“Stories: Buried Treasure”
Have you ever wanted something so badly that it became an obsession? Has anything ever captured your attention so much that it was continually in your thoughts, and you couldn’t let it go until you had it?
I remember as a kid having a small obsession with the cartoon Voltron. It is a show about heroes from space, who operated giant robots that looked like lions. They would battle against evil forces to protect their home, and when things got too tough for them as individuals, they would band together and their lions would join together to become a huge robot warrior, with a giant sword. The first time I watched that show, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. So, I began watching it every Saturday without fail, and dream of what it would be like to drive one of the robots.
It wasn’t long before commercials started advertising toys to go with the show, and when I discovered I could buy all five separate lions and join them together to make the warrior, I just knew I had to have them. And the more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with them. The only problem was that my parents said no to buying it. We weren’t anywhere near Christmas or my birthday, which comes in early January, and it was too expensive to just buy on a whim. My only option, then, was to use my hard saved allowance of $1 a week to buy these toys the next time we were at a toy store.
Finally, the day came to visit Toys ‘R Us. My parents asked me if I was sure I wanted to spend so much of my money on this one thing, and I assured them I did. So, I emptied my Crayola Crayon bank, took it to the store and spent every dime to satisfy my obsession. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything else that had more value to me than Voltron. And though I later experienced buyers’ remorse, at the moment of purchase I was willing to spend everything I had worked to save to get it.
II. We all make value judgments
We each make value judgments on a daily basis. We all place higher value on certain things in our lives, even to the extent that we are willing to sacrifice to attain those things. But, how do we know if they are the right things, or even good things? If we are paying attention at all to the world around us, we can easily see that people have placed incredible value on all sorts of questionable things.
Some people are willing to trade everything for success. We might define success in any number of ways, but most people today equate success with economic achievement. We have talked before about how our society treats “busy-ness” as a virtue. This is particularly true if our constant activity brings us financial gain or a leg-up in business. We praise those who work long hours and often spending weeks away from family to increase their business ventures around the world. We applaud those who can successfully navigate the cutthroat politics of Wall Street and make the difficult decisions necessary to survive in a global market and come out on top. We invest in companies that show success in minimizing costs and improving profits, even when those come at the cost of employee families through layoffs or stressful work conditions. And we admire those who retire to mansions, because they have achieved the American dream, even though it may have cost them family, true friendships, peace of mind, or spiritual and physical health. Some people are willing to sacrifice anything to succeed in life, according to the world’s standards. Most of us, though, are just willing to give up most things for a more modest sort of success.
Some people are willing to trade everything for a high – a feeling of momentary excitement. When the promise of success seems too fleeting, or too difficult to attain, or when the troubles of life start to take their toll, many people in our society turn to whatever will give them a temporary feeling of being larger-than-life. How else can we explain the fact that we still have a drug and alcohol abuse epidemic in our country, even when we know about the dangers, and even among the most financially secure populations?
But drugs and alcohol aren’t the only high that people seek out on a regular basis. Millions of men and women gamble their life savings away every day in the hopes of striking it rich in the lottery, at the casino, or in online gambling. Even when the chances of winning are so low, many are willing to risk their family’s present needs and future hopes for the intense thrill they get just before they scratch off those cards, see that final numbered ball, or lay down their hand of cards. It makes them feel alive for a moment, and that feeling is worth any risk. People turn to these things for a momentary escape from a reality that is less than appealing.
Others turn to the pursuit of unhealthy relationships and sex for that feeling of escape from reality and a sense of belonging. The desire to be loved by other people is so compelling that many people sacrifice their families, their careers, and their self-worth for the tiniest sliver of intimacy they think they will receive from a one-night-stand or an affair. And when maintaining real relationships becomes too much work, people retreat into the dark recesses of the Internet to seek out easier gratification without commitment, through pornography. Sexual purity is viewed as a repressive idea, both inside and outside the church, and even kids in our country are addicted to porn and engaged in risky sexual behavior.
Even more people are willing to trade everything for a different sort of escape, through entertainment. A couple of years ago Hollywood put out a funny little movie called Warm Bodies that didn’t receive much press, probably because it is a zombie love story. The idea is ludicrous, of course, but Sarah and I took a chance and went to see it when it opened around Valentine’s Day. It is a wonderfully clever social commentary, and I have long considered writing a series of blog posts about the theology inherent in the film. One of the highlights comes near the beginning, when the main character, who is himself a zombie, delivers a monologue about how wonderful it must have been in the days before the apocalypse, when people were still people, rather than mindless shuffling creatures and were able to have lively interactions with one another. As the voiceover continues, the camera dissolves into a past scene at the airport, where hundred of people sat next to one another or passed each other in the concourse; all of them with their heads bowed low over their mobile phones, most of them with headphones blocking out the world, and none of them engaged in conversation. The image was funny, but also frighteningly real. We don’t need an apocalypse to turn us all into zombies; our iPhones have already done that.
Now, there are people who will argue and say that nobody is willing to sacrifice truly important things for entertainment. I’ve got two concrete examples that will challenge that assumption, one for the kids and one for the adults: Minecraft and NFL Football. You already know what I mean, don’t you? Some of the kids in our church (mine included) will make all sorts of crazy trades to get just five more minutes on Minecraft. And some of the adults in this room would literally throw someone else under a bus, if it got them a pair of Colts tickets. The average family in America trades all sorts of possible valuable pursuits to spend their evenings on a couch absorbed in television shows, focused on phones or tablets, or playing games on a console.
I confess that I have really struggled with this myself. I grew up in the beginnings of the video game generation and became a teenager during the earliest days of the Internet, and found both to be exciting and easy distractions from the difficulties of life. It is no joke to say that I was addicted to games for a number of years before God broke their hold on me, and I still wrestle with maintaining a healthy balance in the time I spend off and online. The desire to escape into an imaginary world is a huge temptation that can lead to a wasted life. And while some entertainment is a good and healthy thing, we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that few of us consume our diversions in a balanced way. It is simply too easy, in an always-connected world, to elevate our own entertainment to the highest-level priority. The truth is that people will go to almost any lengths, in order to be entertained.
Some people are willing to trade everything for a sense of security and a life without risks. We sometimes call these people prudent, because their lives appear to be filled with restraint and self-control. But more often the lives of those who seek security as their highest priority are filled the regret of past loss and a fear of the future. We often see this expressed as excessive worry or attempts to control every detail of life and legislate the behavior of other people. It manifests as a tendency to avoid contact with the outside world and seek safety with those who look and act just like us. A desire for security is one of the biggest hindrances to the spread of the Gospel, and yet many churches are mired in their immovable desire to preserve what they have, rather than risk any loss.
We could go on and on, but I think the point has been made clear: people are often willing to give up absolutely everything for whatever it is they consider to be the highest priority. Christians are no different from other people in this. So the questions we must ask, as followers of Jesus, are these: What do we value most? What are we willing to trade anything to get? What will we protect at all costs? If you aren’t sure of the answers for yourself, consider for a moment what things you spend your free time doing. What activities are you willing to sacrifice time with your family to pursue? What things consume your thoughts or even keep you up at night with worry? What things have you blocked off in your schedule as immovable? What things are you willing to miss church for? These things are your priorities. And I’ll bet some of these priorities are so important to you, that you would be willing to trade almost anything for them.
III. Jesus said some things are worth sacrificing anything to attain
You might be surprised to hear that the Bible doesn’t condemn the idea that some things are worth sacrificing anything to attain. Some priorities are actually worth pursuing at any cost. But, the scriptures do challenge us to reconsider what things are truly worth the sacrifice.
Last week we discussed two of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God found in the first part of Matthew 13. Jesus used stories about a mustard seed and yeast to illustrate to his disciples how they could identify the kingdom and the manner by which it spreads. We defined the kingdom as God’s sovereign and redemptive activity in the world. It can’t be found in a specific location. It is visible wherever God makes his presence known; particularly in lives transformed through an encounter with Jesus that leads to forgiven people, who pursue holiness and pour out the sacrificial love of God on other people. The kingdom has come already, but not yet fully, and we are living in an age of expectation as we wait for Christ to return. Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God starts small in the hearts of people, and then grows into a flowering tree that gives life to all that encounter it. And, like yeast, the kingdom of God is steadily working its way into every time and every place. It pushes back against the darkness, wherever that darkness is found, and will continue to do so until God completes the good work that he has begun and judges to humanity.
But it doesn’t do us any good to be able to identify the kingdom or understand how it spreads, if we don’t also understand its true worth. How does it benefit us to know these things, if we don’t value the kingdom of God enough to pursue it as a prize? Continuing on, in Matthew 13:44-46, Jesus began to paint a picture of just how valuable the kingdom really is.
44 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.
45 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. 46 When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!
These parables tell us two more important things about the kingdom of God that Christians everywhere need to take to heart in order to get our priorities straight and follow Jesus faithfully.
1. First, the kingdom is something to be sought after.
In both of these parables, Jesus described the main subject as actively looking for something. How do we know this? He discovers the hidden treasure in the first, and discovers the pearl in the second. Any scientist or adventurer can tell you that discoveries don’t just happen to people; they aren’t passive events. Rather, people make discoveries when they are in motion. While they are often made in unexpected places, discoveries are always made when someone is seeking something, whether it’s knowledge, a solution to a problem, a new territory, or a specific goal.
Likewise, the riches of the kingdom of God are only discoverable when we are actively looking for them. We might its treasures in unlikely places, but we will never find it at all if we aren’t looking to begin with. Unfortunately, the church is filled with more passive Christians than explorers; more spectators than athletes. We are too easily contented with those initial glimpses of the kingdom that we may have found when we met Jesus and sit back to wait for more to come to us, and as a consequence we miss out on the full riches he offers to those who actively pursue him as their top priority. Like the people in these parables, Jesus is calling each of us to actively pursue the kingdom, as though we are running toward a prize.
2. The second thing these parables tell us is that the kingdom is so valuable, that it is worth any price.
In the first story, Jesus referred to the kingdom as a treasure; in the second, he said it was like a priceless pearl. The value of a thing depends entirely upon what someone will pay for it. If you aren’t willing to pay much for something, then it is of little value to you. But, if you are willing to pay a fortune for something, then it holds tremendous value for you. Both of the men in these stories sold everything they had in order to purchase what they had discovered. They held nothing back in reserve, because nothing else could equal the value of what they had found. Jesus said this is the view we should have of the kingdom. It is so valuable that, when we discover its riches, we should be willing to trade everything else we have in order to obtain it.
Before we move on, we need to clarify what this means. We need to make a distinction here between salvation and the kingdom. God has freely offered all people forgiveness for their sin, through faith in Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection. There is nothing you or I can ever give to purchase this gift for ourselves. It is the free gift of God to all who believe. Jesus is the only one who could pay the price, and he has already done so on our behalf. But freedom from the guilt of sin is just the beginning of the riches of the kingdom. It is the seed from which the tree grows and branches out. The fullness of God’s kingdom isn’t just forgiveness of sins; it is new life in Christ. And for the joy of knowing Christ fully, we must be willing to sacrifice anything. God’s forgiveness is a free gift of grace; but in order to know Christ fully and experience all the blessings of the kingdom, we must be willing to sacrifice everything, including our lives.
Talking about all of the things that had been his highest priorities in life the Apostle Paul said it like this, in Philippians 3:7-11:
“I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! (NLT)”
We should consider all other things worthless, compared to the joy of knowing Christ as Lord. Jesus has made perfectly clear that the kingdom of God, which can only be experienced through him, is the single thing worth sacrificing everything else to pursue. Nothing else commands this price – not family, not success, not happiness, not security, nor any other thing in this life. Only God will satisfy the desires of our hearts, and only when we live as citizens of his kingdom will we ever experience the fulfillment of God’s promises.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that most of us get our priorities out of order on occasion. Even worse, many of us regularly treat other things as more important than seeking after Jesus and his kingdom promises. We often substitute lesser things of temporary consequence for greater things of eternal value. Friends, God is not satisfied with playing second chair in our lives. He isn’t interested in riding in the passenger’s seat.
But how do we change the way we have done things in the past? What does it mean to actively seek the kingdom? And what does it really mean to say that we are willing to pay any price?
Actively seeking the kingdom means making Jesus our highest priority. If we really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and if we truly want to follow him as Lord, then he must become our first priority, not just some of the time, all the time. He must become greater; we must become less. This means spending regular time with him in prayer, asking him to guide our steps and order our days. It means showing up regularly to worship Jesus with the community of faith as a celebration for all that he has done, and to seek out his desires for us together. It means turning our backs to things that try to pull our attention away from living obediently to God’s commands. It means throwing out the destructive habits of our sinful past, and embracing his new life for the future. Friends, making Jesus our highest priority means saying “yes” to him every day, and saying “no” to everything else that tries to get in the way. But if Jesus is going to be our first priority that necessarily means everything else has to come second.
In Matthew 6:33, Jesus told his disciples to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” and God would take care of all their needs. He will take care of our families, our finances, our work, our desires, and all of those other things that occupy our thoughts. If we put Jesus first, we can trust God to provide for us, just like a father provides for his children.
Finally, being willing to pay any price for the kingdom means handing over everything to God, in complete surrender. When we sacrifice everything to pursue something other than the kingdom, we might eventually get what we desire. But once we have it, we will find that it cannot satisfy. We will always want something more. Not so, if we give everything to gain the kingdom.
We each struggle with holding onto control of something in our lives. For some of us it’s our work, for some relationships, for others our finances, and for many our families, specifically our children. We hold onto control over things, when we fear their loss. But fear is a product of the kingdom of darkness. The kingdom of God drives out fear wherever they meet. And the price of God’s kingdom is total surrender to Jesus as Lord and King. That thing you fear losing? Jesus says to cast that burden on him. His yoke is easy; his burden is light (Matt. 11:29). And his kingdom is eternal.
What would it look like for us to treat the kingdom of God as though it is the most valuable thing in our lives? What would it take for us to become willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it?
God isn’t calling most of us to literally give up everything we have to follow him today, but he is calling us to become prepared to do so. There may come a day when that very thing is asked of us, and we won’t be ready if we don’t prepare our hearts for it now. I believe what God wants from us today is a re-ordering of priorities. There is freedom to be gained, when we give up control of our lives to Jesus. And there is a great storehouse of treasures to be found, when we seek first the kingdom of God. What are you prepared to surrender to Jesus this morning to obtain its true riches?
V. Closing Prayer
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you have promised us a place in your kingdom and an inheritance in your household, through Jesus’ blood. We thank you that, in our greatest our of need, you sent your Son to die on a cross for our sin and freed us from guilt and death. Father, we ask now that you would help us to become a people who seek your kingdom and union with Christ above all other things. Would you help us to make these our first priority, surrendering all other things to you. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.