The Kingdom—Hidden Treasure

November 9, 2003



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The Kingdom—Hidden Treasure (11/9/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

I know it’s good to be honest, especially in the pulpit. So I begin today’s sermon with a disclaimer. Parts of this sermon never really happened. For reasons I hope will become apparent, I just made them up. But it became necessary over the course of the sermon-crafting process. You see, there are times when sermons come easily—they practically write themselves—and then there are sermons like this one. My wife Leigh knew I was struggling with this one, and we talked about it one evening on the back patio. I explained to her that there were two problems. First, there is the subject of the sermon—the kingdom. The kingdom is just about all Jesus talks about in the gospels, but even after reading the gospels hundreds of times, I still can’t tell you exactly what the kingdom is.

And second, every time I started to get a glimpse of what the kingdom is all about—every time I was coming close to getting my mind around this kingdom thing—something happened to break my concentration. It was just one of those weeks! My wife sympathized as we sat there on the patio, but eventually told me to shut up and watch the beautiful sunset. The autumn sunsets in Kansas are truly amazing, and on that particular evening it really was extraordinary. And I watched for a couple of minutes, but then I whispered to her that I’d see her later, and went in to my office. I had serious work to do. I had to figure out what, and where, the kingdom is.

I never did come up with a well-crafted and logically organized sermon. So I’m simply going to go over the process I went through while wrestling with today’s Bible text.

Is it just me, or do you get a little frustrated with Jesus now and then? I mean, his primary message seems to be all about the kingdom—sometimes he calls it the kingdom of God and sometimes the kingdom of Heaven, but no doubt about it: Jesus is obsessed with the kingdom. So why doesn’t he just come out and tell us what it is!? Seriously! In parable after parable Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”, and proceeds to talk about slaves and masters and seeds and crops and weeds and hard-working laborers and foolish maidens. Peter was the most blunt of the apostles. I have to think that at some point, Peter called Jesus off to the side and said, “Jesus, we’ve gotten to be good friends. And you know I think the world of you—I’d follow you anywhere. But could you do me one small favor? Could you knock off all this talk about what the kingdom is like and just tell me what the heck it is?”

The two short parables we heard read from the lectern this morning serve as a good case in point, and they deserve a second reading. These are the type of sayings that raise all sorts of red flags. There’s something not quite right here. They rub us the wrong way. Listen again: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

The first thing that bothers me about these parables is the wealth thing. In both cases, the kingdom is compared to a situation in which somebody finds something worth a lot of money—treasure, and a pearl. This seems a bit counterintuitive, considering that in other passages, Jesus tells us to give away everything we have and follow him.

Another problem arises when we realize that in the first parable—the parable of the treasure hidden in a field—there is a certain sneakiness—almost dishonesty—involved. Who put the treasure in the field in the first place? Doesn’t it belong to the person who put it there, or at least to the owner of the field? It’s sort of like finding out that your neighbor’s old car has $100 bills hidden in the trunk, and he doesn’t know about it. So you walk over and say, “Hi neighbor! Hey, I’ll give you book value plus fifty bucks for that old junker of yours.” Is that what the kingdom is like? Do we sneak into the kingdom? Is deception the key to life in the kingdom?

I know these are common problems with the parable of the hidden treasure, because as I wrestled with this text, I asked several people of the congregation what they thought about it, and without any hints from me, they had the same problems I did—problems with the wealth aspect and the deception aspect of the parable. I tried to come up with a new parable that would say the same thing. Maybe thinking about it in a new way would be helpful. “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who cheated somebody out of a lot of money…”

I was clearly missing something, and no sooner had I started working with my new parable than I heard the doorbell. It was a good friend who was excited, and agitated, and looked like he was about to wet his pants. He told me he had just been listening to his car radio, called the station with the answer to some trivia contest, and won tickets to the Sugar Bowl. He knew I was a big college football fan, and as it happens, the Sugar Bowl is this year’s site of the national championship game. But honestly, I was in the middle of something important. College football may be a lot of fun to watch, but I was about the serious business of figuring out what the kingdom is all about, and I told him we’d talk later. As it happened, he ended up inviting his worthless brother-in-law to the Sugar Bowl.

But even worse than missing the Sugar Bowl was the fact I lost my train of thought. I was onto something with that new parable, and now it was gone. Where was I? Oh yes, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who cheated somebody out of a lot of money…”

Well, something is wrong here, and the problem is fairly simple, if we remember one simple truth: all metaphors break down when pushed far enough. If I say something like, “The pen and paper of William Shakespeare were mighty wings that carried his thinking across the ages,” there is a certain truth in the metaphor. But we can’t over-think it. It forms a poetic image, but the second we try to envision his writing instrument attached to some sort of airplane and maneuvering through time, the truth of the image is lost. Such is the nature of metaphorical language, and such is the nature of Jesus’ parables. Taken as a collection, they point us toward the kingdom. When taken individually, and thoroughly dissected, they leave us either looking in the wrong direction, or sitting alone in a padded room diddling our lips.

So I decided to concentrate on these two parables—the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl of great value, and see if together they might point me toward some higher truth.

Now, I think it is safe to assume that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is something real. Jesus didn’t spend his life teaching us about some figment of his imagination. And second, I imagine we can agree that whatever it is he is talking about, it is a single truth. There is only one kingdom. It may be vast and complex beyond our imagining, but there is a single kingdom that Jesus is talking about throughout his ministry.

Another thing we can probably deduce is that this kingdom isn’t something that can be explained in simple terms. I can’t imagine that Jesus set out to be intentionally vague. If he could have explained the kingdom in straightforward logical terms, he would have done so.

So where do we start? Obviously, we’ve got that problem with wealth—these two parables compare the kingdom to a treasure and a valuable pearl. But what about all those other parables, with their talk of slaves and masters and seeds and maidens? Taken as a whole, the kingdom to which the parables point is clearly not something of monetary value. My instinct is that we should not push these two parables too hard with regard to the cash value of the treasure and the pearl. The kingdom has value beyond the limits of our imaginations; but that value has nothing to do with money.

The great value of the kingdom is one thing these parables have in common, but one huge difference jumps out at us when we read them side by side. In the first parable, somebody just stumbles across the treasure. He isn’t looking for anything—he’s probably just some hired hand out plowing the field—and wham! There it is! The treasure to beat all treasures.

But in the other parable, the merchant is in the pearl business. He has spent his life in search of great pearls. He’s an expert. And after a lifetime of searching, he discovers the pearl of all pearls.

So what does that tell us about the kingdom? Maybe, that there is more than one way to find it? Perhaps, that some happen upon the kingdom serendipitously, while others must search for it with great determination? If that’s the case, I suppose I’m more like the guy in the second parable—the one who spends his life in the pearl business—the kingdom business. And like him, I figure I’ll know if I ever actually find that pearl of great value.

I remember as plain as day the moment I had this insight, because I closed my eyes in the deepest concentration I could muster, and I felt like I was on the verge of something—something big. It was epiphany time. I was almost at the end of the Yellow Brick Road…and the phone rang!

I was jolted back to reality, and on the other end of the line was one of the young women of this congregation who I’ve had many conversations with over the years. Like so many of us, she is one of those people who has never quite been able to find herself. She quit college because she was low on both money and inspiration. She worked mediocre jobs, and just sort of drifted through life aimlessly. But she told me something amazing had happened to her. She had been having dinner with her grandparents when her grandfather had a heart attack. They called 911, and within minutes the paramedics arrived. They stabilized him, rushed him to the hospital, and he was going to be okay.

She told me that while she was sitting in the waiting room at the hospital, it occurred to her that if those paramedics had not committed themselves to something important; and if the doctors and nurses had not devoted themselves to a higher cause; her grandfather would not be alive. And she made a commitment to herself. She decided to go back to college and become a nurse. In fact, she was in the process of trading her new car for an older model so she would have the money to start back to school right away. She was taking out student loans, quitting her job at Shakey’s Diner—she was going to give this everything she had.

And I feel kind of bad about this, because, in retrospect, I know I should have given her more encouragement. But I was in the middle of this kingdom thing. I mean, I was happy for her, but I had been on the Yellow Brick Road, not more than one or two insights away from Emerald City, when her phone call jolted me back to Kansas. So I excused myself from the conversation as quickly as possible and got back to my pursuit of the kingdom.

I re-read those two parables, and realized that one thing they have in common, along with the notion that the kingdom is of great value, is the fact that once a person gets a glimpse of the kingdom, he sells everything he has to obtain it. It becomes the only thing that matters. Everything else is dust in comparison to the kingdom.

Can’t you just see Peter listening to Jesus tell these parables and getting all excited, and then saying, “Yeah, more valuable than anything in the world, give up everything for the kingdom, so tell us…what is it!?” Jesus probably saw that confused look on Peter’s face, but he doesn’t exactly clear things up with what he says next. Without taking so much as a breath after saying these two parables, Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

Huh? Right when we almost find our footing with regard to these two parables about the treasure and the pearl, Jesus reaches down and yanks the rug right out from under our feet! What does treasure in a field and a pearl of great value have to do with good and bad fish being dragged to shore in a net?

Jesus won’t let us settle in with a parable. He points us off in one direction, and the minute we start to focus in, he spins us around and points us somewhere else, insisting all the while that we are looking at the same thing—the kingdom. It’s as if he holds this beautiful diamond up before our eyes and tells us to look closely, concentrate, focus…and just as the image becomes clear he turns it so we have to see it from a completely different angle.

I was getting confused, so I turned to my Bible commentaries to see what the experts have to say about this subject. Those who spend their lives studying Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom tell us that the kingdom is something that is right here, right now; and at the same time something that will be fulfilled in the future. The theologians call it, “Already but not yet.” “Already but not yet” means that Jesus initiated the kingdom here in the world, but that it will not be truly fulfilled until God acts decisively in the future.

Okay, note to self: read the Bible commentaries before you start writing your sermon. That might have saved me some headaches, or at least pointed me in the right direction. Because that “Already but not yet” idea is pretty helpful. I was getting close to the truth here. And that, of course, is when, once again, the phone rang.

Now I was getting frustrated. The teachings of Jesus are slippery enough without somebody knocking me off my feet every time I think I’ve found some solid ground to stand on. This time it was my nephew, Mark. Mark has always been the ladies’ man. You know the type—great job, nice car, perfect teeth. Everything always came easy to Mark. The toughest decision he ever had to make was on Saturday night—blonde, brunette or redhead. But Mark calls me in some state of ecstasy to say he has found the love of his life. He tells me that for the first time ever, he feels like his life has real meaning. He goes on and on about how yesterday everything was a big blur, and today everything is in focus. He’s found meaning, and purpose, and joy, blah, blah, blah…and I tell old Mark I’m real happy for him, but I’m sort of in the middle of something. He was so deliriously happy, I doubt if he even realized I had hung up on him.

And where was I? Oh yes, the net. What is all this business about the kingdom being like a fishing net? I don’t’ know. All these parables leave me spinning. I’ve only arrived at a single conclusion after my wrestling with these parables. If Jesus were standing here today, he would not explain the kingdom in plain English any more than he explained the kingdom in plain Aramaic two thousand years ago. Somehow, it will always be something that is just beyond our vision, and at the same time everywhere we look.

Well, I may not know what the kingdom is, but I do know what it feels like to be caught in a fishing net. Have you every seen a fishing net when it is pulled from the water? It’s got edible fish and inedible fish, along with coke cans, seaweed and the occasional spare tire. And Jesus tells us the kingdom is like that fishing net. I can identify with that. No matter how hard we try, we never quite get comfortable. Time keeps dragging us into the future, and we tumble through life amidst all manner of stuff—spare tires and parables and good fish and phone calls.

No, I may not be able to get my mind around the kingdom, but there is one thing I know for sure. In this “already but not yet” world of ours, there is nobody I would rather be in the net with than you—the people of this church. And as long as we’re together, and if we can manage to relax—just a bit—our tumbling along together will bring us amazingly close to the kingdom.