“God’s Reign is Here”

 

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.  So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.  The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, like a merchant, like a net.  There’s a lot of repetition there.  It’s like this, or, it’s like that.

In today’s teenage language, there’s also a lot of repetition, but there’s a difference in the emphasis when it comes to the word like.  “He was, like, really mean to me.”  “That test was, like, totally unfair.”  When I asked my teenage son’s opinion on this yesterday, he said that the word like is equivalent to “ummm” in most conversations.

Last year, the author John McWhorter wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “The Evolution of ‘Like.’”  He wrote that, “Because we think of like as meaning ‘akin to’ or ‘similar to,’ kids decorating every sentence or two with it seems like overuse…The new like…is associated with hesitation…It is common to label the newer generations as harboring a fear of venturing a definite statement.”

The use of like reflects a desire to soften up the way we speak.  When like is inserted into a judgment or statement, the word diminishes the power of the words, blunting their meaning.  “He was, like, the worst teacher I ever had,” is not nearly as harsh as the straightforward declaration “He was the worst!”

Maybe it’s the freedom like gives us – to say whatever’s on our minds as long as it’s tempered by that softening like.   Like leaves the door open for a new description, or a new understanding later on, when more is known or revealed.  Like gives some flexibility and creativity to all our analogies and interpretations.

Jesus understood the power of language, image, and story very well.  Jesus was trying to express theological truths and divine intentions in his many parables that depended on description and analogy for their telling.  But what was Jesus really trying to do with these comparisons, these diverse metaphors about God’s reign, God’s kingdom of heaven?

Jesus was trying to shrink, to condense, the immensity of God’s truth, making it more accessible and manageable to us.  Jesus was using his analogies, his like stories, to soften the truth about the kingdom.  Because he knew that the enormity of God and the infinity of God’s wisdom were far beyond the understanding of the ordinary people in that first century.  Just as it still is to the ordinary people of the 21st century.

Listen again to the first like Jesus uses in today’s scripture passage.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”  This comparison actually softens the enormity of the concept of God’s kingdom to the point that his hearers could hardly understand it.  The Jews to whom he was speaking had a historical concept of themselves as a powerful people, towers of strength and virtue.  They had lost their powerful political identity by Jesus’ day, but they still hung on to the notion of their unique and divinely empowered qualities.

Then Jesus comes along and compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, one of the tiniest seeds of all.  But Jesus uses the metaphor to relate to them, to make the comparison soft and understandable, not as a harsh judgment.  His use of like opens the door for the rest of Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom – when the seed becomes “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.”

Maybe even more striking to his listeners was Jesus’ comparison of the reign of God to something from the sphere of women’s work:  “like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”   God’s kingdom is like something as mundane and ordinary as making the dough for the daily baking.  Bread-baking wasn’t only women’s work, it was servants’ work – a daily drudgery that kept food on the table.

Yet Jesus’ use of the word like tempers the extremity of this image, and allows his listeners to think about yeast and how bread rises.  The little bit of yeast added to the larger “three measures of flour” demonstrates the quiet yet immense power of the kingdom.  Once again, Jesus uses a small image – a tiny bit of yeast – to reflect the large effect of the kingdom on humanity and the world.

Many people come to church hoping for a good sermon, wanting to hear a special message that enlightens them, even entertains them.  We preachers want to present theological truths in an unusual or eye-opening way, trying to shake people out of their ruts and wake them up to the power of God’s presence.  Everybody likes hearing stories about miracles, and acts of supernatural power.

But Jesus’ way was to soften God’s immense power and presence by dressing them in everyday clothing.  The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is much more intimate and at-hand than any once-in-a-lifetime act of divine intervention.

The kingdom of heaven is like a floating flock of sea birds, their bodies in sync as they swerve through the air and then suddenly dive all at the same moment.  Or it’s like having a plumber answer your desperate emergency-hours-only call to fix a burst pipe.  Or the kingdom of heaven is like having a child – who left home and in a fit of independence traveled abroad for six months – finally landing back on your front doorstep.

The kingdom of heaven is like our Ladies Sewing Group, who’ve been together for so many years (they’re the longest, continually meeting group within our church) that they know each other as well as their own children, yet they find something new to talk about every week.  It’s like people like Skip Roy, who dedicatedly serve in multiple roles in our congregation, faithfully attending church events big and small, quietly working behind the scenes.  The kingdom of heaven is like babies who coo and chortle during worship, and toddlers who go running up to the front of the church.  And the kingdom of heaven is like the outpouring of love and care for Jan and Art Lazarus, and the many people who came to celebrate Art’s life and honored him in so many ways yesterday.

The kingdom of heaven is like here, in this church.  I pray that we can find more and more ways to extend and proclaim God’s reign among us.

Finally, ultimately, the softening and gentling of the power and truth and love of God is…well, it’s like, Jesus.  The Creator, the Most High, the Great I Am, became understandable, human, ordinary.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  God’s reign is here.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.