You know, not that long ago I was watching an old TV show and this particular episode opened with the children in Sunday School. And the teacher was telling them about what an awful, horrible place hell was. How no one would ever, ever want to be there. Without being too graphic, she scared them quite a bit, which led to them asking the inevitable question, “Teacher, how do we make sure we don’t go to hell?”
“By following the ten commandments!”
Maybe for you that’s a facepalm moment. Maybe you know better. But really, out in the world, those who only know Christianity from pop culture… well that is what the answer is, right? Christianity is a system of rules designed to stop you from having any real fun and if you follow them (and just how often or how well you have to follow them is a little fuzzy), but if you follow them – the God rewards you with heaven… right?
I probably shouldn’t even ask that as a question. Because how many people who’ve never really looked into God actually think that? Too many. Too many who maybe feel scared for a bit about eternity at night when their mind is a little too quiet, but they calm themselves by saying, “No, I don’t have to worry. If there really is a God, I’m sure he’s a nice guy and I’m a pretty good person – I’m sure God will take me in if he exists.” That’s not just wishful thinking to many people, it’s what they really believe.
But… why? Why this perception of God? You and I know this is clearly not the case, God does not trade works for Heaven, at least not in the way we would make him out to do it. So why does this perception even exist? In fact, not just why does it exist…why is it the dominant thought of every person who doesn’t know Jesus for real? Why is it every false religion, even every erring branch of Christianity ends up with this notion that you must do something to be saved?
The fact is, it’s simply in our nature. Ever since the first humans betrayed God by reaching for that fruit in the garden. They were told they would be like God if they ate it. They wanted to be like God. They wanted to be in control of their own lives. We have not changed. Every single sin we commit comes back to this one basic principle: I want to be my own god. And that includes, if not saving myself directly, at least doing something to help or show that I’m worthy to be saved. It’s one of our strongest natural inclinations.
Can it work that way? Let’s look into history to see. Because there was a time when God made this deal with the people. It was pretty fair, all things considered. In fact, it was exactly the kind of deal that we want to hear. It was a list of rules, a list of conditions in order to remain in God’s good favor. Follow the rules, keep the law, and everything would be fine. God would be with you, he would protect you, and when the time came, he would take you to be with him forever.
Considering what God was offering, there shouldn’t have been anything he couldn’t ask of his people, and what God was asking wasn’t all that hard. If he was to be your God, then you had to give him the proper worship and honor as God and as far as relating to each other, it was all the sort of stuff anyone would consider basic human decency. Be nice, thoughtful, and fair. And if you messed up a bit here or there, not all hope was lost, you could make a repayment for your crime that would pay for the guilt of it. You would sacrifice something you had to pay for what you’d done. Something else could go in your place. All fair enough, really.
Except the problem was that for as “obvious” and “simple” as anyone would call these rules, nobody was able to keep them. Our society would call them basic human decency, and would say that anyone, properly educated, would be able to follow these rules that basically boil down to thinking about others first. But not one of them was able to do it. Nobody has managed to even go through one day without some selfish action or thought. And anyone who seriously understood how badly they’d failed this covenant would also understand that it was simply impossible to offer enough sacrifices for what they’d done wrong. Day and night they’ve have to be at the temple offering those penalties for breaking the law of God.
It couldn’t be done. No one could earn God’s favor.
And that has not changed in any group that claims there is something you can do to please God. It can’t be done. The demands can’t be met and the penance is never enough. And that was the point of the old covenant. This idea that something I do can make God happy with me; it comes from the depths of the sinful nature. The idea that God can be happy with what I do on my own is pure egotism. It is that old desire to replace God with the self. I can save myself, it says, I do not need God, I can be my own god. The Israelites and everyone since including you and me need to know and be convinced that I cannot make God happy on my own. God’s demands cannot be satisfied by us. The Old Covenant as this deal was called, the law, was never meant to save anyone, it was meant to teach us that we cannot save ourselves.
But that’s only part one of the overall lesson God wants to teach us. Because there is a new covenant, one that teaches us what we really need, what we’re ready for once we’ve learned that we can’t do this ourselves. The author to the Hebrews describes this for us in our reading this evening:
15The Holy Spirit also testifies in Scripture to us, for first he said: 16This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws on their hearts and I will write them on their mind. 17Then he adds: And I will not remember their sins and their lawlessness any longer. 18Now where these sins are forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. 19Brothers, we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place through the blood of Jesus. 20It is a new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, his flesh. 21We also have a great priest over the house of God. 22So let us approach with a sincere heart, in the full confidence of faith, because our hearts have been sprinkled to take away a bad conscience, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. 23Let us hold on firmly to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. 24Let us also consider carefully how to spur each other on to love and good works. 25Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have the habit of doing. Rather, let us encourage each other, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Here it is. “I will not remember their sins and their lawlessness any longer.” (v17) This is the entire basis of the new covenant. The old covenant was a deal: “Do this, and you will be rewarded. Don’t, and you’ll be punished.” We saw how well that turned out. God came with a new covenant. “I will do everything, and you will be rewarded.”
Now this isn’t just arbitrary. God can’t just erase what he’d already set up in the old covenant. The law had to be followed and where it wasn’t followed there had to be sacrifice, in blood. The difference is that now God says, never mind all that. I’ll do it. That is what Jesus is all about. He lived an innocent life completely in line with the law. And he grants you complete and full credit for that life. All the things you are supposed to do, all the things you were supposed to do – as far as God is concerned you’ve done them.
And the failures? The crimes? Again, a payment does need to be made. In blood. And that is the foundation of the new covenant, the blood that was poured out to pay for our crimes. Not just any blood this time, though. The blood of God himself. Poured out for us on the cross, just as we celebrate each time we come to the Lord’s table. This blood is the full sacrifice for all sins. The blood of animals didn’t actually accomplish anything, it was just a symbol for what was coming. The blood of God is valuable enough for all.
This is the new covenant that we enjoy. As the author says here, “Now where these sins are forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” (v18) There is nothing left to do. We cannot contribute anything to this covenant because it has all already been taken care of.
And the blessings it provides to us are immediate. It’s not just the promise of a future, better life. Yes, that will come. But it changes things here and now, too. By the blood of Jesus, we have the confidence to be able to enter into the Most Holy Place. That was the place of the temple where God’s presence dwelt. And by the law no one was allowed to approach except the high priest and then only once a year after special preparation. Sin divides us from God. But where sin has been forgiven, then there is nothing that stops us from approaching God. This point was driven home when Jesus poured out his blood to make this happen. We’ll see that tomorrow night as the curtain in the temple that separated the Most Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom! Nothing separates us from our God now that the payment for sins has been made.
We can come before him now with our prayers and petitions, confident that we will be heard. We know that we don’t deserve to have our requests considered, we don’t even deserve to be given a hearing. But our God gives you 100% of his undivided attention whenever you approach him, because this new covenant has made it possible.
And this new covenant changes how we live now. As it’s written here, “I will put my laws on their hearts, and I will write them on their mind.” (v16) The law does not work like it used to. Before we had a heart full of sin and the law came to us from the outside, tried to browbeat us into submission out of fear of eternal death, but it never really changed the heart within. Now we have been cleansed from the inside out by our God and we are each a new creation. The new self that is holy at its core. This means the new self naturally does what God required in his law. Not because it is demanded of us, not because there is a threat if we don’t. The new self lives the law just because…that is who it is!
So as the author encourages us here, hold on to the hope that this new covenant brings. Don’t let anyone chain you back to the law and convince you that your actions are going to determine your salvation. As we grow individually weak, the fire of the group keeps your faith burning bright. Encourage each other to hold to the hope of Christ and let others be an encouragement for you. Keep up your meeting together to worship your Lord, not “because you always have,” or “because it’s what you’re ‘sposed to do,” but because of the benefits it brings your faith and your hope.
And as part of that ongoing building up and strengthening of your faith, celebrate the blood of that covenant that was poured out for you. Treat the supper with reverence, not taking it for granted or as some kind of rote formula you follow, but think about it! Treasure it! Celebrate it! Each time you come forward, let the blessings that God pours out to you through it continually strengthen and encourage you. Let it be another proof and reminder that God has done everything for you. The final day is approaching. Whether it is the last day of this world or the last day you set foot on it, let God prepare you, that your sure hope in eternity is built up and strengthened. This evening as we celebrate the institution of the Lord’s Supper, taste and see that the Lord is good. Rejoice in the new covenant he has made for you. Amen.
Today we are continuing our series called The Kingdom of God is Like. It’s a series all about parables. Parables are short earthly stories that teaching about the eternal kingdom of God. So far, we have heard that the kingdom of God is like buried treasure—which, to be fair, seems like a very flattering comparison.
Treasure is valuable
Treasure is beautiful.
Treasure is worth selling anything and everything to make yours.
Treasure seems like a great comparison for God’s kingdom.
We compare God’s kingdom to a fishing net.
Fishing nets are stinky.
Fishing nets are smelly.
Fishing nets come with those some of those little algae goobers encrusted on around the edge.
It’s not as flattering of a comparison.
Why is God’s kingdom like a fishing net? Before we look at this strange comparison which teaches us some very important truths about God’s kingdom, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. 1st Century Fishing
Jesus’ parable is from the parable-filled Matthew 13. It comes right after the parable of the treasure and stands in stark contrast to it. Remember – each parable emphasizes a different aspect of the Kingdom of God. The parable of the Treasure reveals the value of God’s kingdom; the parable of the net reveals methodology.
Look at what the parable says:
Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. (v.47-48)
Anybody here go fishing? Nowadays fishing consists of packing up a rod and reel, stopping by the local bait shop, picking out a nice, big juicy earthworm (or maybe a wriggly, black leech), then heading out to the local pond, casting, stopping to untangle the line from the tree branch behind you, casting again, watching as your line drifts into the middle of the lake…and then…
And waiting some more.
Eventually some fish grabs the hook, line and sinker.
You pull him in and…
If he’s an acceptable length and weight – you keep him.
If not …plop!
If it’s a delicious looking salmon, in the basket.
If it’s a creepy looking dogfish, not so much.
Back at Jesus’ time, the fishing is a bit different. Fishermen would drag their nets to the shore and paddle to the middle of the lake. Then, they’d toss a weighted net overboard. Then, slowly they’d move along with the waves, while their net dragged against the bottom collecting any and every fish that happened to get in the way of the net. When they’re done fishing, they pull up the ropes, cinch the corners and pull the net up.
But here’s the thing:
Can you tell which fish are bad?
Can you tell which fish are good?
Can you tell which fish are future 5-star restaurant menu items?
And which fish belong on some Discovery Channel documentary on deep sea monsters?
No. It’s too much of a jumbled-up mess!
So…what do the fishermen do?
They take the net back to the shore.
They open the net and begin separating:
Too much like Uncle Joe…
Fishing at Jesus’ time required a lot of sorting. But…
The fish cannot be sorted from the good from the bad while they are in the net; rather they are sorted when the fishing is finished.
II. A Priceless Treasure
But remember – this is a parable.
Parables are short earthly stories that teach about the kingdom of God.
Things are about to get real.
Real and a bit uncomfortable.
Look at the meaning of the parable:
This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (v.49-50)
At first glance, this might seem to be another parable.
The parable of the furnace…
But – let’s be clear: The second half of the parable the part about the blazing furnace and the angels, that’s not the illustration part.
It’s the explanation.
It’s not an illustration, but the reality.
In fact, this parable is all about realities.
Realities that are quite uncomfortable.
(1) Hypocrisy is Real
Because… that dragging net represents the kingdom of God at work. And there is no greater representation of the kingdom of God at work than visible local churches.
In a church, God’s Word is proclaimed.
In a church, people are baptized.
In a church, people celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
In a church, people pool resources to go and plant the Message of Jesus in the Hearts of North Raleigh.
In a church, God’s kingdom is at work.
And when God’s kingdom is at work, it’s like a big old net that collects people of all type and varieties.
Big and small.
Young and old.
Black and white.
Tarheel fans, Wolfpack fans and Duke fans.
But most importantly to this parable…
People that are a part of God’s kingdom.
And people that only look like it.
NOW STOP! Immediately. Because what some of you are about to do is quietly, sheepishly raise your finger and slyly point at someone else here. “Pastor, I think it’s him…”
NOPE. That’s not the point.
In fact, the point is the exact opposite. Because remember – while the net is in use – that is, while the people of God are using God’s Word – it’s impossible to see which are true believers and which are hypocrites.
It’s kinda like trying to identify which fish are good and which fish are bad when they’re still in the net.
You won’t be able to tell who’s a hypocrite and who isn’t in a church simply by looking at them.
You won’t be able to tell most hypocrites simply by looking at them.
But there is one person in the church…
That you should be able to identify as good or bad.
You know you.
You know your heart.
You know if your heart is following Jesus or if this is all just some big show.
Something you do because your parents told you to do.
Something you do so pastor will get off your back.
When it comes to facing the reality of hypocrisy, it doesn’t start by looking into the world…
Or looking into another Christian church…
Or looking at other people in this church…
It starts by looking in your heart.
(2) The End is Real
The second reality has less to do with now and more to do with later.
Take a look at Jesus’ words – This is how it will be at the end of the age. (v.49) He then goes on to describe angels, divine, holy messengers of God – no longer invisible – fully and completely perceptible - picking people up like fish and separating them.
If you are a hypocrite, you need to pay very close attention to this section.
Because, truth is, you might be able to fool other Christians.
You might be able to fool them with a fish sticker on the back of your car and “Christian” listed on your Facebook profile’s religious preference.
You might be able to fool others at church.
You might be able to fool me.
You can’t fool God.
And at the end, you will be separated.
And placed wherever it is you belong.
And can I say something obvious? There’s one place that you don’t want to be your final destiny.
(3) Hell is Real
Look at the description of where the bad fish go:
“The blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.50)
Notice. The verbs are present tense.
Notice. The verbs are continuous.
That’s because this is eternal.
Stop – real quick – because the devil is doing everything possible right now to make you say:
“Pastor has gone off the deep end. Pastor is talking all mean like. Pastor is saying thing I wish he wouldn’t.”
I am because I love you.
And I don’t want you to go to this very real and very awful place.
But more importantly Jesus loves you.
After all, look at whose words about hell these are:
The same guy who told the blind guy to see…and he did.
The same guy who told the deaf guy to hear…and he did.
The same guy who told the lame guy to walk…and he did.
The same guy who told the storms to stop…and they did.
The same guy who told the Pharisees to go ahead and kill him because he would come back to life…
And they did…
And he did.
Jesus has street cred.
Whatever he says will happen, will happen.
And to those who reject Him?
This hell thing?
(4) Good Fish are Real
I’m not gonna lie.
Thus far this is one of the least uplifting sermons of all time.
Because – if we are talking about bad fish – how do you not begin to be filled with absolute fear!
We are sinners.
All of us.
And I am included!
I’m like some ugly carp at the bottom of a mutant ooze infested landfill with three eyeballs where his gill should be.
I’m gross and my sins are gross.
I think -- There is no reason that God would ever want to collect me in his basket and take me to heaven!
Here’s something interesting. When Jesus uses the word “end” here in verse 50, he uses the word: syntelia. That’s a form of the world telos which means: the end.
The end is when judgment will happen.
The end is when God will bring justice against sinners.
Now – here’s where things get really interesting.
Because about a year and a half after Jesus spoke this parable --
Jesus spoke something else.
On the cross.
Right before he died.
Which is the exact same root words that Jesus used in our parable to denote the end times.
IT IS FINISHED.
In other words, judgment has happened! From God’s perspective – Jesus has been judged as the bad fish.
And you – friends—you have been judged righteous.
Think about that!
We are sinners.
We are filled with a yucky past.
We are grody to the touch.
Yet because of what Jesus has done, you have been declared GOOD.
Ready to take home in the take basket.
And understand this point too:
We are not judged by our good merits.
We are not judged by our good deeds.
We are not judged by our good tries.
We are judged entirely by what Jesus did for us on the cross!
And we are judged righteous.
And by faith in Jesus, we are the good fish!
We will not be thrown out.
We will be collected and taken home.
(5) Heaven is Real
Because that’s what the good fish have to look forward to.
This parable just touches the surface of it. It says that the good fish, will be placed into baskets.
But what it doesn’t say is that those baskets have someone’s name written on the handle.
They have someone’s name written in Black, Permanent Marker.
Because the good fish – that is – those made holy by faith in Jesus Christ – will be brought to God’s home.
The kingdom of righteousness.
The home of peace.
And unlike this world --
With danger lurking on every corner…
And predators chasing after us…
And giant waves of life hitting us again and again…
Heaven is peaceful.
Heaven is a place of forgiveness.
Heaven is a place of peaceful rest.
Heaven is yours.
Friends! Praise the Lord for being caught in the net and taken home to heaven. Amen.