Our treasure, our joy and our hearts (Thanksgiving Sunday) - Matthew 13:44-46

This is a sermon by David Butterfield from the morning service on 25th January 2009.

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A number of years ago in my last parish we had some restoration work done on the church tower. At one point I had to sign a contract with the builder - called a JCT contract - which set out all the terms and conditions of the agreement between us. As I glanced through it, I recall it said that, if during the course of work, the contractors stumbled across any hidden treasure, it would remain the property of the client and not the builder! Sadly, the no treasure was found!

In Matthew’s Gospel there are two accounts of Jesus using the idea of treasure to illustrate the truths he was teaching. One is the Parable of the Treasure Hidden in a Field. The other is in the Sermon on the Mount where he teaches about the need to store up treasure in heaven and not on earth. In each instance he uses the illustration of treasure in a slightly different way. This morning I want to focus on each of these two passages and see what truths we can draw from them for ourselves today.

We turn first to the parable of the Hidden Treasure in Matthew 13, verse 44. Jesus said, The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

In the days before High Street Banks, Group 4 Security, or Internet Banking, the best way to keep your valuables safe was to bury them in the ground. If you suddenly had to flee because of invasion, or some other reason, you could come back at some future time and hopefully dig up what you had buried – so long as you could remember precisely where you had buried it! The hiding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran is an example of this practice.

So what’s the parable about? The key is in the first six words: “The kingdom of heaven is like”. So if we are to understand what the parable is about, we need to make sure we know what Jesus means by The Kingdom of Heaven. I can remember the time in my youth when I thought that The Kingdom of heaven simply meant heaven. But I was wrong.

In the Gospels, the kingdom of heaven, or The kingdom of God, as Mark and Luke refer to it, mean the same thing. When we use the word "kingdom", we normally think of a territory - probably a country, like for instance: The United Kingdom. When Shakespeare has Richard III saying: "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse", we immediately understand that by "kingdom", he means England, since he was king of England, back in the 15th Century.

However, when Jesus uses the word "kingdom", he does not mean some territory somewhere. He simply means God’s rule – God’s loving kingly rule. And so his kingdom comes when men and women choose to submit to his rule – to follow his ways. And if you have invited Christ to be the Lord of your life - to be your king, to rule over you - then the kingdom of God has begun to be established in your life.

Of course, it is true that the kingdom of God has not fully come in any of our lives, since none of us fully submits to God's rule. His kingdom will be fully established when Christ comes again, when we will be like him.

So, what does this parable teach us about God's rule, God's kingdom? There are three points I want to highlight.....

(1) AN AMAZING DISCOVERY

The parable tell us of a man who made an amazing discovery. It would appear that the man in the parable was not actually searching for treasure. He was probably just working on the land, digging in a field, when suddenly, out of the blue he discovered something amazing. When he set off for work that morning, it was a normal day. But then, all of a sudden, he was taken by surprise, he discovered treasure. And his life was never the same again.

And there are people who have lived their lives without a thought for God or his kingdom, who suddenly, out of the blue, make an amazing discovery. They find treasure! And, of course, the treasure is Jesus himself! As the first line of an ancient hymn puts it, Jesus, priceless treasure

So a first question to ask ourselves is, Have I made this amazing discovery? Have I found the treasure? Have you found the treasure?

(2) AN INDESCRIBABLE JOY

When the man found the hidden treasure, he was filled with joy! Wouldn't you be? Suddenly he sees before him the prospect of wealth and fortune. He can see an end to his days of toil and sweat and labour. He's over the moon!

Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is like that! Whenever anyone discovers the kingdom – when we accept the rule of Christ over our lives – it brings indescribable joy!

I love the way Peter expresses it at the start of his first letter. He writes, “You.....rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy”.(1 Peter 1.8 RSV) Or as another version puts it, “You…..rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy”. (NRSV)

“Unutterable”, “indescribable”, “inexpressible”, “glorious”! These are the words that translators of the Bible use to try to convey what Peter is saying.

So if a person has never known this joy, then we are left asking the question, “Has he, has she, really discovered the treasure?”

Imagine what it would have been like if the man had hit that treasure chest with his shovel and thought that it was just an old rusty metal chest. Although he may have been so close to a fortune, he would never have known, never have realised what was there - only inches away from him. If a person has never known that joy that comes with knowing Christ, perhaps it is because his spade has just hit an old chest containing rusty religion rather than one that contains the treasure of a living relationship with Jesus Christ?

If we've really discovered the treasure, then we will know an indescribable joy that is life-changing! Which brings me to my third point.

(3) A NEW PERSPECTIVE

When the man found his treasure he sold everything he had, so that he could buy the field and claim the treasure! Suddenly, he saw his material possessions in a new light. When compared to the treasure, he saw that his other possessions were worth nothing. In fact he sold them all so that he could have something so much more valuable.

The parallel is obvious: when a person discovers the treasure, when a person enters the kingdom, when we allow God to rule our lives, when we invite Christ to be the King of our lives, we suddenly finds that we reassess our lives. We see the whole of our lives in a new perspective, in a new light. Our priorities change. What used to be valuable, is not any more.

So: Have you truly made that amazing discovery? As a result, do you know that indescribable joy ? Do you have a new perspective on your life ?

And so we turn next to Jesus’ second use of the illustration of treasure which comes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapter 6 verses 19-21:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.             

In the original language of the New Testament, the word for “I store up” means literally “I treasure up”. So this word “treasure” is emphasized by Jesus, since it comes four times in quick succession. It literally reads, “Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on earth…..But treasure up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

And in the parable, Jesus gives three reasons why. We should store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, first because:

(1)  EARTHLY TREASURES DO NOT LAST

There’s something exciting about opening a present – perhaps at Christmas or on your birthday. There’s also something exciting about buying something new. Why is this? Sometimes it can be the sheer novelty of having a new thing. Sometimes it can be because the new thing is very useful. Sometimes, I guess, it can be because having it gives us a certain kudos.

However, those positive feelings are amazingly short-lived. It’s not long before the thing we’ve just acquired becomes a normal part of our lives. The feel good factor is very short-lived. That’s probably why those who are addicted to the buzz that comes from shopping have to keep on shopping because it’s the act of acquiring that gives the buzz, not the things in themselves.

And Jesus gives examples of three reasons why earthly things do not last. First, they can get destroyed by moths! I served my curacy in Southport, and not long after I was ordained I bought a second-hand piano from a lady who lived in Liverpool. Although I got it for a good price, it needed quite a bit of work doing on it because many of the felts had been eaten away by moths. After reading up on the subject I made a large polythene bag, put the piano action inside the bag in the garage and put in with it a container of formaldehyde. The fumes from the chemical killed any remaining eggs. I then went about fitting new felts – and it still works to this day over thirty years later. As a child I can recall the distinctive smell of moth balls in the wardrobes of aged aunts. No doubt many valuable and fine clothes have been ruined by moths.

Secondly, Jesus points to the destroying power of rust. On my twenty-first birthday, my Dad, who had recently bought himself a new car gave me his old Skoda as a present. I’ve never known a car rust so quickly. Trying to keep on top of it was a never-ending battle which I clearly lost. I believe Skodas have come a long way since those days.

And thirdly he reminds us of how thieves break in and steal. And anyone who has experienced a burglary will know the devastation that this can bring.Last Thursday, The British Crime Survey, revealed that the number of domestic burglaries had increased by four per cent over the last twelve months. So while, in our modern age, we might do a little better at counteracting the effects of moths and rust, burglary is still with us!

But Jesus only gives these as examples. If we were to think of examples from our contemporary world we could say, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where economic slumps, recessions and deflation destroy, and where internet fraudsters break in and steal.”  So none of our money and earthly possessions can be totally safe and secure, no matter what lengths we might go to, to guard them!

Of course Jesus is not saying that we should not have possessions or money. After all we have to have earthly things! What Jesus is warning us against is treasuring such things, giving them an importance and a value that they do not have.

But of course, deep down we all know this! We all know that money and possessions are not what life’s really about. As Jesus teaches elsewhere, “A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12.15 NIV)And yet because we live in a society that tells us that we need bigger and better and newer, it is easy to be carried along with it. We so easily absorb the worldly culture unconsciously, hence why we constantly need to fill our minds with truth of God’s Word, to let our lives be shaped by God’s truth.

We really do need to keep a spiritual perspective. As Christians we need to follow the biblical principle of contentment. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1.6-8)

These words of Paul remind me of the story of a very wealthy man who died.When his will was published, someone asked the question, “How much did he leave?”. To which the reply was given, “He left everything”!

As John Stott says, “Even it some of it lasts through this life, we can take none of it with us to the next.”

So a first reason why we should not store up treasures on earth is because earthly treasure does not last! In direct contrast, a second reason Jesus gives for storing up treasure in heaven, rather than on earth, is because:

(2)  HEAVENLY TREASURE DOES LAST

Jesus said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Perhaps today we could say, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where economic slumps and recession do not destroy, and where interest rates will never go down!”

Again I love the way that Peter expresses this in the introduction to his first letter, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope…..and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…..…..In this you rejoice” (1.3-4,6a NRSV) Heavenly treasure is imperishable. It’s kept safe for us in heaven!

It’s very easy for us Christians to be negative and focus on the earthly things that we should not store up, instead of concentrating on the heavenly things that we should store up. So what is this treasure in heaven?

Jesus doesn’t give us a list, though we can glean a lot from his teaching elsewhere in the Gospels. I like John Stott’s definition of treasure in heaven. He writes, “To ‘lay up treasure in heaven’ is to do anything on earth, the effect of which lasts for eternity.” Or as he later sums it up, storing up treasure in heaven refers to, “Temporal activities that have eternal consequences.”

I note that Melvin lists three things in his letter that constitute storing up treasure in heaven:

a) Prayer

And of course prayer is a “temporal activity that has eternal consequences”. Particularly with the line of the Lord’s Prayer in mind, when we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done” and pray for specific people and situations our prayers can effect eternity. I’m thinking especially of when we pray for people to come to know Christ. To make him their king.

Just think on that last day there will be people in the Kingdom who are there partly because of your prayers. And as we pray for people in this way, because our prayers are a temporal activity that has eternal consequences, we are storing up treasure in heaven.

b) The Use of our Talents

This is a huge area. As we give ourselves in the service of Jesus Christ in a range of ways, then what we do contributes to the overall mission of the church, and in so doing we are engaging in temporal activities that have eternal consequences. And as we do this, we are storing up treasure in heaven.

One area where this is clearly so, is in evangelism. When through your ministry here at St John’s, a person comes to know Christ as Lord and Saviour, that is clearly “a temporal activity that has eternal consequences. So your evangelistic ministry is clearly a way in which you store up treasure in heaven.

I know that you use Christianity Explored here at St John’s. I also know that running such courses takes an enormous amount of time and energy from all who are involved. Some will be involved up front – engaging directly with those who are enquiring about the faith. Others will be behind the scenes, doing the catering, setting chairs out, producing the publicity. But whatever contribution you make, as people come to know Christ, it is clear that you are all involved in a temporal activity that has eternal consequences. You are storing up treasure in heaven.

c) Giving

The third area that Melvin included in his letter was finance. The New Testament has a lot to say about our giving as Christians. Biblical principles of giving include giving: generously, sacrificially, joyfully, proportionally, regularly, willingly.

You will no doubt recall the occasion when Jesus was with his disciples in the Temple, and a poor widow came in and put two small copper coins in the offertory box. We often refer to this as The Story of the Widow’s Mite”. Jesus commended the widow for her gift, but I have heard people completely misunderstand the point he made by implying that any small gift we might make, is like the Widow’s Mite and, by implication, is pleasing to God.

However, the point of the story was not the smallness of the widow’s offering, but the fact that she gave all she had, in contrast to the rich people who gave from their abundance. The point that Jesus made was that God measures the value of what we give, not by the size of the gift, but by what we have left over after we have given our gift. That’s quite a challenge! In her case, the poor widow gave all she had – and in so doing stored up treasure in heaven.

So God measures our giving not by the size of our gift, but by what we have left over afterwards. Hence why the Scriptures teach proportional giving. Like praying, and using our talents, the giving of our money to the ministry of the church – and to any Christian cause – is a temporal activity that has eternal consequences and when we do this we are storing up treasure in heaven.

A third reason Jesus gives for not storing up treasures on earth, but instead storing up treasures in heaven is because:

(3) OUR HEARTS WILL BE WHERE OUR TREASURE IS

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”, he said.

It is interesting that here the word “you” is singular, so Jesus words come to each of us directly. What does he mean by our hearts? If we hear someone say, “My heart is in athletics, or stamp collecting, kite-flying, Scuba-diving, Whitewater rafting, or whatever”, it means that that’s what they’re passionate about. That’s what draws their interest, their affection, their devotion, their love, their zeal, their enthusiasm – it’s what they live for. So to have our heart in something is to be devoted to it.

And if we store up treasures for ourselves on earth, Jesus says that the effect on us will be this: It will lead to our becoming devoted to the things of this world. It will lead to our passion, our love, our zeal, our enthusiasm being pulled in the direction of the world. Earthly concerns will fill our lives. And I’ve got a hunch that this is a process that happens to us gradually without us realising it when we store up treasure on earth.

So how can we avoid having our hearts set on the things of this world? Answer: By deliberately choosing to store up treasures in heaven. And storing up our treasure in heaven will then lead to our hearts being focused on heaven – on spiritual things. And having our hearts focused on heaven will lead to our wanting to store more of our treasure in heaven. Perhaps it’s a sort of spiral, or chain reaction: Storing up our treasure in heaven leads to our hearts being focused on heaven. Our hearts being focused on heaven leads to our storing up more of our treasure in heaven. Storing up more of our treasures in heaven leads to our hearts being more focused on heaven. And so on. And as our hearts become more and more focussed on heaven, we will find that we become less pulled by the lure of the material world.

Many books have been written about Christians who have stored up treasure in heaven by giving up careers, fortunes, wealth, comfort, security and so on, in order to serve Christ in some way. And the sacrifices that some people have made can seem so costly. Such stories come as a challenge to us, but are regarded as folly by the world.

But to those who have “given up” these things, it doesn’t seem like that. Why not? Because their hearts are set on heavenly things – they have found the treasure. A young man in his early twenties felt the call to ordination. Not long after getting the green light from the Church of England he told a neighbour, the father of a friend of his, how he was to be ordained. His friends father, who I think was an atheist or an agnostic replied, "What a waste!"

But you see, this young man had found the treasure but the neighbour hadn't. I think the neighbour came to see things differently before he died and ironically his elder daughter, a lovely fine Christian, married a clergyman!

When we've discovered the treasure, everything is seen in a different light. Everything takes on a new value. Our priorities change. Why? Well as one commentator says, “Because the kingdom of heaven is the only lasting reality, and its worth is so incalculably precious, the person who is really eager to obtain its benefits.....will readily and joyfully make the necessary sacrifice, whether it be loss of possessions, friends or even life itself.”(Tasker)

So in a sense, this brings us back full circle to where we started, because storing up treasure in heaven which leads to our setting our hearts on heaven – on spiritual reality – is like the man in the parable who found the treasure in the field. His joy was so great that it was a natural thing to set his heart on that treasure.

And so on this Thanksgiving Day, when you thank God for the wonderful blessings – material and spiritual – that God has given you, when you celebrate the joy of having found the treasure – Jesus himself. I encourage you to respond by being determined to store up your treasure in heaven: by seeing all that you are, and all that you have, as belonging to the King anyway, and by using it generously and willingly in the service of Christ.

In other words by being engaged in temporal activities that have eternal consequences! Because as you do that, you will be storing up for yourselves treasure in heaven !

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