What is it that you want? Perhaps you detected a tone of frustration in my voice. We may have heard someone ask this question of another, perhaps a mother of a cranky child, when she has reached the end of her rope. Or perhaps you even remember asking this of your own children when they were young—or perhaps when they were not so young.
The truth is that children don’t always know what they want; they only know that they don’t have it, whatever it may be.
But what about us? Are we any different from children in this regard? Have you ever in a moment of candor asked yourself the question: “What is it that I really want?” and then found that you were unable to give yourself a definite answer?
We are asking here about desire. Now church probably does not come immediately to mind as the place to talk about desire. Indeed, throughout history, the church has been seen by many of its critics as the enemy of desire.
In their view, the church represses desire. It seeks to restrain desire, to keep it in check. For this reason, people regard the church as stifling, as restrictive. Its moral teaching frustrates our most basic human instincts and gives rise to guilt complexes when we gratify those instincts.
That is one of the reasons people oppose the gospel message. It suffocates desire. And those who preach it are killjoys. Those stuffy church people are just too serious. They just don’t know how to relax and have fun. Not for me, thanks.
But Jesus is not against desire. On the contrary, the Lord “finds our desires not too strong but too weak,” as C.S. Lewis famously said. And the church agrees, provided that it is faithful to Jesus here. The church accepts and embraces desire. How could it be otherwise? We cannot not desire. To desire is inseparable from what it means to be a living, breathing human being! Understanding this, the church is interested not in the suffocation of desire, but rather in the re-education of desire.
Repeating Jesus, the church wants to ask, or at least it should want to ask, each of the worshippers who walk into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Why are you here? What is it that you are seeking? What is it that you want?
It is Jesus who is asking this question. He appeals to our desire. Note that throughout the gospels Jesus does not coerce. He does not force himself or his gospel on people. He assumes that they are searching, that this searching is motivated by their desire. What else would lead them to him? Presumably, no one is bending their arm.
And when they do come to him, he doesn’t misrepresent himself or what he has to offer. He only proposes for their consideration that who he is and what he has, is, in fact, what they are looking for.
And how does he do this? His preferred mode of communication is parable. Let us repeat a definition that we have already given: “a parable is an image drawn from nature or common life that strikes the hearer by how vivid or how strange it is, and that leave the mind in enough perplexity about its exact application to tease it into active thought” (C.H. Dodd).
Parables leave us puzzled. They leave us asking questions. Their meaning is not on the surface; it has to be probed. Parables fire the imagination and set the mind to work.
Parenthetically, let me ask the teachers among us. Isn’t this good pedagogy? Isn’t it exactly what you hope will happen in your students when you are presenting your lesson?
Here again is the first parable in our gospel lesson for today:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44).
Significant here for our theme is the word joy. God wants our experience in relation to him to be characterized by joy. Let us recall the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
This experience stands in contrast to that of the people of the surrounding nations, who related to their gods in servile fear. What a truth to cherish! To be in the presence of the Creator of the Universe and to find that this experience is meant to bring nothing but joy!
When he discovered the “treasure hidden in a field,” the treasure hunter experienced joy.
This is how it is with the kingdom of heaven. For the kingdom of heaven is not only, but certainly includes the presence and power of God, made available to us in Jesus. Those in whose lives God is present in his power and powerful in his presence know God as the source of their joy. They know God as the satisfaction of their deepest desire, or at least the promise of its satisfaction. They know that the “joy of the Lord is their strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
How about us? Does this ring true to our experience? Is our worship together characterized by joy? When we pray and read our devotions, do we do it joyfully? Would people say of us: He or she is a joyful person?
Historically, Presbyterians learned to approach God with reverence. That is not wrong. But reverence and joy are not mutually exclusive. God wants them to go hand in hand.
This is what the God of Israel wanted his people to experience. In fact, he found fault with the nation on this score, as we read in Deuteronomy 28:47: “You did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly.” We see here that it’s not the lack of service for which God found fault with them, but rather the manner in which they carried out the service.
“Serve the Lord with gladness” the Psalmist exhorts us (Psalm 100:2). And how can it be otherwise? God, as C.S. Lewis says, is the “all-satisfying Object.” His people adore him for the joy and delight they find in him (Psalm 43:4). They drink their fill of the abundance of his house and he gives to them drink of the river of his delights (Psalm 36:8). They find in him the source of complete and unending pleasure: “In his presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11).
Jesus reinforces the point of this parable with a second like it:
“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” (Matt. 13:44-45).
The response of the merchant is the same as that of the treasure hunter. The treasure and the pearl are worth more than all other possessions, and therefore when the treasure hunter and the merchant discover them, they give up everything in order to obtain them.
Earlier generations of Bible students stress here the theme of sacrifice. “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” Jesus tells the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:21 and parallels).
But sacrifice is hardly in view here. The two immediately perceive the incomparable value of what they have found and are willing to lose everything in order to keep it.
This is how it is with those who find the kingdom of heaven. They have no doubts. They sense that this is what they have been looking for their entire lives. They realize that this is what fulfills their deepest aspirations. Everything else pales in comparison.
The Apostle Paul recounts his own experience in this regard. He was an ambition man with a long list of accomplishments: “a Hebrew of Hebrews, in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
But then he continues: “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him” (Philippians 3:5-9).
Paul encountered Jesus and discovered the kingdom of heaven. With this, all dreams of worldly ambition vanished.
Paul’s example has been multiplied down through the centuries. Many people reading the gospel with an open heart and mind have been so struck that they do the same. Consider St Francis of Assisi, a young man with a large inheritance, who heard the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler, and applied them to himself. He sold his inheritance, gave it to the poor, and his lived his life as an itinerant preacher.
The gospel allows us to know the real Jesus, the living Jesus. It speaks to our hearts and changes our lives. And then we do leave it all. You become someone else. You become reborn. You have discovered what gives life meaning, flavor, what lights up all things, even struggle, suffering and death (Pope Francis).
When we have found the object of our desire, the source of our fulfillment, we experience joy. And when we are joyful, we are open to others.
Perhaps this is what we should see first when we look at the third and final parable in our series. Here we are told that the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind (Matt. 13:47).
Did you catch that last part? Jesus speaks of fish of every kind. Joyful people don’t discriminate. They don’t pay attention to those whom they impact with their infectious joy in the here and now. Here we recall the parable of the sower, who scatters his seed everywhere, unconcerned whether the soil is good or not.
We don’t choose who deserves to be caught up in the net. That is not our job. We are to be a people so focused on what we have discovered that we cannot help but be a draw on those people around us.
Of course, the parable too is a warning about what’s to come. There will come a day when the nets will be filled. Then they will be dragged ashore and the good and the bad fish will be sorted. The good fish will be put into baskets and the bad fish will be thrown out.
This is an image of the last judgment. The angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:49, 50).
Not a comfortable subject to contemplate, but again the parable is clear that it is not our job.
Our job is to be a people so focused on what we have discovered, so trained for the kingdom of heaven, so confident that absolutely nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39), that we are like “the master of the household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52).
Recall that Jesus is addressing here a Jewish audience. They have the wisdom of Israel in their Scriptures, a wisdom that has now found its completion in Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom.
We have both in the Old and New Testaments of our Bibles, and as the church we bring out the blessings to be shared, in the hope that all who hear and see us will too want the treasure of the gospel that has been entrusted to us.
Dear friends, the joy of finding the treasure of the kingdom of heaven shines through. It’s visible in the joy on our faces. We cannot keep our faith hidden, because it shines through in every word, and in every deed, even in what is most simple and mundane (Pope Francis).
The love that God has given to us in Jesus Christ, of which the Apostle Paul so eloquently speaks in our epistle lesson today, speaks to our hearts and changes our lives.
It is the source of the satisfaction of our deepest desire. May more and more discover this to be the same for them in our day. Amen.