Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 13: 10-17 The Purpose of the Parables

Have you ever seen one of those magic eye pictures? You know the type - it’s a pattern, and as you keep looking at it, suddenly another picture appears. Or so I’ve been told. I can never see them. You could tell me that the secret picture is of an elephant riding a unicycle over a tightrope and I wouldn’t know. People who can see them might even get frustrated with me - it’s right there, how can you not see it?

Seeing, but not really perceiving. Last week we began to look at Matthew 13, as Jesus teaches a series of parables by the lakeside, and we listened in as he speaks of the parable of the sower - the seed is sown, the four different responses. The parable is for the crowd, and it’s only later that Jesus explains it, to his disciples. In between the parable and the explanation, we find today’s reading. The disciples ask Jesus - ‘why do you speak to them in parables?’

The disciples might be seeing the puzzled response of the crowd; they perhaps see that the crowd aren’t quite understanding what Jesus is saying. The disciples might even be having a hard time understanding him themselves! They’re asking why doesn’t Jesus come straight out and say what he really means. Why does he use stories and parables?

The key to Jesus’ answer comes in verse 11. Look there with me: ‘To you (that is, to the disciples) it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’ The words of Jesus are bringing a division between people - those who will come to know the secrets of the kingdom and those who won’t; between those who will see and hear and not get it, and those who will.

Let’s think about these two groups. Over in verse 13 Jesus gives the reason for speaking in parables: ‘The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”’ On the surface, they’re seeing Jesus, they’re hearing him speak, they’re listening to the parable of the sower, but it’s all just on the surface.

They’re not really hearing the true story, what it’s all about; they’re not getting to the deeper meaning. In the same way, they’re seeing Jesus, but they’re not really perceiving him - they don’t realise that he is the Son of God, the King of this kingdom he is proclaiming. They’re a bit like me and my magic eye picture - I’ll look, but I’ll not see it.

You might have noticed that this phrase “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” is in quotation marks in our Bibles - Jesus is picking up and using a phrase that comes several times in the Old Testament. You see, this isn’t the first time the people of Israel, the people of God, have been slow on the uptake. They have form in this sort of experience.

Back in Deuteronomy 29, Moses is addressing the people before he dies and they cross over into the promised land. They have experienced the miracles of Exodus; God’s provision for them in the wilderness, yet still they don’t really trust in the Lord, they’re still rebellious. They don’t want to listen.

In fact, as Jesus says here, his generation is the fulfilling of the prophecy of Isaiah 6. I’m sure you know the passage well - as the prophet Isaiah is called for service, the vision of the LORD in the temple, his conviction of his sin in the face of God’s glory, his sin being taken away, and then the question from the throne: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And with that, Isaiah says ‘Here I am, send me!’

Now that’s where we like to stop the reading. Application - God called Isaiah, and God is calling you, will you go for him? But carry on into the next verse, and you discover just what Isaiah was being called to do. It wasn’t the victorious, triumphant, wonderful message you might think. ‘Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand...’

It’s the very passage that Jesus quotes here - Isaiah’s ministry is to expose the people’s blindness and deafness. Isaiah comes from God, and the people don’t listen to him - because they refuse to listen.

I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the Olympics (maybe you’re fed up with them, but don’t worry, they’re all over tonight!). The other day they were interviewing the swimmer Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian ever. He said about how the President of the United States, Barack Obama had phoned him during the Olympics to wish him well. This was a great thing, a privilege, for the leader of his country to ring him up.

But imagine that Michael hasn’t answered the phone. Or had answered and then starting humming to himself. Or didn’t bother listening. This is a bit like how the people of Israel were in Isaiah’s day, and also in Jesus’ day. They had the privilege of the Creator of the universe speaking to them, and how did they react? They put their fingers in their ears, they closed their eyes, they refused to turn back to God and be healed.

Could this be said of us as well? You could be an upstanding member of the community, someone who has been born and bred, baptised and confirmed in the Church of Ireland, never miss a Sunday, and yet it’s as if you’re sitting with fingers in your ears as God speaks through his word. Is this you? Oh how we need to cry for mercy, asking that God would open our ears that we would hear, and give us hearts to turn to him for healing and salvation.

How could we be members of the kingdom if we refuse to listen to the king? If we disobey what he says?

In contrast to the crowds, the disciples have been given the secrets of the kingdom. To know the Lord Jesus personally, to understand his work of salvation on the cross, to hear him teaching - Jesus says that their eyes and ears are blessed, because of their place in history.

The Old Testament believers had only the promise of the King, which they believed, but they longed to see the Messiah themselves, and to hear his word. They looked forward to the day Jesus would walk on the earth - what a privilege for the disciples to be with Jesus. They got to hear him and see him.

It’s a privilege we share with them, coming after them in time, having the words of Jesus written down for us, so that we too can see his work and hear his words. How blessed we are, to have the Scriptures in our language.

What a privilege we have - but with that a great responsibility to make sure that we are listening to him. We share in the blessing of the disciples, and one day we too will see him face to face, in his eternal kingdom, where we’ll be with him and see him and hear him directly.

So as Jesus speaks to us through the Bible, are you listening to him? Will you receive his word?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th August 2012.

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