Matthew 13.31-33; 44-49a- Parables of the Kingdom

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Today, in the last of our pre-Lent sermon series looking at Jesus' parables, we come to the Parables of the Kingdom - series of short parables shedding light on what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And true to my idiosyncratic style, I'm going to take them backwards from the way Jesus put them.
Now before we begin, I just want to recap on the meaning of some important words:
A "parable" is a "word to through alongside" - a short story or saying with a parallel meaning between what is happening in the parable and what is happening between ourselves and God in our lives.
And the "Kingdom of Heaven" is not the place you go when you die, but is anywhere where people live in obedience to God's kingship. As Christians, we crown Jesus as king of our lives and so the Kingdom of Heaven becomes a reality in our lives - we become a little bit of heaven on earth.
So, as Christians, we don't believe in life after death. We believe in eternal life (which is true life) lived before and after death. Eternal life is life lived in relationship with God in his eternity: a life rooted and grounded in the eternal love of God which is so powerfully life giving that even bodily death cannot extinguish it. But it doesn't suddenly start when we die. It starts now and that's what the parable about the fish and the net is about.
The catching of fish in the net is likened to the Day of Judgement - something we will all face at the point of our bodily death. When the fish are sorted, the ones that are fresh and have life in them are kept and the bad ones are thrown away - because they're already dead and rotting. The criteria for Judgement Day is not whether we've been good or bad, but whether we have life in us or not - God's life. It sounds almost stupidly obvious to say it, but life doesn't start when we die. If it hasn't already begun, death isn't going to kick-start it.
So the life of the Kingdom of Heaven has to start now - before death - or not at all. It's now or never.
And there's a very good reason to make up our minds about that sooner rather than later: not because we're scared of what might happen if we don't, but because the sooner we choose to allow God's kingship for our lives, the sooner we experience the wonders and beauty of eternal life. We're all familiar with the sort of preachers who try to scare us into faith by threatening us with eternal damnation and devils with pitchforks. But the trouble with that approach (apart from the fact that it's cheap and nasty) is that it puts all the emphasis on what happens after death, but that's not true to scripture at all.
Look at the parables of the treasure and the pearl. Matthew sensibly puts them before the parable about the fish and the net because that's what it's really about - receiving a treasure so beautiful and rich that it's worth more than everything else we have. The parable of the pearl was one that I particularly wrestled with as I was making up my mind about coming into Christian ministry. I had a good job in a profession I had trained hard for and I was just reaching the point where many of my dreams were being fulfilled - good job, young family, a home of our own - and yet I felt God calling me to give it all up to build his kingdom. And I came to realise that it was worth it, because God's kingdom really is that beautiful and enriching. We may not have anywhere to live when we retire, we may not have much money for holidays or flash cars, but we do live every day with a richness that surpasses anything this world can give.
When I began this sermon series, I explained that the purpose was to enable us to share our faith with people in the community around us who were searching or troubled or empty and who needed what we have. But for that to be remotely possible we first have to recognise what a great treasure it is we do have in the Christian faith.
Like a pearl, it may not be immediately obvious. I don't know if you've ever seen a real pearl before, but I remember when I first saw one. At first glance it looks really uninspiring - a little white dot. But look closer and it really does become mesmerisingly beautiful: tantalisingly translucent, almost perfectly pure and it seems to draw you in with the promise of something clean and wholesome and perfect. And so it is with the Kingdom of Heaven.
At first glance, what we do in church may also seem really uninspiring: ancient, crumbling people gathering in ancient, crumbling buildings to mumble ancient, crumbling words in an ancient, crumbling voice.
But look closer and there's something remarkable going on. There's treasure here. There are a great many people like me, who have found in the loving acceptance of Jesus: forgiveness of the things they could never forgive in themselves; a relief and acceptance of themselves when all they could do before was to criticise themselves and wince; a generosity of love that made them realise that what they previously considered generosity was miserly.
And in turn, this recognition of Jesus' love for them has spilled over in the way they treat others. I have spoken before of how miraculously Jesus has transformed my heart from being very angry and judgmental of others into genuinely finding love for people whom I would previously have dismissed. By recognising my own faults and recognising the depth of Christ's love for me which I don't' deserve, I have found tools I never had before to stick by people when they upset or annoy or even just bore me. And this has enriched my life in a way I could never have found but for Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven breaking into my life has proved to be a treasure infinitely greater than anything else I could have possessed and it was worth anything I might have given up to experience it. And again I am not alone.
Because Jesus has brought a great many into his kingdom and has created the most amazing family you could ever belong to. We're not perfect by any means - it's still a family made up of fools and sinners. By definition, the people Jesus calls to himself are those who realise they need help and it shows! But so does the difference he brings about in their lives. Within our fellowship locally, I see people sticking by each other and caring for each other who, in the wider world, would simply cast each other off. And that is just a microcosm of the huge world-wide family we are part of. Wherever I go in the country, in the world, whatever the stage of my life, I am surrounded by a family of believers and practisers of the Kingdom who provide me with love and support and care and receive me with joy. That too is precious.
So too is the constant companionship I have from Jesus himself - always there, always waiting for me to turn to him in prayer (when I remember!), always loving, always providing, even in the darkest times, and giving me great joy. It is truly a treasure - a pearl worth more than everything else I have and I for one would give everything I had for it. And I cannot too highly commend you to do the same.
And look at the difference the kingdom makes in the world too. Jesus says it's like a mustard seed - the smallest seed that becomes the greatest tree to provide a home for all the birds of the air, or like yeast which works away unseen in the dough until it causes the whole dough to rise and gives us bread to eat. There is a very good reason why we, as a society, don't do Gladiator fights any more, or make human or animal sacrifice, or indulge in honour killings, or forced marriage. It was because of the influence of Christianity on our society. Societies that haven't had that influence still do many of those things. There is a very good reason why we are a tolerant, welcoming, broad-minded society, why our prevailing ethic is "do to others as you would have them do to you" - something straight out of the Sermon on the Mount.
There is a very good reason why we live in a society that abolished slavery, that values individual freedom, is inherently modest and decent, that cares for the underdog and the marginalised, that believes in education. All these things are the result (directly and indirectly) of our Christian heritage. I'm sure you all know of the role the Church of England played in abolishing slavery, but did you know it was the early church which invented books? Did you know that the education system in this country was established by the church? (And in the last few years, the Church was responsibly for establishing the University of Cumbria.) Did you know that the medical system was established by the monasteries? Did you know that the legal establishment of charities and trusts was directly based on the words of scripture to advance the cause of the kingdom of God?
And then think of all the art and the music and the great works of literature that the teachings and life of Jesus have inspired. The list is endless. The more you look, the more beauty you find in this one great pearl.
The establishment of the church has not always been that great, but where we have been obedient to the kingship of Jesus, we have made an incomparable difference to the state of our society and the lives of countless generations within it. Just like that mustard seed, it may not be visible most of the time, but it makes a real and lasting difference to our lives and I challenge you to name me any other organisation that has done so much.
So when I urge you to greater commitment, I'm not whipping you up into religious fundamentalism. I'm urging you to get to the heart of all that's best and noblest about the way of life we love - the kingdom of Heaven. And when I encourage you to share your faith, I'm not asking you to become door-to-door salesmen for the established church. I'm urging you to share you treasure with the poor and needy, because we have a treasure of such great value and people need a little of what we have in such abundance.
So I end this series by laying before you a pearl of great value - the Kingdom of Heaven. It is yours for the taking. It is a free gift, yet it will cost you everything you have. It will make everything else you have experienced in life to date seem like cheap paste and it will give you a way of living that you really can treasure. If you like pearls, there is only one really worth having. If you like life, there's only one really worth living. Will you choose it? If you do, you'll soon be longing to share it.

Preached: - Bolton, Morland, Great Strickland, 6 March 2011