Only Half the Good News: the Gospel for escapees

In our Gospel reading this morning we heard Jesus offer another of his parables. (Matthew 13) Today he`s told us about the wheat and the weeds but right from the start I`d like you to notice, that his purpose is to describe or get us to engage with what he calls `the Kingdom`- the reign of God. So he starts this, as he does many of his parables by saying that this Kingdom may be compared to this…… He`s saying when God`s reign is present, this is what it looks like. And in this bit of teaching he seems to be attempting to deal with that age old question of `well, if God is that almighty, why are things such a mess?`

Now that`s a huge question and so I`d like just to make one fairly simple observation. I think it`s helpful to notice that he says, `The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but…..` It might sound obvious but Jesus begins with the conviction that God IS; that this is His world, and that God has done something which is Good. That we are his creatures, created and loved and that we demonstrate that we`ve received or entered the Kingdom as we praise, reverence and serve him. Yes, he then goes on to give an illustration of the ongoing tension that we and the world experience but the point to hold onto is this underlying sovereignty of God and the fundamental goodness of things. This is his starting point. Now why does this matter?

Well some years ago there was a Television programme called the `Big Silence`. It featured five people with varying opinions on the Christian Faith who agreed to stay for eight days on Silent Retreat. One of the people involved could best be described as quite a hard bitten and to some extent cynical business man who was struggling to come to terms with this Christian `thing`. What stood out for me was something the priest who was guiding him said during one of their discussions. He said: “It seems to me that you`ve grown up believing that the world is a very unfriendly place”.

The point that was being made was that all manner of things, people and events in his past had clearly hurt or wounded this man and that consequently his response to life was one of defensiveness and a certain aggression. This man had learnt never to trust. This man had learnt to push and to grab. He had learnt, as I say that the world was fundamentally an alien environment. I wonder if this is a picture which resonates with you? Or perhaps you`ve met people like this. They contrast so starkly, don`t they with those who have grown up in a more secure and affirming environment who are often so much more open and willing to trust?

The hardened or cynical ones look upon these people as naïve but the underlying point is that your experience, your perspective and your assumptions will govern your response to life. It`s not just whether we view life as a glass half full or half empty, whether we are open or of guarded towards the world depends really on whether we believe this is a benign or as I say alien place.

I`m reminded of that beautiful picture from Mother Julian of Norwich who had a vision of the world as a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. She said “I looked upon it and thought: What may this be? And I was answered: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might fall into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always shall, for God loves it; and so all things have being through the love of God”.

So my point is that in beginning with the Kingdom- Jesus is telling us that whatever else is going on, the background noise of creation is fundamentally good. He accepts that our experience; and so much that we hear and read in the news media may fly directly in the face of all of this (and this is where he begins to talk about the presence of all those weeds) but before we get to talking about all the mess it`s the underlying conviction that we have to hold onto. And more than that we`re invited to see ourselves not just in the middle yes, of a certain conflict but also of something which is unfolding; God`s purposes being worked out.

St Paul makes the same point in our Epistle this morning doesn`t he? He says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us; for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God ….. and …… We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”. (Romans 8)

Forgive me, neither Paul nor Christ are in any way naïve about how challenging our experience and world events can be but again, they hold on to this deep conviction that the kingdom is unfolding. And again, the important thing is that we learn to live with this conviction and with the tension in which it places us- even if we`re hanging on by our finger nails because too often there is a tendency to take what I regard as a very unhelpful short-cut.

I recall many years ago being accosted in the street by one of those people who wanted to get me interested in religion. No problem there you might have thought but their opening gambit or discussion starter was, “Don`t you think the world is a dreadful place?” Now, frankly this didn`t strike me as the best religious chat up line I`d ever heard ….. “Not a lot of good news there”, I thought. But here it seems to me is the religious equivalent of that hard bitten businessman.

You see the fundamental outlook or perspective of that supposed person of faith was profoundly negative: “Isn`t the world a mess?” So you won`t be surprised to hear that as you talk with them a little more you realise that their version of the faith; their response to this messy life was, “Come and join our escape club”. Cutting the long story short they end up with this world-denying version of the faith because they take their starting point at what`s usually called `the Fall`- which you find in Genesis Chapter Two. Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden the world`s a mess and they construct a whole theological system which, again is all about getting us out of it. That`s how `being saved` is usually defined. But, if they had begun with Genesis Chapter One, they would have a different perspective. Because, right at the beginning we`re told of the God who created it all and declared it `Good`…No sorry, that`s `Very Good`.

Yes, it`s quite true that things have descended into something of a mess but when you start at the very beginning, your fundamental outlook is no longer escape but the desire of God to transform, restore and renew all that he has made. In other words, the mission of Christ is no longer the salvation, by which is meant `rescue` of individual souls but the reconciliation of `all things` the whole creation to the God who made and loves it all. “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”.

What I`m getting at is that here are two perspectives on faith. And again, depending on which you choose, you either have a faith which is about sin management and rescue or you have one that`s about renewal and restoration; God not destroying and rejecting his world but putting it to rights; God not loving the world through gritted teeth but labouring with us and giving himself to the uttermost.

So, as we try to get to grips with Christ`s teaching in that parable of the Wheat and the Weeds I think it`s this second perspective that he has in mind. Yes, there is sin and mess within us and in the world around us but before all of this I believe what we see in Christ is the prior conviction that as one author put it `this is a God-bathed and God-permeated world`. We come to see that God is FOR us; and in particular that the universe is a fundamentally trustworthy place. This is surely what Jesus is trying to tell us in those memorable words from the Sermon on the Mount? ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (Matthew 6)

So I wonder what your attitude is this morning? In every heart here there are worries and concerns; joys and sorrows; fears, desires and varying degrees of openness and defensiveness to the world and those around us. But Christ tells us that this is what it means to receive the Kingdom – the reign of God in our lives. This is what it`s like to know God as `Father`. Yes, time and again the University of hard knocks and what we curiously call our `real` life leaves us questioning this truth. But real faith is not about being naïve; and it`s not afraid of seeing things in the raw. It`s just that our underlying conviction is that there is something much bigger is going on: it`s called the Kingdom of God.

In that parable Jesus anticipates our questions and he`s completely candid about the tension and the conflict that rages within and without us. These are yes, a great pain to us but they are actually signs that we`re caught up in it all. I think we`re invited to see the struggles we face as a sharing with him in the work of new creation: working for the Kingdom. Because the Christian faith has never been world denying. It has never been a means of escape.

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