Seeds of Change

Seeds are amazing. Henry David Thoreau, not usually known as a friend to orthodox belief, spoke truth about seeds: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.” A single tomato seed can grow into a single plant that will put on up to 200 fruit–tomatoes are fruit, by the way–each of which contains 150 or more seeds. A typical tomato plant might yield 40 pounds of edibles and 30,000 potential new plants. Plus the vines of the plant will grow huge, requiring some sort of support for the best production and health.

And that’s really nothing compared to the mustard seed. Jesus famously compares the kingdom of God to that seed:

He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.”–Matthew 13:31-32

I have to admit that, as one of the enlightened people who prefers mustard on his hot dogs, I was disappointed to learn that the mustard plant Jesus refers to here is not the one that French’s and others use to make that delightful yellow condiment. Instead, the plant referred to here is most likely the salvadora persica, the so-called toothbrush bush. These plants can grow as tall as 20 feet, which would certainly qualify it as “taller than the garden plants.” Its seed looks like dust.

Some proud academics, it seems, have discovered seeds that are actually smaller than Jesus’ mustard seed. Obviously this passage should said, “It’s the smallest of all the seeds, except for an orchid on a continent that you haven’t yet discovered and the size of which you won’t have the tools to measure for a couple thousand years.” Might it be that those who gleefully point out that the mustard seed is not actually the smallest of all the world’s seeds have missed the point? If so, then what is the point?

  • The kingdom of God starts out as a small thing, but it can grow into something really large.
  • The kingdom of God doesn’t look like much at the outset, but it can become something remarkable. (That’s really another way of saying the first item.)
  • The kingdom of God, when fully grown, will bless others–as in the birds of the sky who nest there.

But I am left with a question. Who who is the man who sowed this seed in his field? Does the man represent the person who has sought the kingdom of God, as in Matthew 6:33, or is it God Himself doing the planting? In the previous parable, the wheat and tares, the farmer was God. I’m not sure here, though, if we are being called to plant it in ourselves or if God is doing the planting.

What do you think?

Wheat and Tares

Ralph drives me crazy! You have a Ralph at your church, don’t you? We not only have several of them at our church but a couple of them (none named Ralph, by the way) have been in our home in recent weeks. Every church has its annoying people, its nosy people, its smelly people, and so on. That’s not who I’d like to think about right now.

Along with a selection of oddball believers, pretty much every church has somebody who is an unbeliever. This person might sit in the pews every Sunday, might drop money in the collection, might even “amen” now and again, but they’re not actual followers of Christ and their deeds often expose them, at least occasionally.

As we attempt to understand better what it is that Matthew 6:33 would have us “seek first” in the kingdom of God, my mind is drawn to the collection of kingdom parables in Matthew 13. The first in the line is the “Wheat and Tares” in Matthew 13:24-30.

 The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while people were sleeping, his enemy came, sowed weeds among the wheat, and left. (24-25)

The parable goes on, but I’ll trust that you can follow the link and read it on your own. In summary, the owner allows the weeds to grow up, instructing the workers to pull them out at harvest time. Interestingly, the Greek word that the CSB translates as “weeds” is actually more specific. The “tares” of older translations are a particular type of weed, one that looks like wheat but does not produce usable grain. This isn’t dandelions and chickweed, but something that masquerades as the crop–maybe it even “amens” now and again.

What does this parable teach us about the kingdom of God?

First, it seems pretty clear that the kingdom of God (or heaven) is not the same as heaven or the afterlife. Why? Is God really going to allow the “weeds” to go into heaven? And if so, then what does the harvest and the barn represent in the parable? No, I think the kingdom of God is at least initially of this world.

Second, the kingdom of God, when we reach it, will not be perfect. We might find ourselves standing in a terrific field of wheat, but God isn’t going to keep all of the weeds away from us. Our mission, it seems, is to keep seeking, which involves growing into fruitful grain ourselves, ignoring the weeds as best we can.

Third, the kingdom of God will face opposition. Notice that the weed seeds didn’t just blow in on the wind. An enemy sowed the weeds among the wheat.

A farmer needn’t teach wheat to grow. It will grow to the best it can given the conditions. Sure, weeds can interfere, but that isn’t the wheat’s problem. That’s the farmer’s affair.

So today, the kingdom of God is like a field of grain. If I’m an individual plant, then my job in seeking the kingdom is to grow and put on a head of good grain. Is it a coincidence that this grain is also seed for the next generation of wheat? I don’t think so.

The Bigfoot-Alien Connection

There are things “they” don’t want you to know. They don’t want you to know that bigfoot is really a scout for the aliens, searching for lost technology in the Pacific Northwest forests. And they don’t want you to know that these are not just any aliens but the friendly aliens, the ones who are attempting to assist us in defending ourselves from the unfriendly aliens. “They” certainly don’t want you to know about them or the year 2032. And all of this explains why “they” deny the obvious conclusion that the earth is flat.

It doesn’t take too long in the back alleys of the web to find stuff that makes the preceding paragraph seem pretty tame. In fact, just to test that claim, I pasted the title of this post into Google to see what I’d find. The very first hit claimed an interdimensional connection between the hairy guy and the space people. (The second one threw in Atlantis.)

People seem to love the idea of hidden knowledge, of mysteries and secrets, conspiracies and riddles. I’ll admit that in a younger season of my life, I’ve been drawn into such materials. Today, I find myself attracted to another mystery, one lying right in front of me my entire life.

This morning, I was thinking about the post that came out yesterday, explaining why Jesus taught in parables. When the disciples asked this question, he told them

the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.–Mathew 13:11

So here’s the mystery. Are those secrets things that have been plainly given to all who believe in Jesus or even all those who possess the Bible? Or are these secrets that Jesus gave to his inner circle but did not give to us? Let’s keep in mind that when Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 13, He hadn’t bestowed the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the powerful manner that we’d see in John 20 or Acts 2.

The real question I have is whether the kingdom of God (or heaven–the terms are used interchangeably in the gospels) is a mysterious, complicated, secret thing or a simple thing.

Back in Matthew 6:33, Jesus tells the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount to “seek God’s kingdom.” If the kingdom is complicated, then how were they supposed to do that without the secret knowledge? But if it is not complicated or secret, then why, seven chapters later, do we find Jesus veiling the truth in the parables?

Are you ready for my answer? I’m sorry, but I don’t have a definitive answer. The kingdom of God is a mystery, and yet it seems to be an accessible mystery. If it were simple, then Jesus wouldn’t be throwing a flurry of parables into teaching it. If it were complicated, then in Matthew 19:14, He wouldn’t have said that the kingdom belongs to such as children.

Winston Churchill could have been speaking on this subject when he described “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In speaking of world affairs, however, Churchill added “but perhaps there is a key.” We can hope for a key for this subject. And it isn’t Bigfoot.

Mystery House

My house isn’t square–or even rectangular to be more precise. Looking over a survey of the 110-year-old barn, I see that it is three inches longer on its north wall than on the south. You could take my word for it, but you don’t have to. Anyone with the proper tools and training could measure it and reach the same result. Some information is accessible to anybody.

On the other hand, some information is not so free ranging. If I tell you that I dreamed of being a llama last night, you have no way of verifying the truth of that claim. You’d just have to believe or disbelieve. Other things some people know and, barring loose lips, other people don’t know, because sometimes secrets can be kept.

Jesus spent a great deal of time discussing the kingdom of God, before and after telling us in Matthew 6:33 to seek that kingdom, because it is not a topic that is incredibly clear and obvious to everyone. In fact, the first thing we should note about the kingdom of God is that it is not freely accessible, easily verified information. We learn this in Matthew 13:10-13

Then the disciples came up and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?”
He answered, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. That is why I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.

So we learn from this exchange that the knowledge of the kingdom is something that is given rather than studied and learned. Some people receive this knowledge and some people don’t. That would allow this knowledge to fit the category of a mystery or a secret.

So what does that mean for our understanding of Matthew 6:33? Jesus tells his hearers to “seek first the kingdom,” but then he says later that the kingdom (or at least knowledge of it) is not something you can seek. How do we reconcile this?

As we’re going to see as we look at the other parables that shed light on it, the kingdom is not something that everybody understands. Obviously, if somebody doesn’t comprehend the existence of the kingdom, they’re not going to pursue it. The direction in Matthew 6:33, then, must be aimed at those who do understand, those to whom the secrets have been given. For everyone else, it is nonsense.

But what about those of us who have been granted these secrets. What excuse do we have if we don’t then seek the kingdom?

Anyone can measure my house, but not everyone sees the charm of living in a barn. Having that vision though, what a shame it would be if we didn’t make the most of the place. How much more shame would there be if we did not work with our knowledge of the kingdom?

Wink TV

Would You Like to Be Rich?

Do you want to make more money? Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? What if I could show you a guaranteed way to make the sort of money that would give you the lifestyle you’ve always wanted: a new house, fine car, boat, travel? And what if you could do that with absolutely no risk?

See, I could have easily made my career writing informercials for shady get-rich-quick schemes. Clearly, I missed my calling. But then I have to get serious as we continue to examine Matthew 6:33:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Having established, or at least beginning to establish, what it is that we’re supposed to seek, I’d like to step backward and re-examine the word “seek.” What precisely does seeking the kingdom look like?

It seems to me that we can learn a great deal about seeking from the sort of people who get excited by money-making informercials. Most of those money schemes promise champagne by the pool with almost no work. When people seek money in that sense, they are essentially going out to grab money that has been carelessly left lying around. This is the sort of seeking at work when people bank on Publishers Clearinghouse, lotteries, or day trading of securities.

I talk about this sort of seeking as if it were universally bad, but it isn’t. When Isaac Newton described his rules of motion, he didn’t create them. They were there and he picked them up and explained them. Similarly, if an investor has the vision to see value in a parcel of real estate when no one else can, should she be criticized? She found value that was just lying around untapped.

On the other hand, people can seek money by attempting to add value to the world. This promises a reasonable return for a lot of hard work and effort. This sort of seeking is what we see when people seek through years at a productive job, starting a new business, or investing for the long haul.

  • The first sort of seeking aims to seek and find by picking up what’s already there.
  • The second sort of seeking aims to seek and find by creating what isn’t yet there.

So which of these are we supposed to do when we “seek the kingdom of God”? Are we supposed to go out and beat the bushes looking for the kingdom? Are we supposed to move there? Or are we supposed to work toward creating the kingdom, helping it to transition “on earth as it is in heaven”?

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus tells us, “Seek and you will find,” but does that mean we seek and find the kingdom like Easter eggs lying around the yard? Or does it mean that the action of seeking somehow helps to create the object, like seeking to grow vegetables in the garden?

I think it might be worthwhile to explore both possibilities.

 

King of Somewhere

“I’m the king of the world,” Leonardo DiCaprio famously crows from the bow of the Titanic in the movie of that name. The irony of that statement for anyone who can see beyond the incredibly contrived romantic plotline of the movie is profound.

This pops into my head as we continue to explore Matthew 6:33. We’ve already determined that in order to claim the promise of that verse we must seek something ahead of everything else, but what are we to seek?

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

The kingdom of God? That’s slightly more difficult to grasp.

If you had been bopping around England in about 1525 and stopped by Hampton Court, the home of King Henry VIII, he might have offhandedly dropped, as you two were swapping stories around the barbeque grill, that he was the king of England and France. You, as a guest, would politely smile and nod, quickly turning the subject to what sort of grouse he had on the charcoal.

You see, when English kings in the Renaissance era claimed to hold England and France, what they really meant was that they actually held England and wished they held France. The only portion of France that Henry VIII actually controlled was the port and immediate environs of Calais. It would be like setting up control of Corpus Christi and claiming to be the ruler of all Texas.

In human terms, a kingdom, in any meaningful sense, is a place where the king actually exercises some measure of control. Henry the VIII could claim to be the king of France, but if he couldn’t collect taxes, enforce laws, conscript soldiers, or otherwise act kingly, then he wasn’t really the king of France. There’s a guy right now, Louis Alphonse, who is considered the rightful king of France. While he dresses well and plays polo, I don’t see the French Republic asking him to move in to Versailles.

A kingdom, I would argue, is not where somebody, Henry VIII or Louis Alphonse or somebody else, says they’re in charge. It is a place where they actually exercise at least reasonable control.

If we accept that last claim, then the kingdom that Matthew 6:33 calls us to seek is a place where God actually rules. If somebody else rules there–like Francis I, the actual King of France in 1525, when Henry VIII claimed to be the guy–then it really isn’t their kingdom at all.

Does that move us closer to understanding the kingdom of God in Matthew 6:33? Perhaps we get a clue from Revelation 11:15:

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he will reign forever and ever.

As I read that–and I’d be remiss not to point out that it echoes the Lord’s prayer talking about God’s kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven”–it’s almost as if Jesus is admitting that there are two kingdoms, but that the kingdom of God is eventually going to overtake the kingdom of this world, sort of like Henry VIII, in his back porch dreams, probably dreamed of restoring actual control of France.

Does this help? Perhaps a little, but we’ll need to revisit this question.

J’Accuse, Turkey Hunter!

I call you out, Jason! You missed church Sunday. You didn’t fill your appointed role in children’s ministry. And why? What was more important that playing some silly game in the large group? You were sitting in the woods prepared to blow the head off of a perfectly innocent tom turkey. You’re on a fast track to perdition, my friend. Haven’t you read this:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Let’s continue our examination of Matthew 6:33 with a look at the word “first.” I love the Greek word that is translated as “first” here. It’s proton. Honestly, doesn’t that sound like it ought to be a minor superhero appearing in the next series of Marvel movies? But seriously, proton, in Greek, means pretty much what “first” does in English. For something to be meaningfully first, then something else must be second and third and so on.

A few years ago, I ran my first 10K race. It was a fairly small affair in Odessa, Missouri, and most of the participants opted for the 5K course. But not me. I ran out from the town, onto several miles of gravel roads and then came back. I came in first for my age and gender group. And how many men finished after me? Exactly zero. I was the one and only entrant in his fifties and the dead-last man in the field. The only woman in the race came across a few minutes behind me and won first among women. Cool.

Understandably, I don’t treasure the medal I received for that race. When you’re both first and last, it’s not something on which to brag. I’m much more proud of a second-place finish in a much larger race.

When Jesus tells us to seek God’s kingdom first, he’s not saying that we should seek it only. When I went to a Kansas City Chiefs football game with my son last fall (and missed church in the process, I must add), I wasn’t seeking God’s kingdom. When I bought a new “Browning” ball cap yesterday, it didn’t do the slightest to seek God’s kingdom. Happily, I’m comfortable in believing that so long as I seek the kingdom first, then I’m doing right.

Of course, this sort of thought process can lead us into self-delusion. What if I buy season tickets to the Chiefs and miss eight Sundays? Is that okay? What if I spend my money on a lot of frivolous things and am not able to tithe or do other God-honoring things? What if my golf game gets in the way of my ministry game?

First is a pretty easy thing to define in a race, but it is much more slippery in the complexities of life. Still, my wife knows when I’m not putting her first. I know when she isn’t putting me first. How much more does God know that He’s not first? And deep down, I think that generally we all know when our secondary interests are creeping into first place. We just don’t like to admit it.

So I suppose I can allow Jason to take a Sunday to hunt turkeys without assuming that sin is going to gobble him up.

Dog Catches Car

My dog chases squirrels. Other dogs chase cars. When I watch a dog chase a car, I wonder, what will he do with that car if he catches it? Can you imagine Rover bouncing down the street with the fender from a 2010 Buick in its teeth? Perhaps the chase, the seeking, is enough.

Recently, I suggested that the Christian life has two parts: Becoming a Christian (John 3:16) and Being a Christian (Matthew 6:33). Since getting people in the front door is exceptionally important, a huge amount of attention in evangelical circles has been dedicated to that “Becoming” portion. However, for most of us, the “Being” fills a great deal longer period and proves immensely more difficult than the “Becoming.” Therefore, the “Being” portion deserves our attention as well. Let’s take a look at Matthew 6:33, word by word, to see what we can learn about this primary motion that is supposed to animate our lives and make our “Being” more successful.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

When we consider that first verb, “seek,” we find that there’s nothing inherently good in seeking. Even within the pages of Matthew’s gospel, we read that Herod would seek to kill Jesus (2:13) and an evil spirit would seek a place to rest (12:43). Seeking is something that we all do. What is important is the object of our seeking. We’ll take that up next time.

But before moving on from “seek,” I’d like to consider the words that are not placed here. Notice that the verse doesn’t read: “Achieve first the kingdom…” We don’t have to actually find the kingdom or achieve the kingdom. We have to seek it. Yes, in the very next chapter, still in the Sermon on the Mount, we read

For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.–Matthew 7:8

So if we seek, we’ll also find, but the promise in 6:33 is that all the needful things will follow from the seeking and not from the finding.

A few years ago, there was “No Fear,” a line of t-shirts that screen-printed bad sportsmanship onto cheap cotton. These shirts said things like “Second place is the first loser.” Great attitude. “No Fear” certainly did not refer to having confidence in God. Instead, it encouraged a (misplaced) confidence in one’s self.

The “No Fear” crowd–and have no doubt, they still abound today–seeks. They seek themselves, success, wealth, or meaning. They seek and sometimes they find.

In the end, then, we see that it is enough to seek (as opposed to achieving or finding) but it is essential that what we seek is the right thing.

My dog seems to take great joy in chasing those squirrels. He’s never caught one, and I question whether he really knows why chasing that little rodent is worthwhile. Perhaps for him, the pursuit is enough.

Time for Pie!

Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

I can’t recall where I heard that, but I appreciate the sentiment. Wouldn’t you hate to deny yourself to get in shape and then have a truck run over you?.

Seriously, though, if  you have five things on your to-do list for the day, which one do you get done first. I recall a grade-school teacher I had who always did math first thing. We thought it was because she wanted to torture us. Instead, I learned much later, math was her least favorite subject. She figured that if she got the worst thing for the day done, then everything else would be easier.

That’s one method for planning your priorities. Another popular one is to do the most important thing first. That, I think, is what lies behind what I take to be the single most important verse for Christian living, Matthew 6:33:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Lest you think that I’m an anti-evangelical heretic who doesn’t put John 3:16 at the top of the hit parade, let me explain the way I view the act of Christianity. To my mind, this thing has two parts:

  1. Becoming a Christian–which is where John 3:16 comes in, and
  2. Being a Christian, where Matthew 6:33 holds sway.

It is vital that we become believers in Jesus, but it is also important that we live out our Christianity. How do we do that? We put first things first. We live by faith by seeking God’s kingdom first.

Matthew 6:33 tells us that life is not uncertain and that we need not eat dessert first. It tells us instead to cut God a big slice of that lemon meringue pie right up front and then trust that something even better will come our way. Maybe it won’t be lemon meringue pie. Maybe it won’t even be dessert, but it will be precisely what we need and even more than we need. It will be better than what we would have gotten had we grabbed the whole pie for ourselves.

It takes confidence for us to seek God’s kingdom ahead of our own kingdom. We have to truly believe, to truly rely on His goodness and His faithfulness. It takes the sort of belief that is at the heart of that verse I sidestepped earlier.

Believing in Jesus, in the sense it is intended in John 3:16 involves a great deal more than just an intellectual assent. I believe in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve been there a couple of times. I trust that if I drove north on I-29, I’d get to that city, but my belief does not mean that I depend on Omaha in the slightest. My belief in my home town is greater, but if Independence, Missouri were to suddenly announce its closing, I could still function. John 3:16-level belief is more.

And so is the action behind Matthew 6:33. It’s an act of faith to put God first, to set aside my priorities for God’s. It means eating dessert last with confidence that there’s something better in store. Christian life, you see, is sweet!

The Key to Happiness Is Not in Your Head

It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.

Those are the words of Dale Carnegie, the super bestselling author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve mentioned Carnegie a couple of times recently due to just finishing an audiobook biography of the man. The author of the book refers to Carnegie as a “Self-Help Messiah,” which, as you can imagine, really grabs my attention.

Raised by parents who espoused “stern Protestant beliefs,” a phrase that the writer throws out probably a dozen times, Carnegie leaves the farm and heads to New York City to find success. And he finds success, eventually hitting it big by teaching public speaking courses and then, in the 1930s, publishing the book mentioned above. After the Second World War, he would write another huge-selling book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Like many popular self-help writers and speakers, Carnegie has a great deal of wisdom to impart. We can do worse than to follow many of his suggestions, like taking a genuine interest in other people rather than trying to get them to take an interest in us. But that whole “messiah” thing is where I have to draw the line. To illustrate, let’s look at the quotation above.

What is important? Is it our possessions? Our knee-jerk reaction is to say, “no,” but is that really how we live? Was it how Carnegie lived? The same can be said on the other fronts that Carnegie names above. It’s not “where you are,” right? If he really believed that, then why did he leave his parents’ farm?

The power for success, Carnegie argues, here and elsewhere, is in positive thinking (to swipe Norman Vincent Peale’s phrase). You can Think Yourself Rich–to use a title of a much later book–in Carnegie’s worldview.

There is some truth to all of this. Certainly we should avoid what Zig Ziglar called “stinking thinking,” but is “what you think about” really the key to “It”? Is the answer to the great question of the universe all down to the power of the mind?

How ironic it is that Dale Carnegie, the precursor to many of the self-help gurus to come, people like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, and Oprah Winfrey, would die at the relatively young age of 67 of Alzheimer’s Disease. This man essentially put his faith in his mind, and his mind was what failed him before the rest of his body.

Carnegie apparently abandoned his parents’ “stern Protestant beliefs,” only hanging onto a fuzzy spirituality cloaked in vaguely Christian vocabulary. Essentially, he had faith in faith, which ultimately meant having faith in himself.

What matters more than what you have, who you are, or what you think is whose you are. That is the essential difference between Christianity and every humanistic ideology. And what a difference it proves to be. Want to stop worrying and start living? I have a different Messiah for you. Here’s what He said about worry:

Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . .  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.–Matthew 6:25, 33