While I was at theological college, I ran an inquirers' group for people who wanted to find out about Christian things. One girl came from a very religious, Roman Catholic upbringing. She dominated the first meeting, firing question after question after question, and at the end she looked straight at me and she said, 'So are you telling me that I'm going to hell?' Seven pairs of eyes were on me. And I said, 'What Jesus teaches - and I take him to be God - is that if, from hereon in, you continue to reject him, yes, you will go to hell.'
As you'd expect, that was the end of the meeting for that week. I thought we'd never see her again. In fact, I faithlessly said to my co-leader, 'I bet she won't come back.' But she did. And she alone of that group came to faith in Christ. Months later she gave her testimony of her conversion at a guest event and said this: 'All my life up until then, I'd been lied to about God. I just needed to be told the truth.'
The teaching of Jesus we're looking at this morning is about heaven and hell. But most of all it's about God's patience. His patience in giving us time to choose between heaven and hell. And his patience in giving us time to tell others the truth. When you read the Bible, it's helpful to ask three questions: 1) what does it say?, 2) what does it mean?, and 3) how does it apply to me? And we're going to ask those three questions of this parable Jesus told.
First, WHAT DOES IT SAY? (verses 24-30)
Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27 "The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?' 28 "'An enemy did this,' he replied. "The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 29 "'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn'" (vv 24-30).
Now that story's not hard to understand. The question with a parable is to ask: what point is the story making? And the point here is a contrast. The contrast between the servants and the Master. To the servants, v27, the weeds are a big surprise and a big problem. And they want the problem sorted out now. Verse 28: "The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'" Ie, 'Why don't you sort this out right now?' Whereas the Master, vv29-30, is more far-sighted and wise. 'No,' he says. 'I'm not going to do anything yet.' And he says that for the sake of a maximum harvest. Because right now it remains to be seen just which of these emerging plants really is wheat and which is weed. So that's what it says. It's a contrast. Between the short-sighted impatience of the servants. And the far-sighted patience of the Master who wants to maximise the harvest.
Secondly, WHAT DOES IT MEAN? (verses 36-43)
Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field." 37 He answered, "The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40 "As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (vv 36-43).
So, v37: the Master in the story stands for Jesus (who often called himself 'the Son of Man'). The field stands for our world. And the good seed stands for those on the side of having Jesus as their King ('sons of the kingdom'). So the picture is of the Lord Jesus sending his followers out into the non-Christian world to speak for him and live for him among them. The weeds stand for those who are not yet on Jesus' side. They're called the sons of the evil one (ie the devil) simply because if you don't side with the Son of God, by definition you're siding with Satan and his rejection of God, v39. Then, the harvest, v39, is the end of time when Jesus will come again to wrap up history and bring the living and the dead to account. And God's aim, v43, is to bring about a place that is perfect, unspoilt by sin or any of its consequences. No keys. No fear of walking home at night. No PIN numbers. No hospitals. No sickness or suffering or death. But to do that means, v42, the removal of everything that causes sin, and everyone who has chosen to the end to be against God. Verse 41:
"The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (vv41-42)
The evangelist George Whitefield, who preached up and down this country in the 18th century said this: 'All mention of hell should be done with a weight on the heart.' And yet it must be done - because Jesus taught it. But since these are hard truths, let's stop on vv41-42 and ask four questions people commonly ask about hell.
People often ask, 'Are we to take this language literally?' Well, elsewhere, Jesus speaks of hell as 'outer darkness', and since you can't have darkness and fire, this must be imagery intended to get over the grim reality - in v42, the reality of the pain of realising what you've lost irretrievably.
Or people often ask, 'Is Jesus trying to frighten us into a decision?' To which I'd say, the question is not, 'Is he trying to frighten us?', but, 'Is there anything to be frightened of?'
I don't know if you've driven on the A68 to the west of Newcastle. It used to have signs at regular intervals saying things like, '7 fatal accidents in four years.' You drive 5 miles on; another sign: '7 fatal accidents in four years.' And so on. Are they trying to frighten us? Yes. Do I resent that? No. Because I think there's something to be frightened of. A friend of mine was killed in a car crash earlier this year. And I think any driver in their right mind should be frightened of that. Those signs are not merely 'frightening signs'. They're warning signs. And any parent - especially of small children - knows that at the heart of warning lies love. And it's in that spirit of loving warning that Jesus speaks about hell. His purpose is not to say, 'This is where you're going', as if he wanted you to go there. His purpose is to say, 'Don't go there.' And the fact that he died on the cross, under the judgement we deserve, so that we might not go there, is proof enough of what he wants. A
gain, people often ask, 'How can you believe both in hell and a God of love?' To which I'd say, his justice is an expression of his love. A friend tells the story of a girl he knew. When she was at junior school she came back from a change of class, with a new teacher, very unhappy. And her parents asked what the matter was. And she said her new teacher 'didn't care'. And their initial reaction was to think the teacher was being unkind or ignoring some bullying. But it wasn't that at all. 'She never marks my work,' was their daughter's explanation.
Judgement (ie, marking) is an expression of love. Not to judge is not to care. God's judgement says that we matter. That our choices in life do mean something. The alternative would be for God to say of everything at the end of the day, 'It didn't matter.' That broken promise - didn't matter. The hurt we caused someone - didn't matter. East Timor, Sudan - didn't matter.
If you're not yet a Christian, you may think believing in judgement is hard. But it's nothing compared to what you believe. If you don't believe this, then what you do believe is that nothing matters. No God, therefore no morality, no accountability, no meaning or right or wrong to any of our choices in life. That's not only harder to believe. It's impossible to live.
Then one other question people ask, 'Isn't the punishment of hell completely disproportionate to the crime of choosing not to side with Jesus as King?' The answer is: no, the punishment is the consequence of the crime, the flip-side of the crime. Eg: if I behave so antisocially that no-one will befriend me, if I reject all advances of friendship, all invitations of hospitality, I will be lonely. If you like, that will be the 'punishment' of the crime of my behaviour. But the punishment is simply the consequence, or flip-side, of the crime. It's self-chosen. And if in this life, we reject all God's offers of reconciliation and friendship before it's too late, we will be eternally lonely from him.
C.S.Lewis put it like this in his book The Problem of Pain: "I willingly believe that the damned are in one sense successful rebels to the end, that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside. They enjoy, if that is the right word, forever, the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are self-enslaved, just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience become, through all eternity, more and more free."
I don't speak about hell with any pleasure. I say it because Jesus said it. And he said it to move us not to go there.
Thirdly, HOW DOES IT APPLY TO US?
Now we know what the details mean, and we've faced some of the intellectual questions, let's go back to the story in vv24-30. Remember, the point was: the contrast between the servant's attitude to the weeds and the Master's attitude to them. Short-sighted impatience versus far-sighted patience. Verse 28:
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull [the weeds] up?' [Ie, 'Why don't you sort this out right now?']
No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" (vv28-30)
You may be someone who's not yet come back onto the side of having Jesus as your King. If so, you need to know how patient he's being with you. As I look out on this gathering, I don't ultimately know who is weed and who is wheat, who's on the side of Jesus or not. But God knows. And the reason God has delayed sending Jesus back to wrap up history - even this past week, when there have been things we'd love him to have come back and stopped - is to give you more time to change sides.
As in the story, who here is on Jesus' side, and who isn't, will emerge - just like what is wheat and what is weed in a mixed field will emerge. And Jesus in his patience is giving you time to emerge on his side. And if that's you, this parable says: 'Don't take that time lightly.' God is giving you time to act. Not time to duck the issue.
You may need to start right at square 1, asking, 'Is this true?' investigating the reliability of the Gospels, and so on. Or you may be further down the line. Wherever you are, whatever you need to do, on the strength of this parable I have to say: now is the time to do it. Please use the time God is giving you. Do keep coming along here. Or use Food for Thought or The Tavern - our inquirers' events. Or interrogate a Christian friend. If you want to read a copy of one of the Gospels or read a booklet on what the choice of being a Christian involves, I've put some on the Welcome Desk. Please do take either or both if you'll commit yourself to read them. Then finally, others of us are people who've already come back onto the side of Jesus. And we need to learn to be as patient as he is towards those who haven't. Verse 28:
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' [After all it's not easy for the wheat to have all those weeds around. Weeds are a threat to wheat. Weeds can choke wheat. Weeds can even kill wheat.]
"'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest…'" (vv28-30)
The servants stand for the attitude that we Christians can fall into. The attitude that feels under pressure from the non-Christian world and its anti-God beliefs and values. We can feel threatened. The world can choke Christians into compromise. It can even kill Christians - from East Timor to the Sudan. So it's understandable that a Christian might wish to get out of that pressure. Might wish the non-Christian world away. Might at least wish to separate from the non-Christian world for the sake of an easier time. But to us who call ourselves Christians, the parable says this: 'You need to learn to be as patient as God towards the non-Christian world.' It's horribly easy to be short-sightedly, self-centredly impatient with it. To be concerned simply with my own comfort and freedom from the pressures out there. Or to withdraw into a separate world of church and CU and Christian friends. Or to spend our time pointing the finger at the world and tut-tutting and sitting in judgement. As if without Christ they weren't heading for hell. As if they didn't primarily need loving and telling.
We must not become preoccupied with how difficult it is to be a Christian out there - which it is. Or worse, preoccupied with sitting in judgement on the world. Now is not the time for judgement. Now is the time for telling others the way to heaven. Namely that Jesus died for them, to take on himself the judgement that their rejection of God deserves. So they can be forgiven, change sides and start life over again with Jesus in his rightful place. How does this parable apply to us? In a sentence: whoever we are this morning, God is being patient with us. Giving us time to choose. Or giving us time to tell others. Whichever of those we are, let's not take the time lightly.