Last Sunday's Sermon
17 Pentecost/Year 2/2020
Psalms 66 & 67
This morning's readings are, for me, a reminder of the importance of the way we read the Bible. It is important for us to read it and it is even more important for us to consider the way in which we read it. First, we need to be prepared to be surprised even when we think we know what is going to happen next. Secondly, we need to remember not to read the Bible too literally because a large part of it was not meant to be read literally. And lastly, we need to use our imaginations because that is how we enter the story and make it our own.
It is quite common for people to say and to think that the New Testament is all about a loving and forgiving God and that the Old Testament is all about a judgmental, punishing God. Here's a surprise: the reading we just heard from Matthew contains judgment and punishment, not to mention weeping and gnashing of teeth. And the reading from Hosea is about forgiveness – it ends with the Lord saying he will speak tenderly to Israel after having punished her. But the thing that I think really connects these two very different readings is that they are both comparing one thing to another. Neither one is meant to be taken literally. And if you do take them literally, you will miss the point entirely. Hosea uses metaphor and Jesus uses parables, both for the same purpose, which is to help us understand something about God and about ourselves.
First we heard from Hosea, which is the first of the twelve books commonly referred to as the “Lesser” or “Minor” Prophets. They are not called lesser because they are any less important, but because their books are shorter than the ones by prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Hosea is a critique of the social, political and religious life of Israel prior to its conquest and destruction by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. That destruction was interpreted as divine punishment for Israel’s mistaken belief that their agricultural fertility came from the Caananite god, Baal, and for the idol worship that followed. Hosea used the metaphor of his own experience of an unfaithful wife, the divorce that it caused, and the subsequent reconciliation in order to explain God’s response to Israel. Hosea’s wife Gomer was unfaithful to him. She bore three children and none of them were his. God told Hosea to name his children names that reflected how God felt. My favorite was the third child, a son, who was to be named Lo-ammi which means you are not my people and I am not your God. The reason that God was so angered was Israel’s adultery-like behavior with the Caananite god, and his response was to cast her aside and take away her fertility. But the ending of the part we heard this morning and the next few verses speak of God’s yearning for reconciliation and so we are to understand that God still loved Israel just as Hosea still loved Gomer.
Then we heard from Matthew’s gospel three parables about the kingdom of heaven. The first two attempt to describe the kingdom of heaven in ways that we might be able to relate to it and the third one is an apocalyptic vision of the end of the age and the coming judgment. I am most drawn to consider the first two because they are the ones in which Jesus attempts to explain something by comparing it to something else. The thing that most strikes me about these parables is that Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. It is easy to skip over that one because we have just heard him say the kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field and when he says that the merchant sold all that he had to buy the pearl of great value it seems like this is just another way of speaking about someone selling everything to buy a field that contains hidden treasure. But that isn't what he is saying. He does not say that the kingdom of heaven is like the pearl - he says that the kingdom of heaven is like the merchant. Another surprise! I am reminded of a quote from Pope Benedict about heaven. He said: … we go to heaven to the extent that we go to Jesus Christ and enter into Him. Heaven is a person: Jesus himself is what we call heaven. And there is something that catches my attention and gets me to use my imagination when I consider the kingdom of heaven as something other than a place - even a place where one finds hidden treasure. If the kingdom of heaven is like a person - like Jesus or like the merchant - it gives me a whole new way of looking at it. If the kingdom of heaven is like a person, then it can be like you and me. So what is it about this merchant that makes him like the kingdom of heaven? He was searching; he found what he was looking for; and he recognized it. And then he sold all that he had in order to buy it. I imagine that the merchant was filled with unspeakable joy at his discovery. So the kingdom of heaven that is in Jesus or the merchant or in you or me has everything to do with that unspeakable joy.
So, I ask you today to use your imaginations to consider what it is that brings you unspeakable joy. Consider what a pearl of great value might be for you. It is the thing that makes you like the merchant; that is where you have experienced the kingdom of heaven and that is where you will discover it again and again. It is something for which you are willing to sell everything else, maybe it is something for which you would even give your life. It is the thing that brings you so close to God that you can say the kingdom is at hand, within reach.
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