Sermon: Finding Comes First
Scripture: Matthew 13:44-50
Date: July 12, 2015
Jesus learned the art of storytelling from the Rabbis of His day. It was a popular method of teaching. They would use stories from everyday life and apply them to the law and faith. And so, whether teaching in the Nazareth synagogue, or even on the steps of the Temple, they would gather their disciples, or students, and tell them stories. And in the course of his childhood, Jesus probably heard a popular rabbinical story that went like this: there was a man who buys a field, and then in plowing the field, to plant a crop that will just allow he and his family to scrape by, he uncovers a great treasure. He can’t believe his great fortune. But then he just happens to see two rabbis walking down the road next to his field. They are in tattered clothes and looked like they hadn’t eaten in days. And so out of compassion, the man not only shares his treasure with the down in their luck rabbis, he gives them the whole thing. And then he goes back to his field to plow some more and discovers another treasure buried there, that is even bigger than the first one was. The teaching being that the more treasure we give in this world, the more treasure we will receive. Now that’s a treasure story. And though it seems unlikely to us today that a man would find even one treasure in his field, much less two, for the Jews of Jesus day this would not be all that surprising. Some of the Disciples probably knew, or knew of, someone who had found a buried treasure. In ancient Israel, there were no banks in which the people could deposit their treasure, but yet there was very little personal security either. Think how many times in scripture Israel was nearly destroyed by conquering armies of other nations. That didn’t happen because foreign kings had a fondness for the sand and rocks of Israel. It was not the land that attracted them. In part, it was their “treasures” that foreign kings sought. And so in an effort to preserve their treasures, people would bury them somewhere on their property. But subsequently many were killed or carried off into captivity into foreign lands, never to return and their buried treasure remained buried. So in Jesus day, treasure hunting was a popular pastime and treasure stories became a popular entertainment and teaching instrument. And treasure stories have always been popular, even to today, though they have evolved into more of the realm of tall tale like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and the goose that lay golden eggs, or Rumpelstiltskin weaving hay into gold, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Mankind has always thought about, even dreamt about, finding treasures. And we have turned those thoughts and dreams into some of our most cherished stories. And occasionally treasure stories become true, and we dream all the more. How many of us have bought a lottery ticket? Not even when the Jackpot grows to 200 millon? 300 million? Or how many have entered the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes – maybe even bought that magazine subscription that now lays around gathering dust, just so we can get our name in the drawing for the treasure? There are still those who give up everything and go to places like Alaska to pan for gold. The last few times we have gone to Colorado on vacation, we have noticed that some of the old mines that have been dormant for nearly a hundred years have been reopened as the price of gold and silver has risen. We hear about people who scour the ocean looking for long sunken ships and when they find them they claim whatever treasure they may have been holding at the bottom of the ocean. Others are like real life Indiana Jones’s, searching for the Holy Grail or the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Some bounce from job to job looking for that one that pays the most that will make us a millionaire by the time we turn thirty. Others jump from relationship to relationship searching for that treasure that we call true love. There are a lot of ways to hunt for treasures in this life, and, I suspect, there is a bit of treasure hunter in each one of us. And so when Jesus tells these two short stories, He has in mind that part of the Disciples who dream of finding that buried treasure.
Now to be honest, there are many who do not consider this mention of the treasure in the field or the pearl, to be parables at all. They’re too short. They leave too much to the imagination. But you see, the more I think about it and study it, the more I suspect that Matthew, in telling these stories, assumed that his readers would know more than we know. Now before I lose you, let me explain what I mean. When Jesus was teaching, He often used the technique of compare and contrast. He would say: Now you have heard this, but I tell you this. And I suspect that might be what’s going on here. I suspect that Jesus might have said something like: you’ve heard the story about the man who bought a field and when he was working hard, clearing it, and getting it ready to plant, he found a buried treasure which would have been his to keep, according to the law. But he took pity on the poor and gave it away. And then went back to work in the field and, would you believe it, found another buried treasure that was even bigger than the first. But I tell you that the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field that a man found as he was passing through on his way to somewhere else. And so he hid it again and in his joy went and sold all he had and bought the field and then claimed the treasure as his own.
Or you have heard about the man who who gave up everything and everyone, spent his whole life, working hard, to scour the earth for that one precious stone that will set him up for life. But I tell you that the Kingdom of God is like the merchant who just finds a beautiful pearl in the market one day and puts it in the bottom of the basket, and then hurries away and sells all He has and then goes back and buys it for himself.
And so Matthew, the story teller, in re-telling Jesus stories, assumes that everyone in the Jewish audience that He is directing his stories to, already are familiar with the Rabbi’s stories of the man whose hard work led him to find two treasures and the one who gave his whole life to search for the treasure, and so his intention was to show how Jesus stories differed from the common understanding. The intention of these two stories was to show how the Kingdom of God differed from the Kingdoms of Men.
So there are a few things that Jesus wants us to know about the Kingdom in telling these stories. The first thing is that God’s Kingdom is the great treasure, the pearl of great value. I wonder how many of the Disciples would have ever thought that their treasure hunting would lead them to the Temple. The Temple was the place of sacrifice. It was the place where you had to strip yourself, be cleansed of all your worldly ways in order to approach the throne of God. You had to give, atone, to even begin to approach the throne of God. And even then, the throne of God was an earthly throne. Many Jews had no concept or understanding of a life beyond their earthly existence. And so their dreams of treasure focused on earthly things, not eternal ones. Kingdoms of man, rather than the Kingdom of Heaven. Go all the way back to when the people were clamoring for a King and eventually God relented and anointed David as King. God said to them, You don’t need a human King. I am your King. But they had not concept of what he meant. You’re not hearing us God, we need a King who can lead us into battle against the other kingdoms of earth. In telling their stories, the Rabbis of Jesus day tended to focus on the physical realm, but Jesus focuses on the spiritual realm. You have heard of the kingdoms of the world, but I tell you of the greater Kingdom, the Kingdom of life altering treasure. I tell you of the Kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that the Priests and the Scribes took great exception to His message. All of their life they had worked and searched for the great treasure, and then along comes Jesus and says, Here it is. Look no further. The Kingdom of God is that treasure in the field that you’ve been teaching about.
Which leads to the second thing that Jesus wants us to learn from these stories. And that is, that those who have spent their whole life searching and working at finding God, have it all wrong. Finding God, finding the Kingdom, is the first thing. Now think about that for a moment. The focus of both of these stories is not in finding the treasure, but rather in what it takes to secure the treasure. The whole of the Jewish Law in Jesus day, was, in essence, designed to help the people find God’s favor. If you have the right sacrifice for the Temple in order to atone for your godless life, then you can at least begin to approach the Holy of Holies because that’s where the treasure resides. But no one could enter into the Holy of Holies, so essentially the treasure remained hidden. It was the journey that counted really more than the ultimate destination. To put it in the perspective of these stories – the people knew that the treasure was there somewhere. If they just kept looking, worked hard enough and well enough, then maybe, just maybe they’d find it. That treasure that will make all the searching, will make life, worthwhile, of great value. You see, the search for the treasure is the function of the law, but finding it comes through God’s grace. But the priests and Rabbis taught law not grace. And you know, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us aren’t that much different in our approach to faith. We tend to think in terms of the journey TO faith. The Path TO Discipleship. Faith is the culmination of the journey. I can remember as a teenager, being on that kind of journey. I spent a lot of time “looking for God”. And then one summer night, after I graduated from high school, I was in my room packing some things in preparation for heading off to college and for some reason I had Billy Graham on TV. I didn’t usually watch Billy Graham, and I was only half listening to him while I packed. But then he spoke directly to me. He said: “Many of us spend a great deal of our lives looking for God, only to discover that He was there all along, from the very beginning.” The Kingdom of Heaven is a treasure that you first find, and then spend your whole life trying to hold on to. It’s the holding on to faith in a secular world that is often the greatest struggle. One preacher described the faith journey as a series of starts and stops. He said it’s like taking “3 steps forward and 2 steps back. Eventually you’ll get where you want to be but it is slow going.” The 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, writing in the post Puritan period which emphasized law in the practice of faith wrote of her life long struggle with law and grace in her poems, most of which were published after her death. She “found” Jesus when she was 15 years old and would later write: “I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior.” But for Dickinson finding proved to be the first step in a life long and sometimes tortured journey. A few years later she wrote: “We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day.” In later life she apparently had Jesus story in mind as she described her own journey and wrote: Finding is the first act. The second, loss. This story tells us that it’s not the finding that is the tough part. The first thing that happens in our faith journey is finding God and the rest of the journey is trying to hang on to Him. In essence that was just the opposite of what the teachers of the law taught. In their teaching: Faith was a journey directed by the law and if you somehow managed to get it right you might find God in the end. One preacher puts it this way: The message of the (story) is that you don’t have to find it, because God has found you in Jesus Christ. Finding comes first because ultimately it is God looking for us, rather than the other way around. God’s number one priority has always been to re-find humanity. Everything He has done on our behalf, the law and prophets, King David, – since the Fall in the garden has been directed towards us. Even to the point of sending His own Son to atone for our lostness. I found the treasure, on that summer night when I was 18 years old. But that was the easy part. The hard part has been the last 40 years trying to hold on to it.
Finding the treasure starts us on the path of faith rather than the path to faith.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure which a man found one day, and then he went about trying to make it his.
Which, quickly leads to a final teaching of these stories. We call them the story of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl, but the truth is in Jesus’ telling, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a very well hidden treasure. God desires that everyone of us find Him. If you look at these Campfire stories, there is nothing in Jesus’ story which indicates that the man in the field or the merchant in the market had to work hard to find their treasures. They didn’t do anything extraordinary to find them. The fact that these two found the treasure when so many others had no doubt passed it by tells us that though finding is the first act, holding on to it is the second and most difficult. “Finding is the first act.” Dickinson wrote. But the second act was losing it. And so began her life long struggle with law and grace. And if we’re honest most of us live our lives in the midst of that struggle. Because, claiming the treasure, holding on to it, requires that we give our all. Everything we have. Our lives. It’s is one thing to see the treasure. Many see it. But few are willing to do what it takes to claim it for themselves. In the end, this story requires a commitment. The treasure does no one any good, if it stays hidden. This is reflected in the surveys which indicate that, even in this increasingly secular world, more than 90% of people who were asked, indicate they believe in God and that Jesus was God’s Son, but yet fewer and fewer, less than 50% of those claim Him as their Lord and Savior. The other 50% have seen the treasure but they have left it hidden and failed to claim it. It is not enough to simply find the treasure, we must do what it takes to make it ours. It’s one thing to be a Disciple, it’s another to live like one. Elsworth Kalas says that it’s at that point that this story becomes about Risky Business. He writes: So Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant who found a pearl of great price. He sold everything. Everything! And he bought the pearl.” And Jesus stopped right there. The inference is clear. If you want to get into the Kingdom business, you’ll have to sell everything and gamble it on that pearl.
So Disciples, you’ve found the pearl, you’ve found the Kingdom. You’ve found me But are you willing to sacrifice everything to follow me.
And Kalas concludes: And someone says “that sounds like risky business, this cross you’re talking about.” And if we’re honest, we answer, “It is. But look at the Pearl. There’s nothing like it. It’s worth the risk.” And the person to whom we’re talking turns thoughtful, sometimes even belligerent. “How dare anyone ask anyone to take such a risk? Who has a right to ask such a thing of me?” Only someone who knows about the ultimate about risks. Only Someone who could say, “I have just one Son. I will send Him to a cross on the gamble that if I do, some of you will take your risk in return.
And so Disciples, you have found a great treasure, a pearl of great price, but before it becomes yours, you’ll have to sell out completely. And I wonder if Jesus looked around that campfire and said, “What about you Peter? Are you all in? What about you John, are you ready to give it your all? Because when we get to Jerusalem, that’s the choice you’ll have to make.” And what about you, and what about me, are we ready to give everything we have for the treasure that is the Kingdom of God.