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Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Several months ago Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates made public a debate which has been simmering in evangelical circles for years. It popped up because at Together for the Gospel Greg Gilbert attacked their work. They responded with several essays on Christianity Today. You can find those here. [1] The debate is over the center of the gospel. Greg Gilbert, JD Greear, Together for the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition, and many others argue that the center of the gospel is justification. Bates[2], McKnight[3], (as well as NT Wright[4], Leslie Newbigin[5] and their students) argue that the center of the gospel is the Kingdom of God. Justification is an important aspect of the gospel, but not the center. They believe, like Bonhoeffer, that Christ is the Center.[6] That debate may seem like a specialized argument for heady people whose knowledge makes them mostly irrelevant for people who are seeking to survive our cultural moment.  Yet dismissing this debate is akin to dismissing the gospel itself. At the core of the debate is the question, “What is the Gospel?” This week may be a good time to make explicit the Biblical answer to that question for in the passages for this Sunday Jesus is explaining the Kingdom of heaven, the good news. And you have many ways of doing this. You could preach verse 31-33. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed and to yeast. These two metaphors are known well enough in christian circles, but they might not mean what we think they mean. We must ask again, “Why would Jesus make these comparisons?” Mustard was often forbidden from being planted in a garden because it was considered invasive. Many regarded it as a weed. While it does grow large enough for birds to nest in, the seed to biomass comparison is not at all the greatest. Why didn’t Jesus compare the Kingdom of God to a cedar seed? We know that the scriptures are full of references to the cedars of Lebanon. The cedar seed is about the size of a blue berry, yet it grows over 100 feet tall and its trunk can be up to nine feet in diameter. If the point of the parable is that something small grows large, there are plenty of other plants that Jesus could have chosen. Why did Jesus use mustard?

And why did Jesus place mustard next to yeast? As verse 33 says, ““The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” What is the cultural significance of yeast? Why would Jesus compare the Kingdom with something that they were told to keep out of their holiday bread? Is there significance to Jesus comparing the kingdom with two different items which were normally kept out of Jewish gardens and bread? Are these stories about conquest and church growth, or are they teaching us about some other qualities of the Kingdom? Or perhaps you cover the later comparisons of the Kingdom found in verses 44 and 45. This is a week to speak on the joy of the Kingdom. Frequently preachers will spend their time focusing on what all we are expected to give up for the sake of the Kingdom. While that is definitely present, the one who finds a treasure buys the field with joy. And the pearl merchant finds one of great value. While both sell everything so that they can purchase their treasure, they do not do so with a grudge. They are filled with joy. Unlike Bono, they HAVE found what they are looking for. The gospel is good news. Selling it all to gain the kingdom is not a bad thing, it is a beautiful thing. We get the opportunity to have all of our priorities completely realigned for the sake of the good. We could remind our people of Augustine’s famous quote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”[7] There is joy and contentment in living all for Jesus. The fifth analogy in this week’s pericope is a great catch of fish. This one connects well with last week’s pasage. If you are doing a sermon series, this could be a chance to develop the churches understanding of judgement even more. You could even have a little bit of fun with what is not included in the story. The emphasis is on God sorting the fish, but human beings are rarely content in letting God be the judge. We want to know what we can do to be saved. This could spin off in two directions. You could ask your congregation what does it take to be a good fish. Jesus does not say what makes a good fish. There are other places in Matthew you could look to answer that question. It could be good for the church to struggle with the question, “Am I a good fish or am I a bad fish?” Erna Kim Hackett writes  “White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees.”[8] Maybe this week is a week to ask your people if they were to give an accurate estimation of themselves, are they actually good fish or are they bad fish. You could even back that up with some Bonhoeffer. In Life Together he writes, “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility. How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?” If you really wanted to frazzle a North American control obsessed congregation who gives lip service to salvation by faith, but whose practice is more akin to works righteousness, you could ask them if they actually trust God. In my dad’s Doctrine of Holiness course he would ask students, “Do you trust God with your sanctification?” He would usually rattle off a few more questions, “Is your faith in your own works or is it in the goodness of God?” He wanted to push a bunch of nearly Pelagian under grad students to really embrace the God of love who seeks to save us. Too often us North American Christians do think that we are saved because we are good, and we think we are good because we rarely make ourselves the villains in the stories. To be fair, many non Christians will think of themselves as sinners. They don’t come to church because they don’t want lightening to strike them. Since Jesus does not tell us the criteria for being a good fish, we must ask that question ourselves. Do we trust that God will get the judgment correct? This could push on our Christology, our doctrine of God, and even our soteriology. These five metaphors for the Kingdom open up many possibilities for how we could preach this week. During the stress of a pandemic, I think that reminding our congregations we are citizens of another kingdom, we serve another king, that the anxiety of our context is not permanent, those are all good news. We could even remind people that Jonah got really mad at God because God was too merciful. In Jonah 4:2 it says, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” The good news is that the Kingdom of God has come near. May you preach the coming kingdom well.

[2] Bates argues this in Salvation by Allegiance Alone and Gospel Allegiance

[3] Scot McKnight makes his argument in Kingdom Conspiracy and King Jesus Gospel

[4] NT Wright’s Justification and The Day the Revolution Began argue that Justification is not the center.

[5] Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society argues that the Kingdom of God is the center of the gospel