While we were sleeping - Matthew 13:24-30
Lavender Hill. What a wonderful name for a town. It sounds so idyllic doesn't it? What sort of images does it conjure up for you? A community of cosy suburban tranquillity perhaps. Well, let me tell you what it is like because I have been there. It is a run down black township on the edges of Cape Town. It is a picture of abject poverty the likes of which we cannot even begin to imagine in Britain. It is also a place of the most unspeakable evil. Armed gangs frequently battle it out on the streets with folk getting killed in the cross fire. Unimaginable things are done especially to children which would make your stomach churn. And yet in the midst of all of this moral decay and darkness there burns a little light - a Christian church. I preached at that church of about 70 and I can tell you that the presence of God was so real you felt that you could almost touch it. There was a love which shone from the faces of everyone present which was genuine and not forced. In short I witnessed a miracle. And this miracle of goodness sits cheek by jowl with evil. The Friday before I preached a policeman was shot dead just around the corner from the church in broad daylight. Once a decapitated body was found lying on the church steps. After a confirmation class four young girls set off from that church only to be raped in full view of a watching crowd in the middle of the road. When the minister tried to intervene-he was told leave it alone or we will kill you. That is Lavender Hill.
Now tell me. If you are a Christian living in the midst of all of that, what sort of questions might be going through your mind? Wouldn't they be something like these: 'Why doesn't God do something? Why doesn't he just come down and get rid of all those wicked and not so wicked people and be done with it?' Don't you ever think that? Like the psalmist our patience begins to wear a bit thin and we cry out 'How Long O Lord?'
Well, Jesus knows that such a question will never be too far away from the minds of his followers as they try and wrestle with the problem of why so much evil when God is so good? He is fully aware that we veer towards one of two extremes- undue optimism on the one hand, that things are bound to get better and better as we try to capture the world for Jesus ; or resigned cynicism on the other, so why bother? lets just form our holy huddle and batten down the hatches. Therefore, Jesus tells a parable to instil within us a balanced realism. So do turn with me to Matthew 13:24 and the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
In vv 24- 30 Jesus tells a story of a rotten piece of petty espionage. A farmer is getting on with his lawful practice of seed sowing. In goes the seed of the best variety of wheat, it is good seed v 24. And when all the hard work has been done he simply has to wait for the harvest. That is when someone does the dirty on him. Thugs are hired to sneak in at night in order to contaminate and so ruin the crop with 'weed seed.' At first no one notices a thing-one seed looks pretty much like any other. But as the seeds germinate and begins grow then the differences become apparent. You see, what has been sown is darnel, a member of the grass family which is the spitting image of wheat except that this is in fact a weed which has within its grains a poisonous fungus. Panicking, the workers rush back to the owner and suggest that they set about ripping up the weeds and so, in their view, saving the day. But the owner knows that by this stage the size of the crop and the intertwining of the roots would be such that to do that would mean destroying both, the solution would be worse than the problem. No, far better to wait, let the two coexist until harvest time and that is when the final sorting will take place.
Now even before we turn to the interpretation that Jesus gives in vv 36-43 it doesn't take much of a rocket scientist to work out that he is talking about what happens between Christ's first coming and his second coming. In v 24 we have already been told that this word portrait is a picture of the kingdom and in the previous parable Jesus has explained how he is the sower who brings about his kingly rules in the lives of people by proclaiming the Gospel, the seed of God's word which when implanted into people's hearts, transforms them. But what happens between that initial establishing of his saving rule and the final consummation of that rule? Well, both good and evil prosper together. Sure, Jesus the sower is at work, but then so is Satan. The question is how are we to respond? Well, lets turn to the explanation of Jesus in order to find out.
Now the first thing we are to grasp is that we live in an ever changing, never changing world. Let me explain. From one point of view the world never seems to change. Why is there still so much evil in the world? Christianity has a been around for some 2000 years now and yet we still have wars, corruption, starvation, escalating crime. No sooner do we remove one tyrant from the world scene that he is replaced by another. It is like cutting off the head of a Medusa another simply takes its place. And here, Jesus is saying that is exactly what you should expect. This world after all is a battle ground. We are told in v38 that the field in the allegory is the world. It is God's world which now rightly belongs to King Jesus, the Son of Man v37. And within this world both a rebellion and a revolution is going on, a revolution designed to overturn the rebellion. The rebels are described as 'sons of the evil one.' That is whether they know it or not or believe it or not and to a greater or lesser degree- non-Christians are serving God's enemy the devil -v39. I know that because I served him for some 17 years. These are the weeds. Those are Jesus words not mine. How is that rebellion expressed, well according to v 41 they cause ' sin and do evil'. Literally they 'Cause people to stumble and they are lawless.' And this does not necessarily mean that they are monsters, because nice, respectable, good intentioned and even religious people can be lawless and cause folk to trip up, acting like weeds carrying a poisonous fungus. So what do we think God, who gave us the wonderful gift of sex to be used in the proper context of marriage is going to make of an academic journal ,read by clergy and students, called 'Theology and Sexuality' of which the new Archbishop Rowan Williams is a member of the editorial board? This publishes articles which contain the most vile and graphic descriptions of gay sex . One such article is entitled 'A place for porn in a gay Spiritual economy'. Another argues that we have to find room for what is called 'erotic Christianity.'? I have copies of those articles and I have read them, and I kid you not they degrading in their explicitness and blasphemous in what they espouse . When an academic validation of a gay lifestyle is given like this, with at least the tacit approval of church leaders-bishops and future archbishops, leading folk into not only a miserable existence but a medically dangerous one and a spiritually disastrous one, are we not entitled to think that that is precisely the kind of 'causing to stumble and abandoning of his laws' that Jesus has in mind here? And the causing to stumble goes on. Think of the advertisers who peddle the lie that all meaning and value is to be found in what we eat ,what we wear and how we look-the result- young girls are eating more and more and yet getting thinner and thinner and becoming more and more miserable. Or the big lie that there is no God and the field in which we live is not cultivated at all, there is no sower and there is no wheat we are all weeds, wild and free so who cares- do your own thing. Sincerity is not the issue, but who we serve is. So yes, from one point of view the world carries on as much the same wicked world it always has been.
But from another point of view the world has been changing fast because the revolution is under way. The King has come to reclaim his world and has been busy forming a people to populate it-these are called 'sons of the kingdom'- v38 , and he has enabled them to switch sides, freeing them up to become the sort of people they are meant to be, whose destiny is to shine like the sun in the Kingdom of which God is their Father- v43. And as that Gospel spreads and more and more men and women, boys and girls become part of this new world wide revolutionary movement, the world gets changed for the better. Who was it that stopped the terrible practice of widow burning in India? Christians. Who changed the labour laws so that little children were no longer sent up chimneys, sometimes working up to 16 hours a day-Christians. Who brought about prison reforms so that men and women and children were no longer thrown together into rat infested holes but were treated with dignity and care-Christians. Every major improvement in the well being of humanity can be traced back to the influence of Christians, not atheistic humanists. Last year at that little Lavender Hill church a group of American doctors came over to offer their services free of charge to the community and over a thousand people came through those church doors not only to receive medical aid but to hear of the love of the Lord Jesus. That is our world, two groups of people serving two masters and you belong to either one or the other.
The second lesson this parable teaches is a demand for patience without lapsing into indifference. You see, behind this question of the servants in v 28 'Do you want us to pull out the weeds?' is the impulse to act now. But this would be impractical because the two plants are intertwined and one could not harm the weeds without also harming the wheat. That clear separation of the good from the bad can only take place at the end of time in the final judgement. And when you think about it you can see why. For a start appearances can be deceptive. Just by looking at someone can you tell who is a true believer and who isn't? Of course not. Can you see into people's hearts to see what people really believe-obviously not. Only God can do that. As the parable of the soils or sower shows some people appear to be Christians at the beginning and later prove not to be, so we can't have a premature judgement. Also Christians themselves are not perfect and sin still resides in them so things is not so clear cut at the moment. This is also why it is both folly and dangerous to be asking God to act on judgement upon others now for unless we can claim total innocence then it could well boomerang back on us. The writer Dorothy L Sayers puts this so well when she writes: ' Why doesn't God smite this dictator dead?' is a question a little remote from us. Why, Madame, did he not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such a cruel lack of consideration to that well meaning friend? And why sir, did he not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty bit of financial trickery? You did not quite mean that? But why not? Your misdeeds and mine are none the less repellent because our opportunities for doing damage are less spectacular than those of other people. Do you suggest that your misdoings and mine are too trivial for God to bother about? That cuts both ways; for in that case, it would make precious difference to his creation if he wiped us both out tomorrow.' And the fact that wheat and tares coexist together in this world and are inter -linked with each other helps towards explaining why Christians too get caught up in tragedies. The Bible is quiet clear that the world is under God's judgement and some of that judgement is being worked out in the present, that is the apostle Paul's argument in Romans chapter 1. The book of Revelation is full of pictures of judgement being exercised in this world in terms of famine and war and the like. And so as we live in a wicked world which turns a deaf ear to God, and when calamity strikes it is meant to get our attention, reminding us that all is not well with our Maker and we need to repent. After all, Christians died in those twin towers in New York as well as non-Christians. In a similar incident in his own day when a tower collapsed no doubt killing godly Jewish believers, Jesus said that these people were no more sinful than anyone else, but they were sinful none the less , and turning to the crowd he said, unless you repent you too will likewise perish.' (Luke 13). You see, we live in a messy world and God's judgement in the present is messy as the results of sin works itself out indiscriminately-the wheat is mixed up with the weeds.
The problem is that when Christians look at the world and all the terrible things that go on and the awful things people do, they can react by going towards one of two extremes. The first is to become impatient. So, the fact that the church exists in the world means that the world will to some extent be in the church-wheat and weeds exist within church fellowships. And so the impatient Christian then says, 'I don't like this, I am going to go off and form a pure church. I don't like the nasty world so I am going to withdraw from it and enjoy my holy huddle. But we all know what happens. That church splits and splits until all that there is left is 'me and thee and I am not sure about thee.' The other extreme is that of shear indifference. So the Christian thinks 'O well, there is always going to be evil in the world and heretics in the church, and therefore with a shrug of the shoulders they say 'So what?' Live and let live'. But that would be to abdicate our responsibility. Remember that this wheat is growing in the field and bearing fruit, Christians are called sons of righteousness and so should be working to promote righteousness by opposing evil in the world, by promoting what is good and wholesome, and within the church seeking the discipline of those who teach lies and think that immorality is OK.
What we are called to exercise by this parable is in fact patience. Yes, God is sovereign, he is working his purposes out, the kingdom is growing and judgement day is coming so get on with the job of spreading the Good News. Which, by the way, is another reason why God has not yet brought the final judgement about- he is giving people time to repent. This is the day of grace and mercy but it wont last for ever. So let me say that if you are here this morning and you have not yet submitted in your heart to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour then the most sensible thing in the world that you could do is to put that right and start serving your rightful King, the King of love. God may be showing his patience with you but he is not indifferent to you. What you have done matters to him and you need to take him seriously as he takes you seriously which means taking Jesus warnings about judgement seriously.
You see, judgement postponed does not mean judgement denied which brings us to our final point: there is a cry to heaven asking for a hell. Look again at these solemn words of the Lord Jesus and take note, v40 ' As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man ( a phrase referring to Jesus) will send his angels and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes stumbling and all who practice lawlessness. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, he who has ears let him hear.'
Ours is a self-contradictory society. On the one hand a new commandment has been added to the decalogue, the eleventh commandment- 'You shall not judge'. 'Who are you to tell me what I can and cant do, what is right and wrong.' Its all relative so don't judge.' We hear that cry all too often don't we? But on the other hand when faced with wanton evil, suddenly no punishment can ever be enough. Think of those scenes outside the court to which the man accused of murdering those two school girls was brought and the screams and the shouts and the invective of that crowd. Instinctively we know that absolute evil demands absolute judgement. The Christian sociologist ,Peter Berger notes how in the debate over the architect of Hitler's Jewish extermination programme, Adolf Eichman, there was a general feeling that 'hanging was not enough.' He points out that in the case of some human deeds no human punishment will ever be enough. In other words there are deeds that demand not only condemnation but damnation. It was Winston Churchill who once said that the evidence that 'God existed was the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom hell was needed.' So these words of Jesus are not so wild and extreme as they may first appear. They simply reinforce what we all instinctively feel ,that we cry to heaven for a hell so that true justice can be satisfied, that justice is done and seen to be done. This , my friends is where history is heading- judgement day- because our lives do count for something and they must be weighed and evaluated. And the results are terrifying- 'weeping and gnashing of teeth'. A picture of terrible punishment . 'Ha,' you say, 'but that is the point it is just picture language Jesus is using, it is figurative and is not meant to be taken literally.' Exactly, if that is how terrifying the picture is how much worse do you think the reality is going to be? Jesus is not playing games here, he is in deadly earnest.
That is why it is vital that we get on side with the rightful owner of the world now before it is too late. The clock is ticking and with every passing moment we are one step closer to eternity. That is why the good news is so wonderfully good in that it saves us from what would otherwise be an inevitable fate like the one the Lord Jesus describes here and replaces it with such a glorious destiny of shining like the sun in the Father's everlasting kingdom.
So which is it going to be? Joining the revolution, exercising patience in the face of evil, working to transform it for the good, or adding further to the worlds list of miseries by rejecting Jesus and so sealing your own fate. As Jesus said: 'He who has an ear let him hear.'
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