text :: Matthew 13: 45-46
theme verse :: “On finding a pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Mt 13:46)
As we enter a time when millions of people will make resolutions for the New Year, we are met with a parable that Jesus tells about a merchant who is resolved to acquire a pearl of great value. What sort of pearl could possibly be worthy of such commitment? What will it take to obtain the object of his desire? What will we uncover that may inform our own resolutions in the year ahead?
opening :: 'The First Noel' : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
reader :: Keenan Barnard
preaching :: Rev Kevin Howe
closing :: 'I Wonder As I Wander' :: Kelly Ford, tenor; Billie Kay Sawyer, piano
Matthew 13: 45 – 46
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
The presents have been opened, the wrapping paper is in the garbage bin, and even though we are only halfway through the Christmas season, our eyes are now fixed on the New Year ahead. At the stroke of midnight tomorrow, fireworks and confetti, will give way to the mystery that is the year 2019. Can you believe it!? I will serve as your kind reminder that if you have yet to make a New Year’s resolutions, this would be the time. It’s estimated that some 40% of Americans will make at least one resolution,1 and many of these goals will likely follow the perennial trends of wanting to eat a little healthier, work out more frequently, save money, or spend more time with friends and family. Personally, I would love to do all those things. And I love the idea that as we approach each New Year, that we would commit to changing an undesired behavior, taking on a personal goal, or otherwise improving our lives. But like so many of our other so-called commitments, New Year’s resolutions are far easier said than done. One study suggests that only 8% of people will achieve their goal.2
There are, of course, many factors that play into our success (or lack thereof)—our planning and preparation, the right level of accountability and encouragement, an acknowledgement about the power of our habits—but all of this has me thinking about another question entirely—one that I think precedes all of these considerations when making our New year’s resolutions. It is a simple question, but quite powerful. And it often gets overlooked because we’re in the thick of our living and speeding so quickly towards January 1 that we forget to slow down and ask it. So, since we’ve committed to being present here this morning, and since you have the expectation I have about 10 more minutes of your focus to wrap this thing up, I’ll ask that question now: What is truly worthy of our resolve? What is truly worthy of our commitment; our investment of time and the life force we have to give in the days and months ahead? What is worthy of our resolution?
When it came to Jesus, he was all-in on the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as it is referred to in the Gospel of Matthew. For all the other things we uncover in the biblical narrative, the main content of Jesus’ preaching was centered on the kingdom of heaven; what it’s like when God’s in charge. And what I think it truly interesting, is that as sold as Jesus was on this kingdom—God’s reign on earth—he hardly ever spoke about it in direct ways. Instead, he choose to teach in parables, these analogous stories that compare the kingdom to all sorts of other things. Many of the parable are childhood favorites and are recalled with a certain amount of familiarity, like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. But that familiarity that can sometimes be a barrier to us in understanding the mysteries about kingdom of god that are contained within these stories. For example, we may be able to rattle of some of these parables without considering just how bizarre—even disturbing—they truly are. Jesus seems to find nothing odd about comparing God’s ways to a mixed bag of questionable characters: an unjust judge, a cruel king, a tipsy slave owner, unfair employer—these are just a few of the roles in these scripts.3 For speaking about matters of faith, they certainly don’t appear refined and pious on the surface. These stories are radical and mysterious. But then, again, the Kingdom of God is a radical and mysterious concept in this world. And it’s safe to say that we don’t as well with mystery as we do with facts.
Still Jesus was resolved to usher in this mysterious kingdom, and believed it was worthy of our commitments, and so it is important that we engage these parables with an open-mind and a vulnerable heart, praying that they would reveal to us some wisdom we might come to live by. The scripture we hear read this morning is one such parable and it is unceremoniously dropped into the Gospel of Matthew. With no introduction at all it simply says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Now what could that mean? 4
Perhaps, after all the Christmas shopping, you identify first with the merchant. And if that’s the case, maybe it means that we who claim to love God and God’s reign better be ready to pay full price for this treasure. Bargain shoppers beware, this find will require making a complete sacrifice. No room for half-commitment, here. If you truly desire this kingdom it’s going to cost you. What you ask? Well…everything. But then again, you sense that this treasure is worth the expense. After all, you’ve been on the market for something that would bring you true satisfaction. And despite receiving all the gifts on your Christmas wish list, and your fresh, new winter look, you have yet to find something that brings you sustained joy. You paid for many things, some that you liked, others you bought out of fear of what others might think of you if you didn’t. But this treasured find, this is different. You know it’s the find of a lifetime. And you are resolved to acquire it. So you clear out your savings accounts and you mortgaged everything you’ve got to purchase this pearl. And you’re down to the loose change in your pocket (didn’t we say this was going to require a complete commitment?)…and would you believe it, you have exactly enough! And at long last, you have attained what you sought. And as you hold your prize, marveling at its beauty, you realize that all that time and effort it took was worth it. This treasure would have been cheap at twice the cost and it is yours, and joy is yours! Go in peace.
Is that what it means? Or maybe we hear something else about the kingdom of God in this story. Let’s consider it again. Maybe we are not the merchant in this story. Who is looking for these pearls anyway? What if God was searching? God was looking all over for pearls. Would you believe it? You know, crossing though wooded forests and scaling tall mountains. Swimming through oceans of stars; searching across space and time; inspecting the small, secret places that only God knows. The beauty of the prize was compelling. God is—did you know—a great lover of pearls.
But God now has found something—a pearl, yes, but not just any pearl. One unique in all of space and time. Extraordinary. This one is a treasure, beautifully and wonderfully made. And God should know. After all, God made you, you pearl of surpassing value. You see, God made you, then lost you for a while. But God has sought you out and found you again, and now God must have you regardless of the cost. But God is completely resolved to claim you, God already has—we gathered just this Monday evening to remember again, God’s only begotten son was born into the world that we might know we are claimed beloved by God beyond measure.
Maybe this, too, is what the kingdom of God looks like? I dare to say there are powerful truths in both scenarios. And there is more to this kingdom than we would ever have time to uncover fully, much less in Sunday morning worship services. For the kingdom of God is, after all, a mystery. But it’s a beautiful one—one worthy of our pursuit. It is worthy of our time and energy, our thoughts and actions, our talents and treasures. One worthy of praying for: that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I wonder if you would consider making a resolution in this New Year to seek out the kingdom of God in some way. Maybe it’s a commitment to read the parables of Jesus. Maybe it’s to engage in service to your neighbors; to see how that opens you to glimpses of God’s reign. Or maybe it’s the resolution to connect more deeply to Christ’s church as we strive to be a paradigm of what it’s like when God’s in charge.
Today, I have a Christmas gift to you each of you: two precious minutes of quiet. A sacred space in a distracting holiday season to pray about your commitments in the year ahead. And Take these next two minutes, if would, to be with God in prayer.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Friends, however the weeks and months ahead unfold, may we strive to seek first the kingdom of God. And when we fall short of our aims and goals, I pray that you come to know deeply that our God has found you to be worthy of whatever cost and God is resolved to claim you. Thanks be to God! Amen.
1 Dan Diamond, “Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s How They Do It.” Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/#432232b1596b. January 1, 2013.
3 Capon, Robert. Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. William B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 2002. p. 1.
4 Matthew 13:45-46