Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. The 9th Sunday After Pentecost. "Appearances Can Be Deceiving"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, from Matthew 13. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the sower, a lesson about hearing the Word of God and taking it to heart. In today’s parable, following shortly after the parable of the sower, Jesus changes the imagery slightly and gives a new parable about planting seeds. This time Jesus contrasts the good seed that He has sown with the weeds that were sown by His enemy, the devil. Again the parable ends with the familiar admonition: “He who has ears, let him hear.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Above a small garden in my parent’s back yard, hangs a little sign on the wooden fence. It reads, “Garden of Weedin.” Of course it’s an ironic pun on the name “Garden of Eden,” where Adam and Eve’s first sin triggered the devastating consequences of sin into the world, with the accompanying curse of thorns and thistles that made gardening and farming toilsome. And ever since, gardeners and farmers and conservationists have struggled against the constant spread of weeds. In Hawaii thousands of invasive plant species and weeds constantly threaten native growth. Gardeners constantly combat the encroaching weeds. Weeding the garden was always one of my least favorite chores as a kid. I remember pulling weeds, always having to be careful not to pull up the wrong plant and accidentally ruin dad’s vegetables. Or, I wouldn’t grab the weed firmly enough by the root, and ended up breaking off only the leaves and top growth, with the root left firmly in the soil, ready to sprout up again. Pesticides and other methods to suppress weeds, show what a threat weeds are: they are a drain on productivity, and they crowd out the good growth.

So Jesus tells His parable of the sower planting good seed in His field, and how the enemy came while the men were asleep, and sowed weeds over the field. When the servants saw the weeds growing together with the wheat, they prepared themselves like anyone would, who knew the latent threat of weeds, and got ready to spring into action and weed the field at the Lord’s command. But surprisingly, the Lord told them to let both grow together till harvest, lest they harm the wheat by uprooting it together with the weeds. At the harvest the weeds will be collected first and burned, and only then will the wheat be separated and brought safely into the barn. To help understand why the Lord didn’t just tell them to pull up the weeds, we should know that Jesus didn’t just use a generic term for any kind of weed, but that He named a specific type of weed, zizania, that in English we call darnel or tares.

Unlike most weeds, the thing about tares is that during the early growing stages of the weed and the wheat, they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Thus it would be very risky to try to weed out these tares during the early stages of growth, because one might confuse the good wheat for a tare, and vice versa. Appearances can be deceiving. It’s only at the harvest when the grain is fully ripe, that the poisonous black seeds of the tare make it easy to distinguish from the grains of good wheat. It’s only then that the tares are pulled out from among the wheat and taken to be burned, and the wheat are left behind to be gathered into the barn.

There’s an important spiritual lesson for us in Jesus’ unusual response to the servants who wanted to weed the field. We are to learn that believers and unbelievers grow side by side in the world, and that they may not always be readily distinguishable. Until the end of the age, when Jesus returns for judgment, we can’t be sure who will be wheat and who will be tares. Some may openly say they don’t believe, but may they believe in the future? Others may openly profess to believe, yet in their heart they don’t. Appearances can be deceiving, and we shouldn’t cast judgment on a person’s salvation. There are many who carry a pious front, and do many things that are moral and give a good reputation. They are outwardly associated with the church, yet inwardly true faith is lacking. Yet it’s not our job to try to find and uproot the weeds. We know that judgment will come at the end of the age, but it’s God who judges. Jesus assures, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out His angels and they will weed out of His kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” Actually the phrase “all who do evil” could more literally be translated, “those who practice lawlessness.” So those who Jesus refers to as tares caused others to sin and lived as if there were no law. To practice lawlessness is to pretend that we make our own rules, or that each person determines right or wrong.

One question we have to ask, when Jesus says that the tares and the wheat will be gathered out of His kingdom, and separated—does this mean that the “tares” or weeds are truly part of God’s Church on earth? No; it’s not that Christ didn’t sow with good seed, and now there are weeds in His church. Rather notice that He calls the tares are in the field, which represents the world, not the church. So while believers and unbelievers may outwardly coexist in the visible church on earth—unbelievers nevertheless aren’t truly part of Christ’s church, hidden in this world. The true church isn’t measured by whose name is in the church directory; it’s those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him. This teaching of Jesus echoes what He said elsewhere about believers being in the world but “not of the world” (John 17:16). Paul also wrote to the Corinthians about how it would be impossible for Christians not to associate with the “sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy, or the swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world,” but rather that we shouldn’t associate with any such person who does these things and yet calls themselves a Christian brother. (1 Cor. 5:9-11). He’s clarifying that we’ll be side by side with unbelievers in the world, but we shouldn’t allow open sin in our midst to be called Christian. That would be to practice lawlessness, a mark of the tares.

So we do recognize that scattered among true believers, there will be those who either have no faith in their heart, or who play the hypocrite. On the flip side of the coin, however, we may see others who are greatly afflicted by sin, and have a poor reputation, yet in their heart they are repentant and seeking only the mercy of God for themselves. They may appear to be tares, and we’d like to root them out. But who can say that we don’t often look like weeds ourselves! “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We too are sinners seeking God’s mercy.

But if a tare is a tare, a weed is a weed, then why does Jesus wait till the harvest to separate them? God does not root up the tares, because in time they may become wheat. (repeat) What?! But this is a biological impossibility! Tares don’t turn into wheat! It’s impossible! Precisely. It’s a miracle. But we aren’t talking about weeds literally turning into wheat, but rather we are talking literally about those who were by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) becoming sons of the kingdom. Truly a miracle! This change doesn’t happen by any ability of the person, but by God’s miraculous transformation through His Word. For the sake of this transformation, the judgment and destruction of the tares is postponed till the consummation of the age.

How is such a transformation possible? Ephesians 2 is very helpful as it talks about “the sons of disobedience,” as Jesus’ parable talks about the tares as the “sons of the evil one.” It says that we were all dead in trespasses and sins. We were all following the course of this world, following the prince of this world, Satan, and we were “sons of disobedience” or children of wrath. And now I’m quoting Ephesians 2:4 and following: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Sounds like the gathering of the wheat into the barn to me; the gathering of believers into the kingdom of their Father, where the righteous will shine like the sun! Ephesians goes on in verse 7: “so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it’s the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2: 4-10).

Ephesians 2 makes it so clear that our being saved is God’s gracious job, and that we left our former way of life, as sons of disobedience, as tares, behind. Not because of any of our works, because then we could become boasters! NO! But so that we may give all credit and glory to God, it’s a gift. Salvation, even faith in Christ itself, is a free gift…not a payment for what we earned or a good work. In order for us to be transformed into the good seed, into wholesome wheat, Christ had to die on the cross for our sin, for God’s wrath against us, so that in His rising from death He’d be able to make us alive together with Him, and be raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. So this has huge implications for the parable of the tares! The tares remain in the world around us because there’s still hope that by the harvest they may become wheat! We are living—you might say we are “planted” in the mission field! Surrounding us every day, there may be people, friends, associates that are in need of God’s saving Word. Who is a person that you might tell the Gospel of Jesus? Who might you know that has never given serious thought to Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, and our Savior? A simple question, “What do you think of Jesus?” might be all it takes to get that conversation started. And it doesn’t require you to “ram it down someone’s throat.” We speak the truth in love. And remember that God wants you to be His instrument in telling the Gospel; but that it’s His powerful and effective Word that gets the job done! He who has ears, let him hear! Speak God’s Word; leave the rest to Him. It’s by grace that we are saved, through faith. This is not your own doing, it’s a gift of God.

So how exciting! Rather than being part of an organized plan to root out and wipe out weeds, like any sensible gardener might expect, we get to instead participate in and witness the transformation of tares into wheat, as we grow together in this world. We get to share God’s Word and see its redeeming and powerful effects on the lives of others. We hope for them to be spared the same fate from which we are spared, namely the furnace of hell, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. There’s no pleasant way of putting it, nor should we try. Being separated from God for eternity will be only hopelessness and despair. But the complete opposite awaits the wheat that is gathered safely into the barn! Far from perishing in flames, the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.” We have been delivered from a most terrible fate, into the loving arms of our heavenly Father, who grants us to shine with the righteousness of His own Son Jesus Christ. And the invitation into this kingdom of our Father stands open to all who have ears to hear.

As we look forward to the harvest, when we are gathered safely into our Father’s kingdom, I want to conclude by paraphrasing St. Augustine, who said: “When the harvest comes, may you be found to be wheat! Why are you worried and impatient that the evil is mixed with the good? In the field they will be together, but not so in the barn.”…. “First I speak to those who are tares, or false Christians, that you may know that God requires repentance. For while you are still in the field, you may yet become wheat, for God is not without power to turn you to Him.” …. “Second, to the wheat, I say, do you wish to root up the evil from among you? Would you desire to cause damage to the Lord’s harvest, by rooting up the good together with the wicked? It’s His to harvest, and the angels will do it. And remember, ‘Whoever thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall.’” So with those apt words, let us not be built up in false pride, let us not be impatient that in this life evil is mixed with good, but when the harvest comes, may we indeed be found to be wheat! “For it’s God who made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3). Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

1 comment:

Tom Moore said...

It is truly amazing that God is both the sower and the good soil. We are merely the dormant seed that without the action of the Gospel we can do nothing. We need do nothing. God's patience in waiting for us to come to faith bespeaks a God who is indeed love. Perhaps as you pointed out, we can be changed from tares to the wheat seed that can be used to feed the wandering souls of this world.