In part 3 of our sermon series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew, we concentrate on Jesus’ two short parables in Matthew 13:44-46: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.”
The challenging truth of this text is that the kingdom of heaven ought to be worth more to us than anything else—including our very lives.
Will we live our lives as if God’s kingdom were this valuable to us?
Sermon Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The following is my original manuscript.
Pollster George Barna, an evangelical Christian who studies American religious trends, published some research a couple of weeks ago that painted a rather grim assessment of American religious practices. It’s not so much that Americans are any less “religious,” he said, but they are increasingly turning their backs on churches and denominations and are more apt to design their own religious faith.
Barna said: “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs—our clothing, our food, our education.” Now it’s our religion. He said that America is headed for “310 million people with 310 million religions.” I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. After all, as long as we’re members of this church, we won’t have the luxury of simply doing Christianity our own unique way. We’re rooted first in scripture, and we stand on the shoulders of saints who’ve gone before us and whose legacy continues to influence what we believe and how we put it into practice. And even on this Sunday morning, there are about 50 million of our fellow Americans in church, and the vast majority of them are not free to simply design their own faith.
Still, I get Barna’s point. Many people are designing their own religion. I see it all the time as I preside over funerals. I hardly ever do funerals for church members. But I often get calls from a local funeral home director when the family of a deceased person doesn’t have a church home and needs pastoral care. Usually, the families are at least nominally Protestant. A Catholic priest handles the nominal Catholics. These families don’t go to church themselves, but they need someone like me to conduct the service. I take it seriously, because I know this may be one of their only chances to hear the gospel. So I present the gospel to them and try my best to be a witness for Christ’s love.
Here’s my problem. Only God knows for sure whether, for example, some lapsed Methodist who hasn’t darkened the door of a church in 40 years is going to heaven or not. I don’t get to make that call. But can someone answer me this question? What makes the family of that lapsed Methodist who hasn’t darkened the door of a church in 40 years so sure that he’s going to heaven? Is there some other gospel than the one I know? Have they read some Bible I haven’t read? Is there some other version of Christianity that makes discipleship so easy and undemanding?
And I’m sure the family of this lapsed Methodist who hasn’t darkened the door of church for 40 years would say something like, “He was a good person.” And I’m sure in a lot of ways the person was good. If you read the article on the Barna research, all these individualistic, design-your-own, custom-made religious people universally agree that any hypothetical God would want them to be good. Even assuming everyone could agree about what “good” means, my question is this: Since when does being good save you? How good do you think you need to be—because can’t we all think of ways in which we’ve failed, repeatedly, to be good? Can we really be so confident of our own righteousness?
Since when does being good solve our problem with sin? We can work as hard as we possibly can to be good, but that won’t change the fact that we are only saved—we will only ever be saved—through the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. What God accomplished through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t only for the two billion or so Christians in the world—so that everyone else in the world is free to find their own path to God. No! What God accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is for everyone for all time. And God only gives us this gift of eternal life through faith in his Son.
Either you got that faith or you don’t. But if you have that faith, I guarantee you that your life ought to look a lot more like that merchant who sells all of his possessions to acquire this one fine pearl—who appreciates this particular pearl as the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen—than someone who sees the pearl and thinks, “Eh! What’s the fuss? There are plenty of other pearls out there, and this one is just way too expensive.”
Years ago, when Lisa and I bought a house, we installed a security system. It was a good neighborhood, but for some reason I was probably overly paranoid about security. Keeping the bad guys out. Keeping us safe. And it doesn’t help that the security system salesman sort of plants those seeds of fear and suspicion, you know? We got something called “two-way voice,” which lets the people monitoring your house hear what’s going on inside the house. Do any of you have this feature? It worked like this: When the alarm went off a voice would come over the intercom, “This is the alarm company. Identify yourself!” And I would say, “This is Brent. It was accident. Sorry.” And they would ask for a password, and that would be that.
But say it wasn’t an accidental alarm. Say that someone were actually robbing the house. The voice comes over the intercom: “This is the alarm company. Identify yourself!” If you were genuinely a criminal, would you say, “Hey, I’m a burglar and, um, I don’t know what the alarm code is. Could you tell me so I can turn this darn thing off? I’m not able to get my work done with all this racket.” The point is, if you were a real burglar, wouldn’t you just not say anything? So this particular feature is only useful for catching the really dumb crooks!
Besides, while we were trying to decide on our options—whether to install this sensor, that monitor, this special lock—the security salesman told us, “You know, if someone wants to break in badly enough, they’re going to break in, and no security system is going to stop them.”
Gee, thanks! As if I weren’t feeling paranoid before! The security system at best will only protect us from the dumb and lazy burglar. Maybe that’s the only kind of burglar? I don’t know… For the smart and highly motivated burglar, forget about it.
But Jesus makes a similar point about God’s kingdom in today’s scripture. A person finds a hidden treasure in the field. He does not own the field. Chances are he’s just a hired hand, a plowman, someone who is paid by the landowner to work the field. He’s probably got his ox and he’s plowing away when suddenly he hears a clanking sound. His plow has hit something. And he looks underneath the plow only to discover that he has run over a buried treasure. What’s he going to do? We know what the ethical thing to do is, right? He should dutifully go and tell his boss, “I found a buried treasure.” And hope that the landowner gives him a finder’s fee. Yeah, right! That’s not what he does! He wants the treasure for himself! But how will he get it? He’s got an idea. He looks around. No one in sight. “Let me carefully cover this back up so no one else will find it.” He goes and sells everything he has in order to purchase this patch of land. Once they close the deal, he can go back to that field and “accidentally” find the treasure. “Can you believe my good luck? Look what I happened to find!”
Jesus is not using this parable to say that sometimes it’s O.K. to be a little dishonest to get what we want. Jesus’ point is really the same as that security system salesman that I mentioned earlier: If someone wants something badly enough, guess what? They’re going to find a way to get it. And they might even die trying. If someone wants one thing more than anything else in the world, even more than life itself, they are going to give everything, even their very life if necessary, to get it.
This is what soldiers do all the time, right? This is why we honor their sacrifice on Memorial Day and celebrate their service on Veterans Day: Because they sign up for the job knowing that they may face a choice between disobeying an order and living, and obeying an order and dying. And if they’re good soldiers, they will choose to die. Because when they sign up for the job, they know that there is something more valuable to them than their own life—their country and all that it represents. Because they understand, in other words, that there is nothing in this world that is worth more to them than this treasure of American liberty and justice for all. There is no other jewel as fine and precious as this particular pearl of American liberty and justice for all. That matters to them more than life, and we ought to learn something about love and sacrifice from their example.
I was watching Navy play Air Force yesterday. These are two of my favorite football teams. Because unlike nearly every other person playing big-time college football, these guys are not playing for a shot at NFL glory. With a mandatory 4-year commitment after graduation, that’s nearly out of the question. Roger Staubach is the exception that proves the rule. Here they are playing their hearts out on the gridiron on Saturday, and next year they may be fighting and dying in Afghanistan. Why on earth would someone do that?
And yet Jesus is telling us, in a similar way, that the kingdom of heaven is worth nothing less than everything we have, including our lives. Right at this moment there is a Christian pastor in Iran named Youcef Nadarkhan, who is facing the death penalty and will likely be hanged in a matter of days because he refuses to renounce his Christian faith. Last week, for four days, he was hauled before a tribunal and given chance after chance to say publicly that he would no longer practice Christianity. And if only he did that, the authorities would let him go. His life would be spared. And this pastor and father of young children has refused to do so, even though it likely means his death. Why? Because Pastor Nadarkhani has found this great treasure, and he’s found this precious pearl. What is his life compared to that?
His example inspires me and terrifies me a little bit—because I can’t help but contrast that kind of faith with my own.
When we choose to be Christians around here, in this place, we are likely not choosing something that will lead to a premature death. Being a Christian will likely never mean offering up our lives. Following Jesus will likely never mean facing a firing squad. Following Jesus will likely never mean facing a hanging judge. Following Jesus will likely never mean facing a gas chamber. Thank God!
But what if it did?
Brothers and sisters, hear this message: The way we live our life should look the same either way.