Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 10-17 Kingdom Parables - 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?

Or maybe you’ve had something like this happen to you. You’re asked to go and get something from the kitchen. So you look and look for it, but you can’t see it. And then your beloved comes, and gets it straight away - it was right in front of your face, you were looking at it, but you couldn’t see it for looking at it.

Seeing, but not really seeing. Last time, 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. What we noticed was that the parable was told to 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 the people in parables?’ (10)

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: ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you (that is, to the disciples), but not to them.’ 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 get it, and those who will see and hear, but not get it.

This is explained and expanded on in verse 12. Now at first reading this sounds maybe a wee bit unfair. ‘Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’ So if you have, you’ll get more, but if you don’t, then you’ll even lose the little. But isn’t that how muscles work? (I’m going by the experience of others... I haven’t been in a gym in years!) If you work hard in the gym, then your muscles grow bigger and stronger, but if you just lay in bed, not moving, then your muscles would waste away.

The parables work in the same way. If we’re looking for the light, looking for understanding, then we’ll be given it; but if we don’t, then we won’t - ‘the darkness intensifies’ (Green p153).

So Jesus identifies two groups of people - the insider and the outsider. Let’s think about these two groups. Over in verse 13 Jesus gives the reason for speaking in parables: ‘This is why I speak to them in parables: “though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not hear or understand.”’ On the surface, the crowd sees Jesus, they hear 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 seeing who he is - 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 “though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand.” is set in separately 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. He’s recapping all that they’ve come through, and he’s urging them to trust God as they go into the land of promise. He says this: ‘Your eyes have seen all that the LORD did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders.’ (Deut 29:2-3)

Just think what they saw. A Holywood blockbuster movie wouldn’t even get close. The plagues. The Passover. Walking through the midst of the Red Sea on dry land. Watching as Pharaoh’s army were drowned when the waters closed over them. The provision of manna and quail. The pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud leading them.

They saw all that, with their own eyes, and yet they still don’t really trust the Lord. They’re still rebellious. ‘But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.’ (Deut 29:4) 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, he’s given 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 am I. 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 tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving...’ Imagine being given that assignment! Preaching, and no one listening. Never having any response, never seeing a single convert. And Isaiah says ‘For how long, O LORD?’ How long have I to do this?

This is 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.

Last night it was great to get a phonecall from Bulgaria. In fact, even better, it was a videocall - after her many hours of travel, it was good to hear and see that L had arrived safely at the campsite. To see her and to hear her voice.

But imagine that I hadn’t answered the phone. Or had answered and then starting humming to myself. Or didn’t bother listening. Stuck my fingers in my ears and closed my eyes. 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. They are hearing the words of life, but they don’t want to listen. They’re being offered the lifegiving medicine, but they leave it on the shelf, or pour it down the sink.

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? Remember verse 13 - we use it or we lose it. So what are we doing with the word that God speaks to us week after week, or day after day?

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 St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th July 2017.

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