Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 47-52 The Net

A few years ago, we were away on holiday. One morning, we took a walk down along the harbour. A crowd of people had gathered, so we decided to see what everyone was looking at. The fishermen had arrived with their catch, and they were gutting the fish, ready to be cooked and eaten in the restaurants along the promenade. There was a good crowd of people watching - maybe picking out their dinner for that evening - but there was another pair of eyes on them as well. A wee black and white cat made its way across to them on the rocks, waiting for its dinner as well. Then off, away it went, carrying a piece of fish in its mouth, and disappeared to devour its dinner!

Perhaps you’ve been in a fishing village and you’ve seen a similar scene. (Maybe without the cat, though!). I’m sure you can picture it, even if you haven’t witnessed it. The scene would have been even more familiar to the disciples as Jesus tells his last kingdom parable recorded for us in Matthew 13.

Matthew 13 is set by the lake shore - some of the stories were told in public, to the crowd, while some of the stories were told in the house, to the disciples. So Jesus could have pointed out the window to the lake, and what may have been happening at the time. But remember, that some of the disciples were fishermen. This was what they had done every working day. They knew the example, and so they could understand the point Jesus was making.

So let’s look at the story, first of all. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. They they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.’

Maybe some of you are fishermen. You probably stand or sit by the shore or on the river, with your rod and your line, waiting for a bite. This is a bit bigger than that. Here, the net is dragged along behind the boat. It catches everything that’s in the water - all kinds of fish. But just because it’s a fish, doesn’t mean that it’s food.

So when the net is full, it’s brought up onto the shore, and the fish are sorted and separated. There are just two categories - good fish and bad fish. You keep the good ones to eat or sell, but the bad ones are thrown away.

That’s how the fishermen worked, and the disciples would have known that well enough. Now, in some of the parables, Jesus just told the story and left it at that - the treasure and the pearl last week - we had to work out what it was about. But with our parable tonight, Jesus gives us the meaning. Here’s the point he is driving at, in verse 49.

‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Just as the net gathers all kinds of fish, so there is coming a day when everyone will be gathered up. And on that day there will be just two categories of people - we’re either one or the other. So what are the two categories? Wicked and righteous. The question is, which are you?

When we think of the category of ‘wicked’, we can all think of people who fit in that box. The really bad people like Hitler or Saddam Hussein. That box is surely only for really bad people. Surely we wouldn’t be in the same category? We like to imagine that we’re good, or at least good enough.

But it’s not a sliding scale. With GCSE results the other day (and realising that it was 20 years since I got mine), there are lots of different grades. In England now they go from 9 to 1; but in Northern Ireland it’s still A* through to G. There are different passes (and various fail levels), but that’s not the way it is here. It’s simply pass or fail. wicked or righteous. Which are we?

Remember that we’re talking about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus the king. But we’ve all turned away, we’re all rebels, we say no to God. In our heart of hearts, we’re wicked. Maybe not as bad as someone else, but we’re still wicked.

That’s why we begin our services with a confession - recognising and admitting and confessing our failings, our sins, our wickedness. We know that we don’t meet God’s standards. That picture of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth, it comes from the lips of Jesus. Jesus was a hellfire preacher! And it’s what we deserve for our sin, our rebellion.

What an awful place. The author Mark Twain once said ‘heaven for the climate, hell for the company.’ Or as you might hear, hell will be so much fun, all my mates will be there. But this doesn’t sound like a party. It sounds like a torment, a terrible place, a place to avoid at all costs.

Yet Jesus tells us that there will be two categories of people on the last day - the wicked and the righteous. (Notice that it doesn’t say the bad and the good.) If we’re all in the first box, if we’re all wicked, then how can anyone be righteous? How can anyone be saved? The righteous aren’t perfect, but they are forgiven. You see, Jesus, the king, died for sinners, to take away our sin, to endure our punishment, to enable all who trust in him to go free and be counted as righteous, and so gathered in on the last day.

There is a way to escape the blazing furnace, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth. And his name is Jesus. As we trust in him we will be gathered in.

We’re coming towards the end of this mini series, looking at the kingdom parables. And as we do so, Jesus asks a question of the disciples, but it’s a question for us as well. ‘Have you understood all these things?’ (51) Scan back over the chapter, even the headings, and see what you can remember from each of them - the parable of the sower; the parable of the weeds; the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast; the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl; and the parable of the net. Have you understood all these things? If not, then say so on the way out and we’ll chat about them some time soon.

Jesus has been teaching us about the kingdom - that when the word goes out there are different responses to it; that wheat and weeds grow side by side until the harvest, but then the kingdom will be cleared and pure; that the kingdom might start small and seem insignificant, but it is growing and making an impact; that the kingdom (and Jesus the king) is of incomparable value and worth, however you discover it; and that people are either wicked or righteous.

We’ve had a good number of parables in Matthew 13, but it’s as if Jesus can’t resist one last parable. It just kind of sneaks in to verse 52. When the disciples say that they understand all these things, then Jesus says this: ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’

Another little story, another little ‘is like’. The teachers of the law were the scribes (who we sometimes hear in connection with the Pharisees). They majored on the Old Testament law, as they taught in the synagogue. But Jesus says that the disciples, these New Testament teachers are one step ahead, have something extra in their store. They don’t just have the old treasures to bring out, they also have the new.

The scribes might have been able to talk about God’s kingdom in some sense, but the disciples can now surpass that, like the owner of the house who brings out new and old treasures from his storeroom. Having been taught by Jesus, we’re now able to teach others, to share what we’ve been told, to help them also to see the kingdom of heaven.

Do you realise just how well stocked your storeroom is? You’re not like Old Mother Hubbard, with nothing in the cupboard! You have the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, the full recorded word of God, which contains all things necessary to salvation (Article 6). What will you do with your well stocked storeroom? Keep it all to yourself? Or share it with others?

God’s kingdom is coming. The net will gather us all up, the separation is coming. Just two groups of people - wicked, and righteous. May we all look to Jesus, and put our trust in him, and be found righteous on that last day. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th August 2017.

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