Monday, August 4, 2008

I work and work for His Kingdom, and what do I have to show for it? I am so insignificant, how can I ever make a difference? The world’s problems are so big, how can I solve them when I cannot solve my own problems? --No doubt at least once in the last few weeks, each of us has wondered about the sovereignty of God in questions like these, or at least very much like them. Often, when we are in those dark moments of life, we wonder whether God is really in control of our lives. We may accept that He is "with" us, in the sense that He is rooting for us; but we can sometimes find ourselves questioning whether He really is in control and able to redeem whatever we perceive to have gone wrong in our lives.

This week’s reading from Matthew should speak to us whenever we find ourselves questioning our role or significance to His plan of salvation as Matthew was writing to a Church that was very much hounded by the powers and principalities of the world. When Matthew wrote his Gospel account, both the Roman pantheon (which was supported by the state) and the Jewish faith (which had existed for a few thousand years) dwarfed this seemingly new faith. Talk about a church in need of encouragement! The first two parables told by Jesus are told to the crowd. And, no doubt, the parables must have seemed strange. If the Kingdom of God is such a wonderful place, why do we not see it clearly? Why does the Kingdom of God, who is all-powerful, not blow the earthly kingdoms away with its beauty and redemptive promise? In other words, why does the Kingdom of God seem so insignificant? Jesus simply reminds His audience of something with which many would have been familiar. Jesus uses the mustard seed as an example of something which seems insignificant, but turns into an amazingly large shrub. Another item in the parable with which Jesus’ audience would have been familiar would have been the image of the birds resting in the branches. Both Ezekiel 17 and Daniel 4 would have taught Jesus’ audience that the Gentile "birds" would eventually be drawn into the family of God. Jesus is claiming that the Kingdom He is ushering into the world is fulfilling that very promise of God. And yet, it starts from the seemingly tiniest, most insignificant seed!

The parable of the leaven should have likewise encouraged Matthew’s hearers and shocked Jesus’ audience. Jesus’ use of this parable would have seemed somewhat strange to His audience. Those faithful Jews in the midst of the audience likely would have thought it strange that a Rabbi was talking about leavened bread. What’s special about leavened bread? Furthermore, at Passover, the Jews were required to make sure that all traces of leavened flour were removed from the household, so how good can it really be? Matthew likely chose to relate this parable of His master precisely because there is seemingly nothing special about leavened flour. Every household would have had leavened flour. It would have been "common" rather than unique or "Kingdom-like." Yet the very apostles and disciples chosen by Jesus were so ordinary and common. What qualified Matthew for his role in salvation history, he was just a tax collector? Peter, a fisherman? Mary Magdalene? Mary and Martha? Alban? They were so ordinary. Yet each was transformed by the grace of God and used to further His plan of salvation. Each, by worldly measures, seemed inconsequential; yet, God used them to start a church which began to draw in the Gentiles as described earlier. The seed has been planted; the yeast is fermenting the flour; the Kingdom is coming near!

From there, however, our reading from Matthew turns to the inner circle. While the first two parables are told to the crowds, the last two parables are told only to the disciples. The disciples are instructed by the parables that the Kingdom of God is the greatest of all treasures, and the kingdom can be discovered in any number of ways. Like the parable of the treasure in the field, sometimes the Kingdom can be found when one is not really looking for it. No doubt there are some among us who were not looking for the loving embrace of Christ when they first found Him; yet, they recognized the value of His offer of salvation. Similarly, the Kingdom is often sought and sought by people determined to find it until they discover its perfection compared to all other "treasures." It is also likely that there were some among us looking for that love which Christ offers each of us, and they were overjoyed when they first heard the Gospel! One of the lessons of Jesus’ instruction is that the Kingdom’s value is beyond all compare. Life may seem random or very determined, but God’s Kingdom is always to be sought! And when it is found, there ought to be great rejoicing!

Our readings end with Jesus’ parable of the good fish and stinky fish. Once again, He calls us to think of that uncomfortable topic of judgment. In a section of Matthew which begins with the parable of the wheat and the tares, you and I are called to remember the need for perseverance. Jesus reminds us that we are planted in an imperfect world and that we will sometimes seem insignificant when compared with the worldly successes or importance of those around us. This last parable reminds us that we are even sometimes planted in an imperfect church. The question that Matthew and Jesus place before us is whether we will persevere. Will you and I continue our faithful labors, labors which may seem futile and insignificant at times? Or will we give in to the temptations of the world and find ourselves working for treasures of far less value than the Kingdom treasure which we all have been offered? It is a daunting question because of the judgment which is promised. One of the challenges presented by Matthew’s entire Gospel is the need for perseverance. And perseverance for Matthew points to our ultimate judgment by God. Do we want to be good fish, or will we settle for being stinky fish? The Gospel news, of course, is that He really is in control. What the world may mean for insult or injury, God can use to redeem! What society may reject, God can redeem! What seems so insignificant will one day, at the day of the Lord, be revealed to be the most significant treasure in all of history! Better still, He has offered you and me and everyone we meet an important role in that salvation history. The question put to each of us is whether we will trust Him and persevere to the end trusting that He will accomplish through us His masterful plan.

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