Expectations are things that need to be adjusted once in a while. For example, I have a wife and four young children. If I expect to get out of the door on Sunday morning as fast as I used to when I was a single man, I am in for a world of frustration. There are four other little people in my home who need help getting ready and I am called to play a role in helping. Tying shoes, brushing teeth, buttoning dresses and shirts. Time and practice have helped me adjust my expectations–getting ready for church is no longer a 20 minute ordeal, but more like an hour or more ordeal.
For every one of us, our days are overflowing with expectations, many of which develop naturally. I expect traffic to be a certain way and the weather to be a certain way. When early May rolls around every year I expect the temperature to go up and the flowers to begin poking through the snow. I expect my alarm to go off at a certain time and my car to start. I expect my mom to be a loving and kind when we speak on the phone once a week, because that’s the kind of person she is. When it snows I expect to have to shovel off my porch and driveway. And there are a thousand other expectations we make week in and week out that don’t need much adjusting except when something major in our lives changes (we move, get married, have kids, change jobs, etc.).
When it comes to the kingdom of God, things are no different–we all have expectations. But sadly, on this front, many of our assumptions about the kingdom are wrong. Here, we all need to fine tune our expectations.
Jesus was not ignorant of this fact so he taught frequently about the kingdom. In the second half of Matthew 13 he gives us several parables that begin with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…” I think these short teachings are one of the many ways that Jesus sought to reshape our expectations about the kingdom and to correct common misconceptions. In the parables of the Mustard Seed (verses 31 to 32), the Leaven (verse 33), the Hidden Treasure and the Costly Pearl (verses 44 to 46), and the Dragnet (verses 47 to 50), four things about the kingdom are revealed to us that do not meet our natural expectations. What are they?
First, in the kingdom of God, very big things come from very small things. In our world we expect big things from people of noble birth or with great intelligence or with great wealth. But this is not the norm in God’s kingdom. In fact we see the opposite (see Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). God chose Israel, the smallest of the nations to be his chosen possession (Deut. 7:6-8). God reduced the army of Gideon to a mere 300 men to defeat the many thousands in the Midianites army (Judges 7). God chose King David, the youngest and smallest of Jesse’s sons to be Israel’s greatest king (1 Samuel 16). And in the Parable of the Mustard Seed God says that kingdom of heaven will grow from very a small and insignificant size to something very great, starting with a common carpenter and some fishermen in Galilee.
Second, in the kingdom of God, change begins where it cannot be seen, namely, in the heart. The world wants to believe that it’s biggest problems are external. We commonly hear:
“If I only had more money,” “If only the government would…”, “If only my husband would start…”, “What we need is a better educational system.”
While these things may help relieve some stressors in our lives and may promote general welfare to a point, all of these common mantras betray the false belief that our problems are outside of us. Jesus says, that it’s what comes out of a person’s heart that defiles her, not the external things that we do or consume (see Matthew 15:11). We see this in the Parable of the Leaven as well. The large lump of dough is completely changed by the tiny amount of yeast placed where it cannot be seen. The transformation (the rising of the bread) happens mysteriously and invisibly. We cannot see it happening with the naked eye, but in the end the change is stark. So it is with a person. Change happens in the invisible places of the heart and the result is a completely changed life.
Third, in the kingdom of heaven, it only takes one thing to satisfy us completely: Jesus Christ. The consumer culture in which we live preaches to us that we need many things to be happy. A bigger TV, more followers on social media, the latest iPhone, good looks, personal freedom. More of this and more that. But in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Costly Pearl we see the reverse. What satisfies is less of the world (selling our worldly goods) and owning the one field with the treasure in it or the one costly pearl. What is the treasure? We needn’t guess. The apostle John tells us clearly:
“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
Jesus Christ is the treasure. Jesus is the costly pearl. He is life. If we have Him we will never be thirsty forever (John 4:14).
Fourth, in the kingdom of God, only the clean will be kept. In Jesus’ day, there were many Jews who believed they would be saved simply on the grounds of their ethnicity. The Pharisees and Sadducees boasted that they were descendants of Abraham and were therefore secure (Matthew 3:7-10). And today, the broader culture of our time believes that anyone and everyone who dies and lived a sincere, decent life, will be accepted by God. Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Dragnet that just as a fisherman only keeps the clean fish (i.e., those that conform to Jewish kosher seafood laws, see Leviticus 11:9-12, fish that have fins and scales are permitted), God will only receive people that are clean by God’s standards. Race, color, age, intelligence, goodness, badness, religiosity, wealth, are all irrelevant. God shows no impartiality on the basis of worldly standards. What matters is whether or not a person is clean. Heaven is squeaky clean and no dirt is allowed inside (Hebrews 12:14). So how can sinful, dirty, unholy people like you and me be made clean? Only by the blood of Jesus Christ:
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
These four principles are not what we might expect. In many ways, these four principles are contrary to the commonly accepted wisdom of our age. But simply because they do not meet our expectations, that does not therefore falsify them. Jesus wants us to be ready for the kingdom. He wants us to receive the kingdom. Let us therefore adjust our expectations that we may have this abundant life that he offers us. 1
My life is one of contradictions. I’m a southern boy living in northern New England; a boring guy married to super-fun girl; a conservative pastor in a progressive Christian denomination; a changed man in need of change; a sinner loved by a holy and perfect God.