The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Pentecost VI – 24 July 2011
Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33
From the Book of Genesis:
Jacob asked his father-in-law, Why then have you deceived me?
From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Jesus said, The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed….
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
I truly cannot count the number of funerals at which I have presided over the 39 years of my ministry. I have kept the records but have never taken the time to simply compile them and count them. I can guess that they would number between three and four hundred.
But there’s one thing of which I am certain; at all of them I quoted those most beautiful, comforting and inspiring words that St. Paul wrote to his fellow Christians in Rome, declaring our victory over sin and death in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as he boldly proclaimed that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us… and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Truly, the only comfort that we have is our Lord’s blessed assurance that death does not have the last word. We know that, in and through Jesus Christ, all the suffering and misery of life do not prevail but are rather replaced by the perfection of joy. And we experience that perfect happiness as we live with the God who created us in His kingdom – the kingdom of heaven. We are, thus, more than conquerors through him who loved us. And nothing can finally separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Because He has conquered, we conquer. Because He lives, we live. Because He won the victory, we win the victory.
Now, when we talk about heaven – about the kingdom of heaven we discover that all of us have some kind of an idea about heaven, but none of us can really describe it. We all say when we’ve lost a loved one, Well, he’s in a better place. Or She’s in heaven with all her loved ones. But just what that better place means – just what actually constitutes heaven well, we really cannot speak about it all that much because perfection eludes us. Literally, heaven lies beyond our imaginations.
Furthermore, our Lord speaks about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God metaphorically – He frequently says, The kingdom of heaven is like …… the use of either like or as makes the metaphor a simile. But now is not the time for a grammar lesson. Suffice it to say that specific descriptions of heaven or the kingdom of heaven of the kingdom of God are rare. In fact, I cannot think of even one. Our Lord speaks comparatively and metaphorically – usually in parables.
In this morning’s lesson He tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed… Notice that He says like a grain of mustard seed. I did a little research on the mustard seed and apparently the mustard seed, one of the tiniest of all seeds, has an even tinnier grain in the center. Like a grain of wheat has what we call the germ in its center, so all seeds have an outer covering and an inner grain. The visible seed is the coating for the center that actually has the life-giving element. So however tiny a mustard seed is, the grain is even smaller – yet out of this tiny seed grows a huge plant.
Now, the mustard plants of the Middle East can be large, tree-like bushes, 9’ to 12’ tall, and thick with foliage – perfect for birds to make nests in and under which animals can find shade. And furthermore, the plants are strong, able to thrive in dry environments.
From this, what can we determine about the kingdom of heaven? Well. We know that the kingdom of heaven grows – that’s it’s not a static state of being forever set. Rather, it’s a dynamic, living place – alive in its own right and alive in us by virtue of our faith. And although it starts out small – in fact, tiny, it grows and we grow into the fullness of life that God intends.
Next, we can say that it’s possible that other creatures may live in heaven. We know about the heavenly creatures called cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, principalities and powers – even wheels. But is it possible that animals – earthly creatures – our pets – go to heaven? The issue remains debatable. Historically, theologians declare that because animals have no morally accountable souls then they cannot go to heaven – neither can they go to hell.
But maybe moral accountability is not always definitive for life – even for us who are morally accountable. Heaven is populated by redeemer sinners – not by people who have never sinned. If heaven were populated only by people who have never sinned, then only one person would live there – Jesus Christ Himself. Otherwise, no one else would qualify.
And that’s another point. He qualifies us. We do not earn heaven’s rewards, but we receive them as God’s great gift out of His love and mercy – underline mercy – and by His grace. We do not qualify for heaven – Christ by the quality of His mercy, by His saving sacrifice that manifests His saving grace, qualifies us.
Scripture clearly bears witness to this one great salvation reality – that we are saved by God’s grace operating through our faith. However important our good works may be – and they are important – our salvation rests solely upon God’s grace. Only by faith can anyone receive it.
Now, good works may not qualify us for heaven, but they remain important. They reflect the quality of our faith and it’s by our faith that we receive grace. It may not be that we score points but rather that we open gates.
One thing’s for sure, there’ no sin in heaven – nothing unholy. The kingdom of God offers ever-increasing goodness – hence, no room for sin.
One of this world’s greatest sins is that of deception. The Bible designates Satan himself as the grand deceiver. Deception is his way. Ironically, lies are his truth. He not only lives by deception but he cannot live without deception. Deception, when we place our faith in falsehood, kills our joy, breaks our hearts, causes endless suffering, pain and misery and gives us a bitter taste of hell.
Hence, we have the account of Jacob and how his father-in-law, Laban, deceived him. Jacob had fallen head over heals in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel. He agreed to work for Laban for seven years to gain Rachel’s hand. He kept his part of the agreement. Because he loved her so much, the seven years seemed like nothing compared with the reward for his labor.
Upon his wedding day, Laban presented his daughter for marriage – but it’s his elder daughter, Leah, and not the promised Rachel. Deceived, Jacob is properly distressed and asks in righteous indignation, Why did you deceive me?
Now, deception is not new to Jacob. Remember, he tricked his older brother, Esau, into giving him his birthright. Although not technically deception, he nonetheless took advantage of Esau. But Jacob intentionally and deliberately deceived his aging father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing due to Esau. Jacob was no stranger to deception. When it served his purpose, deception was not a problem for him. But when he had been deceived, well he didn’t like it.
We know the rest of he story. Laban gives Jacob Rachel for his wife with the promise of seven more years of service. But this whole personal history of deception carries on into Jacob’s future with complicated and negative consequences – consequences that only God Himself can redeem. Hmmmmmm – sounds like the story of our lives.
And another important thing that we need to say about the kingdom of heaven. Scripture tells us that heaven is open to all repentant sinners. But nowhere does it say that everyone goes to heaven. The currently popular notion that when we die we all automatically go to heaven finds no foundation in the Biblical revelation.
If fact, St. Paul writes, We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…and those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. These words put an entirely new perspective on salvation and eternal life in the heavenly kingdom.
St. Paul’s teaching here in essence tells us that only those whom God has chosen will inherit eternal life and that God had made His choice perhaps even before those whom He called were even conceived or born. Predestined is the key word here.
I am not going to claim that I have definitive answers to the questions that arise from St. Paul’s words. I can say that the church has struggled with them from its birth. For if we are predestined then moral accountability plays no role. And if one is not predestined to inherit heaven, then why not just eat, drink and be merry and lie cheat and steal?
What I can say with confidence is that with God, ultimate truth may not make sense to our limited minds – that time has a different meaning when seen from the perspective of eternity and that God knows what He’s doing and we do not. Hence, faith remains the key to understanding and not understanding to faith. And faith just may come as a gift rather than acquired through experience – although Scripture bears witness to both.
What we do know is just this. That by virtue of God’s saving love, manifested on the cross of Jesus Christ, and by our faith in Him, the kingdom of heaven awaits. We do not and cannot earn it as a reward, yet our good works bear witness to the kingdom’s goodness and count as grace – especially as they manifest mercy. And we can also say with blessed assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – and that the joy of our salvation forever grows as we grow in joy – and death is not the last word; the last Word is Life.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with the fullness of grace and the fullness of faith. Deliver us from the deceptions of this world and give us eyes to see and ears to hear your truth. And in that truth, make of us the disciples you would have us be, that we may honor and glorify your holy name, the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
your Son and
the world’s only Saviour,