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Matthew 13:31-33, 13:44-52
New International Version (NIV)
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” they replied.
52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
Over the past few weeks, Pastor Nick has been exploring in his sermon series all the different aspects of spiritual growth. Specifically, he’s been talking about ways that we can encourage in our lives practices that help us in our pursuit of spiritual growth. Needless to say, I think it’s an incredibly noble and challenging endeavor he has embarked upon with this series. The process of spiritual growth is an essential aspect of the Christian life; in fact, I would go as far as to say that spiritual growth IS the Christian life in a nutshell.
I like this series so far; I think he’s given some very practical tips on how to cultivate spiritual growth. That’s why I’ve decided to piggy back on his series and throw out my own voice into the ring, because that’s how I like to do theology. Talking about God is not a one way street, and honestly, the more voices we have talking about God, the better the conversation becomes. Nick’s concern—and mine—is about you and your passion for seeking spiritual growth, but in all these conversations, one thing lingers in the back of my mind that always comes up for me, and that’s a question that brings me to you today: why? Why should we cultivate spiritual growth, seek it, practice it, and participate in it at all? What is the point?
I’m a why-seeker. When I was a kid, I was definitely the little snot-nosed little guy that would constantly annoy my parents with a barrage of why’s. “Dad, why’s the sky blue?” He’d give his answer, and usually a good one, since he’s a smart dude. However, I would proceed to keep asking him “why” until he got fed up and said “It just is! Leave me alone!” (I love my dad, so I exaggerate…slightly. I really was pretty annoying as a kid.) So when we start down the path of spiritual growth, I have to wonder, why do we need spiritual growth anyways? What’s the goal, the end-game, the reason for doing spiritual growth, beyond “it’s just what Christians do.” I get the distinct feeling that we in the Christian community don’t ask “why” enough, partly because there is a long-standing history of pastors and/or other Christians actively discouraging it. That never set well with me, especially when answers are out there, if we actually took the time to sit down and think/talk it out.
Before I get ahead of myself, I’ll answer my own question: yes, there is a goal to spiritual growth. Whew. Got that out of the way. Now then, what is the goal of spiritual growth? Conventional wisdom would say that we seek spiritual growth to become better people. Great. Why should we try to be better people? We’re pretty messed up. Why even try if we’re going to mess it up again? Well, we should try to be better people because being better people will help us get closer to God? This line of questions can go on for a long time, but eventually we would get to the answer in Matthew. The goal of spiritual growth is simply this: so that we may seek the reign of God, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. That is the chief end of spiritual growth; it’s why we are Christians in the first place, and it’s the purpose for doing anything in the name of Jesus Christ. Beyond that, there is nothing, no greater goal. Great. That’s established. Which leads to another question: what exactly is the kingdom of God? This answer is not easy to answer. NOT IN THE SLIGHTEST.
Because explaining the Kingdom of God is so difficult to do, Jesus had to explain it in parables, riddles and stories. It’s sort of a brilliant idea, really, considering it’s the most effective way of trying to explain something so alien, so foreign, so completely backwards from the way our world operates that the only way we can even try to tackle it is with analogies. It’s almost as if the Kingdom of God is an optical illusion, always existing just out of your view, but present despite it’s lack of visibility. Occasionally, if you catch it just right, you might get a glimpse. That’s what Jesus gives us in the parables: a series of glimpses of what the kingdom will look like.
So he starts off with the comparison to the mustard seed. It’s tiny seed that manages to grow bigger than everything else in the garden, so much so that things can live inside it. On paper, this sounds great. Except…here’s a question: does anyone know what a mustard plant actually looks like? It’s a big yellow flower, kind of like a cross between a sunflower and a wheat stalk. The thing about mustard is that…it’s kind of a weed. Yeah. That’s the big joke here. Jesus told a joke about mustard.
A good analogue for us would be mesquite trees. You guys know about mesquite trees, yeah? Mesquite trees are hardy little crooked wooden things that like to creep into fields and ranches everywhere. They suck up all the nutrients and make it impossible for healthy grass to grow. It’s what is known as an invasive species. Mustard is the same way. It’s an invasive weed that gets everywhere and isn’t always welcome. People spend a lot of time clearing out mesquite brush, and the same goes for mustard.
So get this straight. Jesus’s first analogy here to the Kingdom of God is that it’s like a tiny seed that a)grows huge and b) gets everywhere, even where people don’t want it to grow, so much to the point that c) stuff starts living in it. Not necessarily what you were thinking, were you? See, we get all these ideas about what it will look like when God is king and everything is right with the world according to God’s plan, and frankly, our plans don’t really mesh well with what God has in store. Thus our need for spiritual growth. This is the end of it; how do we get from where we are to being able to understand that this is how God wants the world to look? How do we get to the point where we can understand that when Jesus says the kingdom is a mustard seed, he really means that the kingdom is something that grows, that grows uncontrollably, to the point that people get mad at it growing so much and that the kingdom causes trouble?
Let’s try another parable; it might be a little easier to decipher. Jesus says the kingdom is like a dude who finds a buried treasure in a field. He finds it, buries it again, sells everything he has, and then buys the field. Likewise, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who searches for a fine pearl, and once he finds it, he sells everything he has just to buy this one little pearl. Now then, of the two situations that I just told you, does ANY of that make sense? Let’s start with the first guy: why would he find the treasure, then bury it, then buy the field the treasure was in? I can get that the kingdom is the treasure, but all of the other things surrounding it doesn’t make that much sense, does it?
There’s a distinctive theme though, with these two parables. In both, the point is that these people who find the kingdom are so entranced by it that they sell everything they have just to acquire it. The selling everything they have bit is what we need to pay attention to, and this is where spiritual growth comes in. Spiritual growth happens when we are able to let go. Let go of our possessions. Let go of our distractions. Let go of whatever it is that keeps us from finding the kingdom, this great treasure worth more than anything. When we let go, we can then bounce back to the previous analogy; we plant a seed when we let things go. That seed grows, and overgrows, and takes over, when we least expect it. It’s all coming together now, isn’t it? Suddenly we begin to see how the kingdom is the goal of spiritual growth. It’s far more than just about being a better person. It’s about bringing about a new kind of reality.
Let’s look at that last parable, the one about the fish and the net. The kingdom is a net is lowered down and catches a lot of fish. Some of the fish are good, some… not so good. Rotten probably. Not healthy. Fisherman sort them out; good ones stay, bad ones get thrown into the campfire, and are burned up. Jesus then says that it’ll be this way at the end; angels will do the sorting, and the unjust, unrighteous, what have you, will be thrown into the fire.
Some of you have just woken up and realized that I’m talking about punishment at the end of the age. And you would be right. It’s at this point that I need to take a step back and let you see where we’ve come. The kingdom, that treasure, that mustard plant/mesquite tree thing, this valuable, wild, unruly thing that is alien to our minds, is going to be the same thing that allows God to partake in the final judgment. With this, we wonder how does spiritual growth come in? And the answer is that it’s in the fruits and practices of spiritual growth that is the determining factor in that judgment. Let’s skip ahead a bit to Matthew 25:31 and on.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Spiritual growth produces spiritual fruits, and what else is fruit made for but to nourish others? If we are to take our spiritual growth seriously, we need to see that it makes an impact. It has a purpose. There is a goal to participating in spiritual growth beyond just “being a better person.” It’s to seek the kingdom of God, this crazy, valuable, uncontrollable, and pivotal thing. It’s about going and doing for our neighbors the things that Christ commands us to do, something we only know to do by reading scripture, praying, worshiping with one another, witnessing to one another. By this benchmark in Matthew 25 we are measured. Spiritual growth ought to produce those fruits, fruits of kindness, generosity, and godliness.
Spiritual growth is more than just about you and your relationship with Jesus. It’s about you and your relationship with the whole world. The kingdom of God is the world transformed, nothing less. We are called to grow spiritually so that we might seek it. By the grace of God, we are given this opportunity. Don’t waste it. Take the time to see to your spirit. May your spirit rise and expand like the flour with the yeast. May it be a beacon to others. May it be a light to the world. Amen.