Sermon

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

God’s Surprises

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel

GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE
FROM GOD OUR FATHER
AND THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, AMEN.

There was once a man who was always afraid of death. He was afraid that death would suddenly overtake him and find him unprepared, so he made a bargain with the Grim Reaper that death would give him clear, repeated notices before he would come. One day, however, unannounced and altogether unexpectedly, the Destroyer appeared to demand his life.

“How could you break your pledge?” the man protested bitterly. “You sent me no warnings.”

Slowly the skeletal figure replied, “But how about your failing eyesight, your dimmed sense of hearing, your gray and thinning hair, your lost teeth, your furrowed face, your bent body, your dwindling powers, and your weakened memory? Were these not unmistakable warnings?”

It is amazing how many warnings we find in Scripture. Time after time, Jesus reminds his hearers and followers of the judgment to come. There is an unmistakable urgency to Jesus’ message. In last week’s Gospel we had the image of the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and the same phrase appears again in today’s Gospel lesson. There are consequences to our actions and to our faith and the final result that the angels will come to sort out the righteous and the wicked. The one will enter into the joy of God’s kingdom, the other to everlasting torment. The emphasis must remain on the joy that comes from following Jesus, not the threat; the reward and not the punishment.

In our text Jesus teaches by parables, five of them all about God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like treasure buried in a field, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like a net filled with fish both good to eat and as it says in the Greek, “rotten fish.” Each of these parables has a surprise, something unexpected. A mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds but grows into the greatest of shrubs, even a tree that birds can nest in its branches. It does not take much yeast to leaven the loaf of bread. These parables are parallel and here Jesus is saying that faith can appear small and insignificant but can change one’s whole life.

The next two parables are also twinned and are pretty exciting. There is buried treasure and pearl of great price. We all like to hear stories of unexpected good fortune. From Aladdin to Treasure Island to Survivor, we like treasure maps and magic lamps and buried gold. Cleopatra once spent the equivalent of a million and a half dollars on a single pearl from India. The people of Jesus’ world also liked such stories. But the point of these parables is the unexpected nature of God. God comes to us when we least expect God and in wondrous ways. God’s Kingdom is so valuable it is worth giving up everything for.

The final parable echoes the theme of last Sunday. Then it was the field of wheat mixed with the tares. Here it is the fishing net full of both good and bad fish which are kept together until the boat reaches the shore and the good fish are kept and the bad thrown away. The theme is again that the Church is a mixed company of the righteous and wicked and will be so until the Last Day. The surprise is that the separation does not occur until the end.

The Kingdom of God is like . . . Jesus taught in parables that are not always so easy to understand. But in each one of these the surprise comes from God. God causes the tiny mustard seed to grow into a huge tree; God uses the little bit of leaven to cause the loaf to rise. God has buried treasure where least expected, worth enough to sell everything for in order to buy that field and the pearl great enough to give all that one has to purchase such a wonderful pearl. God keeps adding fish to the net. Each parable has a surprise.

Now I don’t much like surprises. I don’t handle them very well and I don’t like this about myself. My parents planned a surprise eighteenth birthday party for me, but I pestered them so badly—I could tell something was up—that they told me about it. I was glad because then I could plan how to act surprised.   It has gotten to the point where I usually have to pick out my own Christmas or birthday gifts. I come by this naturally. My grandmother never liked what we gave her. If we gave her a sweater, she’d exchange it for a girdle. If we bought her a girdle she’d go back to the store for a sweater. Our Anne is like this too. We know that she will be disappointed on Christmas morning or her birthday. Nothing will be quite right. She may get used to her gifts and after a couple of days like them or else it is back to Macy’s or Marshall Field’s or the Gap for something else.

I think the reason I do not like surprises much is because they can be disappointing—but not always. We can go to places where we didn’t have any great expectations and find out we enjoy them—this happened to us in Hong Kong this spring. Sometimes the restaurant that didn’t look like much has really good food or the folks we meet who don’t impress us very much but later turn out to be good friends.

God’s surprises do not disappoint us—our parables tell us that. What looks little and insignificant can still make a great difference. Just look at the mustard seed or the leaven. The little seed produces a tree ten feet tall; the fistful of yeast mixed with flour and water into three measures can feed a hundred people. It does not take too many believing, trusting, Christians to make a difference in our community. Even a few of us living out our faith can do it. We should not be discouraged in our faith—that’s the point of the first two parables. A few can do great things!

God’s Kingdom is itself a wonderful surprise. It is like the treasure in the field or the pearl of great price. It is so wonderful that it makes everything else seem insignificant. The laborer sold all he had to buy the field, the merchant all his other pearls. It is a promise for us. If we are God’s people, God’s children, then other things do not matter so much. If we are not rich, so what! If we are not beautiful, trim, attractive—all flesh is grass anyway. As Isaiah said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of God endures forever.” We may not be powerful people, but God’s surprise for us is simply this—what counts in God’s eyes is our relationship to Him through Jesus Christ. God sees us in light of Christ, forgiven, reconciled, restored. It is a treasure indeed that we have from God; a jewel given us by God that our future is secure in God’s loving hands. We may not have what the world offers—power, prestige, money, but we have what the world cannot give—God’s presence and God’s peace.

God continues to surprise us. God comes to the little baby who is not old enough to understand and makes that child God’s own child through baptism. God comes to us with a word of forgiveness when we confess our sins. God comes to us at Bible camp or in Vacation Bible School, on a mission trip or in times of loneliness or sickness, worry or pain. God can use ordinary times or special times, to come near. When we least expect God to act, God comes showering blessings. We should not be discouraged when things go wrong, but realize that God is working out a plan of love and care for us. God has great treasures laid up for us; the greatest is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Another person has just arrived at the portals of heaven. A voice asks, “What is the password? Speak it and you may enter.”

“Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved?”

“No,” replies the voice.

“The just shall live by faith?”

“No.”

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus?”

“Those sayings are true,” the voice answered, “But they are not the password for which I listen.”

“Well, then, I give up,” replied the person.

“That’s it! Come right in.”

The Kingdom of God is a free gift given to those who know they can not make it on their own and must rely upon God’s grace. God’s surprise comforts us when it looks as though evil will triumph. Judgment is also justice. Along with weeping and gnashing of teeth will come shouts of joy and thanksgiving! That’s God’s final surprise—eternal life. Amen.

Copyright 2005 James D. Kegel.  Used by permission.