My wife, Kate, is immensely keen on gardening. She spends a lot of time each Spring planting seeds carefully, one-by-one, in little plastic tubs. Until they’re tough enough to plant out, they live on the conservatory window-sill. She feeds them, and waters them, and any weeds that hitch a ride in the compost are pinched out the second they appear. Now, if I was to suggest to Kate that she leave the weeds to grow up with the flowers, I imagine she would give me one of those looks. But that’s exactly what the landowner tells his labourers to do in the parable we heard earlier. What are we meant to draw from that?
In these weeks leading up to Advent, the Church focuses on the idea of the coming Kingdom. It’s a massively important topic, and one that was central to Jesus’ teaching. But it’s not an easy concept to understand, and it’s not one that plays well to the 21st century mind-set. In short, Jesus tells his followers over and over again – in stories, lessons or actions – that the world will not always look the way it does now. On the contrary, he makes clear that history is heading towards an unimaginable climax, a time when all of creation will see the victory of God’s rule and God’s values.
It’s that final victory, and the journey towards it, that we think of each year in the month before Advent. But it’s not an easy doctrine to assert with confidence at this point in history. Gone are the centuries in which it was deemed foolishness to challenge the teaching of the Bible. Gone even are the clear battle-lines between religion and science that I grew up with. We are at a point in history where most people don't know what to believe or whom to believe in. The media, the scientific community, the public services, the government.. all are struggling to retain the public’s trust. The Church has taken blow after blow to its credibility. And the greedy and the wicked seem ever less unaccountable for their actions. In a spiritual and moral vacuum like this, how can we confidently proclaim that God is in control, and that the world is moving towards the establishment of his Kingdom?
There’s nothing new in this kind of confusion; in fact many historians have commented on the parallels between our own cultural mood and the world Jesus was born into. And as Jesus addresses the doubts and fears of his 1st century followers, he throws light on our own chaotic times.
The first question that Jesus’ words help to illuminate, is this:
Is God really working his purpose out as year succeeds to year?
Or has morality broken down too far to believe that he is in control.
Jesus reassures his followers – then and now - that God is in control of history. He won’t allow the wicked, the oppressors, those who oppose his rule, to escape justice forever. It’s an important reminder, because it’s become fashionable in some Christian circles to play down any concept of divine judgment. But to leave judgment out of the picture is to portray God as unjust. Jesus makes clear that his Father knows what’s in each person’s heart, and that he will act. Far from being too uncompromising a message for the modern world, it’s a message of hope that the modern world desperately needs to hear.
But that leaves the way open for a follow-up question: If God is in control, and knows the hearts of men and women, why is he letting the wicked get away with it for so long?
It’s a fair question, and Jesus wants to reassure his listeners that God has a good reason for allowing evil to continue unchecked for the time being. In the story, the landowner allows the wheat and the weeds to grow up together until harvest-time. His main concern is avoiding damage to tender young plants. Infant shoots look much the same, but when they grow up and bear fruit it’s very easy to tell them apart. This revelation of God’s patience is good news for those budding Christians who are still unsure whether they fully belong to him. But I think the people Jesus most wants to hear this are the spiritually proud, those of us who think we know who is of God and who isn’t. It’s so easy to be judgmental, to presume that we know who is in tune with God, to draw up a mental list of those we should or shouldn’t work with. Jesus’ words call us to leave the judging to God, and to work with whom we can to push out the boundaries of the Kingdom.
The third and final question is a very practical one: In this age of spiritual and moral confusion, when there is such ingrained suspicion of authority figures and truth claims, how should we go about sharing the message of the Kingdom with the outside world?
The answer sounds obvious, but surprisingly few churches do it: We should look at the way Jesus himself communicated the message to a spiritually and morally confused audience. And the first thing we notice is that he doesn’t expect the public to accept a set of beliefs. Rather, what we see him doing is planting seeds of doubt and hope in their minds. We see him telling stories with a twist, performing actions that turned their normal way of thinking on its head. And then, once they had been drawn into his community, and wanted to move on… then he took them somewhere quiet and unpacked the theory behind the stories and the actions. In a similar way, we can’t expect outsiders to the church to be attracted by beliefs and traditions that they’ve been conditioned to regard as primitive or irrelevant. But we can draw people in by being Christ for them, letting Jesus live through us, telling them stories with a hidden meaning, serving them in the way Jesus served while he was on earth. As they are drawn in, they will learn the meaning of the stories and begin to understand all that Jesus Christ has done for us. But the starting point is speaking their language, serving them, defying their expectations.
- We’re living through a time of spiritual and moral chaos, but God is in control. Precisely because he is merciful and just, people will be held accountable. Jesus himself tells us so.
- It’s tempting to jump to conclusions about people, but only God knows who is his. One day all will be revealed, but for now it’s not our place to judge.
- And finally, we’re being called to proclaim the Gospel in a way that makes sense to the world. To be Christlike, and save the theoretical unpacking, like Jesus himself did, for those who are ready to hear it.
Taken together, Jesus’s words should give us a renewed confidence in the relevance of the Kingdom of God to a confused world, and a patient willingness to keep engaging with the community in loving outreach as we entrust God with the outcomes.
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