This week is the last of our parables from the garden, from the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the sower; last week it was the parable of the weeds among the wheat. This week we have five short parables, about a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and catching fish. All of these parables, from today and from the past two weeks, lead up to next Sunday’s gospel reading, which is not a parable but one of Jesus’ great miracles. Stay tuned.
At first glance, the five parables from this morning’s reading don’t have much to do with each other. And, in fact, we could put them into three different groups. First are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Both of these parables remind us that the kingdom of God comes to us in unexpected ways and has its beginnings in what is small and even ugly. Mustard was a weed in ancient Israel, not a desirable plant, and yeast—well, this is the only time in Matthew’s gospel when yeast is a good thing. Normally yeast was ugly filth. The kingdom of God is like this: nobody could think that Jesus’ mangled, ugly, undesirable, crucified body could be God’s means of salvation and humanity’s greatest hope—but it was and it is.
The second group of parables are the parable of the treasure in the field and the parable of the pearl. Here, the kingdom is something exciting and valuable—worth every penny.
Finally, the third group is a group of one, the parable of the fish and the net. This is a lot like last week’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. The kingdom casts a wide net, but in God’s time judgment will not be reserved.
What these five parables have in common is this: God is all in. I’m not a gambling man, and I hope you aren’t either, but you know what I’m talking about. Each of these parables tell us that God is not holding back some chips for a better hand. God doesn’t have anything in reserve; he doesn’t hold back. In the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, God is all in. In the mustard seed that becomes a great tree, even nesting birds, God is all in. In the yeast that mixes through three measures of flour—fifty pounds, enough to feed at least a hundred people—God is all in. In the person who finds treasure in a field and sells everything—everything!—for it, God is all in. In the merchant who gives up all his possessions for a single pearl, God is all in. In the fishermen who cast nets until they are completely full, and not just until they have a decent catch, God is all in. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, humbling himself in the form of a slave, suffering death on a cross, and being raised from the dead on the third day—God is all in.
God does not just look at us, at fallen humanity in our sin, and say, “Well, maybe I’ll do something about that some day.” God does not see our fears and our difficulties and think, “I guess I could spare a moment for that.” God is all in. God responds by offering everything that God has to us, by offering himself to us in Jesus Christ. God does not hold in reserve even his Son, even the Holy Spirit. For us and for our salvation, God is all in.
That’s what Paul is up to in this morning’s reading from Romans. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray us we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Those sighs too deep for words are the cries of Jesus Christ from the cross, words so terrifying and so agonizing that they can mean only one thing: in Jesus Christ, God is all in, knowing even the worst moments of our despair and longing for him. Paul says that the Spirit of God, the Spirit Christ gives up at the cross, the Spirit Christ sends upon his disciples and upon us, the Holy Spirit is also at work in us and intercedes for us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all in.
Paul gets so excited about God being all in for us that he uses a word that sends chills down most Methodists’ spines: predestination. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
In the past, especially in certain circles after the Reformation, predestination was talked about as a kind of determinism: God chooses some to be saved, some to be damned, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, wanted nothing to do with that view, and we Methodists have inherited his distaste for predestination. But predestination is not about God choosing some and ignoring or damning the rest; it’s not about God overriding human will. God is not another creature. God is not just a really big, powerful version of a human being, a kind of superman. God is God—outside of creation, above creation. So there is no competition between human beings and God. It’s not a zero-sum game of our will against God’s.
Listen again to the context: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Love is only genuine when it is unforced, uncoerced. God does not create mechanical clocks to respond as he wants. He makes creatures who are able to love him. Predestination is another way of saying: God is all in. It is the blessed assurance all of us seek. God promises that his care for those who love him is so strong, so certain, and so overwhelming that it sits in God’s very heart. God’s will is for the good of all those who love God.
Now here’s the flip side. The good for which God is working, the goal of our following Jesus, is, Paul says, “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In other words, if we want to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to respond to God with our own, “All in.” “All in”—we’re willing to give up everything we have to follow you, Jesus. “All in”—we will go wherever you lead us, Jesus. “All in”—Jesus, our lives are in your hands.
From our side, our “All in” is a huge risk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “the cost of discipleship.” All of us, at some points, have been reluctant to give everything over to God. But each time we respond with our own “all in,” we are reminded that God in Christ was “all in” long before we were born.
In my first month of sermons at Centre I have emphasized that our faith, our Scripture, our worship, and our love is about God—and not about us. If we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to remember that everything is about God. The careful, the attentive among you, I hope, have been harboring a question: What about us? Is there nothing for us to do?
God is calling Centre United Methodist Church to a new day of ministry, a new day of discipleship. The good news is that God is already “all in” on this—he has called us, and he will work all things for the good for those who love him, for those—for us—whom he has called. But if we are to be conformed to image of his Son, we need to be “all in,” too. And sometimes, it’s going to be scary. Things will change. We will need to give up old ways of doing things that have more to do with our past than our calling. We will have to open ourselves to the community around us, to the school behind us, to the poor and homeless in our neighborhoods, and to persons from backgrounds and lifestyles that are unfamiliar and even strange to us. We will need to relinquish habits and patterns of thought and speech that alienate us from generations that did not grow up in the church and do not know Jesus Christ. In other words, we will be asked to sell everything we have for the one pearl of great value, for the treasure in the field. And others will look at us with scorn, scoffing at our tiny size or our commitment to an ugly Savior.
God’s “all in” led Jesus, led the Trinity, to the cross. Roman Catholic crosses are crucifixes; they are crosses with Jesus still on them. Protestant crosses are bare. The great theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that Protestant crosses are bare because we like to skip over the crucifixion and jump right to the resurrection. I think Stanley’s right. But our empty Protestant crosses are also a reminder and an invitation: if we follow Jesus, the empty space on our cross might one day be filled with our own bodies. Are we all in?
Some of us here today—perhaps even some we might suspect the least—some of us here today might not be all in. Maybe most of us aren’t. In that case, God still has a plan for us and will still use us while we’re here. Nothing much will change, and we will find ourselves continuing to wonder why other churches are flourishing and we are not.
But if we’re all in, if we’re willing “to be conformed to the image of God’s Son,” we will find again and again that God was already and always “all in” for us. Bountiful harvests, food for all, and the joy of serving and loving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all these things and many more await us. All in?