is precisely why and how God loves the world and you, as unlovable as you might be. He sees the world, and you, in light of the buried treasure of Christ and His life and death. What makes you precious and holy to God is not you but Christ who dwells in you and you as you are in Christ.
Again, the kingdom of heaven in the world is like a pearl merchant searching for fine pearls. Note here that the kingdom is not the pearl itself but the action of searching for pearls. When he finds that one priceless pearl he’s been looking for, he sells everything he has, and buys it.
Now you might chose to run this parable in parallel with the previous one and make the precious pearl the death and resurrection of Jesus, or simply Jesus, and conclude that He is to die for, to lay down your life for, to take up your cross and follow him to your death for. And as interpretations go, that’s not bad. Except that we don’t seek Him, He seeks us. He came to seek and to save that which is lost.
Let’s say the pearl is the world, this world as we have it. AFter all, the earth is a rather rare kind of planet, seemingly unique in the cosmos, able to support life and even position in such a place where we can observe the rest of the cosmos and speculate on it. When viewed from space, it’s a rather pretty pearl, but beauty is not the point. You are the point. For the joy of your salvation, of rescuing you from your Sin and Death, Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame. He gave it all up for you and for the world. When the Son of God looked upon the world, this boatload of godless sinners, and He saw it as a priceless pearl He just had to own, and so He literally cashed in everything to possess it. That is His seeking love for you.
His kingdom is to die for because the King died for you.
And then we get that last firework, the parable of the dragnet full of fish. It was a familiar image. That’s how Peter and Andrew, James and John caught fish, by tossing out a net and dragging in everything to shore and sorting the catch. The thing about nets, as opposed to hooks and bait, is that nets catch everything – good fish, bad fish, snakes, boots, old tires, whatever.
The parable shows God’s universal, catholic, seek love for the world. He doesn’t simply love individuals in the world. He loves the world, and He sends His Son to save the world lock, stock, and barrel, the whole kit and entire caboodle. The world inclusively, bar none. Christ died for all, and therefore all died. In Adam all are condemned, in Jesus, the second Adam, all are justified. As far as the Sin and Death of Adam go, so far go the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every sin answered for; every sinner atoned. God was in Christ “reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” The world. Not just the salvagable parts, the redeemable parts, or even just the Lutheran parts. The world. Christ is the atoning sacrifice of our sins, says St. John, and not only ours but the sins of the whole world.
Or to put it in liturgically familiar terms,” behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
And so the seeking dragnet of the kingdom, Jesus’ death and resurrection, ensnares the whole world and drags it to the shores of the resurrection. In Adam all die, in Christ will all be made alive. Everyone dies, everyone rises. Everyone is caught up in the death and life of Jesus, whether they like it or not, believe it or not, or even want it or not. Some rise to eternal life, that is, those who believe and are baptized into Christ. Others rise to eternal condemnation, a fiery furnace, weeping, gnashing of teeth, etc. which is very unfortunate and highly unnecessary.
There is finally a judgment, a separation of good and evil, of wheat and weeds, of clean and unclean. There are those today who deny the existence of hell or that anyone winds up there. But that is the inevitable nature of the kingdom of heaven. If there is a kingdom of heaven that is by grace, a gift, through faith in Christ, then there is also a non-place, a non-heaven, for those who do not wish to be given to, who refuse the grace that is theirs in Christ, who would rather have it their way than God’s way, who pray “my will be done” rather “thy will be done.”
So then are you among the good fish put into heavenly vessels, or the bad fish cast off into the fire? The only way to answer that with any confidence and certainty is to refer to what God does and not what you do. You are baptized. God did that. He named and claimed you as His own. He become your personal Lord and Savior in Baptism so that you would not doubt your place in His kingdom. God is the God who justifies the ungodly in His Son Jesus. You are precious to Him. As precious as the most priceless of pearls.
What a precious Savior we have! And what a precious salvation He has brought us. It is all literally to die for.
In the name of Jesus,