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Sermon for 23 July 2017


Isa 44:6-8, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Are you a detail or big picture person? When you get a new gadget, do you work your way through the instructions before turning it on, or do you just plug it in and get going? Do you like to know exactly what’s going to happen today, or are you happy with a sense of what might be, and then just seeing what happens?

God is, of course, interested in both. He has his hand on every individual moment, on every detail, and his care is over the great sweep of things - things that are measured in generations, centuries and millenia.  And our parable today speaks of both. It is a parable about the detail of right now, and a parable about the big picture of where everything is heading.

Here’s the context, both the big picture and the detail.

The big picture is that Jesus is speaking to Israelites. They know they are the people chosen by God to represent him and his vision on earth; the nation raised up from Abraham as God’s solution to the disaster of the Fall. The nation that God loves like no other and about whom he says - "I have loved you with an everlasting love.” Those listening to Jesus are part of that beloved people - and they know that their calling is to bring about God’s purposes. Early on in The Old Testament, it seems as if God’s purposes are just to create a nation which will love God, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that God has a much bigger goal in mind - nothing less than the restoration of everything. The prophet Isaiah puts it like this - ‘I will give Israel as a light to the nations, that my salvation will reach the end of the earth’. God will not leave things as they are, and Israel has a key part to play in his great solution.

But the detail is that Jesus is speaking to an invaded nation. The Romans are in charge and Israel is deeply confused. How can the People of God be ruled over by a pagan empire and forced to pay taxes to Rome? How can the Temple, the very heart of God’s presence on earth, be subject to a Roman Emperor who claims he is God? And so, at the time that Jesus is speaking, there are huge questions being asked; Why is this happening? Where is God? What is He going to do about it? What should we do about it?

And Jesus tells this parable into this context; both the big picture and the detail, and the parable gives a response to both kinds of question. And it speaks to us today as well - we have slightly different questions to those Israelites, but they’re in the same ballpark. How do we live in a world which is so full of pain and suffering? What is our task, as followers of Jesus, when evil rears it’s head? Will things ever get better? 

The big picture - where, in the grand scheme of things, are we heading? And the detail - How should we live right now?

How should we live right now? How should we live in the midst of a messy, dangerous, suffering filled world? Jesus says ‘live with it’. Literally. ‘Live in this world’, be salt and light in this world, get on with growing fruitfully in the midst of troubles. This - for now - is how it is, and our job is to get on with being wheat which, when the time is right, will produce a great harvest.

This parable doesn’t tell us everything about how we live in the midst of a messed up world, we have to look elsewhere for that information - and there’s plenty throughout the gospels and the rest of Scripture on that subject. This parable just tells us that’s what we’re meant to do. And so, we shouldn’t waste too much energy on raging against it - telling God he should just sort it out. This is how it is, and we’re to live with it. 

How can that be? 

The kingdom of God, it says, is both here, and not yet here. It is here in full, but it’s also here only in potential. No plant can grow without the seed being sown, but the seed before it has grown is not the whole plant. The kingdom is here, and not yet fully here. It’s at work in our midst, emerging and growing.

The key to this kingdom is the person of the sower - the kingdom of heaven says Jesus is him. It is present whenever he sows a seed which becomes a ‘child of the kingdom’. The kingdom comes into being when someone says yes to a relationship with Jesus. The kingdom isn’t a place, it doesn’t grow by force - it grows by relationship with Jesus.

So our job isn’t to go round hunting for evil, it’s to be faithful to the sower. And that means learning from him, becoming like him, growing in faith and in love. And of course that means following the great disciplines of faith - prayer, coming together to worship as a church community, like this, it means studying the Scriptures, it means acts of service and compassion. 

It doesn’t mean living with our fingers in our ears and hands over our eyes, as if all is well. This parable is very real about the existence of evil

God’s emerging kingdom is genuinely under threat - it exists in the midst of a broken and fallen world and we don’t have to look very far to see evil at work; whether it’s a tower block burning in the night sky, house by house battles to rid Mosul of ISIS or yet more news stories about child abuse in our own country. This parable warns us against ever being tempted to play down the fact that evil is alive and well in our world. Evil is real.

But the parable warns us against rushing to quick judgements about where exactly that evil lies. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn - a prisoner of the Russian gulags, who knew a bit about evil, wrote this - ‘the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts’. Evil is very real. But it’s not our job to root it out. Our job is to be faithful to the one who sows only good seed, and to become more like him.

And we can do that, says this parable, we can stay faithful, because there’s a bigger picture. This, says Jesus, is not it. This is not how things will always be. There will come a day when the seeds of goodness sown by the sower will flourish into something beautiful - and on that day, and not before, good and evil will be separated.

And then, when that moment comes God will act decisively. And if you’re thinking that’s all a bit ‘hell and damnation’ think of it like this - there will come a day when those who perpetuate violence against the innocent will be brought to justice; there will come a day when those who prey on children will come before God’s throne and hear his verdict; there will come a day when those who live off the misery of others, those who deal in violence, those who oppress the weak will have to answer for their actions. 

Because evil cannot continue in God’s kingdom; there can be no suffering or misery when God returns everything to the way he designed it to be. 

This parable gives us the big picture which tells us where everything is heading - to God’s kingdom, to his perfect rule of justice and mercy, in which all suffering and evil will be ended.

And it also gives us the detail and tells us how to live today - acknowledging the evil that we are all tangled up with, and patiently staying faithful to the sower.

This is a story that tells us to be patient. And tells us to hope.

It tells us to be very, very realistic. And to be very, very optimistic. 

God is here. God will come.

Live well in the present. Look to the fullness of the future.


Posted: 23-07-2017 at 15:36
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