Someone must have asked Jesus about heaven just before He gave this series of Kingdom parables. He may have spoken about heaven on more occasions than the ones that are recorded in the Gospels. Many of the things recorded in the Apostle John’s vision seem inscrutable, imagery with which we find it hard to connect. John Calvin wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the NT until he got to Revelation, and there he seems to have thrown in the towel. Personally speaking, my view of Revelation has evolved greatly from my childhood days to the present. Gone are all the graphs and charts and timelines of my youth. In their place has come a much more comforting and satisfying picture of heaven. It has no charts, no dates, almost no specific imagery at all. John was given a greater glimpse of heaven than anyone, and even he had to resort to imagery that seems beyond our comprehension.
I suppose every one of us has images of exotic, faraway places that we’ve heard about all our lives, perhaps read about them, no doubt seen photos or films or documentaries about them. But we know that the best way to understand those faraway places is to sit down with someone who is from there: not even with someone who visited there a time or two, but with someone who actually lived there.
Last month Jim and Jan visited Colorado. They came back filled with awe, saying that it surely must be among the most beautiful places on earth, certainly among the most amazing places in the US. But when it came to describing precisely what it was that moved them so profoundly, they were short on words, short on being able to put into words exactly what they saw, felt and experienced.
Gayle and I have just returned from visiting more than a dozen of the greatest cathedrals in England and in the world, and we were able to worship in many of them. They are architectural marvels filled with inspiring works of art and with a majestic sense of the presence of God. We also spent time on two islands, places where the Christian faith first came to England and Scotland in the early centuries of the Church. One island off the northeast coast of England is sometimes called by its geographical name, Lindisfarne, but it’s hard to find much about it if you look under that name. That’s because the English simply call it “Holy Island.” The other island, Iona, is all the way across Scotland and off its western coast, accessible only by ferry boats. The Scots call it a “thin place,” a place where the space between God and man seems to be at its narrowest, a place where it seems that God actually “lives” in a more heightened sense than in the more mundane spaces of our lives, where He also lives.
We had visited Iona 14 years ago with a group that included Joan, and returning to it has been one of the top things on my bucket list ever since. I would love to tell you exactly why Iona, Lindisfarne, Canterbury Cathedral and a remote place in Bavaria that we have visited many times are the places on this earth that I personally have felt closest to God. But if I were to give it my best effort, I would be no more successful in putting it into words than Jim and Jan were in talking about the majesty of Colorado.
I said a bit ago that the best way to learn about a place is to spend time with a person who actually has lived there. Imagine being one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, the inner circle that spent almost all day, every day with Him. If they asked questions about heaven, they were asking someone Who lived there and was going back. He promised that they would be there with Him, all except the Son of Perdition. Perhaps the most specific He ever got about heaven was when He told them in the Upper Room that His Father’s house had many dwelling places and that He was going there to prepare a place for them. But most of the time, Jesus spoke more forcefully and with clear, frightening imagery, about Hell than about Heaven. In today’s Gospel He says, “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s rather graphic language!
But when it came to describing Heaven, Jesus resorted to parables of the sort in today’s Gospel reading:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven,” “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls,” and “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea.”
Does this help you to visualize heaven more graphically? Not really. Not a bit more than Jim and Jan’s language helped us to see Colorado or mine has helped you to visualize the Holy Islands of Lindisfarne and Iona.
How does Jesus conclude these sayings? He asks the disciples whether they have understood what He’s saying, and we’re more than a little disappointed that they say simply, “Yes.” I would have said, “Vaguely, but not really,” hoping that Jesus would follow up these parables with some simple explanation, as He had done with the parable you read last Sunday about the sower and the soils. Instead, they say “Yes,” and Jesus wraps it up by saying this: “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”
Are we “disciples of the Kingdom of Heaven?” We certainly like to think so. And so comes the inevitable follow-up question: how are we “like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old?” What can that possibly mean? Let’s try to break that down, as in this context it seems to be Jesus’ summation, His final point!
First of all, who is a head of a household? That’s the easy part, so to speak. If we use as our model what “head of household” has meant for just about every century in human history until the 20th, language that continues to be used in some legal sense on things such as tax documents, the head of household is the husband and father, except of course where there is no male head of household. Jesus is simply assuming the head of household to be the male authority figure, even if he may be an uncle or a grandfather rather than a father.
But, for the purposes of modern translation, we will say simply, “the authority figure.” What does this person do? He draws out of his treasury. What is Jesus calling our “treasury?” Since His language is so filled with imagery in this entire chapter, might our treasury contain such things as mustard seeds, leaven, hidden treasure, one fine pearl and a fishing net?
Think about that for a moment. It might not be that far-fetched. All of these things are related to faith, faith that grows from a mustard seed to a tree that provides nesting space for birds, faith that takes three pecks of flour and turns them into bread, faith that is like the discovery of hidden treasure or a priceless pearl, faith that draws others to Jesus Christ just as does a large fishing net.
Maybe we’re on to something here! Is this whole passage, at base level, not so much about trying to describe the Kingdom of Heaven as it is about the key to getting there in the first place? We know that it’s all about faith, and we know very well that drawing on faith certainly qualifies as “bringing out of our treasure things that are both new and old.” Faith is something that starts small but grows exponentially. Faith is something of such inestimable value that we should be eager to divest ourselves of all else in order to obtain it. Faith is something that enables us to draw others into the Kingdom of Heaven. And faith is something that is both ever old and ever new.
Putting my own neck on the block here, something that preachers used to do routinely before they mostly retreated to safer places, Jesus seems definitely to be putting faith leadership squarely on the shoulders of those who are heads of households. Gentlemen, that’s us! Some decades ago much of the leadership both in the home and in the church was transferred to women. Today that’s the normal paradigm. Our churches are filled with women whose husbands attend sporadically if ever. And church staffs from top to bottom are increasingly dominated by women.
I mentioned a few weeks back that I sent to our Bishop a report on the harvest field of Lake County, and in it I included the astonishing number of churches that have women as senior pastors, especially in churches that are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I will not pretend to deny that many, perhaps most of them are doing a superb job. But even at its best, this does not reflect the Biblical model. Jesus did not have six men and six women as disciples, and the early Church did not ordain any women as priests.
What’s my point? Just two things: one is that “head of the house” in the parlance of Jesus means the person who bears responsibility for the household; and the other is that this passage, while on the surface using language descriptive of the Kingdom of Heaven, is in fact all about how to get there: by faith, a faith that brings out of its treasure things both old and new. And that piece of this lesson certainly is not gender-specific. Nor is it something so monumental as to be out of our grasp. Small bits of faith can be used by God to produce giant bushes, a little faith can produce whole loaves of bread, and if we put even the smallest bit of faith to work we can be incredibly successful fishers of men. Faith provides the roadmap for how to get ourselves and others to the Kingdom of God.
And my final point for this morning is this: let’s have another look at the chap who found a great hidden treasure. What did he find? This is a spiritual lesson couched in the spiritual analogies that Jesus called parables. The man in this parable did not find money. He found the truth of God that leads to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. And when he found that treasure, what did he do? “From joy over it he went and sold all that he had and bought that field.” That’s precisely what we’re to be doing with the Gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ. We’re to go and sell absolutely everything we possess in order to buy that field where the treasure is to be found. Are we up for a challenge of those proportions? It’s a staggering proposition. But it pays eternal rewards.
Paul did that quite literally: he sold everything he owned and bought the Roman world as his field, ready for harvest. Did he live to regret that rash decision? Apparently not. For here is his testimony in words from this morning’s reading in Romans 8:
“We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
And, “If God is for us, who is against us?”
And finally, “In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him Who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Don’t be counting the cost. Just do it. Get rid of all the obstacles, material or otherwise, buy the mission field with its inestimable treasure, and drop that fishing net wherever there are persons who need to be dragged into the Kingdom of Heaven. And remember that it’s all about faith: faith as small as a mustard seed, or faith as great as the bush it produces; faith as inconsequential as a bit of leaven, or faith that constitutes the whole loaf; faith that is as small as a single pearl, yet is of inestimable value; faith that just looks like a net full of holes, but that draws many souls into the heavenly kingdom. Sell everything you have to obtain that kind of faith, then use it daily as your roadmap to the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.