You’ve surely heard the saying, “It’s an oldie but a goodie…” right? Apparently, a DJ from LA named Art Leboe coined the phrase way back – used it with the first album he produced called, “Oldies but Goodies” in 1958. We still say it today, “Watching ‘The Princess Bride’ for the hundredth time is always an oldie-but-goodie experience for me.” or “My great grandma’s apple pie recipe is an oldie but a goodie, and we use it every year at Thanksgiving.” When we say that, we’re commending something that’s dated as relevant – good.
So, as hymns go, you might say this is one of those:
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story because I know it’s true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.
I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
If you’re over 50, you’ve probably heard that hymn hundreds of times. Even if you’re young, you might know that one. If we’d played it, I bet you would have been able to join right in… And I think you’d all agree with the message: you love to tell the story of Jesus. But now let me ask you a question: how much do you love it?
Do you love it as if it were your own story? And I mean more than whatever narrative the world spins you – more than success and satisfaction, more than “love” in all its forms, more than math and science or context? Because you should… Do you love it – the story of Jesus – as the substance of your life? I mean more than your car and your Pinterest palate house and your vacations to Bermuda and dreamy Instagram memories… Because you should… Do you love to tell it – it’s the word on your lips, the lyrics of your heart, the poetry that moves you? More than you love talking about the Packers or your achievements or politics? Because you should… Do you love most the story of Jesus – as in, you cherish and abide by that Jesus is the Savior of the world, the one you need – that his story is the truth that governs your life? And, in fact, that any other thing, relationship, possession, idea you’d toss aside in order to have the story of Jesus? How much do you love it?
There’s an old way of looking at this section from Matthew 13 just like that. Assuming that Jesus, when he tells the short parables about treasure and pearls, is calling you to sacrifice everything. And there’s an appealing, old, and rather natural way that says, “If you do that – value this kingdom enough – then you’ll be in the good fish bucket at the end – the catch God wants.” But that can be just another “old-self” way of looking at things – one that leads not to treasure but to tragedy… One that speaks and thinks most about our own work and ways… And, when you and I inevitably fall into treasuring other things far more than “this kingdom”, that old way can lead us to despair because we feel terrible in our failures or to deluding ourselves into thinking we’ve been right all along.
Is that how it’s meant to be, do you think? Did you know there’s another way that takes these parables in another direction and ends up at the same place: where God’s work is your blessed treasure? Explore it with me this morning – it goes like this…
In the book of Matthew, by chapters 11, 12, and 13, Jesus is at the pinnacle of public ministry. He’s gathered for himself disciples, and he is regularly teaching crowds of people, and his teaching has gathered opponents – the religious leaders of his day. They had an old and storied narrative about what they had to do and Jesus just didn’t fit it… They’d actually just said to him that he had been driving out demons and doing miracles by the power of the devil. In their minds, Jesus was anything but the long promised Messiah. Jesus replied to them (ch.12) that they were in danger of doing an unpardonable thing – of rejecting Jesus, the only way into God’s kingdom. And so, you could argue that Jesus’ words in Matthew 13 and the parables he’s telling are meant to say to them, to those who’d heard them, and to his own disciples: “I am what God’s kingdom is all about.”
And that we said last week, in these parables in Matthew, all Jesus asks of you is that you listen: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” He calls you to hear – whether in how it’s spread or grows or who’s in it – God’s kingdom is this: God’s ruling activity in the hearts of people to know and love his salvation, which Jesus Christ brings. One Lutheran pastor said it this way, “In Matthew, parables about the kingdom of heaven are stories about the person and work of Jesus…”
What if these parables work that way too? The Kingdom of heaven – the work of Jesus Christ to bring about salvation and rule in human hearts – is like this: a treasure is found in a field; the man who finds it is overjoyed and sells everything he has to buy it. Then Jesus tells “again” – or it’s like this too: a merchant who seeks fine pearls finds the finest of all and sells all that he has and buys that pearl. Some minor differences, and some commonalities too: especially in buying/selling & seeking/finding & treasure…
If those are the themes, we could note a couple of things:
- In Matthew’s gospel and in Jesus’ parables, “buying and selling” is usually related to some deficiency of ours – not actually gaining salvation. On the other hand, Matthew does talk about payment like this: “[T]he Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, NIV) If anyone pays, Jesus does, with everything he has…
- And, in the parables in Matthew, “finding” likewise is really something Jesus does – finds the workers, the guests, the sheep. And the Bible talks about us that way too: we want to “be found in [Christ]” (Ph 3:9) which happens because Jesus has “obtained [literally, found] eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12) for us…
- And if we want to talk about treasure, Matthew does say treasure can be earthly and heavenly (6:19-20) and Jesus calls us to store up the heavenly kind (19:21). But God also speaks that way about you… “[The Lord chose] Israel to be his treasured possession.” (Ps 135:4) “[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us…and to purify for himself a [precious people].” (Titus 2:14) and more, as “chosen people…God’s special possession” (1 Pe 2:9).
In context of Matthew’s gospel then, one could read these parables in the oldest way but like never before… like this: there was a man – who found a great treasure, was the kind who sought it out – and at his own great expense purchased that treasure/fine pearl to make it his own – did everything he possibly could. In Martin Luther’s words it went this way: Jesus [true God become man] “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”
To tell it this way, even though we have not valued his rule over all things and will not always do so, we’re made into God’s kingdom by his work. In fact, for that very reason of your weakness and mine, the story of Jesus’ loving work for us is the most precious thing and the only way we keep God’s kingdom the most precious thing; in fact, it makes us ready for God’s kingdom coming…
You know, actually, I really don’t like that hymn, “I love to tell the story…” It always seemed to me that it just tells about what I love to talk about and doesn’t ever talk about it… Except…I never knew there were more stanzas to that hymn. Our new hymnal has them. Three tell the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection – salvation. Then the 2nd to last one gives the reason you or I would love to tell:
The Savior of all people has brought his peace to you;
now go and tell the story, for others need it too.
To ev’ry land and nation ring out the gospel call;
proclaim that Christ is risen and grants his peace to all.
That sounds to me a lot like what Jesus said last, “[Any person] who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and old.”” (Mt 13:52) You’ve been trained by Jesus’ work, for the kingdom of heaven, filled up with the treasure of God’s love. Now, from your treasure, you bring out old and new…
Enlightened by such a love that gives everything for us, we understand no narrative or possession or wisdom of this world can possibly compare. And our joy overflows: to be able to choose with Solomon of old – “Lord, I don’t need riches but wisdom to know this Word of yours…” or with Timothy to hope in God, be rich in good deeds, treasure our sure foundation and hold onto it. Or in ways uniquely yours, you will bring out those old truths of God’s love in Christ like wealth to be used in ways old and new each day – among all the other valuable, good, blessed things God gives you, Jesus’ work is most valuable (our only way to heaven) and most valid (it is for every human being) – it fits in everything we do and for everyone we meet. It’s the story we love to tell…
What if Jesus isn’t primarily calling you to treasure God’s kingdom but rather moving you with this treasure – that his work makes God’s kingdom – and makes you part of it? This all would then be that old story of his own great love – his work to rule as Lord in your heart – a treasure he paid dearly to win. It may be an oldie but it’s a goodie. In fact, knowing that old, old story is exactly what we need to keep God’s heavenly kingdom as our own, the substance of our lives, the word upon our lips – what we love most of all.