Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon for July 17th: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Why doesn’t God do something now?

It’s not been a particularly inspiring couple of weeks for those who want to believe in the basic goodness of the human race. Over in the UK there’s been a growing scandal about journalists hacking into people’s cell phones - including relatives of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan. One daily newspaper, the ‘News of the World’, has already been shut down, but the scandal shows no signs of abating - in fact, the stories seem to be mounting up and spreading. Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan, where thousands of people have been killed in senseless acts of violence over the past few years, one more name has been added to the list – Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai, shot and killed by a close associate. And then this past week we had more terrorist bombings in Mumbai with many people killed or injured.

There seems to be no end to the corruption and violence human beings are capable of; if you’re like me, you feel like crying out to God: “How long? Why don’t you do something about all this? Why don’t you stop these people?”

The parables Jesus tells in Matthew chapter thirteen don’t give a direct answer to this question, but they do suggest that God’s direct, sovereign rule over the world might not be such a straightforward matter as some people imagine. After all, the evil events I’ve mentioned are far from isolated. Every three seconds a child dies of starvation, while much of the land in their countries is used for cash crops to benefit the people of richer nations, including ours – so that we can have cheap coffee, for instance. Women and children are exploited by pornographers, and many Christians admit privately to having a problem with internet pornography. Unelected dictators impose their will on nations for the benefit of themselves and their families, and heads of corporations impose their will on millions of people to benefit their shareholders – many of whom are good churchgoers.

Would people really like it if God ruled the world directly and immediately, in such a way that every evil thought and action was instantly judged and rewarded? Where would God draw the line in punishing evil? Would he include the evil of parents losing their temper at their children, or ordinary middle class people sipping coffee grown by workers living on starvation wages? Do we really believe in a God who would restrain evil when it seems heinous to us, but who would back off from restraining it when we benefit from it?

In contrast to this desire to see instant judgement, the parables in Matthew chapter thirteen are all about waiting. A farmer waits for harvest time; birds wait for a mustard seed to grow into a bush big enough for them to nest in; a woman waits for the leaven to spread through the whole loaf of bread. That’s what God’s kingdom is like. God is planting seeds and waiting patiently for them to grow. Now is not the time for harvesting; now is still the time for planting and nurturing the seeds. We have to wait patiently for the time of harvest to come.

The problem, of course, is that Jesus’ followers don’t want to wait. Notice what the slaves of the householder say in verse 28: ‘Then do you want us to go and gather (the weeds)?’ They want to go out right away and root out the weeds from among the wheat. But the farmer restrains them; if they do that, they may well root out some of the wheat as well. The word for ‘weeds’ used to be translated as ‘tares’ or ‘darnel’; it refers to a mongrel form of wheat with smaller leaves, not suitable for human consumption. However, in the early stages of its growth, it’s very difficult to distinguish from genuine wheat. Who can judge infallibly whether any given plant is wheat or tares? Only a very good eye can be certain of making the right decision in every case. Jesus would say: when it comes to people, only God can make that judgement.

The basic error Jesus points out here is the error of trying to impose on God our timetable for judgement. “God, now’s the time for you to act and wipe out those wicked people!” What Jesus is telling us is that God is working on a different timetable; in God’s timetable, we aren’t at harvest time yet.

At present, in God’s timetable, we’re at planting and nurturing time. The planting of the seeds began in biblical times, when the seed of God’s word was sown by the prophets and came to us in its fulness in Jesus, the Word of God. Jesus sowed the seeds of the kingdom, people responded, and the plant began to grow. The apostles continued this process of sowing and nurturing as the Gospel spread, people came to faith in Jesus, and began to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. That process is still going on today as the Gospel spreads all round the world, and in our area of the world as well. And while that planting and nurturing process goes on, the lines between good and evil, between Christian and non-Christian, are fuzzier than I would like to think.

There’s a myth that it’s an easy thing to divide people into the good and the bad, the Christian and the non-Christian. We might say that Jane is a good person and Peter is a bad person. But we don’t know what kind of start Jane and Peter had. Perhaps Jane was gifted with a good family; perhaps she enjoyed a privileged upbringing and had a naturally sunny disposition. But perhaps she hasn’t done much improving on all these good things she started with. Perhaps Peter started much further back; if you think he’s an awful person now, you should see what he used to be like! If you take into account the places they started, Peter has actually come a lot further than Jane.

By the same token, we might say that Jim is a Christian and Phil is not. But what if Jim grew up in a Christian home, was taken to church and taught the Christian faith, and still goes to church each week – but in reality has very little love for Christ in his heart and only goes because he has a position of respect in the congregation where people look up to him and he feels important? And, on the other hand, what if Phil, our non-Christian, doesn’t go to church yet, but is intrigued by Jesus, is attracted to his message, and is quite willing to admit that he himself has unmet spiritual needs? Who’s in and who’s out? Which direction is Jim moving in? Which direction is Phil moving in?

Jesus wants us to know that our present age is a time for sowing seeds, nurturing them, and waiting patiently for the growth. It’s a time for patient waiting, letting God do his work, while we get on with ours. To us, it might seem as if we’re having to wait for a long time for the final harvest. From God’s perspective it might look very different.

So all necessary time will be given for the crop to grow and bear fruit. However, Jesus also wants us to know that the time given will not be unlimited. In the future, harvest time will come. And to help us understand it, Jesus changes metaphors for a moment.

Most of us love nice sunset photographs. I have one that I took on Sauble Beach, on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, in the summer of 1977. The sun is going down over the lake; the sky is all reds, yellows and golds – it’s very spectacular. And when I read in verse 43 “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”, I tend to think of that gentle sunset image.

But the sun in the Middle East is very different. There’s no gentle sunrise and sunset; sunrise is a sudden onslaught of light and heat. When the sun comes up in the morning, it’s a threatening thing; people hide from it, find shady corners to escape it, and wear hats and veils if they have to go out in it. That’s the kind of sunlight Jesus’ followers were used to. What did he mean, in that context, when he said that ‘the righteous will shine like the sun’?

In a famous sermon, C.S. Lewis once said that every man, woman, and child in the world is moving in one of two directions. If we saw them today as we will one day see them, he said, we would either recoil in horror at the sight, or we would be strongly tempted to fall down and worship them. One day, God’s people will share the glory of God in such a powerful way that we might be tempted to think that in fact they are God. It’s not so much an innate physical brightness; rather, when the work of the Holy Spirit is complete in their lives, then each one will be fully capable of reflecting the brightness of God to others.

But some refuse to reflect the brightness of God; they are too full of themselves. Their own selfish needs and desires are the central theme of their lives. They put themselves at the centre of the world, and see other people as merely ‘supporting actors’ in a play that’s all about ‘me’. These folks are not hopeless cases, or not yet anyway. After all, God is a God who works miracles. In the Bible, God was able to transform the lives of several people who were considered hopeless cases. So we can expect that given time and a lot of prayer, some of these folks will respond to the Gospel message, come to Christ and put their faith in him.

Some – but not all. The plain meaning of scripture is that not everyone will respond positively to God’s invitation. And for those who persist in their refusal, harvest time will be the end of their opportunity to inflict their evil on others. Jesus says,

‘The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (vv.41-43a).

This is a hard teaching and difficult for us to hear. There are two caricatures we need to avoid here. On the one hand, we have the caricature of God the sadistic monster, who gleefully consigns his beloved creatures to eternal fire and suffering. On the other hand, we have the caricature of God the indulgent grandparent, who is determined to spoil the kids, let them get away with all the wickedness they like all day long, and still give them candy at the end of the day. Both of these caricatures do violence to the plain meaning of the words of Jesus.

We’d all like to think that sooner or later everyone will turn to God. I would certainly prefer to think that! But the New Testament authors, including our Lord Jesus Christ, are more realistic. They indicate that if time is needed, time will be given, but even with all the time in the world, there are some who will still reject God, because they can’t bear not to be ‘god’ themselves. And in their case, God will respect their rejection of him, but will refuse them the continued opportunity to inflict evil on others.

So, what’s Jesus calling us to in this passage? He’s calling us to what one commentator calls ‘persistence in doing our work, and patience not to try to do God’s work’.

Deciding when the judgement should take place, and who should be judged, is not my work – it’s God’s work. That applies whether I’m thinking about a terrorist, a person who runs a corporation that exploits people in the Third World, or an ordinary sinner like me. It takes an expert eye to be able to tell wheat from tares; only God knows enough to make that judgement. And in God’s wisdom, he’s decided that the time to make that judgement has not yet arrived. Time is still necessary for the nurture of the plants – or even for the miraculous transformation of a weed into a stalk of wheat.

Please note that when I say this, I am not making any comment on the responsibility of human governments to restrain crime in this present age; our lawmakers and police forces may well have to use all their resourcefulness to do this. But we Christians will not join in the simplistic view of the world that sees it made up of the purely evil people – ‘them’ – and the good folk – ‘us’. We know that reality is much more complicated than that. That kind of judgement is beyond our scope; only God can see all things, so only God can make it.

We won’t try to do God’s work for him. Rather, we will concentrate on our work, which is to spread the seed of God’s message and nurture its growth in the lives of people. To be plain, we will first do all that we can to be good advertisements for the Gospel of Christ by the way we live our lives. Second, we will take every opportunity to do good in the world in the name of Christ. Thirdly, we will seize every opportunity to speak up for Christ and his Gospel and invite others to be his followers. We will do this faithfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we will leave the results in the hands of God, who will bring the seeds to harvest in his good time.

So let us pray that God will grant us the persistence to do our work, and the patience not to try to do his.

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