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Small and Hidden: a Theology of Importance

Please go with me, if you will, to Matthew, chapter 13.

We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for several weeks now, talking mostly about the kingdom of God and what it’s like, as well as the King of that kingdom and what he’s like. Two weeks ago, with the parable of the sower, we saw a God who is magnanimous. He gives his truth out to everyone—even those he knows probably won’t receive it. He doesn’t care; he loves the whole world, not just part of it. For everyone who does receive his word and allows it to grow in them, they’re nourished by it, them and everyone around them.

Last week, with the parable of the wheat and the weeds, we remembered that the enemy is living and active in the world, but also our God is living and active in our world, too. The remarkable part of that parable is not that God, in the end, uproots the weeds. Even though the Lord is abounding in steadfast love and mercy, he will by no means pardon injustice. The remarkable part of the parable is that he waits. The wrath of God waits, filled with hope that we might accept his gospel, accept the work of his Spirit and allow him to change us in every way we most desperately need to be changed. Wrath is God’s strange work in the world. His natural work is redemption and grace. Year after year, he makes his rain to fall and his sun to shine on the just and the unjust, hoping beyond hope to draw us into his kingdom.

This week, we’re going to look at just three short verses. Still, though, stand if you will. Matthew, chapter 13, verses 44-46. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

This sermon was written in the ICU sitting next to my two-month old daughter while she was on life support. In rooms like that, you have God, hope, his kingdom and not much else to trust or to go on. But, strange thing, when the kingdom of God is all you have left, you realize more and more how it’s the only thing you really needed in the first place. In rooms like that, you also realize the incredible importance of small things in our lives.

I want you to notice the perspective shift: we were talking about the way God gives out his word to us; now we’re talking from the other direction, how we as humans seek out God, the ways in which we seek the kingdom. After two parables featuring the magnanimity of God in his constant giving out our his words and wisdom, we find two parables about God’s kingdom being hidden and small, but incredible worthwhile, incredibly important. Those two things don’s usually go together in our world, but in God’s kingdom—that’s what the whole kingdom is like, Jesus says: small, hidden away, and of inestimable worth.

There is more than one paradox in this, with what we’ve learned about the kingdom of God already: How can something hidden be so important? Or how can something be calling out in the markets, on the street corners, and yet be hidden? How can something given so commonly and freely be of such inestimable value? It seems impossible at first, yet the more I think of it, the more I find: most important things are very small and usually overlooked, even if they are everywhere. If you don’t see that, you may be looking more at our world than at the kingdom of God.

In our world, to be important you have to be very large, indeed. And you can’t be hidden. The word, importance, it comes from latin, so from Rome: importare and it means both to have a great weight, and to cause many consequences. Heavy, because wealth in Rome was measured with scales. The more weight, the more value—more money. Consequence, because important things, by the world’s standards have an effect. They go viral. Even in our language, when we expect something to be important, we simply say, “this is going to be big.” Talented people are told, you’ve got to get yourself out there, catch your big break. We platform people, make sure everyone knows their name—even preachers can’t stay hidden. It’s not enough now to grow your church, either, you have to grow your audience. I know one Christian publisher who won’t consider publishing your Bible study materials until you have a certain number of followers on social media. I think that’s spiritually unhealthy.

And I know I talk a lot about modern spiritual disease, but this spiritual sickness is not modern, it’s ancient. Think of the monuments of the ancient world. Most of them were built as monuments to kings, to show their importance. The larger they were, the more important the king. We do this in our day-to-day lives, too. The houses we live in, the cars we drive. Bigger is meant to indicate importance, consequence. Big houses, big bank accounts, big monuments, big decisions, and here in our text today we find that the kingdom of God is anything but.

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a treasure covered in dirt that no one knew about. But then when someone did stumble across it, it meant everything to him. The kingdom of God is like a little tiny pearl, and a man who knew what it was worth went looking for it. When at long last he found it, he realized it was more valuable than he had even dreamed, and he knew everything else he had in the world wasn’t worth nearly as much as this one, tiny thing.

I said the idea of bigger is important was ancient—that’s true. Ancient and pagan, not in the sense of Christian moms calling their children pagans when they misbehave, but in the sense of Roman and Greek pagan religion. We usually call it mythology and dismiss it, but in all of us, our mythology shapes our worldview and creates our language. I would argue a new kind of pagan worldview is actually pretty dominant in our culture today, even in Christian culture, shaping our language and lives, we just don’t call it paganism, we call it celebrity, though we still call the highest celebrities either gods or icons. In some ways, I’ve begun to worry that Christian culture in our time and place has been shaped more by paganism than by Christian teaching. I’m going to start describing pagan religion, and see if you begin to see any of the parallels I see:

Many scholars talk about the gods of pagan myths as being humans writ large, meaning they do all the same things humans do or want to do, just on a grander scale. Every person wants to be strong and win every race and battle, so Zeus is the strongest of them all. Every person wants to be clever, to be a step ahead, but Athena is the cleverest of them all. The gods all know each other, too, and have luxurious lives in places high and far away that the humans talk about and emulate. They sing songs of the deeds of the gods, write plays about them, and they are known to everyone merely by their first names.

Beyond that, the gods dictate our fortunes. Their movements, their decisions, bring us either fortune or loss, and if you do things to honor them its more likely their fortune will be yours. The greatest of all the humans—the strongest, the best, the cleverest—occasionally enter the pantheon, too, giving humanity a goal to strive for. Emulate the gods, be like them, and if you are good enough, if you try hard enough, maybe one day you can even be among them.

So, going back to where we started, talking about importance, we always assume important things will be writ large—the most important teaching should be popular, the most important practices common—but hopefully you can see, that idea is more pagan that Christian. The road is narrow, and difficult, that leads to the kingdom of God. Christianity teaches, over and over again, the most important things are going to be small, overlooked, even despised.

I think of Christ, himself, God incarnate, whose name is mentioned in a single Roman history, and misspelled. Our God was so small and so hidden on earth, he doesn’t even get a mention in all of the Roman magazines and newspapers, movies and pop songs. Small enough that he can be crucified without a single Roman soldier having to die. Far from importare. Pilate thinks of him as barely worth his time.

And the reason I’ve spent half of my sermon trying to convince you that important things are small is this: I don’t want you to miss it. I love you, and I don’t want you to get so wrapped up in the world that you miss the small, hidden, importance of the kingdom of God. Again, I wrote this sermon at my daughter’s bedside in the PICU, which helped me understand this. I’m sitting next to this baby, barely twelve pounds, without any followers on all the socials, without anyone in her church, without a bank account, no house in her name, no car, no job. Yet she is worth whatever I need to sell or spend to save her life. The kingdom of God is like that. I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to miss it.

I think most of us can probably relate to the experience of—philosophers would call it existential angst, but perhaps more helpfully, John Mayer would just say, something’s missing.

I’m a bit paranoid about leaving my house to go to work since we moved more towards uptown. We used to live in Gentilly, only about five minutes from my office. Now we’re about twenty, which is fine, except for the one time I left my keys at home and couldn’t get into the building that day. Or the other time I left my computer at home. A twenty minute drive when you drive it three times in one morning is sixty minutes. Every time I forget something vital I lose an hour of my day. So I’ve started packing my bag at night and leaving it by the door, but still, sometimes I’m walking out the door, and I have this feeling like I’ve forgotten something. Do you ever get that feeling? Do you know what I’m talking about?

Existential angst is kind of like that feeling, but instead of driving to work you’re living the years of your lifetime. In both cases, the drive goes by faster than you would think—you can kind of go on autopilot, and then look out the window and wonder to yourself, how is it I’ve come this far already? But in your lifetime, it’s harder to go back home if you forget something, and turning around and retracing what you’ve already done is both more difficult and more costly. You don’t lose hours, you lose years. Sometimes you get all the way to the end of your life, or the end of an era, before you realize, something very important is missing.

When you come down to it, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, they are Christ, himself. He is the goal and the aim of Christianity—not some secret knowledge, not some lifestyle or practice, if you’re here today feeling like you have everything you need and still something is missing, having been in exactly your place, I will tell you it’s him. He is the meaning we’re hoping to find in life. He is the gentle and loving parent who will give you everything you need. He is the family you were hoping to build. He is the home you purchased at great price. It’s Jesus. He loved you enough to die for you, and in his resurrection we have hope of abounding life everlasting. He is the treasure hidden in the field. He is the pearl you’ve been looking for your whole life, and he is worth everything else you have. Lay it down, and follow him on his way.

But for those of us who are in Christ, Christ is calling us in these few verses to consider what we value. What do you hold to be important, weighty, worthwhile? Where do you go to find things to believe, tools to shape your life? Because the more we depend upon him for these things, the more our lives will be filled with his life. The more we find joy in the things he enjoys, the more our lives will be filled with his joy. The more dependent we are upon him, the more satisfied we will be. In other words, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and everything else you need will be added to you.

But little things are so easy to overlook. I have one friend, a believer, who focused all of her early attention on her career. That was the thing of supreme importance in her life. She always intended to use his career to glorify God, and does, every day, and by all of our usual standards, she’s very important. She told me recently, she had always looked down on other women who chose to stay home and start a family instead of pursuing vocation, but what God’s been teaching her is: family may be smaller than work, but family can be more important than work—even good, godly work. Last year, she went part-time just to focus on being a mom and spend more time with her kids, and I can see in her face when she talks about it, with all of the awkwardness of going part time to focus on her family as a woman in our gender-obsessed culture, with all of the people whispering about burnout and not being able to make it in a high-powered career—her life is filled more so now with joy and meaning in Christ than before. Their family is healthier. The kids feel loved and valued. It’s like she was out looking for a pearl of great value, and it cost a lot—a lot of importare, a lot of money—but it was worth it.

I have another friend who is single in his late forties, and his singleness is very much a gift he’s given to his church and his community. His church is very much his family, and they spend a lot of their time caring for people the world would consider unimportant: single moms in the New Orleans exoburbs and their kids. He helped the church open a childcare center that’s free for working families—he found a director and did all of the work on the building to get it ready. He helps run an after-school program, too, for the moms who have jobs that go later than the schools. He’s not wealthy. He lives in the exoburbs, too, but he’s found something there that to him was actually worth his life, like a person who found a treasure buried in the field everyone else assumed was worthless land, too hard to plow.

One last story, of a friend who, again, had a very successful career, but his dad got sick and was dying. So he moved back home and took care of him. He traded board rooms, interviews, and growth for acreage, family, and sitting by a bedside. We usually don’t hear stories like this in our world. They aren’t important, and if you were to make a song or movie about it, at best it would be called “artistic,” but for the most part it would be largely ignored, but we should be ok with that. The point is not to take the small thing and try to make it as large as we can, as well known as we can. That would be to try to take Christianity and insert it into paganism. We don’t need to take the ailing fathers, single moms, and house-moms of the world and make them famous. What we need is to weigh fame next to family and decide fame holds less meaning; to weigh wealth next to wisdom and decide wisdom is weightier. We need to look at a healthy child next to a stone monument and realize only one of those things is eternal.

Paganism would tell you importance is being on your way to godlike status. Christianity says to not let one hand know the good works the other is doing. Importance is found in the eye of your creator, who has loved you from birth, just as he loves my baby girl, not because she’s done anything great or has any skills; not because she’s successful or particularly righteous. Tim Keller writes, “God doesn’t love us because we are lovely. His love makes us lovely.”

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a treasure covered in dirt that no one knew about. But then when someone did stumble across it, it meant everything to him. The kingdom of God is like a little tiny pearl, and a man who knew what it was worth went looking for it. When at long last he found it, he realized it was more valuable than he had even dreamed, and he knew everything else he had in the world wasn’t worth nearly as much as this one, tiny thing.

My invitation this morning is an invitation into the joy of the kingdom, which is to say it’s an invitation into the joy of the creator in his creation and in his people. May we value what God values, and place weight where he places it. May we seek the kingdom and his righteousness, and regard everything else we have as nothing compared to him whom we have found, to him who fills our lives with eternal things. May we know to our bones, that there is only one who is good, one who is worthy of honor, one whose fame the nations ought to heed, and his name is Jesus. What a wonderful name it is.

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