Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Child, Arise! (Luke 8.40-56)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 28, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude (Linda Jenkins, Cathy Youngblood): "I Need Thee Every Hour" (Lowry)
Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Almighty King" (ITALIAN HYMN)
The Word in Music: "Talitha Kum!" (Martin)
Offering of Music: "It is Well With My Soul" (Bliss/Sterling)
Song of Sending: "Before the Throne" (Bancroft and Cook)
Postlude: "Crown Him With Many Crowns" (Burkhardt)

Child, Arise!
Text: Luke 8:40-56

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Jesus – miracle man!

In today’s text, Jesus does two more. Amazing!

These are two stories out of four that all come sequentially in Luke 8, and they are tied together by a common thread. Let me describe each in order.

In Luke 8:22-25, Jesus calmed the wind and the waves during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. You probably read that and think, “a miracle.” And you’d be right.

In Luke 8:26-39, which we read last week, Jesus gets out of the boat and enters a neighboring non-Jewish country, where he is confronted with a demon-possessed man. There is some conversation between Jesus and the demons and they end up going into a herd of pigs, which drown themselves. The man is given back his humanity. I’m not sure what we call that – not exactly healing or a miracle… maybe restoration or re-creation. It is a miraculous sign in that it tells us something about the nature, character, and plan of God to restore the “image of God” through the work of Jesus, extended even to the Gentiles. I wrote even more about last week’s text than I shared in a long sermon; I’d invite you to grab a copy or check it out on the website.

Today, there are two more scenes. Jesus has returned to Jewish territory, and is approached by a synagogue official named Jairus. He fell at Jesus’ feet and implored him – interestingly, the same thing the demon-possessed man had done. Jairus begs Jesus to come and see his 12-year old daughter, who is dying. Jesus begins to go, but then he and the story are interrupted by a woman in the press of the crowd who touches him in order to be healed of bleeding that has been going on for twelve years. Jesus stops and interacts with her, then goes on to Jairus’ house. Classic Jesus healing, right?

Then finally, Jesus gets to Jairus’ house, where his daughter has died. But Jesus goes in to see her and calls her out of death as if out of sleep, and she gets up. That probably goes beyond healing – she wasn’t just sick; she was dead. And Jesus gave her life.

So, four miraculous stories all in a row. Each is amazing in its own way and I don’t mean to take away from that at all. Rather, I want to add what I see as a common thread – a significance to the amazingness that is what makes these “signs” and not just “miracles.” They all point to and teach us something about the nature, character, and will of God. 

The Natural World and the Spiritual Realm

In the stilling of the wind and the waves, Jesus demonstrated power and authority over the elements of this world. God created the world and the wind and the waves, and Jesus was given authority over them. So, I noted that the story wasn’t just an instruction guide for you when you find yourself in a storm at sea. Rather, it paints a broader picture of a God who has greater power than even something so seemingly out of our control as the weather. I can’t think of a more timely reminder than a week after we experienced an east coast earthquake and a weekend in which Hurricane Irene is moving up the east coast. Does this scripture teach that if we pray the right way or have enough faith that God will make the hurricane go away? No, but it does give us a measure of the power that God demonstrated through His son, Jesus!

In the confrontation with the demon-possessed man, we talked last week about how there was more going on than healing the man of an affliction. Rather, there was a conflict of kingdoms – the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. For a time, Satan has been given power and authority in this world, and that time is not yet up, but Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and this confrontation out in the Gentile, beyond-the-Jews realm, is a powerful testimony that God’s power is greater than the power of evil and Satan. In that story, Jesus demonstrated the Gospel itself, that the “light has shined in the darkness” (John 1:5) and God has broken into the stronghold of Satan to demonstrate and declare His greater authority and claim to humanity. The man was not only released from Satan’s grip, but his full humanity – made in the image of God – was restored to him.

In these first two stories, Jesus demonstrates power and authority over this world and over the spiritual realm.

Let’s look now at the two stories in today’s text. 

Human Health, Holiness, Life, and Death

While Jesus is on his way to Jairus’ house to see his sick daughter, a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years reaches out in the crowd and touches him. Verse 44 notes, “…immediately her hemorrhage stopped.” What may stand out to us as more unusual than that is Jesus’ response. For one, he says, “I was aware that power had gone out of me.” (v. 46) We are not ever told much about how Jesus healed people, and this description of power going out is fascinatingly vague. Is he a wizard? (A natural question if you’ve seen or read a lot of Harry Potter!) That phrase is not used anywhere else in scripture, nor do I know of anything like it. Probably the least we can say is that Jesus was aware of the power that he had and the faith of those around him, even when not actively healing someone. Trying to describe the mechanics of Jesus’ power more than that would be speculation.

While that feature of the story may pique our curiosity the most, it’s not the most important part of the story. All we really need to know from that is that Jesus had the power to heal the woman and that she had faith in him to do so. What seems to be less important is actually noteworthy, and that is the question, “Who touched me?” It’s not that Jesus didn’t know, but that being healed of the bleeding was only one aspect of her problem. The other was that she would have been considered unclean and an outcast because of bleeding that never stopped. By identifying her and her healing publicly, Jesus enabled her to re-enter society and, much like the demon-possessed man, to reclaim her humanity. He also gave her the opportunity to witness or testify about him, and like several others in these stories, she “fell down before him” (v. 47). Jesus not only restored her health, but her holiness. Jesus demonstrates power and authority over human sickness and health. His act was not just to grant her health, but to declare it as well.

And then in the final story, Jesus comes “too late” to Jairus’ house. I already mentioned Jairus falling down and pleading with Jesus, an interesting parallel to the demon-possessed man, both recognizing the power and authority of Jesus to do something about the situation at hand. Though Jairus did not anticipate the extent of need for Jesus’ power, his daughter’s death was not beyond the scope of power and authority given to the Son by God the Father. Jesus arrives on the scene, seemingly too late, and asks to see the girl. He only allows three disciples and the girl’s parents to see her with him. And he tells them, “Stop weeping, for she has not died, but is asleep.” No commentator I know of thinks that the girl was actually asleep. Rather, Jesus’ power is so great that raising her is going to be no harder than waking someone who is asleep. Can you grasp that? And that’s one place where the world of Harry Potter leads us way off track. We all know that to do a really big miracle surely requires really big preparation or effort… like a big wind-up or something. But Jesus simply speaks to a storm, torments demons by his presence, heals a woman without even trying, and raising the dead…. it’s like saying “wake up” is for us.

There is the interesting piece of this last story that Jesus instructs them not to tell what happened. The best explanation I have for that this is what scholars call the “Messianic Secret.” Early on in Jesus’ ministry – and this is early on… chapter 8 – Jesus keeps certain aspects of his power and identity a secret. Or another way to say that is that through the unfolding of his ministry Jesus is thoughtful and intentional about when and where to reveal himself. Had he made Messianic claims too soon, he would have been arrested and killed before he got a chance to make disciples and teach widely. Had he never showed his power, people would not have believed. So, at this point, he seems willing for the woman who was bleeding to publicly say who healed her and share that story, but raising the dead to life… that kind of power wouldn’t be revealed until closer to the end, after Jesus raised Lazarus very publicly from the dead. In John 11, after raising Lazarus, we read (v. 53), “from that day on they plotted to kill [Jesus].”

That’s a little beside the point for today, though. What I want you to hear and focus on is the consistent demonstration of power and authority in these four stories. In this last one, Jesus demonstrates power and authority over death itself. Remember our call to worship? You can look back in the bulletin.

Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Ps. 88:10-12)

[The Lord of hosts] will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken. And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation!” (Isaiah 25:8-9) 

The Power and Authority of Jesus

That’s the take-away from today’s text: not that Jesus can calm your storms, keep Satan at bay, heal your sicknesss, or awaken a spiritually dead soul. Those are all the usual spiritualized “morals of the stories” in this chapter. And that’s all true enough and real enough, as far as it goes. But what I want you to hear is far more radical than those things. It is far more life-shaking and life-changing and transformative than praying to Jesus for the challenges of life.

God the Father has given Jesus the Son all power and authority in heaven and earth – and there are implications of that truth. Actually scripture goes even beyond what I’ve just said about heaven and earth. Listen to Philippians 2:10-11:

…at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth… that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

All power… all authority… in heaven and on earth and under the earth… over every area of our existence. Even over life and death itself. Who can really even comprehend that kind of power?

That is what it means that Jesus is Lord. That all things are given to him, for the glory of God.

What do you do with that information? What do you do with those stories? It can’t just be a nice thing to say in a creed somewhere. The Bible and Jesus’ words and actions all claim the same thing – that this Jesus is the single most important, powerful, consequential, influential, life-changing, life-defining, life-reviving, force in the universe. And he is no impersonal force, but a personal one sent from the heart of God to reconcile humanity to God the Father.

At the least, don’t you get the sense that even the most serious among us take all this too lightly?

Listen once again… listen not just with your ears, but with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and consider what FAITH in this Jesus means to you. What do you believe? What do you confess?

…at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth… that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Amen!



Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Legion of Trouble (Luke 8.26-39)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 21, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Prelude on Ellacombe" (Kerr)
Hymn of Praise: "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" (ELLACOMBE)
Song of Praise: "Everlasting God" (Brown)
Offering of Music: "I Will Rise" (Tomlin, Giglio, et al.)
Song of Sending: "Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone" (Tomlin, Giglio, et al.)
Postlude: "A Mighty Fortress" (Held)

A Legion of Trouble
Text: Luke 8:26-39

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

The Bible is full of miraculous stories, but this one sounds out there, even by Bible standards. Jesus is traveling on from one spot to another, this time by boat, and when he steps off the boat he is greeted by a naked, demon-possessed man who rushes out of the graveyard and begins begging Jesus to leave him alone. Between that and Jesus casting the demons – a legion of them – into a herd of pigs that then rushes into the lake and drowns, this story is pretty vivid and beyond ordinary by any measure.

So what do we do with a story like this?

I don’t want to take for granted that “demon-possession” is a normal topic of conversation… it’s not. And I will get to explaining more about this, but first I’d like to walk through the story with you. So for now, I know it’s fantastic language not part of our day to day vocabulary or experience. But when you hear ‘Satan,’ ‘demon,’ ‘possessed,’ or ‘unclean spirit,’ know that I am not glossing over those words, taking for granted that we all understand or know what they mean. I will say more about it.

It’s tempting to reduce this story to a problem and solution, and move on. We might think, “Man is possessed by demons; Jesus casts them out; case closed.” But Jesus didn’t spend his ministry identifying problems and offering solutions. Rather, he came to bear witness to the character, nature, and unfolding will of God.

I’ve observed before that much of Jesus’ ministry is presented in the Gospels either as teaching (usually in parables) or as miraculous signs. This is one of those miraculous signs. And whether teaching or performing miraculous signs, Jesus was always pointing back toward God – what God is like and what God is doing in the world. So, those are the kinds of questions we want to ask as we look again at this fantastic story. 

A Confrontation

So let’s back up to the confrontation as Jesus steps out of the boat. He is “met” by the naked, man from the tombs (v. 27). I find that interesting and had not noticed that before. Jesus didn’t go find the man, nor did others bring him, but the man came out to meet him (or at least ran into him). I don’t know whether the man still had some control and was looking for help, or if the demons claimed that area as their territory and saw Jesus as a rival authority, or what, but I find it interesting that the man comes out to meet Jesus. Maybe his appearance is all it took to scare most people off.

Most key to this confrontation is the information that the man was “possessed with demons” (v. 27). This spiritual assault upon his humanity had left him a broken man, held hostage to the powers within him. It also seems to bear some Gospel weight that he is naked and homeless, both categories of need that Jesus addressed in his teaching and an indication of how the demons had robbed his humanity. The next verse says, “Seeing Jesus…” or “When he saw Jesus.” So, it’s not clear to me if the man sought Jesus out or just ran into him and recognized him. But what he says next is clear enough: he recognizes Jesus’ authority. He (or the demons) cried out and fell before Jesus, and said loudly, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (v. 29)

It is also interesting that human beings struggle to recognize Jesus for who he is – then and now; but the demons knew EXACTLY who stood before them. And it is clear who has the greater power. The man not only cries out, falls before Jesus, and identifies him, but begs Jesus, “Do not torment me!” (v. 28) And here’s where the timeline and specific language gets even a little more interesting. Why “do not torment me?” What has Jesus done or what might he do to cause torment? The explanation is given in the next verse (v. 29): “For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.” We did not have the all-seeing perspective of a narrator… something had already gone down between Jesus and the demons that is just now coming out. Jesus had already acted with authority, commanding the spirit to come out. This was the torment (to the demons). This was at least one reason they already knew who Jesus was. Perhaps it’s even why the man came out to meet Jesus in the first place. Perhaps Jesus did see or sense the unclean spiritual presence and command it as he arrived.

Well, whenever and however that happened, we don’t know. But we are told enough to recognize the confrontation and the clash of power. And Jesus had the greater power and authority.

Next we get some of the details of what life was like for the man. We are drawn into his need and brokenness. The unclean spirit had “seized him many times.” (v. 29) The people of the town had tried to chain and guard him, but the strength and power of the unclean spirit was greater than those chains and guards, and the man had been driven into the desert (more than once?). (v. 29) So, not only had this spiritual power overcome the man, but also the town, who could not contain him. All the more, then, as we read these details, we understand and appreciate the greater power and authority of Jesus!

Finally, in the exchange between Jesus and the possessed man, Jesus asks his name. And he answers, “Legion.” We are given the explanation that this was because many demons had entered him. (v. 30) There was not just one unclean spirit, but an army of demonic spirits. And for the second time, this Legion begs – implores! – Jesus, now that he would not command them to go away into the abyss. (v. 31) This abyss is referenced again in Revelation 20 as the place of confinement for evil spirits.

There is a herd of pigs nearby. And for the third and last time, the demons plead with Jesus, asking to enter the pigs, and Jesus “gives them permission.” (v. 32) Interesting that. He doesn’t command them to go to the Abyss, though he could have. He doesn’t actually even command them to go into the pigs. He permits it. Honestly, I don’t understand it, but I think it’s beyond the main point of this story. I do know that pigs were considered unclean, and these demons are called “an unclean spirit.” I do note that the result of going into the pigs was immediate self-destruction; perhaps in contrast to the measured and slow destruction of the man’s humanity. Perhaps it also illustrates that the demons have free will, and choose disobedience and death over the worship of God.

What seems clearest to me in the whole encounter is that Jesus doesn’t just solve a problem; rather, he demonstrates power and authority, and in doing so reveals the character and nature of God. He also demonstrates the clash of spiritual kingdoms, though also foreshadows the victory of the Kingdom of God over the false kingdom of the evil one. Jesus was “breaking into” another kingdom or realm – that of this world and of Satan. He was announcing and initiating the coming of God’s Kingdom in and over that of this world. 

A Legion of Trouble

Okay, so maybe we grasp a little bit more of what was going on here. Jesus has power and authority over Satan; God’s Kingdom is come and He will reign forever. Does this story have any direct bearing in our lives today?

Yes - I believe it does!

I haven’t really addressed who or what the demons are in this story, so let me clarify a few other things.

Do I believe demons and Satan are real? Yes, I do. The Bible mentions them several times and depicts a spiritual realm that has a certain degree of power, for a time, in this world. And that realm is ruled by Satan, the “Prince of the power of this world.”

Do I believe that demons can possess or torment human beings? Yes, I do, though we must be careful not to let Hollywood establish our understanding of what that means or looks like. And “possess” is misleading; in most cases, people invite or are unguarded, and give over space in their minds and hearts to evil influences. And, those who trust in Jesus Christ should be encouraged that if you are in Christ, then God’s Spirit lives in you – which you might also think of as possession… the Bible uses words like “dwells, abides, lives in.” And if God’s Spirit lives in you, then no demon can also live there, though you can still be tempted.

I’ve also heard it said that “demon-possession” was basically how people in ancient times explained a whole range of mental illness or other maladies that are explained today by modern medicine or psychology. I think there is some truth to that, but not in every case, and clearly not in this one. Jesus performed many healings, which are described in those terms in scripture. In this case, he did not ‘heal’ the man, but commanded unclean spirits to come out of the man. The language and actions throughout this encounter are those of conflict, kingdoms, power, and authority. And Jesus had the greater power and authority. Furthermore, the demons moved INTO the pigs. Never, when Jesus healed someone, did that malady move to someone else. This was an encounter with the enemy, and Jesus was victorious.

Having said that, there is more application to this text than “Well now you know what to do if confronted with a legion of demons.” That is because Jesus’ authority and power are not just over unclean spirits, but over all of creation.

So, I would expand the point of this text to include the “Legion” of things that we struggle with as human beings, while being careful not to write off “demon-possession” and the spiritual realm as a superstitious and ignorant shorthand for ordinary human problems.

So what am I saying? I am saying that human beings indeed face a legion of problems – physical, emotional, financial, mental, and to be sure… spiritual.

And whether it is chronic illness, depression, anger, debt, addiction, sin, or other dark and evil influences, we can give those things more power in our lives than necessary. We can and often do yield authority and power of our lives and find ourselves stripped of dignity, control, and even home and family.

And I’m not saying that any of those things will disappear instantly if you will just say the name of Jesus. In fact, the bargaining of Legion in the story is a pointed reminder that we, too, will bargain and cling to things physical, emotional, financial, mental, and spiritual. Nor would I let anyone oversimplify any of life’s struggles for you. As we move out of the spiritual realm, it is often prudent and wise to seek earthly help in the form of counseling, medicine, physical training, and more.

So clear as mud, right? Let me clarify one more time in the area of application. This passage is not teaching that all of life’s challenges should be attributed to some sort of afflicting demon, much less one that can simply be banished in Jesus’ name. If you watch enough cable TV you will hear that approach to your debt, your illness, your depression, or whatever other ‘problem’ you want to solve. I strongly encourage the appropriate education, equipping, consulting, or whatever else is appropriate to the problem. What this passage holds out, far above a quick solution, is Jesus the Son of God, who has all power and authority in heaven and earth. Where we give our lives away is yielding our humanity and wholeness to our debt, depression, disease, or whatever it is to Satan’s control. We lose our identity and become “an alcoholic,” “a manic-depressive,” “a financial failure,” a “cheater” – a naked, homeless, graveyard man – and forget that we were made in the image of God. Jesus comes before us, in power and authority, to say, “That is not who you are!” This story, like the woman caught in adultery, seems to be all about the conflict between powers, but in the end it is a quiet invitation from Jesus to one person – to each person – to re-identify with God’s grace and power, to find a new name and identity. 

Power and Authority for What?

Okay, I said “in the end” – but Jesus’ power and authority are not the end of this story. Rather, Jesus is the subject of the story, revealing the character, nature, and will of God. What happens as a result of him demonstrating his power and authority over the spiritual realm is the freeing of a man to live and witness to the coming Kingdom of God. And it wasn’t just the man that was involved in that witness, but several groups.

There were the herdsmen, who “saw what had happened… ran away and reported it in the city and out in the country.” (v. 37) They were involved witnesses, who saw the destructive power that the man was subject to released onto their herds. I think, for example, of someone who has struggled with alcoholism finding some freedom from that and the storeowner or barkeeper once frequented taking notice of the change. It cost the herdsmen something, but they were not blind to the significant transformation of someone known to them. And they told the story. Maybe you have witnessed God’s power and authority, not directly in your life, but in someone near to you. You are a witness to the Gospel.

Those who heard the herdsmen tell the story “went out to see what had happened.” (v. 35) Interestingly, they “became frightened” when they saw the man whole, well, and sitting at the feet of Jesus in his right mind. More of those who had seen what happened “reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well.” (v. 36) But that only served to frighten some of them more, and the local crowd asked Jesus to leave. We are told again that they were “gripped with great fear.” (v. 37) What was going on there? I think the bottom line is that they feared Jesus’ power and authority, greater than what they had previously known and feared. And so Jesus leaves, but not without an ongoing witness in that place.

The final witness is the man who had been tormented and now was free. He begged Jesus to take him with him (v. 38), but Jesus told him to stay with these words: “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you.” (v. 39). And we are told that he did so, he “went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.” (v. 39) He, too, was a witness – he had a story to tell. He once was bound and chained – physically and spiritually – and now he was free, and had a home to go to, and a story to tell.

This text makes two very strong and related points. First, Jesus has all power and authority in heaven and on earth. And the Gospel story is the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. He alone is worth “giving over our lives.” And the arrival of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ – on earth and in your life – is a story worth telling. In fact, that is the imperative in this passage. We are invited TO Jesus, to come and see, to trust and believe, to yield and serve. And we are sent FROM him to go and tell, to bear witness, to tell our story, and to witness to God’s story. Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Secrets to a Simpler Life (Mark 12.28-34)

Sermon by:Karen Katibah
August 14, 2011 (Youth Mission Sunday)
Some Music Used 

 Prelude (Walker Austell, piano): "Andante (from Symphony No. 7)" (Beethoven)
"Farewell to the Piano" (Beethoven)
Song of Praise: "Prince of Peace" (Imboden/Rhoton)
The Word in Music (a capella choir): "Our God" (Tomlin/arr. Youngblood)
Offering of Music (children's quartet): "The Mustard Seed" (Anna Laura Page)
Song of Sending: "Only You" (Crowder, Solley, Dodson, Hogan)
Postlude (Walker Austell, piano): "Little Minuet" (Beethoven)

Secrets to a Simpler Life
Text: Mark 12:28-34

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Testimony: Kathleen Katibah on serving as summer staff (2011)

(download)

A Capella Choir singing "Our God"


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wheat and Tares, plus 2 (Matthew 13.24-43)

Sermon by:Robert Austell
August 7, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Hungry" (Scott/arr. Howard)
Song of Praise: "Holy is the Lord" (Tomlin, Giglio)
Hymn of Praise: "Lord, Speak to Me" (CANONBURY)
Offering of Music (children's quartet): "The Mustard Seed" (Anna Laura Page)
Communion Hymn: "Our Father in Heaven" (Wyse)
Song of Sending: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: "Postlude on 'Old Hundreth'" (Bock)

Wheat and Tares, plus 2
Text: Matthew 13:24-43

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are looking at several of the parables of Jesus. Parables are stories with a point. I’ve compared them before to jokes with a punch line. If you get to focused on the details or the symbolism, you can miss the point. One of the first jokes you probably learned was “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The punch line may make you groan or make you giggle, but if either happens when you hear, “…to get to the other side,” then you got it. If you are wondering why the chicken is off the farm, whether it’s a country road or a six-lane interstate, or any number of irrelevant questions, then you won’t get it. That’s a hint of what a parable is like. Even when Jesus goes to lengths to explain the symbolism of characters in a parable, like he does twice in Matthew 13 (the sower and the tares), the parable is still about the punch line, about the main point, and those “with ears to hear” are those who get it and understand and learn.

In Matthew 13, Jesus is “sitting by the sea” (v. 1), and is teaching from a boat to a crowd on the beach. He tells one parable (the sower) about hearing the message about the Kingdom of God. And then, having explained it, he tells six more parables ABOUT the Kingdom of God. Today we will look at the first three of these (the point of which are repeated very closely in the second three). I want to start with the two shorter ones, then we will end with the parable of the wheat and tares. 

The Mustard Seed and the Leaven (vv. 31-33)

The two parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are short and to the point. They would have required “ears to hear” because they did fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, but they are nonetheless pretty straightforward.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which grows from the smallest of seeds to one of the largest garden plants, so large that it looks like a tree (it’s a plant) and birds will even nest in it. If you remember all the Messiah-expectations of the time, that God would send a warrior-king to replace the Roman Empire (kingdom) with God’s Kingdom, you can see that comparing Jesus’ teaching ministry to the smallest of seeds is a good comparison. Why not a mighty oak? Well, perhaps a mighty cedar, more appropriate to that part of the world. Because that’s what the people were expecting… something to rival Rome. Instead, what God sent was more like a garden plant. Hah! I was only comparing the form of a parable to a joke, but this one actually would have sounded like a joke to their ears.

But God’s kingdom was neither a cedar-like human empire nor a uninspiring minor plant. Rather, it was something different and unexpected (though not unannounced!). It was like the mustard seed and plant that grew from humble beginnings to offer shade and nesting because of its extraordinary size (up to 10-feet in some cases). But here’s the real punch line that follows the “not-what-you’d-expect” of the mustard plant. Jesus alludes to Hebrew scriptures that describe God’s work of establishing His Kingdom like “birds of every kind nesting in its branches” (Ezekiel 17:23 and others). In those scriptures, the nesting birds represent the nations and people of the world, whom God promised to bless through the covenant. The real punch line of this parable is a connection back to the original covenant with Abraham, revealing God’s heart for the nations of the world. That’s the picture here – not of God’s Kingdom as a mighty tree to compete with or overthrow Rome, but God planting and establishing a Kingdom through His people for the blessing of the nations of the world. That’s the same promise God made to Abraham, and Jesus is announcing that Kingdom in his ministry and through parables like these.

The parable of the leaven (or yeast) is a good counterpart to the mustard seed. And it is a good parallel to the lighthouse/searchlight metaphor we’ve used so much at Good Shepherd. Lest one come away from the parable of the mustard seed thinking that God will simply plant His Kingdom and invite all who would come to find it and nest there, the parable of the leaven also illustrates that God’s Kingdom is in the world and for the world. God’s people and God’s Kingdom are to permeate the world around us, having a transforming and “blessing” effect wherever we go and embody God’s Kingdom. We are to be both the safe haven and refuge of the mustard plant and the sent and blessing people of the leaven.

As you read through the rest of the New Testament, you see both these parables enfleshed in the history of the early church, as they first struggle with and learn what it means to welcome in Gentiles and then are propelled forth by the Holy Spirit to carry the Good News to the nations. 

An Enemy at Work: the Wheat and the Tares

The parable of the wheat and the tares is a little bit different. For one, the disciples ask Jesus to explain it privately afterwards, so we have his explanation where we are left to figure the other two out. And it’s longer than the other two. There’s more there to think about and understand. But we’ll still look for the main point or punch line… the “gotcha” we don’t want to miss.

On one hand this is another parable about the Kingdom of God. But the standout detail in this one is the presence of an enemy. We don’t hear that in the other parables. There is an enemy to God’s Kingdom. And in the parable, that enemy doesn’t attack, but mimics the Kingdom by planting alongside and among it, resulting in a contamination of the harvest.

In the parable itself, upon recognizing an enemy at work, the laborers ask if they should gather up the tares (weeds) that the enemy has sown. But the landowner cautions that doing so will uproot and damage the wheat. Instead, they are to wait until the harvest time and separate them by their fruit, when it is more evident which are wheat and which are weeds.

In Jesus’ explanation, given in private to the disciples, he notes that God’s Kingdom likewise has an enemy – the devil – and the world is God’s field. Note that – not just the church, but the whole world is God’s field. And it is the same field of the world that God’s enemy has sought to contaminate and ruin.

The punch line or twist in this parable is that it starts out by comparing God’s Kingdom to a man sowing seed. Jesus has just tread that ground with the parable of the sower and the seed, so this seems like more of the same. But he ends up talking, not about the Kingdom as much as about God’s judgment and sorting by our deeds. Both in the parable and in the much more vivid explanation, the parable ends up with God’s judgment and separation of good and evil, including a description of the horrors and the glories of how that judgment comes out. 

Pre-emptive Weeding?

I am sure it was for the disciples as it remains for the modern church: a temptation to do the pre-emptive work of weeding the field. Why else would Jesus mention it? There is something in us that wants to decide who is in and who is out, and sometimes even pre-emptively act on those decisions. We look from our vantage point of being inside the church and think, “They could not POSSIBLY be wheat!” Or we judge one another in the church and plainly or subtly say, “You must not be real wheat.” And we uproot and damage someone, becoming the very stumbling blocks (v. 41) that we would want to see cleared out of the Kingdom. We also miss the point of both the other parables, missing the fact that God’s Kingdom is not about securing ourselves and families, but about being both the refuge (mustard tree) and the witness (leaven) for the WHOLE world that is God’s field.

But wait, wait, isn’t there such a thing as church discipline, and isn’t that an important teaching in scripture? Yes, it is! But the purpose of discipline in the church, as between parent and child, is to teach and RESTORE fellowship. That is not what is being described here. In this parable, we are reading about the judgment that separates the faithful from the unfaithful, and Jesus teaches not only that we will harm people in so doing, but that it is God’s job alone to do that work, and at the end of God’s redemptive plan, not today.

This has great bearing on all kind of things from mission to evangelism to who we welcome into our fellowship to our response to our own denomination and culture, but at the bottom of all this is that we are called to offer refuge and witness, mustard and leaven, lighthouse and searchlight, grace and truth. We should never feel satisfaction at someone turning from truth or distancing themselves from God, but cherish the desire that all the world know the expansive love of God through Jesus Christ. 

A Pretty Complete Description of the Church

As I reflect on these three parables, full of home-spun metaphors of gardening and cooking, I see an amazingly full-orbed description of the Church, an earthly expression of God’s kingdom that is at once, wheat entangled with weeds, a covenant-fulfilling refuge and home for all the nations of the world, and, in the power of God, a transformative and leavening influence on culture, lives, and that same world. In the wheat and tares, we also wrestle with our own tendency toward judgment and small-minded thinking and are challenged to let God be God and learn what it means to BE the Church, full of grace and truth in the world that God loves.

Lots to ponder… for those with ears to hear. Amen.