The Kingdom of Heaven

Quite often, when there are large anniversaries or milestone markers of some sort in a person’s life, it causes one to step back and reflect on the state of things. A little over a week ago was the twentieth anniversary of the day I was ordained into the office of the Holy Ministry, which has been the cause of a lot of sentimental examination of my journey through this vocation. An honest look at my career is not unlike any of your professions, I suppose. There have been great high’s and crushing low’s. There is plenty of room for growth and many difficult lessons have been learned along the way. But being a pastor is certainly unique in a few aspects. This calling puts you into very intimate and closely guarded parts of people’s lives. You get to stand there next to a man who is holding back tears as he speaks his wedding vows to his new bride. You get to hold the newborn of a proud couple and baptize them before the congregation. And you are there when a family says goodbye to a loved one as we all long for the promised resurrection of the new age to come.  

These last twenty years have been a crazy journey to be sure. I asked my wife the other night what she thought was the most difficult or trying time for me. Without hesitation she spoke about going through Covid, the shutdowns, and losing members, not to illness, but due to different convictions about meeting, masking, and so on. And while that was a crazy time to be sure, my greatest challenges came early on in my career. I was privileged to serve this delightful collection of saints in southeastern Georgia at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Now, I do not come from a family of pastors. I was quite innocent to the task before me and more than likely had my rose-colored glasses firmly fixed. I was all-in, sold out for this endeavor I believed in so firmly. I had taken my new bride from Southern California to Saint Louis, Missouri, from there to Bremerton Washington, and then back to Saint Louis. We were finally sent to the other side of the country, thousands of miles from any family or friends, and all for what? To preach the Gospel. To lead, teach, and guide a flock of our Lord’s sheep.  

I recall preaching and teaching, pouring myself out to the best of my ability to impact the lives of those folks who came together every Sunday. Although I do not remember precisely when it happened, it was probably near the end of that first year, I gradually began to notice the lackluster commitment of those to whom I preached. As I said, I was all in. This was the greatest news that could be heard, worthy of centering your whole life around. Yet, those who regularly encountered this message did not exactly see it that way, or at least they did not take the steps to demonstrate it. In fact, quite often there was a lethargic reception to the hearing of the Gospel. I remember having a conversation with a good friend and colleague of mine about one specific Sunday. After a particularly enthusiastic sermon dealing with the necessity of gathering around the gifts of Christ, I found myself engaged in a discussion after the service with a member who was telling me how they would not be in church for the next month or so because of conflicts with various sporting events and visitors coming from out of town. They did not say it with shame, they just wanted to let me know. I guess it was so I would not worry. But I was worried. I was worried about their cavalier attitude about it all, and my friend said to me, “Well, so much for buying the field.”

Now look, pastors can be just as cynical as anyone else, but he had a point. Our Lord tells these three little parables at the end of Matthew 13. He just stacks them up. The first two deal with one who finds a treasure and sells all they have to possess the thing. The first was a treasure buried in a field. With great joy the man sells everything to buy the field. The other is a pearl of immense value. He too sells everything to possess the pearl. This was difficult for me to process. This Good News, this precious treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven was right here for the people of God. And they loved it, as long as it was convenient, as long as it fit into their schedule. So much for buying the field.  

This apparent truth created the first and perhaps most profound crisis in my career. The people of God are not going to sell it all. Shoot, they will not even offer up ten percent. No matter how much I poured into my preaching and teaching, any slight disturbance from the normal order of things and church could easily take a back seat. It might be a kid’s baseball game or swim meet. It could be out-of-town guests or just a beautiful day to head down to the beach. These were all it would take for them to skip out on the gifts of Christ. Perhaps they just knew these things would be there next week, so try not to get too worked up about it. This was not the first century where martyrs would die for these things, these were middle class American Christians who would barely give up an hour or so for church, much less commit to Bible study.  

But as I said, I was a relatively new pastor. I had much to learn still, a lot to understand about the powerful proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Our Lord tells these three mini parables and if we really listen to Him, I do not think we find the condemnation of those who refuse to sell it all and buy the field. That may be a first gut reaction to the apathy of our day, but I do not think this is the focus of these parables. No, these stories actually work in the exact opposite way. It appears to me these are not about the working of the people of God, the actions if you will of those who claim to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, and, therefore, a challenge to sell it all and possess the Kingdom. No, these are descriptions of what the Kingdom of Heaven is doing.  

This understanding flips everything on its head. Jesus introduces these parables saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Well, what is it like? It is like a treasure in a field which is found and when it is discovered the man sells everything to possess it. That is what it is like. If this is a bit unclear, let me give it to you again. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a pearl merchant who finds a pearl of great value, and when he finds it, he sells everything so he might possess it. These describe the actions of the Kingdom of Heaven, not your actions. This means you are the pearl of great value. You, my friend, are the treasure hidden in the fields of this world. It is not you but your Lord who sells everything, absolutely everything to possess you, to have you, to claim you as His own. He alone goes all the way. God becomes man, born under the Law to fulfill the Law in your place. He takes your sin, your failure, your apathy, and your shame and declares it is His own. Jesus dies for it all. He is punished in your place. He sells everything, does everything, so He might have you, possess you as brothers and sisters, and heirs of eternal life.  

So, what I saw as a crisis of my vocation was actually just the reality of the ministry into which I was ordained twenty years ago. If the task were to get everyone to sell it all and buy the field, why, I would have been driven mad years ago. Instead, the task before me was to tell the Good News, that Christ has sold everything for you. He has gone all-in for you. He has done what you could not do. And that, that is the joy of this job. That is why I love it. That is why I continue to do what I have been called to do.  

Ultimately, we get to the final parable of the three, the parable of the net. This is the Good News of Jesus. This is the proclamation that you are forgiven in the blood of Christ, which takes away all your sins. He casts the net wide and far, and in it are all kinds of fish, some strong and eager, some barely hanging on, some which may be outsiders or even hypocrites. And it is not given to us to sort it out here and now. Rather, we are to find joy in being caught up in His work and peace in the reality that your Lord has done it all, sold it all for you. What a blessing! What a gift! And with the blessing of God, I will happily do this for many years to come.