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23rd July - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
21 July 2017

Readings

Genesis 28: 10-19a.

Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing and now has to flee from Esau.  His father Isaac also sent him back to Haran to find a wife from their people just he had to.  Seeing that his father does not approve of marrying the locals Esau marries the daughter of his father’s half brother Ishmael.  This keeps the line of both sides of Abraham’s family free from Canaanite blood.

Jacob is now cut off from his family but has a dream that assures him he is not separated from God and God’s presence is connected with special places.  Maurice Andrew notes that God’s promise is stronger than human deception and the dream of the ladder to heaven confirms that.  The ladder comes directly from Yahweh and all the families of the earth are included in the blessing.  Howard Wallace writes that Jacob discovered God’s presence in the most unexpected and ordinary places..[1]  Therefore we might expect also to be surprised by divine presence in unexpected places.

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

The difference with this parable and the other sower parable is that someone else, an enemy, also sows seeds. 

The whole scene can be seen as depicting the divine realm with both good and evil side by side.  The divine project provokes opposition but the goal is eventually reached. 

Warren Carter suggests that Jesus and the disciples can be seen as the sower, God’s Empire is the household and the seed is the word of the sower.  The growing wheat suggests that God’s realm is creative and life giving. Opposition arises which resists and hinders the reign but does not destroy it.[2]

Sermon

The prophet Joel wrote,

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  (Joel 2:28)  

That statement is also quoted in Peter’s speech in Acts (Acts 2: 17) after the apostles receive the Holy Spirit at the festival of Pentecost.

In a more contemporary setting in the musical South Pacific Rodgers and Hammerstein have Bloody Mary  sing ‘If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?

Jacob’s deceit of his brother turns dangerous as Esau threatens to kill him and he is forced to flee.  But isolated from his family and fearful of his brother he has a dream that assures him of God’s presence.  The dream also reinforces his father’s dream that they will be fathers of a great nation. 

Jacob later wrestles with God in another dream and is the father of Joseph of amazing Technicolor Dream Coat fame.

Dreams are what pulls this family out of intergenerational domestic violence and abusive family relationships and opens the future to successive generations.  Dreams are the first step in new beginnings and dreams are the first step in making dreams come true.

Jacob marks the place of his dream as a ‘thin place’ a place where heaven and earth meet.  However the main point of Jacob’s dream is that we can be forced to move away from where we are comfortable but that does not move us away from God.  That is a hard lesson to grab hold of and when the descendants of Abraham and Isaac are taken into exile in Babylon they sang ‘How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:4)

Throughout history people have seen God as their god belonging to their territory. 

People who like Jacob have had an experience of God in a dream or vision have, like Jacob, marked the spot where that happened and then people have made pilgrimages to those places in the hope of having a similar experience. 

In similar hope people have built spectacular buildings in the hope that God will come and live in them.  Another descendant of Jacob, King David wanted to do that but Nathan had a dream in which God told him to ‘Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle’. (2 Samuel 7:5,6): 

Of course David’s son built the temple because he was politically astute and had a vision of stable government held in tension between sacred moral values symbolised by the temple and his absolute monarchy symbolised by the Palace. 

Special places are also good for religious tourism and if you Google ‘thin places’ you will quickly get several lists of places in Ireland were people have felt the presence of ‘the other world’ even without a ladder.  Places where the barrier between this world and the spirit world is so thin that visions and theophanies can pass through.

However the whole point of Jacob’s dream was that leaving home did not separate him from God.  Even cheating his brother did not separate him from God. As we read on we will find that wrestling with God brought reconciliation with his brother.

That fundamental realisation which people find so difficult is the understanding that God is omnipotent and that became very important in the great clash of civilisations and ethnicity in what we call the first century. 

Burton Mack writes that ‘the attractiveness of early Christianity is best explained as one of the more creative and practical social experiments in response to the loss of cultural moorings that all peoples experienced during this time’.[3]

Mack goes on to explain that the temple-state as a model of civilisation had been honed to perfection by three thousand years of fine tuning clashed with the collapsing Hellenenistic or Greek age.  That confrontation of cultures was stabilised by the brutal efficiency of Imperial Rome which was also evolving.  We can therefore see why the idea of the ‘Kingdom of God was so attractive to the people buffeted and disillusioned by change.  Mack writes of Jesus in his prologue: 

His followers did not congregate in order to enhance their chances of gaining eternal life for themselves as solitary persons.  They had been captivated by a heady, experimental drive to rethink power and purity and alter the way the authorities of their time had put the world together.[4]    

Reading of the clash of cultures, decay and disruption of long established civilisations and the chaos of different ethnicities and languages it is understandable that there would be experimentation with alternative ways of ordering society.  What is both encouraging and challenging however is that that first century clash of cultures also sounds very like our own time.  I saw an African comedian on Britain’s Got Talent say that he was tricked into emigrating into Britain.  He read in the papers that immigrants got all the best jobs, the best houses and the best girls and he said to himself ‘That’s for me!’

Africans are drowning in the Mediterranean in their thousands in a desperate effort to reach Europe and even Britain, not because they read the xenophobic outbursts in the British Press but their own civilisations, that have had in some cases thousands of years of fine tuning, are collapsing and the world is rapidly shrinking in relation to its growing human population.  

The encouragement in this desperate situation that is even felt here in New Zealand is that Christians have seen themselves as increasingly irrelevant and yet we are living in a world that has a lot of similarities with the first century world where Christianity began.  A world very like the world where:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14)  

Of course believing the good news is not easy because the first century vision was somewhat unbelievable in a world where purity is maintained by sacrifice and discipline is enforced by brutality.  Furthermore once Constantine recognised the early church as a way of organising people he proclaimed his empire as the kingdom of God and every emperor, king, queen, head of state and even Presidents of the United States have followed suit.  Both card carrying Christians and those who just have orange hair and golf courses.

However the people of Jesus’ time didn’t understand either.  Golf courses hadn’t been invented and changing one kingdom for another always involved violence.  Furthermore despite what Russell Crowe said in the film Gladiator about conquered peoples refusing to stay conquered I suspect people understood that rebellion against Rome had unfortunate consequences. 

So, the Jesus of the gospels told parables that began: ‘the kingdom of God is like,’ or in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven may be compared to.’     

He put before them another parable: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away Matthew 13:24,25)      

Like the parable of the sower Jesus’ audience would have connected with the metaphor and most gardeners today would understand the frustration of a multiplicity of weeds often coming up before the seeds and wonder where they came from. 

We are more likely to blame wind and birds rather than an enemy.  However there were suspicions the epidemic of the devastating Kiwi Fruit disease PSA was caused by a member of the industry who imported new genetic material without going through the full border biological screening New Zealand has in place.  That person did not intend to inflict damage on their own industry but was an enemy by carelessness as are all the travellers who leave fresh plant material in their suit cases when returning from overseas or liberate unwanted pets into the wild.  

All gardeners can also identify with the risks of weeding newly sprouted seeds and damaging the intended plants in the process.  However the agricultural accuracy is not the point of the parable but the images of a divine realm the metaphors invoke.  The divine realm does not come into being through a violent revolution or even a landslide victory in an election.  After all Winston Churchill is credited with saying ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’[5]

What Jesus was trying to explain for his unique time, which we can see has many similarities with our own time, is that God has liberally seeded the human population with good people.  Through greed, self-centred carelessness or whatever some of those seeds have grown into weeds.  Matthew blames the evil one and Larsen blames a heavenly master-chef with a perverted sense of humour who seasons the world with jerks.   

Such speculation is irreverent.  The real message of the parable is that the divine realm comes into being in a world of chaos, a world like ours, where good people and jerks exist alongside each other. 

Different personalities like Jacob and Esau struggle for their place in the world and their understanding of power, authority and inheritance.  But even Jacob and Esau can be reconciled through dreams and wrestling with God. 

God’s realm continues to move towards reality, Gods realm is always at hand as the good seed of the human condition dream dreams and wrestle with their own vision of God.  That is how people become the truly human citizens of God’s Realm.

We are all the good seed called to struggle and grow amongst the weeds of our world as our dreams open our minds to possibilities beyond our wildest expectations.    

 



[2] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.288-293.

[3] Burton L. Mack Who Wrote The New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth (New York: HarperOne 1989) p.19.

[4] ibid. p.12

 

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